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Desperately Seeking Stardom

Bug juice. Hiking. Swimming. Why settle for ordinary summer camp when you can chase fame at American Idol camp in - not Hollywood - but the Berkshires?

(Photo by Tim Llewellyn)

Good thing I’m not Simon Cowell. Down in a musty-smelling basement, papered in fraying playbills for middle school productions and bumper stickers proclaiming “Singing Gives Me a Trill!” 14-year-old Sean Gearin is working through puberty with his vocal coach. It’s not pretty. His sweet girl-boy voice creaks and cracks. He forgets words. Unforgivable sins by American Idol standards. Oh, darling Sean: Simon would eat you alive.

But, for now, Sean is tucked safely in his childhood, his coach and his mother cocooning him in excuses. There are at least five reasons he couldn’t hit those notes, says the coach. You can just tell he hasn’t practiced this one, chimes in his mother, Cathy, who promises to quiz him on the botched lyrics. She’s missing her daughter’s first softball game of the year to intently watch over this bimonthly singing session in Sharon, an hour round trip from their home in Franklin. “I always say to him, ‘You have to get into the song,’ ” she whispers to me. “That’s what they want you to do on American Idol.” Sean, with his shaggy brown hair falling over his young face, doesn’t seem to care much. “I’m so hungry,” he says in between yawns.

These lessons, “they’re just something I should do,” he says. He’s busy, crazy busy, and like most eighth-graders these days, his life is one long list of shoulds. Still, he’s on a “break” right now, having just finished his fourth musical theater production since last fall, and can finally take a breather. At least, he says, until Idol Camp this summer. That, apparently, is another should.

Back at their house, as his mother spreads out white-vinyl binders full of local press and original scripts for his shows, you can tell he’s proud. “Lead, lead, lead, lead,” Sean says as he points to them. But then, as he picks at a hole in his jeans, he admits that it all seems like one big chore. “Right now, it feels like a career,” he says. “It’s like all I’m doing.”

This singing business that makes his mom so proud? He’s not really into it. Won’t even sing unless he’s onstage. So why do it? “I had to. I had no choice. Because of the shows,” he says. OK, well he must really love doing the shows, right? “I’m not into musical theater, but I have to do it,” he says. “I don’t like the theater, to be honest with you. I only do theater because I think it will get me into movies and Hollywood and that stuff. That’s the only reason I do it.”

And then I understand. “I just want to be famous,” he says matter-of-factly. Wants to star in slasher flicks like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and inane comedies like Scary Movie. Wants to be like Rob Schneider, his acting idol.

And Idol Camp, which makes its debut at the Northfield Mount Hermon School in Northfield next month, might just be his ticket to fame. It’s not that he loves the show (“It’s so boring,” he says), and it’s not that he wants to be a singer. It’s a career opportunity, he says. “I wasn’t as excited at first about the camp until I heard about the celebrities. Then I was like, it’s gonna be huge.”

He’s hoping that there might be some “scouts or something” to discover him and whisk him to Hollywood, and his mom – who calls herself “just the driver,” though she’s a heck of a lot more invested than that – doesn’t think that’s such a crazy dream. “He has talent; we’ll see where that takes us,” she says, explaining why she’s willing to shell out nearly $300 per day for Idol Camp, even though she was recently laid off from her office administrator job. “He really wanted to go, so it was important to find a way for him to go. I’m paying three times more than I would pay for him to go to a local camp. And the local camp is three weeks, not 10 days.”

But a local camp doesn’t turn you into a star. “Most kids my age want to be famous,” says Sean simply as he leads me around his room. He points to the blue stars and stripes bordering the ceiling. “My mom put these stars up in my room when I was in third grade because I used to like looking at stars and stuff,” he says. “It’s funny, because now I want to be one.”

I may be showing my age here, but when I was kicking around in adolescence, summer camp was all about swimming holes and skinned knees, ghost stories and first kisses. Who knew those sweet campfire days would morph into career moves? To be sure, there have always existed specialty camps for the hyper-focused, overachieving youngster, from geeky computer camps to artsy filmmaking camps to sports camps of every stripe. But Idol Camp is the first to riff directly off a popular television show and wrap itself so tightly in crass commercialism.

Frankly, it’s surprising that the American Idol folks are just now getting around to cashing in on their ridiculously popular show, which launched five years ago. “Idol Camp is a bit of a no-brainer for us,” says Felicity Carr, the New York City-based director of sponsorship and live events at FremantleMedia, executive producers of the show. Carr says they are also looking into marketing AI cruises. “It’s the perfect fit for the brand.” A brand that has become our national crack, with each show pulling in more than 25 million viewers, more than watch the nightly news on the three major networks combined.

For the chance to suck on the star-making pipe of AI, parents of the 700 12- to 15-year-old celebrities-in-waiting from all over the country will be shelling out $2,900 for 10 days at Idol Camp. That’s nearly $300 per day, more than double what even the highest-end performance arts camps charge, says Bette Bussel, the executive director for the American Camp Association New England in Lexington. That chunk of change buys you classes in subjects like singing, dance, video production, and drumming, and not, Carr points out, a leg up in the AI audition process. (No auditions were even required to apply to Idol Camp.) “This isn’t a camp that has talent scouts going around to discover kids. It’s not like we’re turning this into a reality show or anything like that,” Carr says. “People will always have in the back of their mind, ‘Well, you never know. I still might get discovered.’ ”

And why wouldn’t they think that? When kids like Sean Gearin click over to the camp website, they’re dazzled by these big, bold words: “Have you ever dreamed about being a star?” Of course they have, and nothing proves the point that anyone can become one more than AI, the ultimate competition for fame, where an unknown girl from a broken home in Texas like Kelly Clarkson can become globally famous in a matter of weeks. That’s why every kid in our celebrity-obsessed culture wants to go to Idol Camp, and why the camp can charge so much. The price tag is “the result of the premium experience we are offering,” says Carr. “We have past Idol contestants and celebrity performers.”

Those celebrity performers haven’t been confirmed yet, but some former AI contestants – none of whom were voted into the top two – have, and that’s what’s important. That’s the dream sold to these kids: that fame is accessible to anyone. “What you see on the television show is the girl next door turning into this major performing artist,” says Carr. “Really, anybody has a chance.” Kimberley Locke, a secretary pre-Idol, and Vonzell Solomon, a former mail carrier, are the two highest ranking also-rans who will be teaching kids at camp, each having sung her way into the top three.

Bucky Covington, who painted cars in his family’s auto-body shop before being voted off the show in eighth place last year, is also making an appearance at Idol Camp – though he doesn’t know when or what he’ll be doing there. (Passing along advice that was passed along to him on the show, he guesses. “I’m not much of a teacher,” he says, laughing.) Chatting by phone while he signs autographs in Roanoke, Virginia, before opening for Kenny Rogers (Kenny Rogers!), Covington is the embodiment of the AI fantasy: His debut album recently opened at No. 1 in the Nielsen Soundscan’s Country Top 75 chart. Still, the 29-year-old is astounded by the desire for fame that kids have these days. “When I was 12 to 15 years old, the only thing I had my mind set on was driving a car. That is it,” he says in a thick Southern accent. “I think it’s definitely different now. When I was in high school, I didn’t have a care in the world. If somebody came up and said, ‘Hey, where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ Ten years! I got this weekend planned out, tops. That’s all I care about.”

IT just never occurred to my generation that we could become famous. When we were kids – kids without, God forbid, Internet or cable – fame was reserved for Wonder Woman and Ricky Schroder and Larry Bird. But today, with YouTube and MySpace and hundreds of TV stations showing thousands of reality-based and celebrity-centric programs, there just seems to be so much fame to go around. Becoming a celebrity – even if it’s a lame, watered-down variety – doesn’t seem like such a delusional aspiration anymore.

“Everyone can be famous in 2007,” says Harvard sociologist Jay Gabler. “Electronic media offer so many venues for kids to achieve some degree of fame or notoriety.” It’s a cultural phenomenon that has completely changed the worldview of our children: A 2005 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University study found that 31 percent of American teenagers are actually convinced that they will become famous one day.

How did society come to rejoice in this Paris Hilton moment? According to Jake Halpern, a Connecticut-based writer and the author of Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America’s Favorite Addiction, we adults can take most of the blame. Our homes are dominated by kids’ stuff; weekends are spent shuttling kids from one Little League game to another; vacations are exhausted taking the kids to Disneyland. “The kids are almost like celebrities in the context of their families, and the parents are almost like celebrity assistants,” Halpern says. “And how surprising is it that when kids get out of the context of family that puts them up on a pedestal, and out of the context of schools where they’ve been indoctrinated with the sense that they are innately special, they feel a sense of deserving of the accolades that something like American Idol promises?”

