"I had to fight with many, many editors of magazines and art directors and stylists," Furtado said in a recent interview.
She recalled taking a stand to showcase her visual creativity when filming the music video for her debut song, the pop tune "I'm Like a Bird."
"I fought to wear those shell-toe Adidas runners and (to wear) my hair back and those hoop (earrings) and the big jeans - I had to fight for all those things," she said.
Fast forward 10 years and Furtado is fully in control of her career, and celebrating with the greatest hits compilation "The Best of Nelly Furtado," released last month.
Furtado said the key to her success was finding a manager who wouldn't hinder her artistic freedom.
"When we were going for a record deal, we went out to all these meetings and my photos were like photo strip photos from this photo booth at the strip mall that I had taken on my own time with clothes I wanted to wear," she said. "You have to brand your image and wear what you want to wear and feel how you want to feel because people are seeing you for the first time."
The 32-year-old singer, who's released three successful English albums, dropped the all-Spanish CD "Mi Plan" last year; it earned her the best pop vocal album Latin Grammy this year. Furtado also won the best pop female vocal performance Grammy in 2001 for "I'm Like a Bird."
Today too many aspiring musicians want to be famous without doing the work behind the scenes, she said.
"I think nowadays everybody feels like they can become a star just because they're on YouTube, but that's not the only part of the equation," she said. "There's a lot of hard work that goes with it and if you don't have the chops to back it up, it's gonna to be more challenging later on."
Her advice to singing hopefuls: Write your own songs.
"Even if you don't end up using it, it shows what you want to say and you get in touch with what you want to say and who you are as an artist," she said.
The Canadian-born singer is also working on a new album titled "Lifestyle." It will mainly be produced by Salaam Remi, who is known for his work with Nas, Amy Winehouse and Jasmine Sullivan; Remi also produced the lead single from Furtado's "Best of" set, the dance tune "Night Is Young."
While Furtado is known for collaborating with dozens of artists from Timbaland to Michael Buble, she said she's hoping to work with her fellow Canadian, rapper-singer Drake.
"I really like Drake (and) he really represents for urban music in Canada," she said of the platinum-selling newcomer. "He still works with a lot of the same Canadian producers he's always worked with and so I respect that a lot, 'cause I'm all about homegrown and just kind of trying to keep things organic and all that."