A few yards away a small figure, almost engulfed in a bright blue and silver puffa jacket, leans against the wall oblivious to the adult fluster around her. Fifteen-year-old Monica Arnold is humming to herself and chewing sweets. She is checking out the passers-by. She peers over the top of her gold Versace sunglasses at one chic hotel resident. "Look at those high suede boots - they're cute," she says in a southern American drawl.
She empties out her own shopping bag on to a marble table to show me her recent purchases - six pairs of sunglasses in chrome and black cases spill out. "These are Gucci and these are Chanel"; she reels off another four Bond Street designer names with the sort of girlish fervour most teenagers reserve for their favourite pop stars.
In America at the moment, Monica would certainly be among them. Her debut single, "Don't Take It Personal", reached number 2 in the US Billboard charts and number 32 over here. She is currently promoting her album Miss Thang and the single from it, "Like This and Like That", all written and produced by Dallas Austin who has worked with Madonna, Boyz II Men, TLC and Michael Jackson.
Unlike the raunchier style of female R&B female artists who sing about life in the 'hood, Monica's brand is more soulful and sugary. She has "attitude", but in contrast to her brasher, sexier elders - TLC, Aaliyah and Mary J Blige - she could pass for their sheltered, cute younger sister. Her songs reflect this and are concerned with the half-realised yearnings of teenage love rather than the gritty specifics. Packaged as the typical girl-next-door teenager, she looks angelic on the cover of her single, dressed in a white dress and shiny silver boots, smiling coyly.
Four years ago she was introduced to Austin after winning a series of talent contests. Since then her teenage life couldn't have been less typical. Most evenings Austin would pick her up after school and whisk her off to a music studio. By the age of 12 she had enough material for an album, and a year later she shot her first video and went on tour. At the age of 14 she was number 1 in the American R&B charts with "Before You Walk Out of My Life".
After two weeks of press coverage in Sweden and England, she is now flying to Amsterdam to repeat the whole process again. There have been television slots filmed at ice-rinks, modelling assignments for teenage magazines and the usual round of press interviews. For someone so young, she is convincingly inured to the demands of the publicity machine.
Her act is accomplished, anodyne yet sincere, pitched somewhere between Diana Ross and Oprah. "I want to be considered a real person," she says in a little husky yet studied voice. "And an artist who's true to her expressions. It's so hard to be a performer who's really true to her own ground." She delivers these platitudes with such poise and smoothness, one wonders who's really pulling the strings, a polished PR writer, perhaps, or are these cliches her form of reality?
It's difficult to puncture the aloofness and emotional reserve. Monica is resistant to most strategies of communication; flattery, directness and silence are all met with the same impervious stare and, if you're lucky, a brief, frozen smile. When the Radio 1 DJ Trevor Nelson interviewed her earlier in the day, he received the same treatment.
Before the recording, he tried to warm her up. "I'd like to say I'm a big fan and I've played all your stuff from day one," he oozed. There were no teenage giggles or endearing blushes, just a weary smile and an imperceptible nod of recognition. Then she launched into "Miss Thang attitude". "I've got a lot of input into my image, videos and records. I don't want to be someone else's vision, like a Barbie Doll or something." The patter tripped from her lips faultlessly. Nelson was impressed. "Monica, that was great. You're a one-take girl."
Nestling into the back seat of a limo, sunglasses still perched on her nose, Monica is taciturn. She's heard it all before. Of course she doesn't miss normal adolescent life. "I've had plenty of time to do kids' stuff, hanging out in parks and all that. I'm glad I've missed out on the sort of relationship problems most 15-year-olds have to deal with." And no, fame hasn't spoilt her in the least. "I am ordinary," she says. "I think this business can change some people but not me. I've made a concerted effort not to become part of the music industry." But, like it or not, she has little life outside it. Last year she left school in hometown Atlanta to commit herself totally to recording and performing. A tutor travels with her on tour and she has four hours of lessons a day. She still keeps in touch with one close school-friend. "We're very alike but also different: she's raising a family right now. I think her job is almost as hard as mine."
Although the harsh realities of adolescent life are completely absent in Monica's music, she is aware of some of the dangers. "Where I'm from I've seen drug problems in all their forms, from the drug dealers to the people who are on it," she says. "I've lost a lot of friends through them." Does this make it easier to relate to the urban experiences of hard-core gangsta rappers like Wu-Tang Clan, the antithesis of Monica's sanitised, squeaky-clean material? "Yes, I'm right behind them - I'm friends with a lot of them. But I prefer to sing about other subjects - what's going on in my own life, like relationships and stuff."
Her most important relationship is with Austin, whom she clearly worships. "Dallas was my teacher. He taught me all the things I needed to know. From the day I met him he was basically a father figure. He's a really special person to me." The sentiment flows smoothly until you ask Monica about her real father and then her flawless complexion wrinkles for the first time during the interview. "We don't really have a relationship with one another," she says tersely. "He was around me when I was younger, but he's never had anything to do with me as an artist."
The driving force is her mother, who works for an airline and is a trained gospel singer. Monica began singing in her local church choir at the age of four, swiftly graduating to soloist. Not surprisingly, her major influences are Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston. Does she aim to emulate their iconic status? "Well, in 10 years' time, I hope to have a greatest hits album out." At the moment, it's a possibility; her youth and sweet image is a winning formula, a Doris Day antidote to gangsta rap's obsession with drugs, guns and death. But will an adult Monica retain the appeal or be so willing to idealise her creator?
For now, Austin can do no wrong. Is there room for a boyfriend? "The job is so intense. You don't have a lot of time..." her voice trails off. Is that a "no" then? "I didn't say I wasn't into meeting anyone and I'm not saying I haven't met someone." She fixes me with an icy stare and turns her head away. Melinda, sitting next to her, leans forward and whispers to the PR. "I think Monica is tired now. She's probably talked enough."
The interview ends and we drive on in silence. Monica stares out of the window, impenetrable and haughty. "She's such a young artist," explains the PR apologetically, on the way back to London. "I suppose we're all very protective of her."
n The album 'Miss Thang' is released by Arista recordsReuse content