In other words, now it’s all about the hunger for bigger and greater and more resounding applause just to feel good. Bringing home the local soccer trophy simply isn’t enough to make this generation of children happy; without the whole world watching, does it even matter? And, let’s be honest, we adults are just as beguiled with celebrity as our kids. Our insatiable appetite for all things Hollywood has us ogling Entertainment Tonight and devouring US Weekly, has us thinking, “Maybe my kid could land a music deal” just as much as – or, maybe more than – “Maybe my kid could get into Harvard.”

While it’s easy to simply dismiss Idol Camp as a harmless indulgence, Halpern thinks there are some darker truths. He found in a survey he conducted for his book that nearly half of the teenage girls interviewed would rather be an assistant to a celebrity than, say, a US senator or the CEO of a company. “I would hope that if you were a parent contemplating sending your kids to Idol Camp, you would take a look at a stat like that and say, ‘Wait a minute. Do I have to send them to a camp that further pushes these questionable values into their head?’ ” Halpern says. “You’ve got to hope that parents are aware of what the ultimate consequences of all the premium that we place on celebrity is.”

He certainly has a point. But, then again, that train may have left the station. In the math of parenthood, the equation goes something like this: We worship our kids and will do whatever it is that makes them happy + our kids desperately want to be famous = we will support their dream.

Thankfully, I don’t need to weigh the to-Idol-Camp-or-not-to-Idol-Camp conundrum right now (my young boys are into squashing bugs and pretending sticks are windshield wipers). But I am also realizing that they belong to society as much as they belong to me, and I can only hope that bringing home the soccer trophy makes them, as it did me, happy.

Thirteen-year-old Mackenzie Daigle is imagining what it would be like to be a star. Up in her frilly pink bedroom, four of her friends are perched on her canopy bed taking pictures of her with their cellphones as she belts out former AI winner Carrie Underwood’s new hit “Before He Cheats” on her karaoke machine. Her voice, clear and beautiful, floats through the air as she stares into the middle distance. She tells her friends she does that so she won’t laugh.

Her friends just know she’ll be famous. “Oh my God, totally, she’s so good!” they squeal. And Mackenzie would like that, too. “I think it would be really cool to be a famous singer,” she says one Tuesday night in her modest ranch house out in rural South Deerfield. “I love to sing, so it’s kind of a dream. I could be many other things, so it’s just sort of an idea.”

Like Sean Gearin, that idea is taking her to Idol Camp this summer. “When I first heard about it, I was like, omigod, American Idol!” Mackenzie says. “Every teenager wants to be famous and reads the magazines, and I think it would be really fun to be famous and have people buy your CDs and have people read about you and say, ‘Oh, look. There’s Mackenzie Daigle.’ ”

But her mother, Larissa, knows all too well the harder realities. “There are a million great singers in the world, and it is a business that is so difficult to break into, and I don’t think Mackenzie or I have any fantasies that she’ll make her living as a singer,” she says. “But I’ve just never had a passion for anything. I admire that in other people. And, so, I would like to encourage that.”

She says she’s thrilled that Mackenzie is heading to Idol Camp this summer, even though it’s “outrageously expensive.” But her own mother just retired and sold her house, Larissa says, and is willing to help pay the bill. As Larissa sips a glass of chilled white wine, though, she tells me that she does worry what fame could do for her only daughter, that the “diminishing returns” of celebrity would take away the comfort of anonymity. It’s the push-pull of motherhood. She just wants Mackenzie to be happy. That’s all you can hope for your kids, she says.

“Hey,” Mackenzie interrupts, “American Idol’s on!” As everyone screams down the stairs and piles on couches in the living room, Larissa admits she loves the show as much as the girls do and blasts the volume to an ear-splitting level.

Everyone’s eyes are glued to the massive flat-screen television that dominates the room, watching Jon Bon Jovi work with the Idols. In the shadows is a framed picture of Mackenzie’s father, Robert, who passed away four years ago, in a press clipping from a Carnegie Hall performance. “He knew how hard it was to make it as a singer,” Larissa had said earlier. “My husband was a great singer, but he knew how hard the struggle was.” That’s why he quit when Mackenzie came along. Making a life is different than chasing fame for fame’s sake.