Once, Brian Lukow had a dream. He called it Dream Street. This was the late nineties, the heyday of boy bands like ’N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. Lukow thought it “looked easy.” He thought it “reeked of money.” So he hired five kids, cut an album, put them on tour. It almost worked. Dream Street was on the verge of superstardom. But deals went bad. Relationships soured. A lawsuit was filed. And as the darkness closed in, Lukow found himself escaping into a new dream. This one was more elaborate, more risky, but also, maybe, more fun. For better or worse, he called it Huckapoo.
Manufacturing pop stars is not easy. And while it can be lucrative, the scale of start-up costs can make it a money pit. Since August 2003, Lukow, 45, has sunk at least a million dollars into Huckapoo, and as he careers around Town Hall during rehearsals for the band’s first solo concert, it is clear he’s spending tens of thousands more: lasers, fog machine, union labor. “We’ll be losing money for a while,” he volunteers.
Onstage, five 13-to-15-year-old girls in workout sweats and pajama bottoms struggle to hit their marks. They’re dancing too far apart, getting breathless running back to their starting positions after each number. The problem is, they have never before performed on a stage anywhere near this large.
There’s no reason you should know about Huckapoo yet. Maybe your tween daughter can hum one song, if she’s listening to the new Radio Disney Jingle Jams holiday CD. But even most kids have never heard of Huckapoo unless they happen to attend Long Beach Middle School or Jericho High, where the students are still buzzing about how Lindsay Nyman and Brittney Segal were pulled out of homeroom last year to become famous. (The other three Huckapoo girls are from Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rockland County.)
It’s far from obvious that fame is truly in the offing for the members of Huckapoo, but don’t tell them that. “We’re in too deep to say ‘Oh, no, we’re not going to make it,’ ” says Jordan Price, 15. “Maybe all girls think this way,” adds Brittney, 14, grinning through her retainer, “but I’ve always known deep inside that I’m going to be famous.” These girls are clearly primed to see their names in lights.
Well, not their names, exactly. Lukow couldn’t take a gamble on five ordinary girls becoming famous through nothing more than hard work and varying degrees of talent. So he envisioned girls who were already stars. Cartoon characters, really, whom 6-to-14-year-old fans could idolize. “You put five girls onstage, and they’re just Brittney Segal, Brittany Lahm, Jordan Price, Brooke Mori, and Lindsay Nyman—to me, I have no interest,” says Lukow. “It doesn’t fill my creative jones.” Those girls may play Huckapoo, but they are not Huckapoo. Huckapoo is Angel Sparks, the tough biker chick; Twiggy Stardom, the preppy cheerleader; Groovy Tuesday, the sensitive hippie; PJ Bardot, the hip-hop gangsta; and Joey Thunders, the punk rocker. “Everybody says Spice Girls,” nods Lukow. “The truth is, it’s probably much more Village People.” He means it in a good way.
‘‘Our business model is really built around controlling the intellectual property and leveraging this brand called Huckapoo.’’
As prefab-pop factories go, Lukow’s operation is definitely DIY. He keeps a cluttered office in Rockefeller Center, rents studio space by the hour in Chelsea, and employs only a choreographer and vocal coach full-time. It would be hard to paint him as an evil Svengali. His manipulative impulses are swamped by his apparent inability or unwillingness to edit himself before speaking. He can be flattering and impolitic, calculating and flighty, boastful and self-defeating all at once. He is that rare and strangely likable character, a straight-talking bullshit artist.
Lukow’s first career was as a broker at Lehman Brothers. When he left in 1995, he was comfortable enough to be able to chase his dream in the music business. Though his tastes tend mostly toward “what they now call ‘classic rock,’ which just means I’ve gotten really old,” Lukow never really got over the bubblegum pop that was the soundtrack of his childhood. “I grew up as a kid never missing The Monkees. Never missing it.” And it isn’t only the songs he remembers fondly, it’s the stuff: trading cards, toys, tie-ins. So when Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys hit, Lukow didn’t turn up his nose the way so many people over 14 did. “I was fascinated by it, the marketability of it. And I got it. I could see it through the eyes of kids, why it would be really exciting.”
Lukow says he doesn’t like to talk a lot about his first foray into teen pop with Dream Street, but given an opening, he will hold forth for an hour. On the successes that justified his initial faith in the project: more than a million albums sold, concerts that had to be halted to protect delirious girls from crushing one another. And on the traitors who screwed it all up: clueless record executives, lazy band members, and, most of all, the “crazy mothers” who all thought they knew best and eventually litigated the band out of existence in a misbegotten attempt to wrest control from Lukow and his production partner, Louis Baldonieri.
Baldonieri emerged from the Dream Street crucible determined never to work with stage moms again, but Lukow had an idea he thought was too ingenious not to try. He hooked up with a new business partner, music publisher David Marks, and roped in a handful of investors. Huckapoo wouldn’t be just another girl group, he told them. It would be, as promotional material would later put it, “a genre-bending pop collective.” There would be characters, with stories, based on the types of girls he saw every day on the streets of New York. You don’t need to do this with boy bands, Lukow explained. If the boys are cute enough, the girls will come. But with girl singers, you have to make them something their female fans can aspire to. And it was already clear that you could sell these personas to kids. “If you walk into a Limited Too store in Any-Mall, USA, you’ll see a whole area of preppy clothes and you’ll see a whole area of hippie clothes and you’ll see a whole area of punk and a whole area of hip-hop—right in this one store.”
The first thing Lukow did was commission an artist to draw concept sketches of his characters. He gave them names he thought of as “larger-than-life,” so as to make fans think, These sure aren’t the boring kids who go to my school. Lukow was forced to fine-tune some characters for intellectual-property reasons. Twiggy Stardom was supposed to be Twiggy Stardust, until Lukow’s lawyers warned him that David Bowie wouldn’t be happy about that, and Joey Thunders began as Cherry Bomb, which turned out to be the name of an actual porn star.
Then there was the name of the band. Ever since the word Huckapoo floated into his head—nothing to do with Huk-A-Poo, the seventies clothing label, he insists—Lukow has been almost perversely attached to it. That even tween girls wrinkle their noses at the name doesn’t faze him. “The fact that they even talk about it is, to me, unbelievably good,” he says. “If you have an opinion on it, that means somehow that it’s staying up there. And what the hell? It’s just a name.”
In August 2003, Lukow put an ad in Back Stage. “Girls 12–15. New pop group. The creator/producer of teen pop group with Billboard #1-selling album is seeking five girls.” Hundreds responded. Before making his final choices, Lukow sat down with the girls’ parents to make sure they weren’t going to be like the last batch. “I think we had tougher auditions than the girls did,” says Bruce Nyman, whose daughter Lindsay won the role of Joey Thunders. “We must have talked for an hour or so, maybe more.”
Lukow volunteers preemptively that the girls he ended up with are not, taken individually, “the five best singers in the world, or the best dancers.” But he contends that they are the best Huckapoo girls, and that the ease with which they’ve melted into their characters bears that out. “All of us have become much more like our personas,” agrees Lindsay. The girls say they can’t fathom changing parts with one another. “Me as PJ?” gasps Brittney, who is Angel Sparks. “It’s like, ‘What?’ ”