This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 2 Music Issue. Subscribe today!
WHEN INTERNATIONAL POP Sensation™ Katy Perry learned she'd be photo- sessioning with Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, "I went straight to Google," she says. What she saw? Watt's bloody visage as he battled the Seahawks in 2013. "I've been showing it to my friends, saying, 'Check out this guy. I'm gonna be shootin' with this guy.'"
"My mom has never been a big fan of that photo," admits Watt, sitting next to Perry on set. "I try not to bleed anymore."
"That picture was real ... interesting," Perry says. "I mean, he looks so nice now in person! I don't even recognize him."
Everyone in Texas does, though, swarming the 25-year-old out of tiny Pewaukee, Wisconsin, every time he tries to check out the Friday night lights. It's fame he has earned: Watt's freaktastic 2014 season included 20.5 sacks (one for a safety), five fumble recoveries and five touchdowns. The offseason has been pretty productive too: "I was with Justin Timberlake, and he taught me an end zone dance," Watt says. "I said, 'Hey, you're obviously a very good dancer. Could you design me a touchdown dance so I don't look like a fool?' And he said, 'Yeah, no problem.' So I need to get back in the end zone so I can give Justin his tribute."
Perry, 30, wasn't exactly slacking in 2014 either, touring her 2-hour, 10-minute show from May to December and grossing more than $108 million doing so. She was in The Grove at Ole Miss before her first football game in October, picking the Rebels against the Crimson Tide on College GameDay, then stormed the field without her security detail and zestfully ended the night at an Oxford watering hole. "Journey was playing 'Don't Stop Believing,' and I just thought, 'Why not be the quintessential college girl and jump off the bar?'" So she did, captured in the act on video.
"Was it fun?" Watt asks.
"Yeah, it was everything I dreamed of," she says. "I only need to do it once, though. That was the one time on the tour that I really had a couple of beers. And the next day I was like [groan] ..."
JT concerts and game-day tailgating are hardly the norm for these two Icons of the Establishment, but that's the point: Their industrial-strength charismatic superpowers are capable of crossing over. It's also why Perry and Watt, who rule in (or on) their respective fields, quickly find common ground about the kind of drive and work ethic that brought them success.
Watt, for one, knew so early that he wanted to play football for the Badgers that he confided his dream to his fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Keefe. (They still keep in touch.) And he forged his Dream Big, Work Hard mantra in high school while training with his coach, Brad Arnett. "I was just this skinny sophomore quarterback, about 6-2, maybe 190. He had a gym he'd opened up, and I said, 'Listen, I wanna be great.'"
Well, that happened. He eventually walked on at Wisconsin as a defensive end, and years later, as he walked off the field in his final game, the fans chanted his name. "It was one of the most special experiences of my life," Watt says. "I really haven't had anything like that until this year, down in Houston, when the fans started doing things like that."
Perry knows just how he feels. "For me, it's about the lyrics, when they're all singing these songs I wrote in a little apartment, or in a garage, or a small studio," she says of her concerts. "Especially when I first started, hearing these lyrics that were so sacred to me, hearing thousands of people sing them, it's an incredible feeling that is unmatched to anything else."
Like Watt, Perry realized her dreams young. As far back as age 9, Perry would sing for her evangelist parents in Santa Barbara, California. "Everybody would be going about their business, and then all of a sudden their heads would turn when I would start singing. It was this magic trick that I had. I guess I loved that attention. And I went for it," she says, laughing. "But when I was singing into a hairbrush, I had no idea the incredible amount of work that would be asked of me in order to be at this level."
"As you go along, you kind of start to realize what it takes," Watt chimes in. "That's what the day-to-day is. It's the stuff that nobody sees on TV. But that's the stuff that really makes you great."
"A lot of people would agree that it's easy to get to the top, but it's about staying there, following it up," Perry says, turning to Watt, "with great plays every time."
"Yeah, great songs," he says. "Everybody's trying to bring you down. So what are you gonna do to stay there? How are you gonna work that much harder?"
As it happens, it's Perry, not Watt, who will take the field at the Super Bowl on Feb. 1. And she pledges it will be an all-killer, no-filler 12-and-a-half-minute halftime show: "Honestly? I feel like I've outdreamt my dream," she says. "I don't get nervous about much, but I'll definitely be a little tingly inside that day."
"As you should," Watt says with a laugh. "She's playing in a bigger game than I've ever gotten to play in. I'm hoping to someday be in those shoes."
He's already got the motto: Dream Big, Work Hard.