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 businessmodel isreally builtaroundcontrollingthe intellectualpropertyand leveragingthis brandcalledHuckapoo.’’
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?’ ”
Concept rendering for the personas of Huckapoo. (Courtesy of Entertainment Properties, LLC)
In truth, the girls are not all that different from one another, in real life or onstage. Lukow calls the Huckapoo characters “style statements.” Certainly, any differences end well before you get to the music. Maybe PJ will spit a few lines of rap here and there, but otherwise all five girls sing pure, hooky pop. There is nothing in a Joey Thunders song that approaches punk, or in a Groovy Tuesday song that hints of psychedelics.
Anyone who has heard pop stars come and go through the years will find little in Huckapoo’s music to either impress or disappoint. They have some terrific, catchy head-bobbers and plenty of shallow but affecting ballads composed by competent songwriters who have fed tunes to Lindsay Lohan, A-Teens, Faith Hill, and ’N Sync. There’s nothing about their music that is so blindingly original or brilliant that their success is inevitable, but it’s easily good enough that if someone told you that three years from now they’ll be the hottest band in the world, you’d be foolish to bet against them. At a minimum, Lukow hopes Huckapoo is an improvement over the most recent wave of girl bands, which mostly failed. “I think kids really, really know when they’re being pushed shit, and when something is good.” He pauses. “It’s still to be determined whether I can actually do this or whether I just believe my own bullshit.”
The girls seem to respect Lukow, and Lukow reciprocates—albeit in small ways—by soliciting some input from the girls. For example, he will sometimes present them with two songs and ask which they like better. And during the Town Hall rehearsal, Lindsay is able to convince him that, as Joey, she’d be more likely to say “wow” than “whoah.” But that’s about the extent of it. “This is not a democracy,” he says flatly.
The girls learned that early on. The band had only recently formed when they spent a night sleeping over at Brittany’s house, bonding (they are clearly, at least for now, great friends). One thing they found in common was how much they hated the name Huckapoo. The next day at rehearsals, they took a stand. “Do we have to be called Huckapoo?” they asked. Lukow laughed. “You don’t have to be called Huckapoo at all. You don’t have to do anything. You can call your parents, go home, walk out the door right now.”
Still, Lukow knew that if he couldn’t sell Huckapoo on Huckapoo, he might be in trouble. So he told them it wasn’t just a nonsense word, it meant “peace, love, and all good things” in Swahili—“kind of like shalom.”
Lukow had secured Huckapoo a spot on a tour called Camplified, which the New York Times described as “Lollapalooza for the lollipop set.” The group played fifteen summer camps across the Northeast, introducing captive audiences of young tastemakers to their music and, crucially, to themselves. After every performance, the bands were required to chat up campers, sign autographs, and pose for snapshots. “They treated us like celebrities,” says Brittney. “It was so weird. We’re not celebrities.” In fact, just to make sure the campers knew about Huckapoo at all, CDs were distributed in advance, and the girls recorded messages to be played over the dining-hall loudspeakers as the day of their arrival approached. They’d declare how they couldn’t wait to come to, say, Camp Indian Head, and then Twiggy Stardom would giggle, “Isn’t that where all the hot guys are?”
At first, the girls tried to distance themselves from their name. A typical response was “He gave it to us,” with a head jerk in Lukow’s direction. And when the Swahili fib was exposed by a summer-camp girl who inconveniently spoke Swahili, Lukow switched to Plan B: Huckapoo isn’t an entry in a lexicon, he told the girls, “Huckapoo is an attitude. It’s about being true to yourself.” He commissioned a theme song, modeled after the Monkees’: “Huckapoo, it’s about me and you, you gotta sing your own melody, be who you wanna be.” Coming from five thin, pretty white girls, it may be little more than a style statement, but the girls are convinced their fans appreciate it. “I think a lot of people can relate to us,” says Brooke. “They can listen to us and say, ‘I don’t need to be the typical girl in school. I can be whatever I want to be.’ ”
By the time Camplified ended, the girls were getting hints of what the future might hold. “We weren’t really sure what the kids would think of us,” says Brittany. “And they really took to us.” Lukow hopes it’s a sign of things to come. He needs the girls to become full-on superstars, or the whole operation goes bust: The girls get a salary no matter what, but it escalates only when the money pours in. And Lukow and Marks get virtually nothing unless they become fabulously wealthy.
It is the business model, more than the music, or the role-playing, that makes Huckapoo unique. The biggest risk Lukow is taking is not signing Huckapoo to a record label. When their first album comes out in January, it will be independently produced and distributed. Radio is not the best use of his Huckapoo dollars, he figures, except perhaps Radio Disney. Deals like the Disney Christmas CD work because he doesn’t have to relinquish any rights.
“Our business model is really built around controlling the intellectual property and leveraging this brand called Huckapoo,” says Lukow. The first thing he wants to sell is a TV movie he pitches as “Grease meets Breakfast Club.” He’s calling it an inverse reality show, but it’s more like an infomercial, something to drive sales through the band’s Website and 800 number.
Once the CD starts to sell, he says, “the Huckapoo brand can have a lotta, lotta legs.” Lukow has registered trademarks for toys, dolls, clothing, cosmetics, books, software, and plenty more. The Town Hall performance is less an actual concert than an elaborate pitch meeting, a chance for potential partners to see what Huckapoo will be about once it holds actual concerts.
To paint this picture for them, Lukow is throwing in a little of everything. The show will open with a two-minute cartoon scored to the “Huckapoo World” theme song, and there are sketches in between the songs to spotlight the girls’ personas. Backstage at the rehearsals, the boys who have been cast as the girls’ romantic interests help themselves to some food, having been firmly rebuffed in their attempts to cast themselves as the girls’ actual romantic interests. They had never heard of Huckapoo before booking the gig. “When I first heard the name, I thought it was a joke,” says one. “They got talent,” adds another, “but the name is so bad.”
The night of the concert, it’s hard to find anyone among the 1,200 ticket-holders who isn’t a friend or family. Other than a handful of kids who fell for Huckapoo on Camplified, the reasons people give for being there are all along the lines of “Brittney’s my sister,” “We’re cousins,” “We worked with Groovy,” and “My son grew up with Brian.” It’s “an audience full of shills,” as Lukow reminds his charges three days later, when he’s ready for them to stop basking and start working again. But the screaming, cheering, and sign-waving electrify the girls.
In some ways, the concert still feels like a high-school talent show. The sketches flop, and the mikes pick up too much of the girls’ heavy breathing—though this at least proves they’re not lip-synching. (Okay, the choruses are sweetened to give them more oomph. “I make no apologies for that,” says Lukow.) But here’s what counts: Angel, Twiggy, Joey, Groovy, and PJ nail their songs and their dance steps, and their charisma is brighter than the lasers. If you didn’t know better, you’d think they were real stars. The autograph table is thronged with squealing girls. “It’s like the Beatles,” marvels one mom.
“That’s a bit of a stretch,” snorts Brittney a week later, but there’s no question something has changed for this band. “When they cut half the lights and the crowd cheers, I mean, what a moment,” says Lukow. “The kids, you know, they were so pumped. It was so exciting. There was none of the bullshit. None of it. It was real.” He wipes away an authentic tear.
A few weeks later, the band appears on the New York City WB morning show. They perform two songs and chat briefly with the host. “How did you come up with the name?” she wants to know. Groovy Tuesday smiles serenely. “Since all of our characters are based on being different, and based on being individuals, we wanted a different name, and Huckapoo just seemed to fit.” Twiggy nods. “It’s more than just a name,” she says. “It’s an attitude.”