When I first saw Carly Rose Sonenclar, it was 2007 and she was dressed in rags and covered in dirt. The dirt was actually carefully applied stage make-up and the rags, an artfully constructed costume, because the then-7-year-old was appearing in Les Misérables, having made her Broadway debut in the production the year before. In between homework and playdates, the second-grader at Rye Neck’s F.E. Bellows Elementary School was one of three young actresses who alternated playing Young Cosette—the iconic, wide-eyed waif whose image appears in the show’s logo. (Sonenclar also played Young Éponine and understudied the role of Gavroche.) From the moment she sang Young Cosette’s hauntingly beautiful “Castle on a Cloud,” it was clear to me that I, along with the rest of the audience in the Broadhurst Theatre that evening, was witnessing a very special talent.
Throughout the ensuing years, I was happy to follow Carly’s burgeoning career. Soon after I saw her in Les Mis, she appeared in her first feature film, The Nanny Diaries—she’d also have a small part in 2008’s Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2. And in 2009, she originated the principal role of Carrie in the national tour of Little House on the Prairie, starring Melissa Gilbert, who as a child had performed on the much-loved original NBC television series.
I interviewed Sonenclar on the phone twice—in 2007 about Les Mis and in 2011, when she once again appeared on Broadway, this time as Chloe, the daughter of the title character in the short-lived Wonderland: A New Alice. Seated in the audience at Wonderland, I was again mesmerized by the now-11-year-old’s voice—and I wasn’t the only one. Though the show itself, a re-imagining of the classic Lewis Carroll tale, wasn’t kindly received by the critics, Sonenclar was, with Charles Isherwood, a theater critic for the New York Times, calling her an “almost preternaturally skilled singer.” At the time, the seasoned young professional—who was named the 2011 Best Young Performer by Broadwayworld.com—was also appearing as a recurring character on Season 3 of The Electric Company on PBS. And, oh yes, she was still enrolled in a local public school.
Sonenclar’s mom, Terri, whom I first met by chance when picking up my tickets at the box office for Les Mis, continued to keep me up-to-date on her daughter’s professional successes—and my Wonderland CD, featuring the pre-teen’s solo, was on frequent rotation in my car. So in June of 2012, while The X Factor USA television viewers and the live audience at the Dunkin Donuts’ Center in Providence, Rhode Island may have been surprised by what they heard when the Bermuda-jean-clad 13-year-old launched into Feeling Good for her audition, I, for one, was not. All four judges gave Sonenclar a standing ovation, with Simon Cowell himself awarding her “4,833 yeses” to advance to the next round and commenting afterwards, “A star has just walked out on that stage.”
Indeed, as I’d been saying all along to my husband of many years—who has learned the hard way that I am always right—this kid’s going to be big. And so, when I heard she was advancing throughout the singing competition, I said to him, “Watch—she’ll win the whole thing.” And indeed, from a pool of tens of thousands of hopefuls, the 2012 season came down to just three contestants on the December 20 finale, watched by an astounding 9.65 million viewers—Sonenclar; Tate Stevens, a country singer more than twice her age; and the Cowell-assembled female group Fifth Harmony. Stevens did end up winning the competition, but it bears mentioning here that this petite Westchester teen with the big voice came in number two of the whole shebang.
Ironically, some of Sonenclar’s earliest performing memories center around Cowell’s American Idol. When she was 2, she’d sing along to the TV for her parents—her father, Bob, is a copywriter—while her older brother, Russell, now a 19-year-old college junior, put on a fake British accent to play the famously acerbic-tongued Cowell. Even her first CD was Idol-inspired—of Season One winner Kelly Clarkson. (So why didn’t the teen try out for Idol instead of The X Factor? Quite simply, she was too young; that show doesn’t permit entrants younger than 15; The X Factor allows contestants as young as 12.)
Because no one in her family had ever sung professionally, her daughter’s talent “was a total surprise,” says Terri Sonenclar. “We like to say it’s a gift from the man upstairs.” So, her early singing along to Idol aside, it wasn’t until she was 5 or 6 that her mom suspected she had something special. The then-7-year-old Sonenclar told me what happened when we chatted in 2007. “When I was in an acting and singing class at Star Kidz [formerly inWhite Plains, now in Harrison], they told my mom I should try and get an agent. I got signed by a well-known children’s management company…and they send me out on all kinds of auditions. The first thing I was cast in was The Night of the Hunter.” It was her role in that play that led to the audition for Les Mis.
I sit down to interview the young star at home—her mom joins us—as she’s finishing up her last year in middle school (she enters Rye Neck High this month). She’s recently turned 14 and the dining table at which we sit is still partially covered with unsolicited birthday gifts from her passionately devoted “Carly’s Angels” fan base, including a package from Brazil containing DVDs and CDs of all of her performances, a cupcake book—Sonenclar loves cupcakes—and custom-designed “baseball cards” with all of her X Factor performances and stats. It’s easy to forget that you’re not chatting with another adult when you’re talking to the soft-spoken young teen. She’s mature and thoughtful in her responses—not in the way of the overly rehearsed, but rather as someone who genuinely wants to get things right and not inadvertently offend.
