The Kingston Kid

Why is Janice Turner grinning so widely? It's just after 7 p.m., 10 days before Christmas 2007, and she's backstage at the Y-100 Jingle Ball show at the BankAtlantic Center. There's a bunch of performances due to kick off in about a half-hour, but right now, folks are squeezed into the media room and there's not a whole lot happening — except Turner, with a smile that could power all the lights in Times Square.

Turner is making noise: dropping her cell phone, giving loud hugs, and generally upstaging Perez Hilton, the flamboyant gossip queen, which is no mean feat. And then, just as you're thinking no one could possibly look happier than Turner, you realize she's actually got the second-biggest smile in the room. The first is plastered on her son, who just spotted her, overnight reggae-pop star Sean Kingston.

Until his mom showed up, Kingston had been patiently answering questions from Hilton — the same Perez Hilton who makes a living trashing celebrities, not least Kingston. In fact, on his blog, Hilton had just been beating up Kingston, joined by readers who post hundreds of comments along the same lines: about how bad the then-17-year-old Kingston sucks, how fat he is, etc. — catty, spiteful, envious humor at its Hollywood finest, which is to say cruelest. Of course, this doesn't stop Hilton, chubby himself, from fawning over Kingston in person, a hypocrisy even more typical of Hollywood than the humor.

Kingston seems to notice or care about exactly none of it. He answers Hilton's questions about teen stardom the same way he's answered the same questions a hundred times already — pleasantly — until he suddenly cuts Hilton off midsentence, standing up and joyously hugging his mom and dragging her in front of the cameras for her cameo, essentially burying Hilton's bitchy little moment. Then he leads his mom to his dressing room, already filled with his sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends, all awaiting face time with the big youth.

Some of these folks Kingston hasn't seen since his pop-star odyssey began two years ago. He's the youngest one in the room, with his neck and one wrist wrapped in diamonds, the hip-hop sign he's made it. He's also rocking a T-shirt, baggy jeans, Nikes, and a hoodie, an ensemble assembled by his personal stylist. Kingston, who signs his checks Kisean Anderson, is triumphant and seemingly not nervous, even though in less than an hour, he'll give his first big show in his native South Florida since his song "Beautiful Girls" took over radio, MTV, MySpace, iTunes, and the blogosphere.

Propelled by a mix of doo-wop, hip-hop, and urban pop, with a big nod to Ben E. King's 1961 hit "Stand by Me," Kingston's hit, his first, took him from zero to hero in three weeks flat, giving him the number one song on Billboard magazine's Hot 100 chart for four straight weeks, plus the top-selling ringtone in the country for five weeks. His "Beautiful Girls" sold 260,000 copies in its first week, the second-best debut in online history (just behind Rihanna's "Umbrella"). The song not only has cast his fame wide and fast, but also seems to have tamed critics from the New York Times to Rolling Stone, from Vibe to the Washington Post. His initial success has been downright tidal.

Still, tonight will mark the first time his mother has seen him perform before a large audience. While Kingston has traveled the world working hard, Turner, age 45, cooled her heels in a federal prison for more than two years for tax evasion and bank fraud. She was released in October. Now she's on parole, living in Sunrise.

Earlier in the evening, as he sat in the back of a van en route to the BankAtlantic Center, Kingston was asked what it meant to him for his mom to see him perform at this level, and he appeared to have trouble gathering his thoughts. "I'm just excited and ready to go" was the best the young man could muster, even as his forehead creased with stress.

There seemed to be no limit to the number of tickets his mom needed for this show — for the aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends who were also seeing Kingston for the first time in the flush of his stardom, after he went from the baby to the biggest breadwinner in their gene pool.

At times, it seems like a lot for a 17-year-old to carry. Kingston clearly would like to hang with his family today, for example, but he's also at work and more focused on his job — being a pop star — than his friends and family members probably realize. He's torn, and when he's whisked from his dressing room for a meet-and-greet with fans followed by a 10-minute interview with Entertainment Tonight, he actually sighs with relief. Bouncing from room to room for fans and cameras is what he already knows and loves.

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Jonathan Cunningham