Stacie Orrico

When the biggest decision most 12-year-olds have to make in a day is whether or not to make the bed, Stacie Orrico was signing a recording contract.

Five years ago, she entered a talent contest on the spur of the moment in Estes Park, Colo., and to possibly no one’s surprise but her own, won it. The next thing she knew, she had a manager, Britt Ham, and a gospel record label, ForeFront.

“I don’t think I ever really thought it was a special thing to be able to sing,” Orrico told POLLSTAR. “I didn’t take voice lessons. I sang in the choir at school but I never did anything really serious about it. I just kind of happened to be [at the seminar] because there were these concerts going on that I wanted to see.

“I ended up entering the competition at the last minute and won. When I was first offered the record deal, I was like, ‘Right, whatever. I’m never going to do that.'”

Orrico did do that, selling more than 500,000 copies of her ForeFront debut, Genuine, without the benefit of major media hype. She now has a major label distribution deal and an agent, Jeff Gregg at Creative Artists Agency in Nashville.

Now a music-biz veteran at the ripe old age of 17, Orrico’s eponymous Virgin Records debut opened at No. 59 on the SoundScan current albums chart in March and was certified gold in December.

But it was overseas where she really blew up first.

Gregg can rattle off the numbers and countries instantly.

“Just so you know for reference, the record is gold in the U.K., it’s gold in Korea, it’s platinum in Japan, it’s silver in Ireland, silver in Thailand. It’s selling in Africa, Asia and Latin America,” he told POLLSTAR.

The agent attributes part of Orrico’s international success to her chameleon-like look. Anyone who has seen her video for “(There’s Got To Be) More to Life” knows she is capable of taking her appearance from the ordinary to the exotic.

“She’s got such an interesting look. The Japanese think she may be part Japanese, Latin Americans think she’s part that, in Spain they think she’s Spanish. She has so many different looks,” Gregg said.

But Orrico thinks her connection to her international female fan base is much more than skin deep. American women are much-admired role models for girls in Japan, she explained, and the kind of empowerment she sings about does not involve taking off one’s clothes.

“There is such a lack of hope for women in Japan. They tell me they grow up feeling like there is no hope because the men are really the only important people in the culture,” Orrico said.

Stacie Orrico

“They have these competitions between each other to see who can make their husbands the best lunches. Literally, they grow up thinking, ‘Oh, yay, I can’t wait until I learn how to make a really good lunch!’ … So I think the music is very encouraging and very hopeful.

“Songs like ‘More to Life’ and ‘I Could Be the One’ are songs that are letting them know it’s not just saying ‘Go for your dreams’ but, ‘You know what? You are worth something. You are beautiful, and you’re gifted and you have a purpose in this world that is so much bigger than you can ever imagine if you’re willing to be open to that.’

“I think that there are a lot of female artists out there trying to empower women, but it’s more like: ‘Take off all your clothes and be proud of your sexiness!’ And the girls over there are saying, ‘But that’s not who I am.’

“It’s a very proper country. That doesn’t relate to them very well. I think that the music really hits home with the girls, and it’s just awesome. I’m really, really happy about that,” Orrico said.

Take that, Britney and Christina.

In addition to a breakout album, Orrico just scored her first Grammy nomination. Even though she considers Stacie Orrico to be a mainstream effort, it was nominated for best pop/contemporary gospel album honors.

“From the beginning, she has said that she wanted to get in the general market. She opened up for Destiny’s Child – did a spring tour with them when her album first came out. From the get-go she’s kind of had one foot in both markets and, along the way, we’ve kept that approach,” Gregg said of her crossover appeal.

“I don’t like the term ‘Christian artist’ because it makes it sound like a style of music,” Orrico said when asked the inevitable questions about crossing over from gospel to pop. “I mean, what is ‘Buddhist music?’ I’m an R&B artist. I’m a Christian. I’m a pop artist. That’s what I do.”

Raised in a musical family, she cites growing up on Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Tony Bennett. “Real singers, real music,” she explained, laughing. She credits those influences for infusing Stacie Orrico with more soul and R&B sounds than in her earlier recordings.

“Really, my whole goal from the very beginning was to make music that communicates to my peers something that they can relate to out of a positive perspective. That’s what I’ve done.”

Orrico’s got time to do more, too. She’s still young enough to have a tour chaperone (a family member often travels with her) and needs two more units to complete her high school graduation requirements.

But first, there’s more travel. She’s in Europe doing promotion this month, and heads for Japan for five shows in February. Then Orrico is taking a well-deserved break in March when she’ll probably wrap up that diploma.