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Creating the Next Teen Star

Disney tries its magic to make Selena Gomez big, and to keep her 17

Amy Chozick
The New York Times
August 28, 2009

HOLLYWOOD—The next few weeks will see the release of a Selena Gomez movie, a Selena Gomez album and 30 million packages of Sara Lee bread printed with Selena Gomez's face.

Ms. Gomez has been waiting all her 17 years for this moment.

She plays a mischievous teenager with magical powers in the movie version of her hit sitcom of the same name, "Wizards of Waverly Place," premiering Friday on the Disney Channel. Disney is in overdrive to develop a fresh-faced teenage star as "Hannah Montana" actress Miley Cyrus grows up. In the August issue of Elle magazine, Ms. Cyrus poses on the cover in a black leather jacket, her lacy black bra peaking out, over the title "Miley: On Dad, Boyfriends and Why She's Not a Kid Anymore." At the Teen Choice Awards in Los Angeles earlier this month, Ms. Cyrus, 16, performed a pole dance on top of an ice-cream cart. The routine lit up the blogosphere. Mothers said it was inappropriate, while some fans argued that the pole was just there for balance. A spokeswoman for Ms. Cyrus declined to comment.

The "Wizards of Waverly Place" movie and upcoming album give Ms. Gomez, who was discovered by Disney at an open casting call when she was 11, the chance to prove she can break out from a pack of young Disney-bred talent. Others include Demi Lovato (of Disney TV show "Sonny With a Chance" and TV-movie "Camp Rock," and her best friend, Ms. Gomez says) and the Jonas Brothers. Millions of kids, an ideal television audience because they will tune in consistently for a show and watch repeats, watch her TV show daily on the Disney Channel. "Wizards of Waverly Place" was the No. 1 show on broadcast and cable television among kids, age 6 to 11, and tweens, age 9 to 14, this summer.

Disney executives say Ms. Gomez's wholesome good looks, comedic timing and modest background growing up with a divorced mother make her more down-to-earth than other young stars. Her Hispanic roots can help Disney widen its minority appeal, says Tricia Wilber, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Disney Media.

Ms. Gomez, who turned 17 in July, is slightly older than Ms. Cyrus, though her image seems younger. Ms. Gomez is on the cover of Seventeen magazine's September issue, in a plaid flannel shirt and denim vest. Ms. Gomez may not have much time left to play teen characters who speak mostly to girls aged 6 to 14. That said, a Disney spokeswoman says there is no set age actors must transition from child to adult star. She points out that "High School Musical" star Monique Coleman is 28.

"I'm in no rush to be 25," Ms. Gomez said one recent afternoon in her dressing room, which looks like a marketer's vision of what a teen girl's room should look like, with a bright floral rug, a shag blanket thrown across a sofa and a few scattered bookshelves. "I'm trying to step into films slowly but surely."

Disney is advising Ms. Gomez not to grow up too fast. "Pay attention to who your fan base is now. If you treat them right, they'll grow with you," Gary Marsh, president of entertainment at Disney Channels Worldwide, recalls telling Ms. Gomez. "You have your whole life to be an adult."

One recent afternoon at the Hollywood Center Studios, several dozen young fans watched a rehearsal of a scene for her television show. They peeked their heads into a giant dollhouse brimming with cuddly pink toys and a frilly dressing table. They giggled at the brightly lit alley which stands for Disney's take on Manhattan's Greenwich Village neighborhood, with a colorful produce stand, an old-fashioned hardware store and the Waverly Sub Station, where fake cakes made to look freshly iced in pastel shades sit under glass displays.

Ms. Gomez made her entrance. "I just think in these tough times, families have forgotten what's important," Ms. Gomez read off a powder pink script. In the scene her character, Alex Russo, tried to convince her parents to clean out the basement and let her turn it into an art studio.

"Emmy!" yelled David DeLuise, who plays Ms. Gomez's dad on the show. "We love you Selena!" a little girl shouted.

To keep tabs on her young fans, Ms. Gomez frequently trolls fan Web sites and Twitter postings. "I read comments that say 'I like your hair short' or 'I like your hair long' and I'll take that into consideration," she says. After she recently cut her hair, Ms. Gomez says, she received "tons" of messages on social-media site Twitter from girls who had also cut their hair. "It feels like a lot" of pressure when that happens, she says.

Disney has had success lately churning out original movies that run repeatedly on its cable-TV channel and then go to DVD. "Princess Protection Program," a Disney movie starring Ms. Gomez and Ms. Lovato about a secret organization that protects endangered princesses, attracted 8.5 million viewers the day it premiered in June and it is the most watched cable-television movie so far this year. Disney also did what it calls a "crossover event," "Wizards on Deck With Hannah Montana," a special that brought together characters from "Wizards," "Hannah Montana" and "The Suite Life on Deck" and drew a whopping 9.3 million viewers for its first run in July.

The "Wizards" movie—which will be sold as a DVD in time for Christmas—follows Ms. Gomez's character, Alex, and the Russo family on vacation in the Caribbean. Alex accidentally casts a spell on her parents, making it as if the couple had never met, and the Russo kids use their magical powers to make things right.

The movie allows Disney to promote the "Wizards" franchise, which includes a clothing line among other products, in time for back-to-school shopping. Ms. Gomez poses on the accompanying album soundtrack cover and sings four of the 12 tracks. The video for Ms. Gomez's first single, "Falling Down," will premiere on the Disney Channel following the "Wizards" movie. Ms. Gomez appears in Sears department stores back-to-school ads for clothes targeted at tweens. And Ms. Gomez's plucky grin will be on more than 30 million packages of Sara Lee Soft & Smooth bread, mini-bagels and buns, part of a "Wizards" marketing tie-in. Disney declined to discuss the details of Ms. Gomez's contract.

"It's back to school time when people want to spend money," says Abbey Konowitch, general manger of Disney's Hollywood Records, which produced Ms. Gomez's album.

Her album "Kiss and Tell" hits stores next month. Next year, she plays Beezus in "Ramona and Beezus," a movie based on a Beverly Cleary novel. All told, she has made four movies in the past two years.

Ms. Gomez started acting at age 7 on kids' TV show "Barney & Friends." In 2004 Disney spotted her at an open casting call in Austin, Texas, and flew her to Los Angeles to audition for a pilot that it ended up not picking up. The following season Disney's casting team did something it rarely does: It simultaneously cast Ms. Gomez in two pilots, one of which was "Wizards of Waverly Place."

"Wizards of Waverly Place" debuted in 2007 and quickly became one of Disney's hottest properties. In August, it has averaged about four million viewers per episode, according to ratings data from Nielsen.

Walt Disney Co. has been churning out young talent since the 1955 debut of "The Mickey Mouse Club," starring a young Annette Funicello. Since then the company has spawned such stars as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling, Zac Efron and Justin Timberlake.

Ms. Gomez, the daughter of a Mexican-American father and an Italian-American mother who had Selena when she was 16, spent her early years in a two-bedroom apartment in Grand Prairie, outside Dallas. Named after slain Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, who was shot and killed by an obsessed fan in 1995, Ms. Gomez grew up listening to Selena's songs. Ricardo Gomez drove his young daughter to see the Mexican-American pop singer's memorial statue in Corpus Christi, Texas, and gave her the 1997 Selena biopic staring Jennifer Lopez. The movie made such an impact that Ms. Gomez says she asked her mother for a rhinestone-studded bustier at age 5. Ms. Gomez says she told her mother a few years later, referring to the Disney teen character, "I want to be Lizzie McGuire."

 

 

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