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Living the teen dream

Four 13-year-olds from Tampa take the spotlight with a compact disc in the works and a tour with 'N Sync.

By JACKIE RIPLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 4, 1999


TAMPA -- This time last year they were just four 12-year-old Tampa girls who shared a passion for the performing arts. They sang together, danced together, hung out together.

Now, the foursome has been drawn into the whirlwind of the music industry's teen idol dream machine, complete with a major recording contract, a big-name manager and a 32-city concert tour with 'N Sync that starts Wednesday.

All that for a group that has never performed in public and whose first record has yet to reach stores.

"We're really excited," said blond-haired Lydia Bell, one-fourth of PYT (which stands for Pretty Young Things). "We never expected it to happen so fast."

Neither did Lauren Mayhew, Ashley Niven and Tracy Williams, all now 13 and best friends for half of their young lives.

Indeed, who would have thought four girls who decided last year to cut their own demo and shoot for the big time would actually hit it so soon?

"I feel like this group will be big," said David McPherson, senior vice president of artists and repertoire for Urban Music at Epic Records, a division of Sony Music that signed the group to a recording contract.

McPherson said the biggest buyers of records in America are "peers of these girls."

Seeming as much like precocious puppies as professional musicians, PYT blends an innocence with a mature sound, a combination music industry gurus hope will appeal not only to other teens but to their parents as well. "They're what's happening in the teen market," said McPherson.

"They don't sound like normal 13-year-olds because they've been vocalizing all these years," said Cynthia Gries, director of Entertainment Revue, an all-girl troupe in Tampa. "But then you meet them and they're very normal average girlish girls, walking and holding hands like little girls would."

Gries is one of the girls' mentors, having worked closely with them for several years as part of her performing arts troupe.

During a recent recording session at a studio in Sanford, north of Orlando, the girls got together for an impromptu a capella rehearsal of Walk Before We Run, one of the songs that will appear on their first compact disc, set to be released before Christmas. By the time they had segued into Something More Beautiful, their first single, set for release in September, it was clear they needed no help from studio boosts like echo, reverb or overdub.

The girls have recorded original songs but none that they have penned.

"I didn't put this act together; they put themselves together," McPherson said. "You can see these girls and feel automatically off the bat there's something special about them. It's organic, not manufactured."

Earlier this year, Gries brought PYT to the attention of record executives who were in the market for an all-girl group, McPherson said. And while McPherson said he wasn't impressed by the song he heard, he was impressed with the girls.

"I found the songs and worked on them with them," McPherson said.

The girls have performed, individually and together, for the past five or six years in theater, television and radio, but never as PYT. One member of the group, Lauren Mayhew, plays Marah on CBS' Guiding Light and has been testing for screen roles.

"She had to choose between continuing her spot on Guiding Light, which allowed her to continue with a normal family and school life," said Lauren's mother, Sharon Mayhew. "But she decided she might never get a movie role and this gave her the chance to perform with three good friends."

Having a daughter steeped in the world of showbiz gives Mayhew a sense of its ephemeral nature.

"This could go as fast as it came and it could be gone in a year," said Mayhew, who plans to keep Lauren's spot at Berkley Prep so she can keep up with the curriculum. "It can happen so fast but be gone just as fast."

PYT has a pop R & B feel, not too different from the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears -- or their touring partners, 'N Sync. But they can knock out a strong beat while incorporating some of the smooth vocal styles of groups like En Vogue and Boyz II Men.

There's no question that simply having a shot at joining the likes of Britney Spears, 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys is enough to pump up any teenage girl's heart rate, but it's just as likely to cause near cardiac arrest for any parent.

"I have considerable nervousness about all of this," said Will Williams, Tracy's father and an insurance lawyer in Tampa. He is amazed at what he calls the intensity of music industry bigwigs. "They get an idea into their head and they do not hesitate. They take a red-eye flight and they're on your doorstep."

McPherson said he sees a bright future for the group, which might bail out of the 'N Sync tour in mid-August and hook up with Britney Spears' tour. They will be one of a couple of opening acts on the 'N Sync tour.

Having a rainmaker like Johnny Wright as their manager -- he also represents 'N Sync and Britney Spears -- is no small feat.

"It's a big thing," said McPherson, who hooked them up with Wright. "It's extremely helpful to the group."

PYT, it appears, just might be an overnight success.

"This really did happen overnight," said Ashley's mother, Lisa Niven. "They were in the right place at the right time."

McPherson credits Gries for that. "She's the one that's really worked with these girls," he said. "They owe her a lot."

During the summer tour, street teams will pass out sampler cassettes of PYT along with their Web site address so teens can hear snippets of five songs before the single comes out.

Shepherding a group this young through the gantlet of the music industry will be a challenge not only to their parents but to Sony. Producer Tony Battaglia said working with four 13-year-olds is a lot like "working with my 4-year-old daughter, times five."

But Tracy's dad said he's glad she "just turned 13 instead of 18 because with all she's undertaking, she's still very much under our control and supervision."

Ashley's "been looking forward to being another Barbra Streisand since she was 4 and saw her in a movie, but I'll be there," said Dale Niven, owner of Tampa's Bay City Produce. "I'll fly wherever she's going to go, and at all times in the contract there will be two parents with the girls whether it's in Europe, the U.S., wherever."

But between giggles, blue nail polish and the secret PYT handshake, it's obvious they're only 13 and will be away from home, family and friends for a long time.

"We're used to showbiz," Lydia Bell said. "Well, maybe not to this extreme."

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