He's a friggin' baby!" That, says Wade Robson, was Britney Spear's reaction in 1999 when she met with him to see if he'd be the right one to choreograph her first big U.S. tour. He was 16. "I thought he was gonna be in his 30s or 40s," says Spears. "I was like, 'Uh...is this guy capable of doing what I want to do? He has to really have it together.' "
He did. After watching a sampling of the dance moves the Michael Jackson protégé had built up practically from infancy, Spears hired the teenager. He had an immediate impact. It was his idea to drape a python over her shoulders for the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards, which became that show's defining moment. "She hated me for that," says Robson, 21. "She broke out in hives."
Now Robson, a lean 6'3", is the one breaking out. He's host of his own MTV dance contest, the $100,000-jackpot Wade Robson Project
. "I'm pumped for it," says Robson, who has also choreographed Pink, Usher and Mya. But Project
is just one piece of Wade Robson Inc. Disney has signed him to direct a movie musical (he already codirected Spears's second Pepsi ad). With no formal musical training, he cowrote four songs with 'N Sync singer Justin Timberlake
on the band's 2001 album Celebrity
. He recently collaborated across generations with Carry Simon on a song the 58-year-old singer hadn't finished in five years. And he coached her on how to sing it, "even how much vibrato to use," she says. "I was digging it." How does he do it? "He's like a garden," says Simon. "The soil has just the right amount of pH for all things to grow."
That talent was planted down in Brisbane, Australia, by his mother, Joy Robson, 51. She played Michael Jackson's Thriller
nonstop while pregnant with Wade, the youngest of her three children with ex-husband Dennis Robson (a mental-health worker who died in 2002 after a long illness). By age 4, Wade could duplicate the King of Pop's every move. "We lived on a quiet street," says Joy. "He'd dance out there for hours and hours, then come back and say, 'Nobody ever drives past.' He wanted an audience." He got one at 5, when he won a national Jackson dance-impersonation contest. First prize: meeting the Gloved One, who invited Robson to perform at his Brisbane concert. Jackson later encouraged Joy to bring Wade, then 8, to the States. He cast him in three of his videos (including "Black or White") and signed him to his private label as half of a short-lived rap duo, Quo. Robson remains a loyal friend. "His heart is so genuine," says Robson, who landed his first choreography gig (for the band Immature) at 14 and earned his GED a year later. "He has no concept of a normal life."
Robson, currently dating a 23-year-old aspiring fashion designer, admits he sometimes struggles to keep a grip on reality himself. He was stung when tabloid reports—unfounded, he says—named him as the cause of Spears's breakup with Timberlake. "Britney and I had such a close creative relationship," says Robson, who remains friends with both. "People always tried to connect us." Coming of age in public, the wunderkind still loves to let out his inner kid: At a recent barbecue at his four-bedroom L.A. home, he steered his scooter right into the pool. "Every now and then," says his mother, "he does something to remind me he's still my child."
Alexis Chiu in Los Angeles