It started with a pickup basketball game. For one of today’s brightest stars, the path to fame began on a New York City court. Twelve-year-old Jason Derulo was shooting hoops when he asked bystander Frank Harris, “Hey mister, can you play in our game?”
Fast forward almost a decade, and that chance meeting has grown into a successful and unexpected partnership. Derulo, now 21, took five honors at this year’s Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) Awards, including songwriter of the year. He is the first male artist in the Billboard pop songs radio airplay chart’s 17-year-history to score two consecutive No. 1 hits with “In My Head” and “Whatcha Say.” His third single “Ridin’ Solo” was certified double platinum in the United States.
As for Harris — he’s been Derulo’s manager for seven years.
“I always said that one day I would be a star,” said Derulo. “Although it didn’t happen exactly as I planned.” His voice has a soft Creole inflection. Born Jason Desrouleaux in Miami to Haitian parents, he changed the spelling of his stage name to make for easier pronunciation.
At the age of five, he vowed to take over the world with his music. “I wrote my first song ‘Crush on You’ when I was eight years old, inspired by this girl I had a crush on. What better gift than to write her a love song?” he said, laughing.
While his peers played ball in Miami’s streets, Derulo impersonated Michael Jackson in his bedroom mirror. His parents enrolled him in the Dillard Center for the Arts, a high school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida where he studied piano, jazz and musical theater. Derulo then moved on to New York’s prestigious American Musical and Dramatic Academy, studying opera, theater and ballet.
Focusing firmly on his dreams, Derulo adopted an insatiable work ethic. Peers often viewed him as an introverted perfectionist, but he knew success in the music industry meant discipline and sacrifice. “I kept to myself and did my music,” he explained. “That’s just my personality. I was in a performing arts school with a lot of other people who did the same thing that I did. I had to keep an edge over [them],” he said.
While school provided Derulo with expert musical training, Frank Harris provided the industry contacts.
“One day Jason said to me, ‘I wrote a song, check it out,’” said Harris. At that point he was unaware of Derulo’s skills off the basketball court. “I didn’t know what to expect. But when he starting singing, I was shocked.” Then a law student, Harris had connections to top music executives. At age 14, Derulo hired him as his manager and hit the recording studios. Two years later, he landed his first songwriting gig with a major recording artist and soon was writing for stars like Diddy, Lil Wayne and Sean Kingston.
Though he was thrilled by his early success, Derulo still dreamed of a singing career. “It was hard. People didn’t want to help someone who was on the come up, you know?” he said, laughing. “So I would be like, ‘Hey, why don’t we write a song for this person,’ when in actuality I wanted to make the song so I could put it on my demo.”
In 2006, Derulo thought he landed his big break – a coveted spot at the Showtime at the Apollo season finale. Taking to the stage to sing a soulful rendition of “Love” by Musiq Soulchild, Derulo followed tradition and rubbed his sweaty palms against the theater’s legendary wooden stump for luck. He snatched the grand prize that night. “It was a fantastic moment for me,” he said. “I thought … it would be my big break like on American Idol.” But it wasn’t. Derulo still couldn’t get signed to a record label.
It took another three years before Derulo caught the attention of J.R. Rotem, a producer who’s worked with artists like Britney Spears and Rihanna. Rotem flew him to Los Angeles for a jam session and was impressed when Derulo knocked out six songs in one session. “J.R. got me right away,” said Derulo, who eventually inked a record deal with Rotem. “But I couldn’t let myself get overly excited,” he explained. “[Many] people who are signed to record labels never see the light of day.”
But Derulo’s grit and determination paid off. “Whatcha Say,” his first single, hit the airwaves and became one of the fastest moving records in the country. In 2009 he opened for Lady Gaga on her Monster Ball Tour. “She said very inspiring words to me, that I was different from most of the other artists in the industry.” he explained. “She was always saying the right things.” Derulo launched his own headlining tour in 2010, where he played to sell-out crowds around the country.
Success has earned Derulo a Beverly Hills mansion, fast cars, an impressive wardrobe and other rewards, yet he insists that fame hasn’t changed him. Friends and associates agree. “He is so grounded,” Harris said. “When you work as hard as he has, it’s hard to forget where you came from. He’s lived his entire life preparing for this moment.”
David Delazyn and Chaz William, music producers and members of The Fliptones, knew Derulo before his climb up the charts. They say he’s still the driven young man with the big voice and equally big dreams. “What struck me at first about Jason is his work ethic,” Delazyn said. “He could have fun, but he’d work hard. And he still does.” The Fliptones co-wrote “Don’t Wanna Go Home” and other songs on Derulo’s new album.
But dreams often come at a price. Derulo is experiencing firsthand the highs and lows of fame – singing for thousands of fans but also longing for a moment of normalcy. “Sometimes I just want to do things on my own and not have to take someone with me wherever I go,” he said.
Despite talk of a romance with Australian model Lara Bingle, whom Derulo calls “one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met,” he revealed that he’s “ridin’ solo” and gets lonely. “I guess it’s because I haven’t found that right one yet or something. I always have company. I don’t like to sleep alone so I always invite a lady friend to sleep with me. It doesn’t have to be someone that I’m totally interested in, but someone that I’m attracted to.”
He said his ideal match would have a big heart. “My mom has the biggest heart, so I’m looking for the woman with the second biggest heart,” Derulo explained. “I’m a very charitable person, so I would like someone to be in line with my thought processes.”
The man certainly has a romantic streak, as he recalled a recent effort in the name of love. “I woke the girl up out of her sleep and took her to the beach around 5:30 in the morning,” he recalled. “I had breakfast prepared on the beach, there were rose pedals all over the mat … we watched the sun come up.” Derulo then began crooning, “Just the two of us, we can make it if we try, just the two of us…”
Derulo has also put his heart to work for worthy causes. He chopped 14 inches of his hair for Locks for Love, an organization that provides wigs to young cancer patients. He played a telethon for Haiti Relief. He even posed naked for Cosmopolitan to help raise awareness for testicular cancer screenings. “I performed for 90,000 people in a stadium … but nothing is like being in a room butt naked in front of a whole staff,” he said, laughing. “It was nerve wrecking, but after five minutes passed and the nerves subsided, I did my thing. I held it down, no pun intended.”
From the stage to the pop charts to critical issues, Jason Derulo’s rising star has power. He admits it can be overwhelming. “With great power comes great responsibility,” Derulo said. “I want to be sure that I can make an impact.” And while fame can be a wild ride, he’s ready for more. “I don’t think there is another feeling greater than working on something your whole life and seeing it finally happen.” AC
In His Words:
“When a woman bites the side of her lip, for some reason it’s really sexual. You can’t really do that without it being sexual.”
“A turn-off is a woman that can’t hold a conversation. I like to hold intelligent conversations.”
“When I was younger, I always kept to myself and did my music. Some people didn’t get that then and ’til this day, people still don’t. That can be one be one of the toughest things, especially when it’s mistaken for being cocky or trying to be a jerk and be distant, but that’s just really my personality.”
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