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Filipino sensation Charice wants to conquer America

CHARICE HIT: “Pyramid” WHY: The Filipina teenage sensation

CHARICE
HIT: “Pyramid”
WHY: The Filipina teenage sensation backed by Oprah Winfrey knows her way around a big ballad, but it’s the American dance scene that’s embraced her first. Credit: Getty Images

Charice shakes her head.

"No," she says, giggling, as she sits with her younger brother, Carl, who shakes his head as well before returning his attention to a video game. "I can't even think about it. I can't."

"Really," she continues, fidgeting a bit with her blinged-out "LOVE" necklace, and readjusting herself in the plush chairs of her publicist's conference room. "I can't think about it."

But as she breaks into a broad smile, it's clear that Charice, who recently dropped her last name Pempengco, does think about "it," about joining the ranks of divas so famous they need only one name, about becoming the next Whitney or Mariah or Celine, about becoming the first female singer from the Philippines to break into the American mainstream.

It's clear that she's thought about it, dreamed about it, for years. It's just that now - as her single "Pyramid" seems poised to take over the top spot on the dance charts and her debut album "Charice" (Reprise) is set to hit stores Tuesday with an unusually large marketing push for a new artist - the dream is close enough to come true, yet still far enough away that it could evaporate before she reaches it.

Having already tasted success and then disappointment, Charice, who turns 18 Monday, seems determined not to get ahead of herself.

"I'm ready for my album to not be a hit," she says. "I just want to help my mom and my family. I'm just happy to be singing my own songs for people. ... I want it to be a hit. But it's fine if it's not huge like Mariah or Whitney. It's all good for me."

However, considering the all-star team behind Charice, expectations may be a bit higher than just "good."

Superstar-producer David Foster, who launched the careers of Josh Groban and Michael Bublé, produced her debut. Superstar-songwriter Diane Warren wrote songs for her. Her publicity is being handled by the same team as Madonna.

Launch with 'Oprah'

And then there's Oprah Winfrey. Having already taken Charice under her star-making wing, introducing the singer to her idol, Celine Dion, and relaying her story on the powerful talk show, Winfrey is taking the unusual step of bringing Charice back to the show on the day of her album release.

"That's the kind of launch people dream of," says a competing music industry exec. "I would give anything to be on 'Oprah' on release day."

Of course, many consider Charice to be a special circumstance. "Charice is, for sure, the next global superstar," Foster said recently. "And I'm thrilled that we have a new great female vocalist!"

At her showcase at the Canal Room last month, Tommy Page, Warner Bros.' vice president of Top 40 radio promotion, took the unusual step of introducing Charice by saying how watching her sing in a conference room still manages to make him choke up.

"This is history in the making," Page says, before she takes the stage. "What she has is so rare."

Then, she set out to prove it, with songs from "Charice" that show off the big, booming voice housed in her petite, 5-foot-1 frame and her ability to win fans over to her side quickly. That's a talent Charice has always had, from her early days of entering talent shows near her home in the Laguna province of the Philippines to her stints on the Filipino and Korean versions of "American Idol."

It also translated well to YouTube, where her performances of Houston and Celine Dion songs made her a sensation and attracted the attention of Ellen DeGeneres and Winfrey, who flew her to America for her first visits, to be on their talk shows.

Because Dion loved her

It was the "Oprah" appearance that stuck with her most, especially after Winfrey surprised her by introducing her to Dion via satellite.

"I was so confused," Charice recalls, adding that she had prepared to sing the Beyoncé song "Listen," but Winfrey's staff kept telling her that she should sing a Dion song instead. After Charice sang "My Heart Will Go On," she turned around to see that Dion had been watching her performance.

"I was about to faint," she says. "I cried, and my mom cried, and Oprah cried, too; and she says, 'I knew this was going to happen, but I'm still crying.'"

That introduction led to Charice's Madison Square Garden debut, performing "Because You Loved Me" with Dion during her concert last year. "That night, I thought I was going to die," she says, laughing. "Celine was really, really nice that time."

Those appearances have given Charice a considerable advantage over most new artists. However, she recognizes she has some hurdles to face, as well. "My mom always tells me, 'It's only the beginning, there are challenges coming your way,'" Charice says.

Christine Bacareza Balance, assistant professor of Asian-American Studies at the University of California, Irvine, who has followed Charice's rise to fame, agrees. "The recording industry is a very black and white sort of place," Balance says. "It's difficult to see where she would fit in as an icon because there hasn't been somebody who looks like her. There's been no precedent."

That said, Balance says Charice can make a compelling case. "She has the range, and she has the talent," she says. "She can also show that she's trying to live 'The American Dream.'"

Charice says she's ready to work hard to make that dream come true. "That's my life: work, Internet, talk to my friends, school, sleep," she says. "I'm enjoying it. For me, that's my teenage life."

And she lets herself indulge in a bit of that dream for a moment as she talks about the video for her single "Pyramid."

"The concept of the video is my past," she says. "I get cut in an audition. I'm so depressed, and then I'm transformed into. ..."

She catches herself quickly before continuing, "I don't want to say 'superstar,' because I'm not that, but in the video, I become a singer, a real singer," she says, laughing. "I guess I can call myself that now." 

More thrillers, and not just from Manila

Though Charice is on her way to becoming the most famous singer to come from the Philippines, she has some big stars to surpass. Here's a look: 

apl.de.ap (Allan Pineda) 

Originally from Pampanga

Best known as Co-founder of The Black Eyed Peas with will.i.am, making mainstream hip-hop music that has been among the most successful in history. He also has made the most successful Tagalog songs in American pop music, as part of Black Eyed Peas albums.

Biggest hit "I Gotta Feeling" (No. 1 for 14 weeks, 2009) 

Joey Santiago 

Originally from Manila

Best known as Guitarist for The Pixies, the pioneering band that helped establish the alternative rock sound with classic albums "Surfer Rosa" and "Doolittle."

Biggest hit "Here Comes Your Man" (No. 3 Modern Rock, 1989) 

Manny Pacquiao 

Originally from South Cotabato

Best known as The WBO welterweight champion, though the international boxing star is also an actor, politician and, yes, a singer.

Biggest hit No American music hits yet, but that may change if his on-again, off-again fight with Floyd Mayweather ever happens.

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