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Young Hit and Miss

Hands off Mandy's candy: 16-year-old Mandy Moore says modesty's a virtue

"I'm sick of people who see my hair color and see that I sing pop music and think that I'm automatically a clone of Britney or Christina!" complains rising teen star Mandy Moore. "Not that that's a bad thing, but I'm not another Britney and I'm not another Christina. I'm Mandy. I'm my own person, out there doing my own thing."

True, but her own thing sounds awfully close to what fellow blondes Britney and Christina do: in other words, assembly-line pop appealing primarily to little girls. Weary of constantly seeing her name followed by the phrase "poised to become the next Britney Spears/Christina Aguilera," Moore would like to distance herself from the pack -- without alienating anyone, of course.

Sixteen-year-old Moore (who begins her first headlining tour in Fort Lauderdale on May 11) has lived in Orlando nearly her entire life but claims no knowledge of the secret cloning facility responsible for hometown heroes like the Backstreet Boys or 'NSync. In fact she points to opening appearances with both groups as instrumental in introducing her to the limelight. Singing started with the national anthem at Otown sporting events, which soon gave way to television commercials. While taping one such jingle last year, she caught the ear of a Federal Express driver with a friend at Epic Records. By that weekend she had a recording contract.

From Epic's Los Angeles office, Moore explains that pop stardom has been her dream since she was six years old. Some of her idols are obvious, like Madonna and Janet Jackson, but she also cites Bette Midler and Karen Carpenter as two of her biggest influences, adding, "Karen Carpenter had one of the most beautiful voices in the entire world." Moore's kewpie-doll soprano isn't in that league, but that hasn't stopped her first album, So Real, or its faux R&B ballads and ersatz dance tunes like the hit single "Candy" from ascending the charts and turning Moore into an MTV staple. Having just inked a three-year deal with the network (she'll appear on Total Request Live and spring break broadcasts) and signing on as a Neutrogena spokesmodel, viewers can expect to see plenty more of Moore.

Criticism circles the girlie-pop pack about the way the young women's sex appeal is calculated to elevate male blood pressure. To be sure, the men who drool over Britney (or worse, paste her head on naked, nubile models and post the collages on the Internet) probably find Moore's fresh-scrubbed image irresistible. Unlike Spears and Aguilera, who are edging perilously close to the 20-year-old mark, Moore still exudes true teen spirit -- pigtails, braids, barrettes -- that unfortunately makes her as popular a topic on newsgroup alt.pictures.teen.erotica as she is on alt.music.female.

Although it's possible that her image is marketed and manipulated by record company executives equating bankability with youthful sexuality, Moore still fights to maintain a tenuous grip on modesty. She refuses to see herself as a pop tart, a bubble-gum princess, or grown-up JonBenet.

"It's never a concern to me," Moore says. "I'm very lucky to be surrounded by people who respect me for me, and I'm lucky enough to have a lot of control with it. I don't think you have to wear tube tops and tight clothes and stuff in order to be considered beautiful or sexy. I think you can be just as beautiful wearing a pair of jeans and a tank top. I hate the way the media is, like, 'Mandy Moore is another tube-top-wearing, bellybutton-baring, midriff-showing person.'

"There's only one time I've ever shown my midriff," she continues. "We did this photo shoot for this magazine, and they said, 'This is what you're going to wear,' and I said, 'Ooh, no, I don't feel comfortable about that.' Then they took these pictures and they said, 'We promise we're not going to use these pictures.' But they ended up using them, and I was quite hurt and upset by that, because I don't think you have to tell people out there that's what you have to do to be considered beautiful."

Moore also exhibits a level head regarding teenage rites of passage. For example she's in the market for some wheels -- as long as they perform well in crash tests.

"Car shopping has entered the picture, yes," she confirms. "I can't wait to go home and get a car! I'm thinking of something very safe, and I want an SUV, so I'm looking at the Lexus, 'cause it's the safest. I used to want an Explorer, but my parents and I researched all the cars, and it wasn't rated as highly."

Before her career usurped her free time, Moore was a straightA honor student; now she's tutored on the road and doesn't have much time for studying. However, even with a bright short-term future, she's not about to abandon her education.

"No! I'm going to college," she insists. "I don't know if I'm going to go in two years when I'm scheduled to go, but I'll go in the next four or five years. Just 'cause I'm lucky enough to have accomplished this goal -- which has always been my main goal in life -- it doesn't mean that I'm ready to abandon everything else."

For now Moore can just coast. So Real recently reached the platinum mark, a fact that makes Moore's head spin.

"I hope it spins forever," she squeals. "I never want to get used to that feeling. It's so fresh and so new. Ohmigod -- I'm singing my own music!"

Her "own music" is actually that of the songwriting-production team Shaun Fisher and Tony Battaglia, responsible for nearly every track on So Real. Moore receives zero songwriting credit. Not that she'd want it -- it's one thing to hear a 16-year-old girl sing "Take me to a place where/The magic between us becomes real/Take me all the way/ Boy I want you to" ("Lock Me in Your Heart"), but to realize the words were written for her by fortysomething Svengalis adds a new pathological component. Considering the position she's found herself in, however, Moore counts herself extremely fortunate to have Fisher and Battaglia on her side.

"I just turned 16, and I'm doing what I love to do," she says. "It's so sad when you think about all those people who are stuck in jobs right now where they just dread waking up and going to work every morning. I get to do what I love at such a young age. I can't even describe it; I can't even find the right adjectives. People's expectations are always going to be high, and you're always going to hope for the best, but you can never predict a million albums! It's mind-blowing!" But Moore puts the victory in perspective: "I can't believe there are people out there like Britney and the Backstreet Boys who have sold, like, 10 million and 15 million albums! That's incredible!"

Moore's image and age still seem to spar with each other. Sexy poses on her CD covers and a heavily dolled-up look (with Britneyesque tight tops and the like) when she opened concerts for the Backstreet Boys are at odds with her apparent modesty. And many of the double-entendres penned by Battaglia and Fisher are laughably transparent. An example: "I'm so addicted to the lovin' that you're feedin' me/Can't do without this feeling's got me weak at the knees/Body's in withdrawal every time you take it away/Can't you hear me callin', beggin'…" from the fluffy, forgettable "Candy."

So Real found a soft spot with indiscriminate fans of sugar-dipped prefab pop. To maximize the disc's sales figures, Epic is slowly pacing Moore's success. A scheduled deployment of a second single from So Real has been delayed, to milk all the mileage possible out of "Candy," which first charted in December, dipped slightly, but then sold steadily again. Now the label is releasing the four-track EP I Wanna Be With You this week, amended with a "Candy" remix and a foldout Mandy poster.

However, Moore insists she won't be content to keep making music in the bubble-gum vein forever and even hints that when she begins work on So Real's full-length follow-up, audiences should expect a slight shock at the results.

"I may go in a more unexpected direction, maybe more rock-pop," she offers. "If you keep doing the same thing over and over, people are going to lose interest. Madonna keeps doing something different, so that even the people who hate her will be some of the first people to go out and buy her new album, just to see what's she's doing."

That said, it takes some imagination to picture the disposable ditties from So Real having the same influential reach as Madonna's first songs. Then again, those numbers seemed like substandard piffle to many at the time.

"You need to grow up with your audience," Moore says confidently. "I don't know if I'd want to stay singing to people this age, because I'm going to grow up and I'm going to sing about what I can relate to in my life. What I'm going to sing about when I'm 25 may not be as easy to relate to a 13- or 15-year-old out there."

Contact Jeff Stratton at his e-mail address:
jeff.stratton@newtimesbpb.com


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