Bubble Gum Babes

Brittany Mullen ambles into DM Records in Boca Raton a little after 2 p.m. on November 15, upbeat, eager, and, as always, ready to work. Even though she's only 13 years of age, this is where Brittany wants to be. She's one of four Funn Club girls the label assembled, crafted, polished, and launched this past April toward the prefab pop orbit of 'NSync, Spice Girls, and the Backstreet Boys. Brittany is, of course, pretty, talented, and very ambitious. She has the groovy air of a surfer girl and the wholesome, blond, glowing, patrician good looks of a Ralph Lauren model.

Her most used expression? "It's all good."

While DM plots the Funn Club's path to success, the girls dream of entering the mythological supra realm of celebrity superstardom. Brittany wants to own a house on the ocean in California or Florida or both. She'd drive a Ford Expedition. And the Funn Club would have its own television show.

She's hoping that, any day, she'll tune into Radio Disney and hear the Funn Club's song "Whoomp! There It Is" played over and over and over again. Her bandmates share variations of her dreams, good looks, positive outlook, and vaulting ambition.

Today, Brittany is dressed boy-sexy in a tight-fitting, stretchy, red tank top that hugs her flat stomach. The shirt is tucked into superbaggy khaki shorts that dangle below her knees and stay up with the help of a wide, black, leather belt. When she enters DM's break room with her mother, Cendy, the other members of the Funn Club -- Emmi Kozulin, Danielle Raniere, Kelsey Laverack, and their mothers -- have already assembled.

While the moms commiserate about the downpour that made driving to the studio on I-95 harrowing, the girls just talk, popping from subject to subject like pinballs. The bandmates didn't know one another until they met in the studio this past summer to begin learning songs and dance routines. They became friends on their rehearsal breaks, Danielle says: "We started talking, and now we just talk and talk and talk and talk."

Emmi, who is 15 but looks younger than the others because she's only 4 feet, 11 inches tall and slim-hipped, gives the group a little street edge with her matter-of-fact approach and slicing wit. Today, Emmi has a bad case of laryngitis that is keeping her conversation to a minimum. She notices Brittany's hair, which is straight, freshly cut to about four inches below her shoulders, and recently streaked blond on blond. "Did you... ah," Emmi says waving her hands around her head, "your hair?"

"Yeah," Brittany responds, "I wanted to have it dark underneath and blond on top."

"Cool," Emmi says approvingly.

"But my mom wouldn't let me," finishes Brittany.

Then Mark Watson, who co-owns DM with his brother David, enters the break room. He's a hulk of a man at six foot one. In a teacher-like authoritarian voice, he announces that it is time to rehearse.

The girls race down the hall in a clump. The studio they enter has a drum set in one corner and a nice swath of gleaming wooden flooring that looks like the perfect platform for dance. The Watson brothers take their places behind a wall of dark glass at the studio's soundboard.

Kelsey walks up to the black glass and fiddles with her hair. She's only 12 years old but already budding glam-girl gorgeous with honey-colored skin, gigantic, wide-set blue eyes, and cheekbones that could be used as skateboard ramps. Danielle joins her, raking her fingers through her long chestnut mane, and then Brittany.

It's the first time the girls are wearing wireless headsets, which will be great if they work, because the Funn Club members perform energetic, hip-hop-style dance routines while they sing.

Emmi's voice crackles when she speaks. "Do you want me to sing?" she asks, looking forlornly into the glass sound booth. There's silence. "So I'm not singing?" She waits a couple of seconds. "Am I supposed to sing?"

From a microphone, Mark tells Emmi to test the headset and to conserve her voice.

"Check, check, check, check, checking, checking," Emmi scratches.

The four line up in the back of the studio to sing "Beginning End," a sweet upbeat and quick-tempo number. A swirling electronica track with a strong bass introduces the tune, which the Watsons acquired for the Funn Club from L.A. songwriter Will McKenna. "Don't," the girls sing, "let the beginning end." Kelsey steps out. Her voice is complex, ranging from throaty and bluesy to sweet to soaring. "When we talk, I hear the emotion," she sings. "It's like your voice inside my heart. And our first kiss I felt your devotion. 'cause we were friends first from the start."

The girls run through the song with precision, moving in sync to a tightly choreographed dance. Danielle is stage-savvy. Even though she's wearing what looks like plaid pajama bottoms, she rivets attention when she swivels her hips and then stops with dramatic punctuation. The four do the song a few more times, working out the spacing as they dance. Their voices are sweetly appealing with a sultry, yearning undertone, but the headsets are too big and keep slipping around.

"That wasn't so great," Danielle says after they finish.

"Say what's on your mind," cracks Emmi.

Mark tells the girls they'll perform November 21 at St. Jerome's High School in Fort Lauderdale. Brittany is psyched by the news. One payoff: boys.

"Yessss!" she says, pumping her fist like a tennis player.

The recorded soundtrack for "Whoomp! There It Is" thumps through the studio. The four begin the song like a sculpture, leaning on one another in a scrum of hips and attitude. Then they fan out and rap.

