Walking outside Camden, New Jersey's E-Centre before a big show, Tatyana Ali tries to take part in a phone interview. Her words, though, are often muffled by the collective sound of hordes of teenage girls screaming at the sight of their favorite teen heartthrob. ("Omigod! Omigod! It's the cute one from 98 Degrees!") For a neophyte performer who has spent the past four months touring with other high-profile boy bands such as the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, hearing the elated cries of young gals isn't that much of a burden anymore. "You hear the screaming girls?" she says. "That's what it was like every single day. It was crazy. It was like touring with the Beatles or something."
Of course, Tatyana Ali didn't expect any of this to be happening. She didn't expect to be releasing a gold-selling debut, Kiss the Sky, and performing at concerts in the U.S. and Europe, all by the age of 20. The Brooklyn, New York, native has been somewhat of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-from-the-Gap type of gal. "I didn't really plan it out at all," she says. "I started doing this when I was around four years old."
What she began doing was auditioning for commercials and television guest spots. One day a sitcom casting call was held for the role of the youngest girl of a rich African-American California family that takes in a smart-ass inner-city kid from Philadelphia. She auditioned, and she got the part as Ashley on NBC's Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. For six seasons Ali grew up on television, then leaped from precocious pip-squeak to blossoming beauty almost instantly. Eventually the show did run its course, and although Ali was determined to move on to aspirations other than showbiz like college she couldn't help but start tinkering with another performing interest. "Singing music was always one of my loves," she says, "and when Fresh Prince came to an end and I kinda had free time, I worked in the studio and actually had music that was good enough to turn into a demo, and sent it to record companies."
One person who was extremely effective in pushing Ali to follow her dreams was her Fresh Prince co-star, Will Smith. In the Kiss liner notes, Ali thanks Big Willie for his "fascinating belief and sometimes unsettling confidence" in her. But even with one of the most powerful entertainers in show business in her corner, Ali still had to dodge the skepticism that audiences and people in the biz would eventually have toward the TV-cutie-turned-serious-singer. "I mean, there's skepticism in, I think, the business a little bit," she says. "There was [skepticism in], you know, a lot of interviews I would do in the beginning. But once I actually got on the stage and I performed I did a lot of spot dates when my first single came out, a lot of spot dates it was obvious that I was doing everything live. And it was obvious that I could do what I was trying to do. So I never really got much flak there. Audiences pretty much give you what you give them. If you're wack, they're gonna tell ya. And I never experienced that."
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It is fortunate Ali never had to face any pressure performance-wise, but that doesn't mean there aren't pressures in other facets of her life. This past year she endured something that would be the most difficult task in her young life to date. She began attending Harvard University. "What's funny about it is that my friends go through breakdowns and stuff as I do," she says, "and they're just going to school."
Ali still believes performing can be a rough gig. But when you have a confident center and an unconditional love for your music going for you, it all seems easy. "It's different, because when you perform, it really comes from your spirit, and that's a different place," she says. "It probably takes up more energy, but it's sometimes an easier place to fall for me because I'm singing my songs. They're my songs." She'll be going back to Harvard later in the fall. But until then she'll be spending her summer vacation touring with a plethora of other teen performers. Being labeled as another one of the teen-spirit brigade doesn't bother her that much, especially when she personally knows the wide effects her music has on more mature audiences. "One thing that I do realize is that I have an audience that extends [beyond] the kids that I'm playing for right now," she says. "Just from my own experience, when I walk down the street and the people that actually come up to me and say that they appreciate my music or that they like certain things. I know that there's a whole range of, like, people my age and people older than me that also enjoy my music."
She would say more, but some famous dude walks by, and the sound of girls screaming and fainting begins to drown her out.
Tatyana Ali performs with Monica, 98 Degrees, Aaron Carter, 3rd Storee, No Authority, B*Witched and EYC as part of Nickelodeon's All That Music & More Festival, Friday, July 16, at 5 p.m. at the Woodlands Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Drive. Tickets are $17.50 and $50. Call (713)629-3700.