Well, not completely. Reality may not bite, but it still nibbles. She studies four hours each weekday with her traveling tutor and sometimes has to pull all-nighters after a long day spent recording or rehearsing. "Homework is something that's got to be done," she says. A good student, Monica—who uses only her first name professionally—is still learning how to juggle her high school sophomore-level studies and her booming career. During one recent tour, she says, "I was awake for two days straight. That's when I realized this isn't a joke. It's really a job."
At first it was just fun. Monica began to sing publicly at age 2 at the Jones Chapel United Methodist Church in Newnan, Ga. "Even before she could talk well, she really enjoyed singing," said her mother, Marilyn Best, a Delta Airlines consumer affairs worker. "We've all sat back and wiped tears when she was singing in church." Raised along with her brother Montez, 11, by Best and her stepfather, the Rev. Edward Best, in College Park, Ga., Monica was 12 when a scout for Atlanta producer Dallas Austin, who has also worked with TLC and Madonna, heard the little girl with the grownup, gospel-flavored voice at a local talent show. "She's the most gifted singer I've ever worked with," says Austin, who signed her to his Rowdy Records label in 1992.
Now rehearsing for the May 15 launch of a 10-week concert tour as the opening act for TLC, Monica copes with homesickness and the pressures of rising stardom like a pro. Says Austin: "I've never been more proud of an artist in my life."