"Yeah, Funn Club music/In full effect/We're Emmi, Kelsey, Danielle, and Brittany/We're kicking the flow, we're kicking the flow/And it goes a little somethin' like this/Funn Club, back again."

Brittany throws herself into movement with complete abandon, kicking out her legs, spinning, swinging her hips.

After an hour of rehearsing, Mark tells the girls to take a break. They tumble into the break room, where a panting Brittany heads to the fridge for water.

Danielle tumbles into the green leather sofa, snaps on a headset, and sings along to a CD of Mandy Moore's Candy. "I'm so addicted, to the lovin' that you're feeding to me/ Can't do without it."

The talk around a kitchen table where the other three girls cluster veers to boys. "Kelsey and I are the flirts," Brittany says. "But I can't really say I'm a flirt because I don't have any guys to flirt with." There are only six kids in Brittany's eighth-grade class at the Appletree Montessori School.

"Can't you hear me callin'," Danielle sings, oblivious. "Begging you to come out and play..."

Kelsey directs the conversation. "I'm going to marry Aaron Carter," she says of the teen singer and younger brother of the Backstreet Boys' Nick Carter. "I think he is soooo hot."

"He's 15, and he has four cars... He has four cars, and he can't even drive." (Carter is actually 16.)

"Like sugar to my heart," Danielle continues. "I'm cravin' for you/I'm missin' you like candy."

On a large television with the sound turned down, the image of Christina Aguilera appears. Kelsey goes bonkers. She runs over to the set. "Danielle, Danielle!" she shouts. "Christina Aguilera! Turn it up! Turn it up!" Danielle doesn't hear her. "Christina's skinny again," she says. "Danielle, look!"

David and Mark Watson entered the music business playing clubs in St. Petersburg, Florida, where they grew up. They started out playing jazz. By 1981, the brothers had gravitated to pop with the band Bop. David sang and banged the drums; Mark played saxophone, keyboard, and bass. They moved to Miami in the early '90s to record with Henry Stone, the legendary founder of TK Records whose company was nicknamed "Motown South" and who's credited with discovering KC and the Sunshine Band.

At the high point of the Watsons' career, Atlantic Records signed the brothers to a five-year contract, David says. But in 1993, the brothers abandoned their musical aspirations, rented a space in Sunrise, and formed the independent label DM Records. It seemed a natural fit as they entered their 30s. "We put our business hats on," Mark says. "We kind of learned the ropes from being artists and producers."

They focused on a niche market, churning out deep and thundering bass tracks favored in the '90s by young black men with superbad cars and super-loud stereos. "That's what started our label," Mark says. "We did quite well. We started with that and branched out."

Through its affiliated labels, DM today records urban, gospel, and rap artists. Dun & Bradstreet's 2003 regional directory lists the company as doing a paltry $1.1 million in sales. Mark Watson calls the figure inaccurate, asserting that the firm did just less than $5 million last year. DM's most successful release was Tag Team's "Whoomp! There It Is," a quadruple platinum single on the Billboard charts that sold 4 million copies.

DM does well enough. Mark says he earns a six-figure salary and drives a 1999 Range Rover. His Lighthouse Point home was assessed at $941,350 this year by the Broward County Property Appraiser's Office.

The Funn Club's pop is far removed from DM's other music, such as the Dirty South crunk of Lil' Jon & the East Side Boyz, for whom the label recorded a compilation CD, or Quick Pick's Worldwide Booty Search.

But the brothers look more like college professors than rap moguls or bubble-gum Svengalis. Sitting behind his dark wooden desk in a small office at DM's headquarters in a bank building, Mark is dressed in a gray tweed sports jacket and khaki slacks. The older brother at age 43, he sports thick, charcoal-gray hair that flies as though he has just been in a windstorm. David, who is 40, wears a soft red sweater, gray, wide-wale, corduroy slacks, and buttery leather Ralph Lauren polo loafers. Mark's saxophone sits on the floor beside David's chair.

It was Mark's idea to create the Funn Club, David says. The so-called "tween" market -- roughly 8- to 14-year-olds -- appears to the brothers much like the young black demographic that bought their bass tracks. "It was a decision really from the marketing side," Mark says. "It seems like the major labels are ignoring this segment, the preteen market, so it is an opportunity for an independent label."

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.

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.

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.

"They call us Smurfs!" she says. Brittany chafes at the Montessori routine. She doesn't like meditation time. She refuses to run track during gym class. She'd rather jog in the evenings. Her friends say she's a rebel, but her mature demeanor and thoughtfulness reflect Montessori values.

The master plan "is to become a superstar," she says, "to get recognized eventually for my own feelings and thoughts and what I have to give to the world."

To that end, on Mondays, she takes guitar lessons. On Tuesdays, it's acting class. On Wednesdays, she studies voice. She's free on Thursdays. Friday or Saturday, she travels to Popstarz hip-hop dance classes in Fort Lauderdale or South Miami. Then, of course, there are rehearsals and performances with the Funn Club and the PopStarz teen dance troupe.

