Pursuing that spot-on kid appeal

Times Staff Writer

EVEN over the phone, it was obvious that the Cheetah Girl was wincing. “I’m sorry, I know we’re supposed to do this interview right now,” Kiely Williams said, “but I’m getting my hair done, and it hurts. It really, really hurts. I’m hurting. Can we do this another time?”

Well, at least that saves us the trouble of trying to conjure some new metaphor to describe the painful process of creating pop stars. Williams is a 20-year-old member of the Cheetah Girls, which to a grumpy cynic might appear to be a hybrid of the Spice Girls and some perky new advertising campaign for Cheetos. Dismiss them if you will, but the Cheetahs are part of the big surprise in pop music here in 2006 -- the Disney factor.

The soundtrack to “The Cheetah Girls 2,” a Disney Channel made-for-TV movie, debuted in the Top 10 on the U.S. pop charts this past summer and has sold 459,000 copies. That makes it a sister success to the bestselling album of the year, “High School Musical,” which has become something akin to “Grease” for the middle-school set. Next on deck: The soundtrack to the television show “Hannah Montana,” which Disney executives are expecting will debut near the top of the pop charts after its release Oct. 24.


“It’s been amazing, there are so many exciting things going on,” Williams said of the Year of the Mouse in music. It was a week after the hair-pulling and she was on a tour bus in Northern California, hanging out with her fellow Cheetahs, 22-year-old Sabrina Bryan and 23-year-old Adrienne Bailon, wending their way toward a stop at the Gibson Amphitheatre a few days later. The giggly trio passed the cellphone around and talked about themselves and their fans in the sort of language you usually find on back pages of yearbooks.

“The shows are getting better every night, and for a lot of these fans, these shows are probably their first concerts,” Bryan said. “That’s a great feeling for us.”

The Cheetah Girls franchise began with a series of books written for young girls by Deborah Gregory. That spawned a 2003 made-for-TV movie on the Disney Channel and then the sequel this year, which took the characters to Spain for a talent competition. The general plot premise: An ethnically diverse group of young women aspire to music stardom and learn life and love lessons along the way. Their concerts are a mix of pre-recorded skits, scripted dialogue and a loose plot line that makes the event feel like a taping of the old “Donny & Marie” television show or, come to think of it, a highly polished high school musical.

On the concert stage, the group is a trio, but in their movies they are a quartet; Raven-Symone, another franchise player for Disney Channel as the star of “She’s So Raven,” is a sometime member of the Cheetahs. It’s sort of like Neil Young with Crosby, Stills & Nash, except totally different.

Disney is not new to this business of minting young female stars with crossover appeal. There was Hilary not too long ago, Britney and Christina before that, and in those early days of television, Annette. The multicultural Cheetahs’ style is a new-look version of the animal prints favored by Josie & the Pussycats, and there’s a dash of Bratz, the dolls that give a bit of bling and urban attitude to the toy shelves that once belonged to white-bread Malibu Barbie.

Musically, their songs sound a little like Madonna here or a lot like TLC there, but the lyrics are all Disney-approved messages of self-esteem, perseverance and diversity celebration. And they brought backup singers who are hunky but polite.

“I think girls like us because we’re different -- you know, our backgrounds, our cultures, the texture of our hair, the things we like -- and that’s like them and their friends,” Williams said. “That’s the way it is today, and they like seeing that in us.”

It’s easy to mock any music scene that appeals to the very young, but in 2006, it would be foolish to dismiss any of these performers. Critics are hailing Justin Timberlake’s new album, and let’s not forget that he once wore the Mouse ears too.

There was even a history lesson at the Gibson show; toward the end of the Cheetah Girls set, they brought Mylie Cyrus -- the “Hannah Montana” star who also happens to be the 13-year-old daughter of “Achy Breaky Heart” singer (and “Hanna” costar) Billy Ray Cyrus -- up on stage to join in a rendition of the Cyndi Lauper hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Throughout the audience, the youngest fans looked up in surprise as their suddenly revived parents joined in the chorus. You could read the question in their expressions: How do you know this song?