She made her first mark on the music scene early this year singing on hits by rappers Ja Rule ("Always On Time") and Fat joe ("What's Luv?"). Then in April, Ashanti Douglas, 22, released her own self-titled debut album with its No. 1 single, "Foolish." Within a week she-became the first artist since the Beatles to sing on three Top 10 hits simultaneously and sold more copies of a debut CD—503,000—than any female in history. "I had no idea it would be this fast," says the former high school track star and honor student from Glen Cove, N.Y. The winner of this year's Lady of Soul Aretha Franklin Award—and eight Billboard Music Awards—melds sultry grooves with a wholesome, mile-wide smile, "She's the girl next door but still has enough of a hip-hop edge," says Billboard Associate Editor Carla Hay. "She doesn't seem too innocent." Last month Ashanti published a book of her own poetry entitled Foolish/Unfoolish: Reflections on Love, which draws on what she says is a new maturity. "I write more powerful, relationship-oriented, adult material now," she says. But she still lives at home with younger sister Kenashia, dad Ken-Kaide and mom Tina, who insists, "When she comes home, she goes right up to her room, jumps in her bed, wraps up in her cozy blanket and watches the Cartoon Network."
When real-life Manhattan nannies Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin, both 28, began shopping The Nanny Diaries, a voyeuristic novel satirizing Park Avenue parents, "we weren't even sure if we could get our friends to read it," says McLaughlin, who met Kraus at New York University. But the keyhole peek at a chilly matron who feeds her child coquilles St. Jacques (prepared by Nanny, of course) became a bestseller, with nearly a million copies in print. Julia Roberts recorded the audio version. And Miramax reportedly paid $500,000 for the movie rights. Editor Jennifer Weis, who signed the women for a reported $25,000 at St. Martin's Press, credits their "snap, crackle, pop" for the success. "The voices in the room come alive in their writing. I could hear the conversations." So could their new publisher, Random House, which is said to have paid $3 million for a two-book deal. Still, the newest Lit Girls have only begun indulging in the occasional luxury. "I was visiting my parents and it was raining," says Kraus. "So I took a cab home. It felt great."
He doesn't get much radio airplay, but Josh Groban doesn't need it: The curly-topped baritone, 21, has sold more than 2 million copies of his self-titled debut album, thanks largely to TV. Discovered as a high school student by producer David Foster, the L.A. native got an acting gig on Ally McBeal, where he performed" ballads in two episodes before becoming this year's most requested guest on Oprah. "Dreams come true now on a daily basis," says Groban, who also closed February's Salt Lake City Olympic games with Charlotte Church. "His voice is so powerful. Josh is definitely going to be around for 30 or more years," predicts Celine Dion, who performed with him at a 1999 Grammy rehearsal. Groban has more immediate plans: moving out of his parents' house. And after meeting Sting, he might take up yoga. "Sting's very Zen," says the awestruck singer. "It was one of those 'pinch me' moments."
Some might say being touted as the star of a sitcom called Less Than Perfect is a dubious distinction. Not Sara Rue. "The show has finally given me acknowledgment for my work," she says. "It's a dream job." As Claude Casey, a curvy, brownie-baking Everywoman trying to navigate what ABC calls the "size-2 world" of network news, Rue has "this outrageous personality on-camera," says costar Andy Dick. "But she has this subtlety about her—while still being bubbly." New to the spotlight, Rue, 24, grew up in the wings of Broadway shows, the older daughter of theater professionals Marc, 57, and Joan, 54. When the family left New York City for L.A., Rue won roles in eight TV series (most recently The WB's Popular) before landing Perfect. Dues paid, she takes time to smell the flowers in the garden of the L.A. home she shares with husband Mischa Livingstone, 30, a documentary filmmaker, and two cats and two dogs. "We get so excited over the smallest things," says Livingstone, "like, 'Look! The rose bloomed!' " It has indeed.
cedric the entertainer
Shooting Barbershop last winter, Cedric the Entertainer had a running gag with a few crew members. "If someone looked at him, he'd be like, 'Didn't they tell you not to look at me? I'm an international star!' " says director Tim Story. Now, with the success of the fall hit, as well as his FOX variety show, Cedric the Entertainer Presents (in which he performs sketches as the sharp-tongued Cafeteria Lady and a Barry White-like love doctor), the St. Louis-raised comedian, born Cedric Kyles, really is shining bright. "I'm rapidly climbing to the A-minus list," deadpans Cedric, 38, who will play a detective in spring's Intolerable Cruelty with George Clooney. Still, the former claims adjuster, who lives in L.A. with wife Lorna, 35, their son Croix, 2, and his daughter Tiara, 13, from a previous relationship, has not yet become Cedric the Big Spender. "I've been looking at a Bentley; I go visit it and pet it," he says. "But I'm a chicken."
