25 in 2009: Naturi Naughton

Born: 05/20/84 In: East Orange, NJ Is: Singer/Actress

There's something kind of titillating about the fact that Naturi Naughton, who gave a dead-on, slap-that-ass performance as raunchy alpha-female rapper Lil' Kim in this year's Biggie biopic Notorious, was raised strictly Catholic. "Yeah, I went to Catholic school my whole life," says Naughton, a sparkling little powerhouse of hot, jubilant energy. "Discipline, hard work -- my parents raised me to approach life like homework... work hard and receive the rewards." And it's tough to argue with the rewards of a platinum record (with her former band 3LW), solid critical reviews (for her debut film performance in Notorious), nearly three years on Broadway in the cast of Hairspray, and the opportunity to take the lead role in the upcoming remake of the ultimate '80s aspiring-performing-artist-high-school-kids movie, Fame.

But before acting, there was singing. Like a lot of other little black girls growing up in Jersey (and presumably all around the world), Naughton started singing in her church choir with the hope that one day she would Make It: "I was just the girl who wanted to be the next Whitney [Houston]," she says, with a wide, satisfied smile. And one can easily imagine an even smaller version of the still quite small Naughton belting out "This Little Light of Mine," swaying with all her sweet might and dreaming of the Grammy Awards. Of course, a great set of pipes does not a music career instantly make -- add gutsy ambition, loads of confidence and a steely focus, and then maybe you have a shot.

Naughton, who was born and raised in East Orange, New Jersey, was 15 when she and her all-girl group 3LW (Three Little Women) got signed to Sony/EPIC Records and entered into the alter-world of mainstream hip-hop culture -- touring alongside Destiny's Child, among others, for the inaugural MTV TRL Tour, performing hip-gyrating numbers in matching outfits, hoping to feel the love from their audiences and go platinum. Indeed, 3LW, which also included singers Adrienne Bailon and Kiely Williams, did go platinum with their eponymous debut record, and enjoyed a good deal of success before disbanding in 2002. For a little while after that, Naughton thought she might be done with the entertainment industry and enrolled at Seton Hall University, where she majored in political science. "After the group, I honestly was thinking about just not doing entertainment," she says. "I wanted to be a lawyer."

A life of law was not in the cards for Naughton, whose close friend in college encouraged her to "get back out there," which was just the push she needed to shift her "very dramatic" nature toward the direction of acting. "I started auditioning for theater roles when I was at Seton Hall," recalls Naughton. After about a year, she landed a role in Hairspray on Broadway with fellow cast members Jenifer Lewis and Aubrey O'Day. She left school to do the show and felt her faith restored: "My leap was to go out and just say, 'You know what, this might lead to something.' And it did, because here I am."

Then came Notorious, followed by her break in Fame, in the role of a lifetime -- as Denise, the classically trained piano student who longs to be an R&B singer. "I actually learned to play the piano for the role," says Naughton, who also sings in the movie, including "Out Here on My Own," as well as the film's hugely successful title track. So it's not surprising, then, that it all comes back to music for Naughton, who plans to record a solo album with Lake Shore Records, inspired in part by her character in Fame. "I love to sing," says Naughton, practically beaming with pride, "because music is also a way to tell a story." Amen.
Rebecca Carroll

Wears: a jacket by Alexander McQueen, bra by Araks, vintage earrings from Screaming Mimi's, vintage shoes by Edmundo Castillo for Sergio Rossi and a vintage bracelet and ring by Boucheron for YSL by Tom Ford

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