Fame & Fortune: Ashanti

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While early success can be the fulfillment of the ultimate dream, media headlights and entertainment industry shenanigans can be especially punishing for a young performer. Singer-actress Ashanti learned this lesson early, signing her first record deal at 14 and then watching it crumble almost as quickly.

The Glen Cove, N.Y., native had been through countless disappointments by the ripe old show biz age of 22, and so has taken real success in stride. Ashanti’s 2002 debut CD “Ashanti” set a record for greatest opening week sales by a new female artist and earned an even more distinguished place in music history when she put three songs in the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 simultaneously — only the second artist to accomplish it, with the first being The Beatles.

Since then, Ashanti, now 28, has not only released more hit albums but also segued into acting, starring in movies and TV shows from “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz” to the hit teen comedy “John Tucker Must Die.” Bankrate caught up with Ashanti on the heels of her stage musical debut; she starred in a special engagement of “The Wiz” at New York City Center this summer. This interview was conducted earlier this summer.

Bankrate: “The Wiz” is your first stage musical. Why is it a good outlet for your talents?

Ashanti: Everyone loves “The Wiz.” So many of us are attached to it, and the character of Dorothy definitely parallels my life and that of a lot of other teenage girls growing into womanhood — just being kind of innocent and naive and learning on your journey of life. So I think this couldn’t be better for me for my debut.

Bankrate: You also starred in “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz.” What was it like working opposite Kermit and Miss Piggy?

Ashanti: It was great, but it was also a little hard because the whole time we filmed, I was on a platform. The guys had to have room to roll around on these little scooters, and they had monitors with them so they would know which way to turn their hands and manipulate the puppets. So it was a little bit long some days, but I had a blast.

Bankrate: This is your stage debut in a musical. What’s the most challenging aspect of this for you?

Ashanti: Remembering scenes isn’t so bad because you have everyone else there and we’re having actual conversations. But intertwining everything and remembering the staging (is a challenge). I have the head mic, and the 23-piece orchestra, and all these little details, so you really have to focus on everything.

Bankrate: Has anyone given you advice about how to handle stage acting?

Ashanti: Everyone has been very receptive and really cool. I had a conversation with LaChanze (who plays Glinda, the Good Witch of the South) the other day, and she said, “Feel free to try whatever. Don’t feel you have to be stuck to one way of doing things. If you find that a scene works good one way, try it a different way and see which you like better. Work off your impulses and just be natural.”

Bankrate: You grew up in a musical family. What are your earliest memories of music playing an important role in your life?

Ashanti: Oh my gosh, all the family barbecues and the get-togethers. There’s not one party that my family had where someone wasn’t on the piano, or where the stereo wasn’t blasting and the speakers ended up blown, or someone didn’t have a dance-off in the yard. My family is just very, very close, and they like to have fun and celebrate life. So music was definitely involved early in life for me.

Bankrate: You began performing as a child and were auditioning for record companies as a young teen. Did this early experience help prepare you for the pressure you would face later on?

Ashanti: I would definitely say it helped. I learned about setbacks and letdowns very early in life. I had three record deals by the time I was 20, so the false hope and the roller-coaster ride of emotions I learned very early on became a character builder for me. I learned early not to trust a lot of people and to beware, and that this kind of business is very cutthroat. So you’ve got to be extremely careful and surround yourself with a team.

Bankrate: That’s a tough thing for someone to handle at any age. Was it especially rough since you were dealing with it as a teen?

Ashanti: Definitely. I can remember my very first deal. I was 14, and I was signed by Jive Records. It was a huge deal for my town of Glen Cove, Long Island. I was in all the local newspapers, and they had a picture of me and the president of Jive Records, and everything was great for a few months. I was still going to school, so my classmates were like, “Wow, you really got a record deal.” And then it turned into three, four, five months, and people were like, “How come I don’t hear anything on the radio? You don’t have a record deal.” Then things started to fall by the wayside, and I was faced with answering all these questions, and I don’t even know what’s going on. So it was kind of hard.

Bankrate: But how did you handle that emotionally, considering that you were a 14-year-old girl? Just being a 14-year-old girl is rough enough.

Ashanti: Exactly. You know what’s really funny? This goes back to Dorothy. Because I was so naive and innocent early on that it really didn’t affect me so much. I was like, “Oh, OK. So we’ll just go get another deal,” not realizing that some people work all their lives and don’t even get their foot in the building. Here I was at 15, working on my second record deal. So it was kind of weird, because I really didn’t understand how hard it was. I understand it now more than ever.

Bankrate: So having gone though this, when your debut album came out and you broke all these records, did it make you more prepared to handle the onslaught of fame and attention that came with it?

Ashanti: It was so, so fast, so it was really hard to take it all in. I understand it now way better than I did. When I first heard my numbers, we were in a limo. We were on our way to a signing, and I first heard my numbers, and it was like, “Yo, it’s 504,000 and change (in the first week sales).” So I’m like, “Is that good? Did we do well?” And people are looking at me like, “Are you crazy?” I really didn’t understand. When they said, “You’re tied with The Beatles for having three records on the charts at one time,” I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of cool.” I really didn’t understand it and appreciate it because I was so naive, like how Dorothy was naive getting out of Kansas. So maybe this role was really meant for me.

Bankrate: What were some of the coolest parts of suddenly being so big, and what were some of the most challenging parts of it?

Ashanti: The cool parts were having people come and say, “Oh my gosh, I love the record. It means so much to me. It changed my life.” And the treatment was pretty good, flying first class and having a driver, things like that. That was great. Your life changes almost instantaneously. And the challenge, obviously, is living your life under a magnifying glass. Critics talk about you, and critique you, and say things that are not true. You face rumors, things like that.

Bankrate: Did you treat yourself to any extravagances?

Ashanti: My very first indulgence wasn’t for me. I bought all the females in my family a Gucci bag with my first check.

Bankrate: So many people waste their money when they first become famous. Did you do anything to prepare financially when all this hit, or did you go on a spree?

Ashanti: That was something that was actually really easy for me. I took economics in high school, which turned out to be very helpful, so I was saving my advances. I had an advance at 14, an advance at 17 and another advance at 20, and I got a business manager and accountants very quickly. Plus, I was already a little cheap, I must admit. I didn’t like to spend my own money. I would rather spend someone else’s.