And though she’s professional and mature, no one said I had to be, so of course I want to know the real scoop about Simon—is he as prickly, shall we say, as his reputation—and Russell’s long-ago imitation? “Not at all,” she assures me. “He’s really nice.” Is he “just like a regular person?” I prompt, asking her to elaborate. “Not just like a regular person, but like a regular billionaire,” she responds and we all share a laugh at her dead-on description. And what most surprised her about getting to know her mentor on the show, Britney Spears? “From her music, you might think that she’d be very loud and outgoing,” she replies, “but she’s actually so sweet and humble and soft-spoken.”
While Sonenclar doesn’t have a Spears-sized career yet, she’s on her way. To date, she has 835,000 Twitter followers—you can follow her at @CarlyRoseMusic—and 574,000 Facebook likes; her cumulative YouTube views are estimated at over 200 million. Yet for all her professional success, she appears refreshingly grounded and down-to-earth, something her mom attributes in part to her remaining in the local public school where “she’s just another student” and is with the same friends she’s had for years. What group, I ask Sonenclar, is she in at school? “We don’t have clichéd jocks and theatre-kids groups,” she says. “We all kind of meld together. It’s a small school,” she adds. “There are only about 120 kids in my grade.”
And what kind of role model would she like to be for other kids? “I want to be really inspirational and relatable and not change too much,” she says. Certainly, her best friend, Claire Julian of Rye Neck—the two met on a basketball team in fourth grade—finds that her pal hasn’t changed much from the 10-year-old who first sang aloud for her only when they were both in Claire’s bedroom closet, so no one else could hear. “Carly’s very modest about it and hasn’t changed at all,” says Julian, who was on-hand backstage in California for one of Sonenclar’s shows. “For someone her age, she’s handled it very well—shockingly so.”
And so, the teen singer assures me, when I inquire, she won’t be cutting off her hair and dying it platinum à la Miley any time soon. What does she think Cyrus’ new hairstyle is about? “I think it was a cry for attention because people still think of her as a little girl,” she answers. “With the tattoos and the platinum hair she’s trying to show people she’s growing up—when all she really had to do was go and put out a good album, which she is doing now.” Sonenclar goes on to cite Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato—one of last season’s X Factor judges—as examples of former young stars who she thinks have done a good job of transitioning to more mature careers. “Selena just put out her new single and I am obsessed with it and she just did a movie. And Demi did The X Factor,” she continues, “and it was a good thing to establish her as a real artist rather than just a Disney kid. She’s judging these people so she must be a real artist now.”
Like any real artist, Sonenclar has experienced—and had to come to terms with—losing out on a coveted role or, in this case, the first-place spot. When I ask her how her life would have been different had she, and not Stevens, won last season, she replies, “It’s not much different but I would have been rushed into a lot of things right away. I was kind of bummed about it at the time, but I realized that winning wouldn’t have been the best thing for me. There would have been a lot of controversy and push for me to put out an album soon, and then worrying will the public accept me.” She continues, “This way, I have the freedom to wait or not. I’m sure Tate was in the studio recording the next day after he won.”
And how was it for Terri Sonenclar, watching her daughter come so close but not win? “As a parent, you’re always worried about what the long-term effects are going to be,” she answers. “We just wanted to make sure she was all right. Yes, she was very, very disappointed, but she’s fine.” Does she have any regrets about the experience? “Absolutely none,” she answers. “It was a phenomenal experience and she learned so much—almost like going to a crash conservatory on how to perform live and arrange music and work with producers.”
When I asked Sonenclar what she wishes more people knew about her daughter, her reply is quick: “How hard she works. Not only on her music, although she certainly does that, but she works really hard in school and practicing her piano. She takes her craft extremely seriously,” she says. “She writes music all the time, practices singing every day. People don’t necessarily know that it takes a lot of work to do what she does.” Even Cowell, she adds, commented to her that he’d never seen anyone, of any age, as focused as Sonenclar.
And so, the Honor Roll student, in addition to studying and playing on a recreational softball team, continues to work hard on her craft. She’s writing songs, some of which will appear on her first album, now in the pre-production stages, for Cowell’s Syco Entertainment. And in early August, she gave a concert at Manhattan’s Best Buy Theater to benefit the Starlight Children’s Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to lifting the spirits of seriously ill children, for which she serves as an ambassador.
As we finish up, I ask Sonenclar to flash forward five years, when she’ll be all of 19. What does she hope her Wikipedia entry—yes, of course, she already has one—will say about her projects then? “That I recently released my second or third album that went platinum, starred in a feature film that won an Oscar, and am currently on a sold-out world tour,” she says. “Oh, and that I recently won a Grammy.” Spoken just like a regular teen superstar.