Los Angeles has many things to offer a budding teen singing sensation, but a good serving of poi isn't one of them. Stuck without her favorite Hawaiian dish (made from boiled taro roots), Hoku is trying to slap together a grilled-cheese sandwich in her tiny one-bedroom Manhattan Beach, Calif., apartment. Having scorched the bread, she nonchalantly scrapes off the charcoal and begins munching. "This is no indication of my cooking," she says. "I make really good soup."
Bubblegum pop, though, remains her specialty. Hoku's hit "Another Dumb Blonde," from the Snow Day movie soundtrack, is No. 9 and rising on the Billboard Singles Sales chart, with frequent airplay on MTV and radio. What's next? That's not something she worries about. "I don't dwell on the future, because I have something to fall back on that other people don't have," says Hoku, 18. "I will always have this other life, singing in Dad's shows."
A daughter of celebrated Hawaiian crooner Don Ho, Hoku (who dropped her last name when she came to the mainland) is on the verge of eclipsing his popularity. "It took me 40 years to get where I am, and in three months she's passed me," marvels Ho, 69, who named Hoku after the Hawaiian word for "star."
He called it right. Surprised by the success of "Another Dumb Blonde," Hoku put her college plans on hold at San Diego's Point Loma Nazarene University to record her debut album, due April 18. "There's room in the girl arena for her to fit in," says Paul "Cubby" Bryant, music director at New York City's Top 40 station Z-100, which fields hundreds of requests each day for the song. "When Britney Spears
came on the scene, they said no one else could do it. Then came Christina Aguilera
. Now it's Hoku."
While the singer would love to have Britney's star power, she can do without the sultry pouts and sexy videos. "It's not very comfortable for me to be a sex symbol, especially because of my faith," says Hoku, a Pentecostal Christian since first attending church in 1995. "That's why I enjoy being involved with the younger kids, because they relate to me being the girl next door."
In reality Hoku has never just been the girl next door. Ho first invited her onstage at the Hilton Hawaiian Village to sing his signature hit, "Tiny Bubbles," with him when she was just a toddler. At 11, she tried her first solo, confidently belting out Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You." "She blew everyone away," recalls Ho, who added her number to his nightly show. "I had a real affinity for it," she says. "I was always stealing the spotlight. I'm terrible."
The seventh of Ho's 10 children—and the first of his two by Patricia Swallie Choy, 48, a former singer in his act who lived with Ho, unmarried, for 26 years—Hoku is the only one to follow in her father's footsteps. She grew up in Oahu's affluent Diamond Head neighborhood with her sister Kaimana, 15, and Choy, along with Elizabeth Guevara, 44, another former Ho singer, who also had two children by him: Kea, 17, and KeaLii, 13. "We spent a lot of time trying to make it okay for the children," says Choy, who tired of the arrangement and left Ho in 1997 (Hoku and Kaimana joined her soon after). "But I knew I had to get out of it."
Five years after Hoku began winning over his audiences, Ho's enthusiastic ravings caught the ear of songwriter-producer Antonina Armato. "She has a pure voice," says Armato, who signed on as Hoku's producer. "I don't have to doctor it and use all the tricks of the studio." With Armato's help, Hoku signed a contract with Geffen Records last September (for a reported $300,000) and two months later was recording "Another Dumb Blonde."
Too busy, she says, to have a serious boyfriend, Hoku is eager to enjoy her success, which may lead to a tour this summer with *NSYNC. Her father, she says, "is like the coach proud of his first big gold medal in the Olympics."
Lately, Coach Ho has been giving her pep talks to help her handle fame. "I tell her that things can be temporary and to focus on just being happy," he says. "I tell her to learn about business and save your money. And I tell her, anytime she's ready, she can come home."
Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles