Before there was Britney, before Christina, Denver-based pop singer Ciria Arellano was poised for teen stardom. She had a chance to join the ranks of the cute little Mousketeers on the new Mickey Mouse Club -- a program that has, in the past several years, served as a kind of farm league for budding teenage pop stars. At age fifteen, Ciria (who's now 23) auditioned for Disney when an international search for new Mouse Club members brought the entertainment giant to Colorado. "I did the audition in Denver, and I was there for twelve hours," she explains. "I ended up being one of five kids that they put on videotape. A month and a half later, they said, 'Congratulations, we want to sign you to do the pilot and then the camp, and do the whole thing.' So I went and I did that."
End of story? Not quite. While filming the pilot in Buena Vista, Florida, Ciria danced with future Felicity star Kerri Russell and Joshua (or JC, as he's known) Chasez of 'N Sync, but when it came time to cut the final deal, something about it felt a little constricting, both literally and figuratively. "I was a little bit [busty]," Ciria says, "and one of the stipulations on my contract was that they would tape [my chest]." Ciria's parents thought that would put their talented daughter -- then just a regular teenager who was just trying to figure out life and all its complexities -- over the edge; unlike many show-biz parents who disregard such concerns, the family basically told Disney to take a hike. "[The deal] would have broken up our family, and my parents weren't willing to do that," Ciria says.
So while it seems that, in her case, Mother and Father did indeed know best, Ciria is reminded on an almost daily basis of the fortune and fame that might have been hers. As the world waits out the latest teen explosion, its stars are everywhere, from the latest 'N Sync video flashing on the TV at all hours of the day to the ever-presence of Keri Russell and Britney Spears all decked out on dueling magazine covers. Ciria admits that seeing that type of success -- enjoyed by people whom she considered her peers at one time -- is enough to make her scream. She has regrets "all the time" about telling Disney to kiss off, she says without hesitation. "But it also goes back and forth, because we say, 'Well, we wish...,' but at the same time, I may have never been able to write songs on my own and do what I want to do, because from the beginning, organizations like Disney say, 'Here's who you are, here's what you're going to be.'"
These days, Ciria has the luxury to do what she wants, for the most part, and to define herself as a dance-oriented pop singer in Denver -- not exactly an easy task in a geographic area that's better known for its myriad alternative-rock and folk singers. "Pop has been treated as this kind of taboo, ugly area for a lot of local artists, and I think I understand why, in that it's so obviously mainstream, so obviously about marketing," she says. "But [other musicians] are trying to get signed because they have a hit song -- it's all the same process."
While it hasn't yet spawned a hit single, Ciria's debut -- 1999's Meant to Be -- serves as a showcase for her R&B-flavored pop tunes that sound more than a little like the Jennifer Lopez stuff you're hearing on the radio these days (though the singer lends more of a mature Vanessa Williams type of vocal strength). Lyrically, all of the songs lean toward the romantic side of life, and Ciria employs a pro-woman empowerment attitude, whether she's telling her man to "Spend Some Time" or sassily asking a guy if he knows how to love just one woman right in the upbeat "Do You Do." Recorded locally at F20 Studios, Meant to Be highlights Ciria's definitely-a-diva voice; unlike the Lopez stuff, listeners can actually hear her vocals, because they're not all synthed-out and overproduced. The singer helped pen three of the twelve tunes that appear on the disc; the remaining writing credits go to Cy Frost and Doug Olson, her managers, arrangers, producers and all around go-to guys.
"I've listened to a lot of people over the years, but I had never come across someone who could compete on the national or international stage like [Ciria] can," says Olson, who, along with Frost, was so taken by the young performer when they met her as a high-schooler that they cast her in Comedy Rock, a music and sketch-comedy revue that ran for two years at LoDo's Comedy Works in the mid-'90s. "The sound she's honing in on right now is pop Latin music with strong R&B influences, and obviously, we hope people will find what she does unique," he adds.
That kind of singing and dancing style has been Ciria's trademark for years, even if other artists are now defining it. Her early inspiration as a performer came via her father, a Denver police officer who had a side gig in the local cop-composed band Squad Four in the '80s. Between the ages of eight and thirteen, Ciria often tagged along with the band on weekends, and the sound of music was literally everywhere in her life. "Dad was always writing and recording a new song on his reel-to-reel recorder in the basement. Mom sang along to her favorite new records and taught me the newest dance steps," she says. While it wasn't exactly a scene from the Partridge Family, the abundance of music in her own household led Ciria to get involved in school performances and to begin singing at functions in the Hispanic community. Her early community-based performances caught the eye and ear of local Latin artist Manuel Molina, who used to introduce her as "the little girl with the big voice." Molina enlisted Ciria as a background singer when she was only fourteen, and she accompanied him on his 1996 Department of Defense tour of Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and Israel.
Still, despite her history as a performer, Ciria finds the comparisons to other Latino artists unavoidable, a situation she views as more than frustrating. "I've been doing this since I was twelve years old -- singing in English and Spanish, trying to combine their styles -- and I've watched all these trends form. Now it's almost cliche to be a pop Hispanic singer, and I'm thinking, 'How did this happen?'
"Jennifer Lopez's name comes up all the time, and up until the last three years, I've never been compared to anyone else -- it was a new thing," she adds. "It's frustrating, because I feel like I'm just late getting there. Everyone is saying, 'Just use it to your advantage, just to get in the door.'"
