The Akron Wonder

Sean "Puffy" Combs grooms Jerome Childers to be the cuddly mascot of hip-hop.

Jerome Childers is sitting in the living room of the house he's lived in his entire life. Encyclopedias and his mother's paperback romance novels line the bookshelves; the mantle is crammed with bowling trophies.

"Your video's on," calls a voice from the next room.
Jerome smiles.
"My video's on," he says.

He lets out an embarrassed laugh and moves slowly to the other room, a sliver of space nearly consumed by a jumbo-screen television. His father, Stanley, is reclining on the couch, remote in hand. There, on BET, is Jerome. In a convertible. With Noreaga. Singing.

A twelve-year-old kid from Akron who wanted a vocabulary-improving tape for Christmas is the latest protege of Sean "Puffy" Combs. His full-length CD won't be released until March, but Jerome's single "Too Old for Me" has appeared on a Bad Boy Records greatest hits album, been remixed six times, and stretched across two videos. In the first clip, Jerome was shooed away from Keisha, a singer with the group Total and fellow Bad Boy artist, by hoopster Penny Hardaway. In the sequel, Noreaga rolls up to console the love-struck puppy--and, of course, rap over dusky beats.

"It's like a moment captured in time, and it's shown all over the country," he says when the video is over. "It's really a dream come true."

Combs, Bad Boy's CEO and founder, called the Childerses in 1996 to invite them to New York so he could hear Jerome's voice in person. He was intrigued by a videotape of Jerome performing at a showcase. The voice was smooth, flexible, and plaintive. This wasn't a kid who whacked "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow" with a mallet. He had longing.

In New York, the family--Dad, mom Karen, sister Nechelle, and Jerome--rode in limousines and stayed at a swank hotel. Puffy wasn't yet the yeh-yehing impresario of hip-hop. "He had just released Biggie's album," Jerome says, "and that's why I really wasn't that nervous about performing for him, because he wasn't that known." Jerome sang five songs for Puffy. One was a Nat King Cole song, another a Stevie Wonder number. Puffy signed him.

Puffy's family, which includes Mase, the Lox, 112, and Faith Evans, doesn't sit around and wait for attention to be delivered like a steaming pizza. This month Jerome was scheduled to do a fashion shoot with Tommy Hilfiger. Rolling Stone put him in the class of the "next wave." He's watched polo matches in the Hamptons, traveled to Atlanta and Las Vegas, and mingled with Jay-Z, Mariah Carey, Timberland, and Clive Davis. "I'm not really star-struck as much as I was at first," Jerome says. "There are a couple of people I'd really like to meet that I haven't met yet: Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder. Brandy, I've never met her."

His activities are supervised by his father, who quit working as a carpenter to manage him. Last fall, the two found an apartment in New York so Jerome could record his album with producers Mario Winans and Heavy D and songwriter Kelly Price. He withdrew from Miller-South School of Visual and Performing Arts in Akron and is enrolled in a school in New York for children who work in show business. His mother keeps up the house in Akron and manages the paperwork.

Jerome talks about recording ("I didn't know what I was doing, but now I do"), hanging with Puffy ("He's a nice guy"), and the reactions of his friends ("They're pretty excited about it. They ask me about things that I do and stuff") as though this were a phase, like clumsiness or chicken pox. Eventually he wants to act, write, and produce. He's already targeted his college (Howard University) and his agency (William Morris). Through his alert, brown eyes, the world looks like a ball he could spin on his finger.

"I pray and stuff. I'm very religious. So I just work for it and pray for it and make sure that I don't get out of line or a big head. Mom and Dad are there for me, to keep me grounded."

Jerome polished his gift in the basement of his house on Akron's east side. He and his older sister, who is now sixteen, sang into a microphone rigged through a Fender amplifier. Their parents eventually surrendered to their habit of falling asleep with the radio on.

Nechelle had a singing group called the Four Shades of Ebony, and Jerome often tagged along to their performances. Watching the audience react to his sister triggered his desire to perform. At age eight, he made women at a day-care center weep with his version of "Silent Night." He didn't just learn the National Anthem; he learned to sing it like Marvin Gaye. "He would walk up to people who were talking and say, 'Can I sing for you?'" says his mother, who works in accounts payable at First Energy. "We would get kind of embarrassed and tell him, 'No, Jerome, don't sing.' But they would listen."

Wearing a blue Nike sweat suit and sparkling Air Jordans, Jerome talks about his voice as if it were the person standing behind him. "I think it's pretty developed for my age. I think I got a gift from God. I'm really blessed to have all these things."

