Bubble Gum Babes

Four South Florida girls hope to follow Christina and Britney to the top

Hundreds of teen bands today are playing everything from folk to rap, but DM focused on creating a light, pop, parent-friendly sound. "I've talked to parents, and they say even pop radio is..."

"Inappropriate," David says, finishing his brother's sentence.

To find their tween talent, DM hosted an audition with Radio Y-100 at the Broward County Convention Center in November 2002, promising a record deal to the winners. About 150 kids showed up. The company signed three-year contracts with the four winners that specify each performer will earn a 12 percent cut of CD sales but nothing for live shows. The brothers then hired a choreographer and a vocal coach.

The Funn Club performs “Whoomp! There It Is” at the Broward County Fair in full regalia.
Colby Katz
The Funn Club performs “Whoomp! There It Is” at the Broward County Fair in full regalia.
Brittany, Kelsey, Danielle, and Emmi stroll through the Broward County Fair arm in arm.
Colby Katz
Brittany, Kelsey, Danielle, and Emmi stroll through the Broward County Fair arm in arm.

So far, the group's done pretty well. It has headlined on a tour arranged by Radio Disney, WMNE-AM (1600) in West Palm Beach, with gigs in Norfolk, Indianapolis, Orlando, and Broward and Palm Beach counties. On September 23, the Funn Club released a CD of nine songs. More than 6,000 copies have been sold, Mark says. The CD was listed at number 32 on Billboard's hot rhythm-and-blues and hip-hop singles chart on December 6. Watson estimates that his company will invest about $100,000 in the band during the three-year deal. And the CD won't start to earn money until sales reach around 20,000.

"I believe in them," Mark says. "They are talented, and their image is good. But it's a work record. I mean, every day you have to work that record. It's not easy, but I think they have a good chance for success. It's not something that happens overnight."

To be associated with Disney, the lyrics of the group's songs must be squeaky-clean. In "Beginning End," for instance, the Watsons changed the words from "when we touch" to "when we talk" to win Disney approval. The girls can show no more than four inches of midriff. They are allowed no belly-button rings or body piercings, except for their ears. No tattoos. And they can't smoke.

The reward for fitting this mold could be lucrative to everyone involved. Disney star Hilary Duff, christened "tween queen" by Vanity Fair this past July, raked in $50 million between May and September for the media empire from the movie Lizzie McGuire, which is based on her popular television show.

"There is a whole shift in marketing to the tween demographic," says Dominick Centi, WMNE's director of promotions and marketing. "They are the next generation of brand-loyal consumers who haven't picked their brands yet. McDonald's is doing it. Disney does it. Even Mitsubishi car commercials look like music videos."

As the girls leave the studio to climb in the back of a rented Dodge van to ride to St. Jerome's about 8 p.m. on November 21, Kelsey locks arms with Danielle and shouts a cheer: "We are the Funn Club, mighty, mighty Funn Club." Smoky shadow coats the girls' eyelids, and their lips are glossed. They are dressed in variations on a white-slacks-and-black-top theme. Kelsey wears a black-mesh, sleeveless top over a white tank top. Danielle has on white slacks with undone, dangling buckles up the side. They now could pass for superthin 25-year-olds. As the van moves west along Yamato Road toward I-95, the girls begin to sing, harmonizing nonstop until they reach St. Jerome's at 2601 SW Ninth Ave. in Fort Lauderdale. A crowd of about 30 people stands in front as they take to the stage. It's going to be a tough crowd. Families cluster at picnic tables set up beside food vendors. The cotton candy, burritos, hot dogs, beer, Ferris wheel, and Tilt-a-Whirl will vie with the Funn Club for attention.

When they begin to sing "Beginning End," it becomes clear that Danielle's microphone doesn't work. But she doesn't let on. If the girls move close to the speakers, a screech of feedback slices through their songs. That doesn't faze them either. They just perform as far as possible from the speakers and smile -- a lot. The parents do their best to keep the audience involved. Emmi's mother, Carmella, claps her hands to the songs and enthusiastically sings along. Then the girls close with "Whoomp! There It Is." It's always a big crowd pleaser.

When they finish, Centi, who organized the show, announces that if anyone wants to meet the Funn Club, the girls will be signing autographs.

Michael Balakonis, who's been watching the show with his friend Shane Bailie, doesn't wait for them to get to the table. "Let's go," he says to Shane before they head toward stage right. Both 14-year-olds are dressed in black T-shirts and pants. Michael has on red-and-black Cat in the Hat-like socks and pants that stop at his calves. Neither is impressed with the Funn Club's music. "Too bubble gumish," Michael says.

It's the cute they want to meet. "Maybe if they came out with their own music," Shane suggests.

When introduced to Brittany, who's standing at the side of the stage talking to some friends, Shane charmingly but clumsily compliments her dancing. "I like the..." he says, moving his arm up and down in a motion reminiscent of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, "that you did."

She smiles, "Thanks."

After a brief conversation, Brittany excuses herself to join the others at a table to sign autographs.

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