Diversified, and Then Some

Marc Weingarten writes about pop music for Calendar

'Ricky, we're No. 1, baby!"

Brandy is psyched.

A little less than an hour ago, while filming a scene on the set of her first feature film, "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer," the multimedia phenom learned that her new single, a duet with Monica called "The Boy Is Mine," entered the national pop charts at No. 1.

And now she's letting everyone know about it, from colleagues on the sound stage at Sony Studios in Culver City to any friends she can reach on her cellphone.

Currently, singer-producer Ricky Bell is on the line.

"Ricky, I can't believe it!" the teenager screams into the receiver, while getting her makeup freshened in her trailer between scenes of the sequel to last year's smash horror film, "I Know What You Did Last Summer."

"I'm so excited about this. I'll call you when I get home."

Click.

But Brandy's not done yet. Turning to her longtime makeup artist, she peals off a schoolgirl squeal and does a little victory dance in her chair. "This is, like, so cool!"

Even for someone whose first album (1994's "Brandy") sold 3 million copies and produced three Top 10 singles, the new numbers are impressive--and reassuring.

Though Brandy has gone back into the studio a couple of times over the past three years (to record "Sittin' Up in My Room" and "Missing You" for soundtrack collections), some in the record industry have questioned whether she was sacrificing her pop momentum by not returning to the studio more quickly to record a follow-up album.

That's because she's been in front of either movie or TV cameras, from starring in ABC-TV's successful version of "Cinderella" to her own popular UPN sitcom, "Moesha."

The public reaction to "The Boy Is Mine"--and the 1.5 million advance orders for her new album, "Never Say Never" (see review, Page 78)--should put those industry concerns to rest.

It has also assuaged the youngster's own fears.

"I was scared to sing again, 'cause I went through this phase of thinking people wouldn't accept me as a singer," she says on the set. "I was doing the TV show and it was doing well, so I thought, 'I'll just act and go to school' . . . and that way I wouldn't have to sing again.

"I felt that some fans were starting to degrade me. I remember I did this one concert two years ago and I saw this girl in the audience cursing me and saying all these foul things about me. From that point on, I've been scared to perform."

With the album due in stores Tuesday, Brandy is brimming with confidence again.

"It's always been my dream to make music that everyone can relate to," she says, still on an adrenaline high. "I'm very grateful . . . I don't take any of this for granted . . . I feel like I've just won the lottery."

Brandy's humility is matched only by her ambition: She wants nothing less than the kind of mega-star ubiquity reserved for only a chosen few.

"When I walk into a bookstore, I want to see my picture on the cover of every magazine, like Leonardo DiCaprio," she says while applying mascara to her leonine eyes. "He's, like, everywhere, and I'm not tired of him. I think that would be fun."

That determination is obvious to anyone who spends time around her.

"Brandy has relentless drive and love for what she does," says Atlantic Records Executive Vice President and General Manager Ron Shapiro, who has worked closely with the performer since she was signed to the label in 1994. "More so than just about every other artist I've worked with, she's indefatigable, yet does everything with incredible grace and class. If I did an eighth of what she did, I'd wear myself out."

Ever since Brandy burst upon the scene four years ago, this Mississippi-born and Carson-raised artist has become one of the most wildly popular teen stars of the decade, a pixieish, girl-next-door type whose parent-friendly image has garnered her massive success beyond her core audience of adolescent female wannabes.

Just consider the fact that when she played the title role in "Cinderella"--the TV movie that co-starred her idol Whitney Houston--more than 60 million viewers tuned in. Or that her sitcom "Moesha" is the highest-rated comedy on the UPN network--an estimated 4.3 million weekly viewers.

"I just look at her and see the quality of a star," says Brandy's theatrical agent, Eddie Yablans. "She works very hard, but she comes off as being totally effortless. She's just a natural-born actor. And the best thing about her is she's in it for what makes her feel good. It's been very exciting for me to represent her."

But time has a funny way of turning teen icons into has-beens over night, and no one is more aware of that bitter truth than Brandy. Which is why, with the release of the new album, she's trying to shed some of that doe-eyed innocence of yore with a more sophisticated, mature approach.

