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Speller, singer find fame goes a long way


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2002

Moving can be tough on a 14-year-old girl. But it's made somewhat easier when you've become a national icon.

Moving can be tough on a 14-year-old girl. But it's made somewhat easier when you've become a national icon.

Nupur Lala won the National Spelling Bee in 1999. The New Tampa girl clinched the title by correctly spelling "logorrhea," a Greek word meaning excessive and often incoherent talkativeness.

Just two months after her win, the Louis Benito Middle School student moved with her family from New Tampa to Fayetteville, Ark. Lala's newfound celebrity went a long way in helping her meet new friends.

"Everybody wanted to eat lunch with me, or have me over, or talk to me," says Lala, now 17 and a rising senior in high school.

Her win led to a flurry of engagements with everyone from Rosie O'Donnell to George Steinbrenner. She was even featured in a national ad campaign for Nortel Networks.

"That was probably the most jam-packed and exhilarating time ever," she says. "Every year when I watch the spelling bee and I watch the kid win, I'm so jealous that they get to go through that again, because it's wonderful."

Lala is a member of her school's quiz bowl team, plays violin in the North Arkansas Youth Symphony and volunteers at a local hospital. She is the vice president of her school's chapter of Young Democrats.

Lala saved most of her $10,000 prize for college. She'll visit Duke, Cornell and Johns Hopkins this summer, and is planning to study premed.

To this day, Lala is recognized by fans.

"They ask me to spell my winning word all the time, just so they can say they saw me spell it."

* * *

Where in the world is Scott Leonard?

At the moment, Leonard -- the songwriter, arranger, producer and high tenor for the a cappella group Rockapella -- is in his Hyde Park home studio, adding a little hometown spice to the quintet's fifth studio album.

For more than a decade, Leonard, a 1987 graduate of the University of Tampa, has been a driving force behind one of a cappella's most recognizable groups.

Rockapella's four-year stint on the popular PBS game show Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? took it from bar mitzvah band to television supergroup.

Leonard came to Tampa on a baseball scholarship. But as his college years progressed, his part-time gigs at Disney World and his involvement with UT's music department led him down a different path.

After college, Leonard worked for a couple of years at Tokyo Disneyland before landing a position with a struggling New York a cappella group called Rockapella. Then Rockapella landed a gig as the house band on the kids' show Carmen Sandiego. Overnight, Rockapella was famous.

"I was very fortunate in my timing," he says. "I missed all the bar mitzvahs and weddings, and suddenly we were pretty well-known."

The band played the Tonight Show and concerts with Billy Joel and Sting.

After Carmen Sandiego went off the in 1995, Rockapella kept performing. It became known as the Folger's group after the coffee manufacturer featured the band in two commercials, singing on a street corner.

Now, the band is recognized as an influence on harmonizing boy bands like 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. In fact, one year during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, 'N Sync made a point of thanking Rockapella for their music.

"People call us the original boy band," Leonard says. "We're a dad band."

Leonard hopes to have Rockapella's next American album, Smilin', ready for release in August, and the group is gearing up for a June 22 concert at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota.

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