By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
A group of about eight teenage boys lingers around the Funn Club, talking to them. Danielle looks dejected. Asked how she thinks the performance went, she looks up, thrusts her arm out, and makes the "thumbs down" sign.
Inside her room in her parents' large Coral Springs home, Danielle sprawls across a twin bed decorated with leopard-spotted pillows and a tiger-striped bedspread. The Funn Club represents a step toward Danielle's dreams of making it as a singer, but the 15-year-old also struggles with the sacrifices. It's a dilemma she's faced since she entered show business as a 7-year-old.
Danielle is reed-thin, with thick, straight, mahogany-brown hair and giant, soulful brown eyes. Next to her on the bed is a large, stuffed, brown hound named "Mr. Scruffy." On the floor are her slippers, light brown plush slip-ons with monkey heads decorating the feet. She loves monkeys. There's a poster of Ashton Kutcher on her wall. Her computer screensaver is a picture of the four Funn Club girls. Every half-minute or so, the computer beeps with a new message.
Singing and writing poetry are the ways Danielle transcends the turbulent emotions of adolescence, she explains before springing from the bed to retrieve a scrapbook. On the cover, amid a swirl of images, she has pasted her favorite quote. It's from Ashanti: "All I have to do is belt out a tune and I've forgotten about my problems."
Her father, Rich, decided to teach Danielle to sing when she was 5 years old. At 6, he took her to a friend's oldies bar, where she belted out "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" with a cluster of middle-aged doo-wop singers backing her up.
When Danielle was in second grade, her parents spotted an ad for an open audition for the role of Cosette in the Broadway musical Les Miserables. Danielle looked just like Cosette, says her mother, Colleen: "She just had the pitiful look. She even had dark circles under her eyes, from allergies."
She got the part, even though she had minimal voice training and only local acting experience. She appeared on Broadway with the show and then went on a national tour. She was away from home for 13 months. "At that age, I didn't understand what it all meant," she says. "I just went up there and did it."
Returning to life in Coral Springs at the end of third grade proved awkward, though. At first, the other children in her class treated her like a star, she says. Then some turned mean. She now realizes they may have been jealous. "When I was young," she says, "I thought all of a sudden, my friends didn't like me anymore." A favorite teacher even lashed out at her. "Sit down and shut up, Danielle," she says the teacher told her in front of the other children. "You're not on Broadway anymore."
Not quite. In fourth grade, Danielle won a four-month spot on Broadway as a child in Ragtime.
For a few years, she threw herself into being an ordinary kid. "There was a long time when I didn't want anything to do with [show business]," she says. She played soccer, took gymnastics, and became a cheerleader. Most important for her, she surrounded herself with friends.
In November 2002, her dad heard about the DM Records audition and told Danielle about it. She was eager to try out but didn't start rehearsing until the night before. She stayed up until 1 a.m. practicing A Moment Like This by Kelly Clarkson, singing the song over and over. On the drive to the convention center, Danielle was despondent. Her voice had left her. She could hardly speak, much less sing. "I cried the whole way there," she says. When she got on stage, a miracle happened. When she opened her mouth, her voice returned.
And when DM called to let the Ranieres know Danielle had been picked, her mother rushed to a basketball game where Danielle was cheering. "Guess who got a record deal?" she said.
Danielle, a ninth-grader at Coral Springs Christian Academy, says the most difficult part of the Funn Club is sacrificing her social life. She worries that if she isn't around, her friends might forget to invite her along. But she is clear about her priorities: "I just can't skip rehearsal to go to a party. Now I realize that I have to put it first, before anything else. Or I would always regret it."
Although she's young, Danielle knows what she wants from life and is puzzled by friends who act as though such decisions are a long, long way off. "I can't imagine being my age and not knowing what you're going to do with your life. For me, it's singing or nothing. I don't even have a backup plan."
Brittany, however, has short-, medium-, long-term, and master plans. Today, she will finish a science project on how light affects the growth of plants and complete a journal entry explaining the role of expansionism in the development of the United States. Soon, she wants to secure a cell phone with unlimited minutes so she can stay in touch with her friends if the Funn Club goes on tour. And next year, she hopes to land at a high school with lots of boys. With only one male in her eighth-grade class of six kids at Appletree Montessori, she feels deprived -- even more so because she has to wear navy-blue slacks and a light blue shirt as her school uniform. It's not a good profile for meeting boys from other schools.