"I know that I've grown up," she says. "I'm not the same person I was at 15 that I am at 19. I know a lot more about life in terms of relationships. I know about love, I know about friends turning their backs on you, and I know what it is to be alone, with no one around you telling you what to do. I think that's a big part of growing up."

If there's one message Brandy hopes the new album conveys to her fans, it's that she's very much her own person, not a marketing tool whose every move is determined by her manager mom, Sonja Norwood. It's a natural assumption, given the prefabricated nature of most teen stars.

In Brandy's case, it was especially easy to think of her in those terms; she seemed, both in personality and in appearance, a made-for-show-biz kid.

In fact, Brandy is almost too good to be true--charming, smart, funny and remarkably grounded. After spending time with her, you find yourself waiting for the bullying, aloof, pop star prima donna to show up. It doesn't happen.

Maybe it's because she's the product of a close-knit and nurturing family that is steeped in religion and a strong work ethic.

A precocious performer, Brandy began singing in church in Brookhaven, Miss., when she was only 2.

"Even back as a child, she was a natural leader," says her father, Willie Norwood, who was a choir director at the church and who continues to serve as her vocal coach. "She would get up on stage and direct kids much older than her and they would listen to what she said."

The family--including younger brother William Jr., a.k.a. Ray J., who has his own recording contract with Atlantc Records--moved to the Los Angeles area in 1983 in the hopes of helping Brandy gain a foothold in show business. Before she even entered her teens, she was singing backup vocals for the R&B; group Immature.

In 1993, she was signed by Atlantic--and was well on her way, all under the watchful eye of her mother, a former district manager for H&R; Block who is frequently described in articles as being a fiercely protective and domineering presence in her daughter's life.

About her mom, Brandy says, "My mother's gonna get criticized because she's a strong woman. Just ask the record company. . . . But she's got her stuff together, and I want to be as strong when I get older."

Brandy hopes the new album will begin to get the public thinking about her as an adult.

"I think everybody has this clean-cut image of me, and I'm certainly not a wild person," she says while idly munching on some McDonald's French fries. "I don't want people to get the impression that I'm so perfect. I make mistakes and I hurt like everybody else. It's hard being a role model, 'cause it doesn't give me room to make mistakes. I'm just trying to tell everybody, 'Hey, I'm not Miss Perfect.' I rebel like every other teenager."

A defiant declaration of independence, "Never Say Never" is more reflective and emotionally complex than the first album. It's clearly the work of an independent-minded artist who knows her own mind and doesn't suffer fools gladly. On songs such as "U Don't Know Me" and "Top of the World," it's almost as if Brandy is trying to debunk her own pristine, Disney-fied image and smooth her own passage from child star to grown-up entertainer.

"I'm just trying to be me, proving what I've got to prove," she sings in "Top of the World."

Given her pace, it's hard to imagine that Brandy, who lives with her parents in the San Fernando Valley, has much time for a social life--even though she has been linked romantically to both Lakers teen basketball star Kobe Bryant (she accompanied him two years ago to his high school prom in Philadelphia) and Boyz II Men's Wanya Morris.

"I'm never home, I'm always on some set," she says when asked about her personal life. "I actually have three different families . . . my real family, the cast of 'Moesha' and my co-stars in this movie.

"It's very hard, but I have so much energy at 19 that I want to do it all, and I'm afraid that if I don't, I'm gonna miss something."

Forget about the boyfriend talk, she says, as she decamps for the sound stage. The thing with Bryant was strictly platonic, she says, and the Morris relationship was simply too difficult to maintain, given the demands of their careers and the fact that they live on different coasts.

It's hard enough as it is for Brandy to accommodate all of her own career demands. In fact, Brandy is so consumed with her TV and movie work that she hasn't even begun thinking about touring. But, despite her thriving acting career, music does remain her first love.

"I don't ever see giving that up," she says. "Even if the acting takes off, I'm still going to want to do soundtracks so it can all work together."

If that sounds like she's trying to model her career after longtime heroine Houston, Brandy makes it clear that she's not.

"I think I'm going off in a different direction than Whitney," she says. "I have my own vision of my career. I want people younger than me to say, 'I'm going to be the next Brandy.' I want to be a leader."

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