Today, she has just returned home from her Monday guitar lesson, where she showed the teacher her new purple Fender electric guitar. The Mullens spent $675 on the instrument and an amplifier. Brittany's plan is to learn all the Funn Club songs on the guitar and then play it in shows. "They don't even know I have a guitar yet," she says of Mark and David. "They know I'm looking at an electric, and they keep asking me if I'm getting any good. Their main concern with me playing the guitar is that it would be too much."

With a little prompting, she straps on the guitar and stands under a pink, flowering, silk tree to sing the first song she ever wrote. She strums the guitar as she talks about the number. "It was one of those afternoons when I wasn't doing much and, you know, I was thinking about how this year was one of my hardest years because all of my friends left my school. I was kind of sad and lonely, but at the same time, it was kind of an independent thing for me."

She stops and starts and then sings, "Was I something for you to hold onto?" She hits the wrong chord and stops. "Sorry, sorry," she says and then starts again. "'Cause I want to run to you, but I can never seem to get through to you."

Her mother, Cendy, says Brittany has restyled the frothy pop song that features her voice on the Funn Club CD. Brittany plays the beginning verses of "Stop the World," turning it into a plaintive ballad with more dramatic pauses than the Funn Club version and more-elastic phrasing. "It's not kid pop," Cendy says.

Although Brittany works to develop her own ideas and sound, she says she's comfortable with the songs and image the Watsons have crafted for the Funn Club. "I think it's really good for kids. I can't get the songs out of my mind. And they send good messages."

She expects the Funn Club to have a limited shelf life. But if the band makes the tween scene and then transitions into mainstream, she'd be happy. "I'd just ride it," she says.

For the girl the Funn Club has nicknamed "Ghetto," Emmi Kozulin has a rather refined background. She speaks six languages, including Russian, fluently. Her father, Alex Kozulin, is a successful pianist and singer who with his wife immigrated from Israel to Berlin. Luminaries such as Rudolph Nureyev visited the family when it lived in Berlin, where Emmi was born. As a child, she was tended by two nannies. Her father allowed only classical music in their home.

The Kozulins came to Florida when Emmi was 6 years old. Alex planned to perform here, but then he decided to return to Germany, where his reputation and his career were well-established. By that time, Emmi's sister, Shiri, was enrolled in a fine-arts program, and Carmella wanted to stay with Emmi in the United States.

From age 4 to 13, Emmi studied Russian classical ballet technique. She took classes five days a week. But as she became more Americanized, she gravitated toward hip-hop dance. Her ballet teacher gave her an ultimatum: either ballet or nothing. She took hip-hop.

These days, Emmi says, Missy Elliott is her favorite singer. She shares a North Miami Beach apartment with her mother. They rent a unit in a complex with a United Nations of tenants. The grand piano and artwork are in storage. Emmi's new baby-blue moped sits in the living room next to the sofa.

Emmi has a deadly serious side. When the band performed in Virginia, the girls couldn't sleep. Emmi told them the story of the Holocaust. She says she did it to scare the others, a reaction she enjoys. But Danielle says she was deeply affected. "It was very sad," she said. Emmi also wrote a poem imagining she was a child who died on September 11, 2001.

And on her computer, Emmi composes complex techno and trance music. She says performing is in her blood. But if she doesn't become a professional singer, there will be other options. Entertainment lawyer would be one choice. "If I get in an argument, I can make you feel this small," she says, illustrating by holding her thumb and forefinger a half-inch apart.

The Funn Club is set to hit the Broward County Fair around noon on November 23. The four still have more than an hour before performing, and the crowds are sparse. Mark Watson suggests they walk around the fairgrounds while he videotapes them. The girls lock arms and skip down the concourse. They stand out, these four pretty teens all dressed in white and black.

At one of the booths, the attendant chats them up, asking who they are and if they are going to be performing. Then he tries to persuade them to compete for giant stuffed animals. After he slashes the price in half from $4 to $2 and Mark hands the money over, the four girls sit down and grab water guns.

Emmi beats the others and chooses a yellow spotted leopard. As they leave, the man asks Danielle, "So, are you going to be famous some day and have someone videotaping your entire life?"

She tilts her head sideways and stares off as though contemplating the question. "Yeah," she says. "Probably. Something like that."

The Funn Club is inching closer to success. On December 5, Radio Disney's national programming office interviewed the four girls in Dallas and recorded radio promo spots with them. A snippet of the Funn Club version of Tag Team's "Whoomp! There It Is" is currently available to Radio Disney listeners online. Each week, about 5,000 tweens sign on to the website and listen to and rate a selection of about 18 songs.

"Whoomp! There It Is" has been receiving pretty good ratings, says national director of programming Robin Jones. "It's in the same camp as other songs already being played on the radio," she says.

Radio Disney can help the Funn Club secure gigs. The group performed Tuesday when Hilary Duff appeared at Sound Advice Amphitheatre. On New Year's Eve, it will perform at the Jacksonville Zoo.

In the future, Disney also may recommend them for films, animation projects, and commercials. "The girls are very cute and relevant to the target audience we go after," Jones says. "We serve kids who are always looking for someone, quote unquote, 'like me.' These girls look real."

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Susan Eastman
Contact: Susan Eastman