'Cheetah Girls' Creator Debuts 'Catwalk'

Deborah Gregory is widely credited with making "The Cheetah Girls" tween fashion icons. Gregory's latest project, Catwalk, a young adult novel, focuses on another group of fashion forward girls. The author and designer talks about the book and how she hopes it will inspire young girls to follow their dreams.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now onto a very different subject. We're in New York City, where our program made its debut this week. New York is known for many things, fashion and the literary scene are two of them. We're going to visit now the woman who's drawing on her own fashion experience to write fashion-forward stories for the tween set. Deborah Gregory is a former model. She built a career as a fashion writer, and then turned her attention to young adult novels.

She scored a huge hit with her series, "The Cheetah Girls." She's written 16 Cheetah books, more spinoffs, and the Disney channel has made two successful cable movies based on the books. She's here now with a new novel, it's called "Catwalk." She joins us now to talk about it. Welcome.

Ms. DEBORAH GREGORY (Author, "Catwalk" and "Cheetah Girls"): Hola.

MARTIN: Just for people who may not have girls that age. Just tell us a little bit about who the Cheetahs are?

Ms. GREGORY: Well, I made it up in my Cheetah bedroom, and what it is, is I kind of guessed - you know, I loved The Supremes, and all that kind of stuff. And the tradition of girl groups. So, I just used the idea of a girl group, as a way to show kids - becoming who they want to be, and sort of transforming their background. It really was just a backdrop. And you know, that's again what I've done with, "Catwalk."

MARTIN: And they have a lovely - they have a wonderful singing group, and they're very different personalities. And I feel I just need to note, your outfit which is very Cheetah.

Ms. GREGORY: Yes.

MARTIN: Beautiful Cheetah glasses and a blingy Cheetah watch. So, you're living the Cheetah life?

Ms. GREGORY: Yes, I've always dressed like this, since I was 11. That's when I made my first Cheetah dress.

MARTIN: You know what's funny though, given that you have a fashion background, it just seems interesting to me that you're now for your next series turning to fashion.

Ms. GREGORY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Just wondering why you think you didn't before now?

Ms. GREGORY: You know why? I'll tell you why, because when I first started writing, writing for Essence I was the fashion beauty writer. Then I evolved into the entertainment writer. So, I was writing about girl groups, because that's really where I got the idea. There was an interview I did for Essence 1998. I went to Houston. I was interviewing Destiny's Child. So you see, so that took precedence and then, you know so then I backtrack.

MARTIN: "Catwalk" follows a group of friends at the fictional Fashion International High School in New York.

Ms. GREGORY: Yes.

MARTIN: Can you just give us a little hint about what we're going to find out in the book without giving it all away.

Ms. GREGORY: Oh yes, it's hysterical. Well, Fashion International, like if you had a really prestigious equivalent of Spence or Baumgartner like here, it would be that. And they compete in the annual Catwalk competition, so these are like teens who are really serious about being fashionistas. And, when you do have a school like that there's an imbalance, there's always more girls than boys. So, then the boys some of them have issues about if they are perceived as being gay or not because not all of them are. And, so some of them are being groomed to be models, and everybody wants a piece of the pie. And fashion is a way that you can transform your background, just like music.

MARTIN: Where do you get some of these names from? Pashmina...

Ms. GREGORY: Yes, oh isn't that hysterical?

MARTIN: Angora, Chandelier.

Ms. GREGORY: No, no Chandel-ee-AY (ph).

MARTIN: Oh excuse me, Chandel-ee-AY, excusez-moi.

Ms. GREGORY: Right, Afrobiggibright, which is short of Aphrodite. That's the one who is a foster kid because you always have to have a foster kid you know.

MARTIN: So, where did you get some of these names from, and is there a character who is you?

Ms. GREGORY: Yes, well the lead Pashmina, just like the lead in Cheetah Girls was Galleria, is me. Sort of bossy, pushy, the visionary, you know the kind of thing, someone who is a little over-bearing.

MARTIN: You?

Ms. GREGORY: You get it? A little bigger than life, you know the one that's really kind of like that. So, that's what Pashmina - that's who she is, that's who Galleria is. And also the hysterical part is that Pashmina, where I got the name from originally, is I have friends, they are a couple. And I nicknamed them Pashmina and Angora and so then they became the first two. And then originally they were alley cats, they were homeless alley cats - now they are still desperate - who wanted to be super-models.

MARTIN: What's the key to creating stories and characters that you make young girls excited about reading?

