Man-Child in the Promised Land

Pop star Sean Kingston hopes the party's just begun

Why is Janice Turner grinning so widely? It's just after 7 p.m., ten days before last Christmas, and she's backstage at the Y-100 Jingle Ball show at the BankAtlantic Center. A bunch of performances are due to kick off in a half-hour or so, but just now, folks are squeezed into a media room, and there's not a lot happening — except Turner, with a smile that could power all the lights in Times Square.

Turner is making noise: dropping her cell phone, giving loud hugs, and generally upstaging Perez Hilton, the flamboyant gossip queen, which is no mean feat. And then, just as you're thinking that no one could possibly look happier than Turner does, you realize that she's actually got the second-biggest smile in the room. The first is plastered on her son, who just spotted her, overnight reggae-pop star Sean Kingston.

Until his mom showed up, Kingston had been patiently answering Hilton's questions — the same Perez Hilton who makes a living trashing celebrities, Kingston among them. In fact, on his blog, Hilton had just been beating up Kingston, joined by readers who posted hundreds of comments along the same lines: about how bad the then-17-year-old Kingston sucks, how fat he is, etc. — catty, spiteful, envious humor at its Hollywood finest, which is to say cruelest. Of course, this doesn't stop Hilton, chubby himself, from fawning over Kingston in person, a hypocrisy even more typical of Hollywood than the humor.

Sean and his mother pose during a CD signing at the BankAtlantic Center.
Jonathan Cunningham
Sean and his mother pose during a CD signing at the BankAtlantic Center.

Kingston seems to notice or care about exactly none of it. He answers Hilton's questions about teen stardom the same way he's answered the same questions a hundred times already — pleasantly — until he suddenly cuts Hilton off midsentence, standing up and joyously hugging his mom and dragging her in front of the cameras for her cameo, essentially burying Hilton's bitchy little moment. Then he leads his mom to his dressing room, already filled with his sister, cousins, aunts, and uncles, plus friends, all awaiting face time with the big youth.

Some of these folks Kingston hasn't seen since his pop-star odyssey began two years ago. He's nearly the youngest person in the room, with his neck and wrist wrapped in diamonds, the hip-hop sign that he's made it. He's also rocking a T-shirt, baggy jeans, Nikes, and a hoodie, an ensemble assembled by his personal stylist. Kingston, who signs his checks Kisean Anderson, is triumphant and seemingly not nervous, even though in less than an hour, he'll give his first big show in his native South Florida since his song "Beautiful Girls" took over radio, MTV, MySpace, iTunes, and the blogosphere.

Propelled by a mix of doo-wop, hip-hop, and urban pop, with a big nod to Ben E. King's 1961 hit "Stand by Me," King­ston's hit, his first, took him from zero to hero in three weeks flat, giving him the number-one song on Billboard magazine's Hot 100 chart for four straight weeks, plus the top-selling ringtone in the country for five weeks. He sold 260,000 copies of "Beautiful Girls" in its first week, the second-best debut in online history (just behind Rihanna's "Umbrella"). The song not only has cast his fame wide and fast; it also seems to have tamed critics from the New York Times to Rolling Stone, from Vibe to the Washington Post. His initial success has been downright tidal.

Still, tonight will mark the first time his mother has seen him perform before a large audience. While Kingston has traveled the world working hard, Turner, 45, cooled her heels in a federal prison for more than two years for tax evasion and bank fraud. She was released in October. Now she's on parole, living in Sunrise.

Earlier in the evening, as he sat in the back of a van, being driven to the Bank­Atlantic Center in Sunrise, Kingston was asked what it meant to him for his mom to see him perform at this level, and he seemed to have trouble gathering his thoughts. "I'm just excited and ready to go" was the best the young man could muster, even as his forehead creased with stress.

There seemed to be no limit to the number of tickets his mom needed for this show — for the aunts and uncles, cousins and friends who were also seeing Kingston for the first time in the flush of his stardom, after he went from the baby to the biggest breadwinner in their gene pool.

At times, it seems like a lot for a 17-year-old to carry. Clearly, Kingston would like to hang with his family today, for example, but he's also at work and more focused on his job, being a pop star, than his friends and family members seem to realize. He's torn, and when he's whisked from his dressing room for a meet-and-greet with fans followed by a ten-minute interview with Entertainment Tonight, he actually sighs with relief. Bouncing from room to room for fans and cameras is what he already knows and loves.

Saying Sean Kingston is focused on his music doesn't quite do it. He's driven. He wants his piece of the big American prize; the only difference between him and a lot of other kids is that he actually has figured out, at a younger age than most, how to get it. He's been determined and self-confident as he turned himself from a young man with a pipe dream into a man-child who just proudly bought his mom a Bentley Continental GT for Christmas, a $175,000 car, and had enough left over to buy her a house in Sunrise. It's the kind of rags-to-riches story that runs through so many songs in hip-hop and reggae, the two urban genres he combines.

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