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USA Weekend - Talking Talent with Paula

Jul 20th, 2003

USA Weekend
Issue Date: July 20, 2003

Talking talent with Paula

Paula Abdul, 41, speaks from experience -- on both sides of the spotlight. A Grammy-winning singer who has sold 30 million records, a judge on Fox's "American Idol" and a choreographer, Abdul also spent four years as artistic director for Company Dance, a national youth dance organization, teaching classes, running scholarship competitions and developing dance workshops for aspiring young performers. 

This summer, Abdul and her fellow judges, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson, take a break from "American Idol" while the competition heats up on its spinoff show, "American Juniors". (This week, a third young hopeful gets picked to make it into the final group of five winning kids.) 

Q: If you had children, would you allow them to go into show business?

I've actually done battle thinking about whether I'd want my kids in this business. It wouldn't be my first wish, for only one reason: I know firsthand that it's such a cutthroat, fickle business.

Q: How old were you when you first had that feeling that you wanted to go into show business?

I've wanted to dance and perform for as long as I can remember. I loved it so much and worked so hard, I was actually in adult classes by the time I was 8 years old! 

Q: Was your mother supportive?

Well, not exactly. My mom was pretty dead set against my getting into the business, because she was surrounded by it. She was director Billy Wilder's personal assistant and witnessed firsthand the heartbreak so many young performers dealt with. She indulged me in my wanting dance lessons, but the whole time she was stressing education and college.

Q: If you had children who really wanted to perform, at what age would you consider letting them audition?

I would certainly discourage them from actually auditioning and competing until about age 11.

I think it's dangerous for kids at age 3 or 4 to put themselves out there like that. However, if at that age they are driving me up the wall -- the way I did to my mom! -- saying, "I have to do this," I would definitely provide the training and tools to help them find their voice or their rhythm.

Q: Should parents ever discourage a child from showbiz dreams?

Not unless that child takes rejection very personally, or they've been told by several professionals in the business that their child just doesn't seem to have what it takes to be a success. Even then, they should be careful about totally discouraging them, because there just may be a place for their particular brand of talent. Think about voices like Bob Dylan's or Macy Gray's -- not exactly what a parent or a professional would call beautiful voices, but they found their niche.

Q: Which young star are you most impressed with as far as talent, success and attitude go?

The first one that comes to mind for me is Justin Timberlake. He's a monumental success, yet he's still close to his family and maintains successful relationships with friends he grew up with back home. This is a kid who obviously had talent, and a hunger to succeed, and a family that found a way to help him get there but keep him grounded in reality.

The right stuff?

Across America, talented kids get put to the test every day. Our family columnist asks a panel of experts how to tell if your child -- and you -- have what it takes.

By Dennie Hughes 

Does your child have dreams of being the next American-Juniors-Idol-Star-Search-Most-Talented-Kid-Born-to-Diva superstar?

 "The best thing a parent can do is to be the person their child can depend on to protect them." If so, he or she is in good company. 

With the explosion in the popularity of televised talent shows, teen celebrities and the unprecedented media swirl surrounding it all, today's parents are raising the first generation of "Idol" dreamers -- untold numbers of kids growing up with Hollywood stars in their eyes.

Take Maggie Peterson, 13. She is one of about 150 girls who showed up recently on a sunny Saturday morning in Orlando to audition for a new musical, "A Little Princess". 

Broadway, Maggie gushes, smiling through her braces, is her "ultimate dream." To attain it, she takes voice, dance and piano lessons back home in Fort Lauderdale. But, her father, Douglas, explains: "We don't have to push her. She's pretty desperate to be here herself." 

Parents and kids know the stakes are bigger than ever. Making it doesn't just mean fame. It can mean overnight stardom along with a fortune in cash and contracts. Even "losers" can win.

"American Idol"'s Justin Guarini got a movie, Tamyra Gray landed a part on TV's "Boston Public", and Clay Aiken's new CD single is outselling "AI2" winner Ruben Studdard's. 

The problem, of course, is that for every overnight sensation, thousands of devastated young hopefuls return home with nothing more than a hug from Mom and Dad, and a heavy dose of heartache. 

So, what's a responsible, loving parent to do? Help a child go for it -- or help him get over it? 

I asked a group of proven experts on children and show business for their take. The answer, it turns out, is "It depends." 

In addition to being a talented choreographer, hit maker and "American Idol" judge, Paula Abdul spent years running workshops, clinics and scholarship competitions for aspiring dancers.

She says a child who is relentless about wanting to sing or act absolutely should have a chance to explore that dream -- even if you, as a parent, think it's a pipe dream. 

"Encourage them to join the school chorus or offer up lessons so they can see if it's something they really want to dedicate themselves to," Abdul says. But, she adds, also "prepare them for the realities of competition and failure. Make them aware it takes a lot of hard work and practice to be the best. Even then, they may never make it big." 

Most important, be sure the child knows he can quit whenever it stops being fun. "A child should want to be the best because he loves what he's doing, not because he's afraid Mom will kill him if he comes in second," Abdul says.