For the most part, Ciria remains good-humored about the newfound prevalence of Hispanic pop artists; she jokes that she's writing a song with the theme of "I was doing the Ricky Martin thing before it was so cool and chic." Yet as the hours and days go by and new Hispanic-tinged groups break onto the pop-music scene -- and she's not among them -- her patience wears thin. Especially when she is reminded of times when she came this close to being among those who rode the early Loca wave. A few years ago she expected to ink a deal with Interscope Records, but a Latino singer with a famous father was invited to sign the dotted line instead. "Enrique Iglesias is my deal-breaker," she says, with a tone that indicates there's some truth behind her joke. "I shouldn't say that, but I like to blame him because it's easier." Interscope (which has since merged with Universal/A&M/Geffen Records) signed Enrique around the same time execs there were discussing a future with Ciria; as part of the package, the label took on three Latina women artists whom Iglesias wanted to produce. Ciria was not one of them, and her deal was canned. Though the label hasn't yet invited her to join its increasingly spiced-up roster, execs there remain interested. Tony Ferguson, Interscope's vice president of A&R, says he liked what he heard on Meant to Be.
"There are a couple of songs on the disc that I consider really good," he says. "She has an air of believability when it comes to delivering a lyric, and I was impressed with her vocal strengths. But we needed the talent bar to be raised a little higher." And, Ferguson adds, though the music market may seem somewhat tapped out these days when it comes to Latin-based pop music, he feels the fact that it has become more mainstream will eventually help Ciria instead of creating a barrier.
So while Ciria waits to show the world outside of Denver her pop-worthiness, she's doing what she can on a local level. Sales of Meant to Be are going "reasonably well," she says; in fact, the disc is currently number three on the Top 10 sales list of USA 1 Stop -- a local distribution company that stocks retail stores including Tower and Virgin Records in and outside of Colorado. Ciria's name appears alongside such local heavy-hitting artists as Hazel Miller, Sally Taylor and Opie Gone Bad. Ciria has also received a boost this past summer by taking part in the Music Patrons Association of the Rockies' Summer 2000 "Jam in the Store" Tour. Designed to give local music a boost, the tour kicked off this past June and has placed acts like Nina Storey, Chupacabra, Matthew Moon and Yo, Flaco! in Denver-area Borders Books & Music stores; the series grinds to a halt the first weekend in September.
And though Ciria -- like any working performer -- is unlikely to be critical of any paying job, the Borders gig ain't a spot at Red Rocks, or the Pepsi Center, where Ricky Martin wowed "La Vida"-loving crowds last December. At a Northglenn Borders gig earlier this summer, as neon lights from PetSmart and Mattress Discounters reflected through the storefront windows, Ciria -- decked out in a Rhythm Nation-era Janet Jackson coat, black choker, black miniskirt and almost go-go boots -- faced a book-smart crowd and crooned, "Baby can you move with me, can you do to me/All the things that the right man would do?" (from "Can You Move With Me?"). Not exactly the kind of scene you'd expect on a Friday night at a suburban bookstore, a place where families converge to consider new coffee-table books while their kids pore over Beanie Babies catalogues. "It used to be hard to do gigs like that," she admits. "It's still not my favorite thing to do, but I'm better at being comfortable doing it. It's always easier when you have the band up there with you, and when you have people who are there because they have chosen to come and see you, rather than to have people who are just coming to buy a book and there you are.What are they going to think?"
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However, even at gigs like this one, there are one or two starry-eyed little girls in the front row who can't take their eyes off Ciria, who don't want to leave when their fathers tell them it's time to go, who wait patiently for her to autograph a poster that they'll hang in their bedrooms. "They're my favorite [fans]," she says with a smile. "Honestly, that's the best part for me. I love kids, and I remember being that age and being fascinated by music by singers like Olivia Newton-John, Linda Ronstadt and Lulu. Because of it, I participated in choir and I danced, and I was involved in something creative all the time. So when people talk about Britney Spears and say, 'Oh, her fans are all ten years old,' it might be true, but it will leave a mark on them, and they won't forget. Hopefully, that's something I can do."
That type of wistful, ever-hopeful comment is not uncommon when Ciria discusses her music career. Since those almost-Disney days, she's been told that she needed to be a "star" by an early age if she was going to make it in the world of pop music -- a notion that resonates with a quick spin of the radio dial or a scan of teen magazines. So while Ciria keeps busy with the Borders gigs and starring in a once-a-week videocast on FirstEntertainment.Com -- an Internet broadcast that usually includes a variety of clips of the artist, from prepping for a performance of the national anthem at a Rockies game to applying pre-concert makeup and chatting about relationships -- she's also hard at work in the studio, recording a handful of tunes she'll relay to Interscope and anyone else who might be interested. The hardest part of the whole music business, she explains, is "reminding myself that I can really do this, that I have a prayer and that it's within my reach.
"This industry is so incredibly competitive, and because I've chosen to do pop music, my age is a huge factor. It's awful and I hate it, but it is what it is, and I've known that since I was fourteen years old. And [industry types] reminded me when I was sixteen years old, and then they reminded me again when I was nineteen, twenty and 21. They will not hesitate to tell you that if you're 26 years old and you think you have a prayer of doing this, you're wrong. Even though I think to myself, 'That's crazy, that's ridiculous, I'm going to do this until I'm dead,' it's hard to look at someone who has the power to at least help create a career for you and hear them say that."
Besides, Ciria points out, her time clock has not been completely used up. "I still have a couple of years," she says. She says it without any of the false sunniness of a naive young performer, or an industry puppet, or a Mousketeer. She says it with the necessary optimism of someone who truly believes that hard work -- and talent -- mean something, even in a competitive world. B