Ms. GREGORY: Yeah, because that is the key. See, that was what the premise what behind the whole thing, was just what you just said. So originally when I started with the idea of, how can I get them to read, because the reading scores had dropped that year, really low. And that they all had to go to summer school, because they had failed the tests like 40 percent. I thought, oh God how sad that was. So, why aren't they reading? That was the premise. So you always start with that. What would make them want to read this?

So, it has to be fun the same reason why we read. It has to be something that draws you in, it has to be a good story, and not something that they have to read in school, because that's already covered. They have all those books that they have to read in school. So, something that would make them pick it up, just like we do when we go to the beach where we've got that juicy novel that we want to read.

MARTIN: There is a lot of concern among parents about sexualized images of young girls in the media.

Ms. GREGORY: Oh yeah, there is a real concern.

MARTIN: Do you see your characters as a balance to those, is that kind of part of what you're about? Or is it just you writing a about the girls that you like?

Ms. GREGORY: No, no you know, I'm very sensitive about that because it happened to me, you know I, lots happened to me. I was in foster care. So, I'm very aware, that's a big struggle of my life, and I was very pretty. And you know, it's just, it's awful.

MARTIN: Being a target of sexual attention before it's appropriate.

Ms. GREGORY: Sexual violation, forget about attention. And as you know one out of four girls in the black community will be incested or raped before the age of 18. That's just fact. I am the one out of four. So, this is something very important to me.

MARTIN: I'm sorry, I'm sorry that happened to you.

Ms. GREGORY: Please, I'm one out of four. So, I am aware of the sexual thing and like in Felinez (ph) is the target of it in the book. Because she's a little juicier and so she says, you know you see some of the hurtful things that she goes to one day. She comes to school, she's so flustered because this guy said something to her, and you know she responded, you know it was awful, just terrible. And so, Pashmina who is very skinny, the one who is going to be the model, she is very aware of that that Felinez is going through something because of the way she looks and that she is targeted more. And that's the truth, that's how it is.

MARTIN: You've turned yourself into kind of a multi-media brand, if you don't mind my saying it that way. You produce, you have all these sort of products, and well can I just play a clip from the song "The Party's Just Begun," this is from the soundtrack from "The Cheetah Girls 2."

Ms. GREGORY: Oh right.

MARTIN: Let me play a little bit of that, here we go.

(Soundbite of song "The Party's Just Begun")

THE CHEETAH GIRLS: (Singing) All together we belong. Fun to be young. That's the truth. Looking good with a new attitude. Start the party up. Time to shine. Cheetah style, we're doing it right.

MARTIN: So you are promoting girl power?

Ms. GREGORY: No, it's growl power.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: OK. What's the difference?

Ms. GREGORY: Growl power is the brains, heart and courage that every Cheetah girl possesses to make her dreams come true in the Gigi jungle.

MARTIN: Are you living growl power now, yourself?

Ms. GREGORY: Well, I wouldn't have survived. You know my life has been quite a struggle, so I have it innately.

MARTIN: So, you see yourself in a way as kind of rewriting your story, kind of taking the bad things that happened to you and kind of redirecting them in a way that could steer other girls to the degree that is within their power because a lot of what happened to you as a young girl was not within your control.

Ms. GREGORY: No, life is very random.

MARTIN: Yeah, so do you know why you sort of seizing it, rewriting it, mastering it, turning it into kind of a road map for other girls who are...

Ms. GREGORY: Well, I've been kind of like that sort of thing, you know. I wouldn't say so much as the way you're saying it, you know it's just, I'm very helpful so I like sharing information. So, if there's a way I can help you avoid a hoodwink I'm there.

MARTIN: So, share what's your next project? What else you got going on?

Ms. GREGORY: Well, I'm writing the sequel to "Catwalk," which is, comes out September 2009. It's called "Catwalk Strike a Pose."

MARTIN: So, you've got a lot going on. And you have another Cheetah Girls movie coming out I understand?

Ms. GREGORY: August 22nd.

MARTIN: OK.

Ms. GREGORY: The one that's shot in India.

MARTIN: Wow.

Ms. GREGORY: "Cheetah Girls 3."

MARTIN: Deborah Gregory is the author of the Cheetah Girl series aimed at tweens. Her latest book really more aimed at young adults is Catwalk. She joined us here in our New York bureau. Deborah Gregory, thank you so much.

Ms. GREGORY: Thank you.

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