Crossing the line between healthy support and pushing their own ambitions is a huge problem for many parents. The reason, says Linda Dunlap, who heads the psychology department at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is that most parents to a huge extent base their own success in life on their children. 

"When someone in your mommies group brags about her child landing a commercial or winning a beauty contest, it's natural to want to prove your child is just as talented or beautiful," Dunlap says. "Competition between parents can turn the most rational soccer mom into a stage mom from hell." 

Dunlap suggests parents have a system of checks and balances: Only one parent should be involved in helping the child break into and navigate the business. That way, the other parent can be a sounding board for the child and help keep the family on track. 

Another parenting pitfall? Making unreasonable sacrifices to keep the child's dream alive. When you start putting your family in massive debt, or making the rest of the family feel like an afterthought in the pursuit of stardom, your child will feel trapped. 

According to David Flohr, a Falls Church, Va., clinical psychologist who specializes in parent-child relationships, the pressure on a child to please Mom and Dad because she feels she owes them is a thousand times worse than the pressure of competition. 

"Parents need to provide the structure that the child is asking for -- helping him practice, helping him do better," he says. "But they shouldn't feel they have to sell their souls to make the career happen." 

Mathew Knowles, manager of the hit group Destiny's Child and father to stars Beyoncé and Solange, learned about sacrifice the hard way. A top sales rep in the medical industry for 20 years, he quit his high-paying job to manage Destiny's Child when Beyoncé was 15 (Solange, who is a solo artist, was 10). 

While the gamble paid off big time, he nearly lost his marriage as he put the entire family financial burden on his wife, Tina, who ran a Houston beauty salon. 

A self-made expert on the business of raising a superstar, Knowles travels the country speaking about the hard lessons he's learned. 

He believes parents should become experts in their child's career, starting with learning the business. "Despite the fact that I had so many years of sales and marketing experience, I went to Houston Community College and took every music- management course and seminar available," he says. "If you are going to put precious people in your care, you'd better know what you're doing." 

Then there's the financial hit. Knowles estimates it takes $15,000 to $50,000 in out-of-pocket expenses for essentials such as professional photos, demos, media kits, mikes and sound systems.

And, of course, it takes a lot of time. In Knowles' case, it soon became "a 24/7 thing." 

Knowles also advocates tough love, when needed. "You absolutely must establish from Day One with your child that you will always be honest, even if it means telling her something she won't want to hear," he says. 

His criticism, along with suggestions on how to improve next time, are a part of this "job" to which he's deeply committed. Admits Knowles: "I have a tough time turning off 'manager' and turning on 'dad'; it's a good thing Tina is in charge of taking care of the family support system." He says he can't imagine how a single parent would be able to do what he does. 

The founder of WrightStuff Management in Orlando, Donna Wright -- who was instrumental in launching the careers of the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync and Pink -- sees it differently. "The best thing a parent can do is to be the person their child can depend on to protect them, and let the professionals do the business part," she says.

"Young kids who understand they are their parents' source of income keep their feelings bottled up and often find other, not-so-healthy outlets for their frustrations." 

Wright has walked away from talented acts simply because of over-pushy parents who designate themselves as their child's agent or manager. 

Clearly, any parent who understands the perils of kiddie showbiz has to wonder: How do I know if my child's talent is worth all this drama? 

Basically, you don't. Instead, allow your child to pursue the dream. If he or she doesn't have what it takes, "let the child have a few failures in auditions or performances, be there to catch them, and gently validate their fears of not being good enough only when they bring it up," Flohr says.

An example of comforting words: "Well, maybe you weren't as good as these other kids, but that doesn't mean you can't still work on music and find something else you love to make a living, until you get a break." 

Peter Jensen, director of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts' Saturday program for children in New York City (alumni include Oscar winner Adrien Brody and The Princess Diaries' Anne Hathaway), agrees that parents should avoid trying to evaluate their children's abilities. 

Instead, they should enroll their kids in a good program that allows them to explore their talents. Jensen also encourages ambitious kids to (of all things) read. "A huge indication about a child's ability is how he uses his imagination," he says. "I find that kids who are read to a lot, and are encouraged to read, have the most connection to that part of themselves." 

Whether a child continues on the show business quest or ends up with a new passionate answer to the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" the most important message parents can impart to their child is "Anything's possible." 

Kids who know their parents are supportive no matter what usually have the confidence to let go of dreams that don't work and move forward, without feeling like failures. 

And for those kids who are tomorrow's Beyoncés and Justins, good luck to you -- and your parents.

Contributing Editor Dennie Hughes writes USA WEEKEND's RelationTips column. G.K. Sharmin contributed to this story.


The children on the cover are (from left) Joshua Gray, 8, Taylor Edwards, 9, and Gwendolyn Cunningham, 7, pupils at the 32nd Street USC Visual & Performing Arts Magnet in Los Angeles. 

Stylist: David Yokahana, Cloutier. Abdul's hair: De'Ann Power. 

Abdul's makeup: Francine Valdivia. 
Children's grooming: Stephanie Danielle, Cloutier.

Filed under: American Idol


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