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THEY are 21st Century Girls, four feisty teenagers who are on the verge of greatness - or of a huge British music-biz blunder.

The girls haven't released a single yet, but have been on Cilla Black's Surprise, Surprise, The Big Breakfast and Live & Kicking.

Why? Because they are the first signings to Simon Fuller's new record label, 19 Recordings.

And he is the man who was famously sacked by the Spice Girls as their manager in November 1997.

The girls - Leanne Garner, 16, sister Fiona, 14, Mim Mohammad, 16, and Kate Turley, 14 - are being hyped as the next big thing.

Fuller reckons they will be bigger than his former charges. But he would, wouldn't he?

However, the band's first single, also 21st Century Girls, is out on May 24 - and it seems as eagerly anticipated as a new single by Oasis, the Rolling Stones or even the Spice Girls.

There is good reason. But it has little to do with the four Dudley teenagers, who are merely pawns in a rich music manager's game.

Fuller, 38, gave Madonna her first British hit in 1984 with Holiday. And he was the manager behind one of the 80s biggest hits - Paul Hardcastle's 19, a No 1 tune about the Vietnam war.

Then, of course, the Spice Girls. The Fab Five became the biggest British band, then the biggest in the world during Wannabe fever.

But he was dumped and still sounds bitter. He said: "I wanted something different - an antidote to all that is sterile and artificial about the music scene.

"I'm on a mission to take this band, which is pure and unadulterated and make them the biggest thing ever."

To this end, he has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on pre-publicity for the band. They've filmed a video, recorded their first single and they are recording their debut album.

A lot of money and effort rests on their young shoulders.

Fuller is under pressure, too. He has something to prove and it looks like they are being used to show he still has what it takes to spot a winner.

It could all ends in tears, but the girls say they are simply enjoying the attention.

Lead singer Leanne says: "We are doing it for a laugh. We formed the band for something to do."

Guitartist Kate adds: "We've had good two years and we'd be happy if we don't make it."

The girls are as confident as only the young can be.

And who can blame them?

Before them, Dudley was famous for Lenny Henry. Its musical heritage began and ended with Slade.

I met them in Kate's home. They were boisterous and friendly, just as you'd expect from, say, the Spice Girls' little sisters.

They sit in a row on Kate's bed, already appearing comfortable with their anticipated celebrity.

In a few weeks, they could be megastars. Now they are enjoying the free CDs from their record label and the trips to London. And the walls of Kate's room are covered in posters of her heroes - Garbage and Green Day, an American pseudo punk band.

But there are still traces of the younger teenager. There is a poster of Rugrats.

And among guitar and the amps, there are small china ornaments and teddies. Stuff you'd find in any young girl's room.

Her bookshelves house Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Roald Dahl favourites such as BFG.

But this is not just a cosy chat. Leanne is very miffed. A newspaper has claimed she looks like Noddy Holder, of Slade. "They're saying I look like a man," she says.

She has orange dye in her curly hair and she also has the most to worry about. She has nine GCSE exams next month.

Kate, the musician of the band, wears a red vest and blue combats. She seems the most assured of the bunch. Her father Graham taught her to play the guitar when she was 11.

Mim plays drums and, like all drummers, says hardly anything, but admits she likes Steps.

The group began with Leanne and Mim, school friends at Castle High in Dudley. They were 14 when their music teacher Fred Mallinson - Mr M. to the girls - introduced them to Kate.

Leanne's younger sister Fiona muscled in as the bass player.

Fiona says their early efforts were awful. But they persevered.

Kate said: "We spent six months having three or four practices a week after school."

They called themselves She Devil - because their mums called them cheeky little devils.

Mr M. coached them to play their first concert in December 1996 at the school. They had a fifth member then, Charlotte Fendick. But they don't say anything about the "one who left" until I spot her in a home-made poster on the wall.

Mim says: "She was more into pop." And the matter is closed.

So young - and already musical differences have resulted in a split.

Kate said: "Some friends liked manufactured bands like Boyzone. We wanted to play our own instruments. We were into punk and glam rock."

They caused a stir at a school talent competition when Mim smashed her guitar. Fiona says: "She took 13 attempts to smash it. I suppose it was our first break."

The girls won the competition and with their pounds 1000 prize money recorded a two-song CD.

Then, in February 1998, a talent scout for Ian Allen's Creative Management company saw the band. Allen, who manages Britian's answer to Hanson, Next of Kin, immediately offered them a deal.

And he managed to get them on Blue Peter.

Leanne said: "We all got badges and wore them on our school ties."

Meanwhile, Allen was working on a bigger deal. He gave Simon Fuller the girls' CD and the deal was clinched.

But will they sack Fuller when they become famous? "Of course not, he's really nice," they chorus.

The name change was their own idea, say the girls. And they've got where they are on musical merit.

Kate said: "Simon didn't sign us for the way we look. It was the music. We get asked about Spice Girls, but we're not like them. "

The girls are just that - girls. The Spice Girls were young women who'd been about a bit, who'd suffered rejection at castings and knockbacks for acting jobs. Like them, though, the 21st Century Girls have been given the chance of a lifetime.

And, deep down, you feel they're terrified of blowing it.

Kate eventually admits: "We do feel hyped and we'd feel guilty if we didn't do well. We don't want to let people down."

Their first single 21st Century Girls sounds like Republica with a dash of T Rex.

It was panned as "rubbish" on Live & Kicking by Steps and Cerys from Catatonia.

The girls were gutted. Cerys is one of their idols.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Fulton, Rick
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Apr 23, 1999
Previous Article:Now for Fleur of Scotland.
Next Article:Mick's Scots summer date.

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