Her hit single was "Complicated." But to Avril Lavigne, 18, the success of her triple-platinum album Let Go is simple: "When I was little, I'd watch an award show on TV and be like, 'I'm going to do that,' " she explains. The winner of this year's MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist has been dubbed pop's anti-Britney for her harder musical edge and for her fashion-flouting neckties and baggy skateboarders' garb. I don't go around trying to sell sex like, a lot of artists do," says the native of tiny Napanee, Ont., where she began singing in the church choir at age 7 and was soon performing at local events. "I just stand up for being myself. I don't like to dress up. I love to rock out." Fans "detect an honest coolness about her," says Antonio "L.A." Reid, head of Lavigne's label, Arista. "They think of her as a friend." During a year of worldwide promotion, Lavigne has been savoring her success—and more. In Sardinia, she says, she couldn't get enough of the local cuisine: "Mozzarella with tomato slices. Oh, my God! I ate it every day."
With their top-rated show on the Disney Channel, a sold-out U.S. tour and 5 million of their videos playing relentlessly in homes across the country, the Wiggles are gods among preschoolers. The color-coded Australian song-and-skit troupe—(from left) Anthony Field, 39, Greg Page, 30, Murray Cook, 42, and Jeff Fatt, 49—are so popular here, "parents tell us their kids are now saying 'ba-naah-na' instead of 'banana,' " says Page. Singing about "Yummy Yummy Fruit Salad" and a "Big Red Car," the Wiggles "have married catchy melodies with things that kids intrinsically understand," says Australian Broadcasting Co. executive Grahame Grassby. Together since 1991, the group is awed by its success. Says Cook: "We just thought this was going to be a little hobby."
Meeting Rosie O'Donnell and Sarah Jessica Parker on opening night was "so surreal," says Marissa Winokur, star of the hit Broadway musical Hairspray. "It was like, 'Oh my gosh, my whole life has just changed!' " Deep in credit-card debt before she was cast in the role of Tracy Turnblad, a plump teenage dance phenom with a social conscience, Winokur, 29, is now paid-up and exulting over some new Juicy Couture sweatsuits. "I bought them online in every color!" she says. She deserves to splurge. Says costar Harvey Fierstein, who camps it up as her mom in the show: "There are not 100 Marissas running around out there. Her art is so good it's seamless." Raised with three older siblings outside New York City by architect Michael and teacher Maxine, Winokur got her first part at 21 in a tour of Grease. A surprised role model for curvy women ("That was so not my mission," she insists), Winokur, who dates TV writer Judah Miller, just signed a TV development deal with ABC. "At least I know what my next job will be," she says. "I didn't even have to be nominated for a Tony!"
When Sarah Hughes turned in a flawless program at February's Olympics, she captured not just a gold medal but also millions of hearts. "Last year I didn't say, 'My goal is to win the gold,' " says Hughes, 17, who started skating at age 3. "I always want to do my very best." The youngest athlete at this year's Games, Hughes won a place in history as the only female Olympic skater to nail two triple-triple combinations. "She's just begun to tap into all that she can do in terms of her athleticism and artistry," says coach Robin Wagner. After appearances at the White House, on her own Wheaties box and in this month's NBC special, the Great Neck, N.Y., high school senior is focused less on 5.9s and 6s than on her SATs. The fourth of six children of homemaker Amy and lawyer John, both 53, the honors student is balancing chores, school and college visits with practice for the upcoming national and world championships. "Life's been great," she says. "I never thought so many things were possible."
A year ago Zac Posen was designing retro-glamor dresses while living with his parents on a $15-a-day allowance. Today, at 22, he's dressing celebs like Halle Berry while becoming a bold-faced name in his own right. "Puff Daddy rapped to me at a VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards party," marvels the Manhattanite. The son of an artist dad and an attorney mom who taught him to sew and now runs his business, Posen studied design in London, where he outfitted society pals for parties. "Zac's clothes are classical and elegant but also made for young people," says actress Natalie Portman, a close chum. "He is smart, street savvy and has inborn confidence," adds Julie Gilhart, fashion director at Barneys New York. "He has a great future."