Fame game makes big business of star gazers

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The Independent Culture

Connoissuers of the arts might be heartened by the idea of 3,000 children assembling at the Royal Albert Hall. But last month's gathering had nothing to do with the youth of today suddenly rediscovering a taste for the fine arts. Instead it was confirmation of the insatiable and apparently indiscriminate appetite of 21st-century schoolchildren for fame in whatever form it may take.

The gathering was organised by Stagecoach Theatre Arts, a company whose ever-expanding portfolio of stage schools are proof of the phenomenal demand among today's teenagers for celebrity. This week, Stagecoach revealed a 25 per cent jump in turnover to £15.6m at its 460 schools, proof that parents are willing to pay handsomely for the chance to realise their children's dreams.

Parents paid £35-a-head for the privilege of their children attending the Albert Hall to take part in the recording of a "Sing-a-Single" CD of three tracks which is due to be released in September.

Among those taking part was Chantelle Hellier, aged 11, an avid Pop Idol fan who has already ordered the single. For Chantelle, who lives with her mother, Phillipa Hellier, 32, in Penryn, near Falmouth, Cornwall, the desire to be famous was a prevailing factor, if not the only reason to attend the theatre school.

"It is the best part of my week to go to the classes and I have made loads of friends," she said. "I'm getting my dad to take me to Stars in their Eyes next month and I'm really excited. I'm going to do Kylie Minogue's 'Love at First Sight'. I love Kylie and I want to be just like her one day."

As Pop Idol launches a new series tonight and the second series of Fame Academy continues, Chantelle is typical of a rising tide of wannabe stars making their way to the gates of Stagecoach schools.

The company has 26,000 pupils attending drama, dance and music classes across the country and has opened another 76 schools in the past 12 months. The expansion - and Stagecoach's ever-increasing waiting lists - is clear evidence that the demand for theatre schools is barely being met.

But Stephanie Manuel, Stagecoach's joint-founder, who runs the company with David Sprigg, said while the growth of television shows in which youngsters contend for fame and chart success may have triggered the rising popularity of Stagecoach, the quest for instant stardom is something teachers strongly discourage at the schools.

"Those dreams for children to be successful and famous are certainly there, but we actually dispel the idea of glitzy, overnight success," she said. "We encourage children who are serious about acting or music to show the right level of discipline and commitment over a number of years."

Ms Manuel felt Stagecoach's success reflected more on children's need for a creative outlet than their ambitions for fame. The first schools, founded in 1988, preceded the advent of the kind of shows which have spawned bands such as Hear'Say and Girls Aloud.

"There is a real need for children to be doing things like this in our society. When I was a youngster, I used to play act with my friends but children lead more insular lives now in which entertainment is given to them, especially through television. The opportunity to be actively creative is one that children jump at."

However, the company does not pretend to be merely a recreational outlet, and has its own agency. For £90, students can be included in a brochure which is sent to casting agents and a quarter of all who attend are part of the agency.

Chantelle's father, Mike Hellier, 40, a musician from Cornwall, who pays her fees of £260-per-term, said he was initially cynical about Stagecoach as a money-making venture but has changed his mind.

"I was cynical at the beginning because £25 seemed like quite a bit of money for a three-hour class on a Saturday ... But having seen the effect it has had on her, I do think it is well worth the money," he said.

"I was concerned that she was drifting a year ago. She was just watching EastEnders and not reading or anything at all. But since she has going to Stagecoach, I have seen a massive difference in her confidence and her school reports even say she is much sharper."