Diamond stud earrings twinkle with his smile, which he uses to indicate he's done speaking. More handsome than cute, he doesn't fidget or slouch or make sudden movements. He chooses his words as if lingering over a salad bar. "I like to play basketball, get on the computer, play video games, call my friends, and read," he says, pausing between each activity.

What do you like to read?
"I have encyclopedias over there."
His mother says he's an A/B student who demands "a straight answer, or he'll keep asking." He does chores when he's home and has asked her to run out for some flour, so he can bake. At Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, she finds clever notes he's written. "He's not somebody who wants to run and rip all the time."

Leading a tour of his house, Jerome dutifully moves through every room. His bedroom is on the second floor, facing the street. On his bureau are a can of furniture polish, French/English flash cards (he's teaching himself), a French version of Elle magazine (to check his progress), and a copy of Jesus' Little Instruction Book. A PlayStation next to his bed is the only item approaching extravagance. His favorite possession? "My voice, I guess."

He's right at the moment where fame stops being a daydream and starts challenging your privacy. Jerome signed his first autograph at the New Orleans airport. A girl in Puerto Rico found the number and called his house. "Just yesterday I was at the mall," he says, "and these two girls stopped me for an autograph, and that's the mall I've been going to all my life. And now that I'm signed and everything's out on me, I'm getting stopped all the time, and people are looking at me funny ... It's kind of strange, because it's like a big change from before."

It's difficult to walk through the home of a budding child star and not wonder what, if anything, Jerome's Bad Boy money bought. The big TV? The pickup truck with temporary tags in the garage? Dad's gold watch? Spoils not unusual for a two-income family in good economic times. And without a CD on the shelves, Jerome isn't cashing any royalty checks.

Stanley Childers does not project the radioactive personality of a dominating stage father. He lets Jerome talk about his promising career from a safe distance, never intruding to give the cut sign or choreograph a precious moment. Appropriate warnings the dream could vanish have been issued. "We just try to stay level-headed and grounded, because it could be gone tomorrow," Karen Childers says.

Puffy didn't swoop down from a gold-plated throne and pluck Jerome out of an elementary-school chorus. If Stanley and Karen Childers weren't nudging their children toward the spotlight, they didn't stand in their way.

As Mrs. Childers tells it, Nechelle's group recorded demos with an Akron musician named Michael Jackson, who played keyboards for Jodeci. The tapes landed in the hands of a gofer of some New York entertainment lawyers. "We were trying to get them signed," she says. One of the lawyers was moderately interested in the girls. He asked if there was anyone else in the house who could sing. Mr. Childers put Jerome, then nine years old, on the phone, "and he blew him away."

Jerome soon had attorneys in New York working on his behalf, and he signed with a production company, Brown Wood and Black Tree. He and his dad traveled to events that could raise his profile. Michael Bivins was interested at one point, as well as a producer for Toni Braxton. When he describes the path to Puffy, Mr. Childers omits the family's concerted efforts to secure record deals for their children. In his version, Jerome is like the lucky scamp who just happened to find the chocolate bar with the gold wrapper. When asked from which side of the family Jerome inherited his talents, Childers answers: "[Jerome] says he got it from God. He says, 'None of you all can sing.'" Childers doesn't mention, as his wife does, that twenty years ago he sang with groups called High Fidelity and Ultimate Choice. Maybe he doesn't want to step into his son's spotlight; maybe he's afraid he'll be accused of using his seed to realize his own ambitions.

Already Jerome's age is becoming elastic; by different accounts, Jerome is eleven, twelve, or thirteen, and in the sixth or seventh grade. Yes, star bios are notorious for shaving off the years, for making the rags raggier, the riches richer. Journalists are sloppy. Edges were meant to be rounded. Frequently, though, Jerome's speech sounds rehearsed. His choice of college is a prestigious black university. He wants learning aids for Christmas. His favorite actors are Michael Douglas, Denzel Washington, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino--"all the best." It could be nothing more than a kid giving answers he thinks a grown-up wants to hear.

Mom and Dad watch the material he's asked to sing. They don't want him cussing or singing about sex. The beats may be seductive, but Jerome is strictly crush material. Watching the seas part for their twelve-year-old son has to be agonizing as well as thrilling. Thank heaven Nechelle is adjusting to her brother's fortune well, carrying a 4.0 and thinking of studying architecture in college.

But Jerome ... He's gotten a taste of the high life. After attending one of Puffy's parties, "Right afterwards I came home, and it was so boring, because you got all that excitement, and then afterwards it goes way down. It makes you want to get more and more." What if the album stiffs? What if Puffy's touch turns to rust? What if Jerome turns down the scary road of Too Much, Too Soon? Says Mom: "You think about it, but my husband says this is a one-shot deal that doesn't come around every day."

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