The commotion of fame sounds like a hair dryer in Room 1602 of the Muse Hotel, a few blocks from the heart of Times Square. The four young ladies of Dream, a girl group whose debut album has just opened at No. 6 on the Billboard chart, are here primping and fabulizing for their album release party, set for 7:30 this evening at a downtown club.
Puff Daddy will be there, despite his legal troubles, because he runs Bad Boy Entertainment, which released the disc, "It Was All a Dream." Fox Television is coming, and so are six other camera crews. There will be interviews and autographs, flashbulb moments in a year-long jaunt that already includes stops at the "Tonight Show" and "Live With Regis," as well as heavy rotation on MTV's "Total Request Live." A whiff of platinum and cash is wafting over the smell of nail polish.
In an hour the Dream girls -- ages 15 and 16 -- will emerge from this room clad in black boots, jeans, snug-fitting DKNY T-shirts and a few layers of professionally applied makeup, grinning and looking jailbait adorable.
But for the moment, there is chaos: clothing in piles, hair-care products, opened luggage and scads of CDs. Stylists are blow-drying and plucking. The album's first single, "He Loves U Not," which has already gone gold, pounds from a tiny boombox on the nightstand between two queen-size beds. And Holly Arnstein, a Hollywood native who handles many of the group's lead vocals, is making the hardest decision she'll face all night.
"Belts are important," she says, rummaging through two bags stuffed with dozens of plastic and leather dress belts. "They're increasingly important."
"Yes, because they make the outfit," she chirps. "You see, this is boring, but when I put on a big old belt" -- and here she begins to thread a slab of leather festooned with tiny silver spikes through the loops of her jeans -- "it's gonna be hot."
With luck, talent, timing and a pile of promotional dough, Dream will be even hotter. Or so Bad Boy and much of the music industry, which is now leaping aboard the teen-pop craze, fondly hope. The label made its name with hard-core rappers like Shyne and Black Rob, but last year the far tamer teen groups on which Dream is modeled earned a fortune and helped the business to its best year since Soundscan started tracking sales a decade ago.
Plenty of credit for that, say music marketers, can be traced to a pair of albums: 'N Sync's "No Strings Attached" and Britney Spears's "Oops . . . I Did It Again," which turned pubescent pop into the business's hottest category. So the race to build a better Britney is on, and even rap-oriented labels want a piece of the action.
This week Dream began to turn hefty profits for its many investors, though it's not obvious that the teen-pop train has the steam to churn another 12 months at anything close to its 2000 pace. The crowd that Dream is romancing is a notoriously fickle bunch. They could spend their allowances on Sony PlayStations instead of CDs, or turn to some now-unknown sound being cooked up in an unknown studio.
That doesn't trouble Dream. "I don't know and it doesn't matter to us," says Melissa Schuman, who at 16 is the elder statesman of the group. "We're not here to be popular. We're here to make music, and whether it blows up or it's the talk of the town is irrelevant."
"The way we feel about it, if just five young girls and five young boys are inspired by our music, we're going to keep doing it," agrees Diana Ortiz, who looks even younger than her 15 years.
Actually, if Dream reached only 10 kids, it's unlikely that Bad Boy, or any other label, would come near them again, or hand over the scads of cash needed to jump-start the hype steamroller that sells groups like this. But for the moment, and especially for this evening, these rambunctious cherubs are teen royalty.
And bless their hearts, they seem to relish every minute of it. They've been flying and performing constantly in recent months, first for a "mall tour," which, true to its name, took them to shopping malls all over the country, then for a side-stage gig on Britney's "Oops" tour.
And their schedule is getting more crammed. After the party tonight, it's off to Hawaii for a show at the Pro Bowl, then they're in Washington for a Feb. 10 show at the NBA All-Star weekend. MTV wants them for something called "Snowed In." A tour with 98 Degrees is coming next.
"And we'll be on Rosie O'Donnell's show, too," says Kenny Burns, the group's manager.
"We're going to be on 'Rosie'?" shrieks Ashley Poole. "Oh my God, we're going to be on Rosie! We're famous. Do you remember," Ashley says, nudging Diana, who is tinkering with a pair of boots, "that I said we're not famous until we go on 'Rosie'? You probably don't remember that, but I said we're not famous until we go on 'Rosie.' I can't believe it!"
"I didn't tell you that?" asks Burns, smiling warmly. "Yeah, we're going on 'Rosie.' "
This group was Burns's idea, his personal concoction. A genial 28-year-old who was raised in Washington and attended Wilson High School, Burns assembled Dream more than a year ago in Hollywood, putting out a variety of calls to locate the right combination of girls in a series of open auditions. He knew he wanted kids who could actually sing and dance -- well-paid professionals would handle niceties like songwriting -- and he knew which niche his new group could fill.
"The boy-band thing was heavy, and there's really been no girl groups since Destiny's Child," says Burns. "We just saw it coming back. The '80s had the Bangles and the Go-Gos. Dream is a 2001 version of that."
Burns got his start in the business by organizing club parties in Atlanta -- huge parties with cover charges. Among those who showed up were the record executives who were then starting to trickle into the city, going to work for labels like LaFace, which released albums by Toni Braxton, among others. Burns was clearing $6,000 a week thanks to these shindigs, but he abandoned the party-organizing life to plunge into music, eventually landing a public-relations gig with Motown. He moved to L.A. and made sure he met the right people.
"That's all this business is, relationships," he says. "Make the right relationships."
Through those relationships he met Melissa and Holly, who shared a vocal coach and joined the group first. Diana, who was best friends with Holly, joined last. Ashley, meanwhile, was sitting at home one day in faraway Blythe -- "a gas stop on the road between Phoenix and Los Angeles," as Burns put it -- and saw a television ad for a company called 1-800-BE-A-STAR. She dialed the number, breathlessly, and was interviewed by a woman who promptly invited her to L.A. for an audition. She was 13 years old.
"When my mom got home I was like, 'Mom, we're going to Hollywood, we're going to Hollywood,' " Ashley says.
Soon enough, Ashley and her mom drove to Los Angeles, where she apparently wowed the highly wowable talent scouts at 1-800-BE-A-STAR, who were eager to sign her to a lengthy contract. "I was like, 'I'm Ashley.' I was such a dork. They were like, 'You're so wholesome and clean and we want you.' "
But the day she was ready to sign on the dotted line, her mother heard about the Dream audition, which was being held in a studio nearby. For reasons unknown, her would-be managers allowed her to give it a shot as a free agent, and soon she was belting out Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On." Burns hired her right away, a moment of serendipity in which Ashley sees the hand of the divine.
"How does all this fall into place?" she wonders. "It has to be God."
With his team set, Burns landed an audition with Puff Daddy, whom he knew through Andre Harrell, the former Motown executive who'd given Burns his start. Dream headed with Burns to a room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Puff Daddy was staying. Melissa remembers it well.
"It was a pretty simple audition," she says, thumbing through her collection of CDs. "We had no mikes. We moved all the furniture out of the way, we sat the guy in the middle of the room on a chair and we went 'la la la,' kicked our feet up in the air a couple times, did our thing. And I guess he liked us."
The ladies don't hang out much with Puffy, whose well-publicized arrest on gun and bribery charges is being adjudicated in a New York court. He produced some tracks from the album, but they rarely cross paths. He has mostly stayed out of the way, says Diana, and "allowed us to create the distinct sound that we wanted."
Well, you'd have to be pretty new to music to consider "It Was All a Dream" all that distinct. Which isn't an accident. The album is produced and written by savvy veterans, including Steve Kipner, the guy behind Christina Aguilera's huge hit "Genie in a Bottle." The music is mid-tempo, easy-to-digest pop with an extremely high hook-per-square-inch ratio.
As with much of the album, the lyrics on "He Loves U Not" are a tad racy, a sort of Disney PG, with a girl pushing a romantic rival away from her boyfriend: "You can pout your cherry-red lips, try to tempt him with a sweet kiss / You can flirt your pretty eyes, he ain't got his hands tied."
In reality, the Dreamers are too busy for kissing. Burns says that he'll sometimes answer the phone and hear a lad on the line announce that he's one of his young charges' boyfriends. After a few skeptical questions, Burns figures out that the "relationship" consists entirely of talking on the phone.
"They think that if you talk on the phone a lot, you're dating," Burns says, chuckling.
But touring with minors can get complicated fast. Under California law, the girls can't work more than 10 hours in any 24-hour period, and they must travel with a tutor, setting aside four hours of learning time each day, no matter what they're doing. Recently, that meant a little cramming on the set of a Twix commercial shot with Lil Bow Wow. Next up on the curriculum is Saul Bellow's "The Actual."
Furthermore, there's always one mom on the road with them at all times. Right now it's Diana's mother, who arrives as the girls are wedging themselves into their boots. "It's hard and we miss the girls but it's a comfort to know there's always a mom with them," she says. "And we have extended family. I know Kenny is going to take good care of the girls, like their brother or a father."
Burns, in fact, radiates a comforting combination of taskmaster and avuncular buddy, instructing the girls what they'll be wearing and when they'll be leaving without playing the dictator or seeming like a knockoff of Lou Pearlman, the hefty and much-sued creator of 'N Sync and Backstreet Boys. If things really get out of hand, there's always Chubbs, a bodyguard the size of a hockey net who is standing by the door with a cell phone and a grin.
Once everyone's suited up, the crew will move onto an elevator and then walk a block to Bad Boy's offices, where the cameras of "Entertainment Tonight" are waiting. It turns out that "ET" will film Dream getting ready for their big night, which is to say that everything that is going on in Room 1602 is basically a pre-primp. Soon, they'll really get their hair done and swap their DKNY T-shirts for something far splashier.
Then they'll head down Broadway, where a crowd of fans is already lining up at the Metronome, a restaurant and sometime nightclub. It'll be Chinese food and chopsticks, an open bar and a weird mix of well-dressed teens and record executives who endlessly obsess about tapping into the well-dressed teen market. After that, more tours and maybe more money than any of them had ever imagined.
Or maybe this is all a prelude to the inevitable VH1 "Behind the Music," in which Holly, pushing 26, stares at the camera and details her nightmarish descent into drugs and alcohol. Whatever the future holds will come later. Right now, Holly is delighted because she's found the perfect belt.
"It's all about the buckle," she murmurs. "It all just works, like harmony."