05/01/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Gracin's wife, Ann Marie, 22, who has known him since the seventh grade, remembers the day in 1993 when he belted a Garth Brooks tune in a junior high school talent show. "The whole school knew he had talent," she says.
Growing up, DeMato was more demure than diva-ish. "Julia was a good kid, quiet, shy," says mom Joan. The youngest of seven kids, DeMato did sing in the school chorus but never tried out for solo parts. Still, says Joan, "we always knew she had a beautiful voice. She sang in the shower every day!"
Aiken got his musical start at 5, singing "Islands in the Stream" as a class mascot at the local high school. At the auditions, recalls his mom, Faye Parker, "the students laughed so hard he stopped singing. I said, 'That's okay, honey. They laughed at you because they loved you.'"
"She always wanted to sing," says Trenyce's longtime friend Janeyce Daniels, 22. "The first time I heard her I was like, 'Are you serious, or is there a tape recorder somewhere behind you?' I was in such amazement. People ask, 'Who's her vocal trainer? Who coaches her?' But she didn't have one."
Clark's sister Latonya Sowell, 33, never doubted her half brother could sing, but his partying during the auditions made his eight brothers and sisters nervous. "Everybody in the family called," says Sowell, who works in a hospital lab in Texas. "We were like, 'What are you doing? This is the most important moment of your life!' He was like, 'I know. Dad already talked to me.' "
A frequent contestant in beauty pageants as a child, Caldwell always loved the spotlight, says her mom, Carla. "She was the one dragging me to pageants, not me dragging her. She just enjoyed entertaining people. She wanted to do it ail the time."
Locke learned to sing by listening to Care Bears tapes. By seventh grade she was winning school talent shows. "Kimberley has a way of winning people over," says her pal Pamela Dotson. "She has a contagious personality."
The pint-size Grigsby endured plenty of teasing as a kid—"Everyone called me Webster 'cause I was so small," he says—but his pipes were no laughing matter. "I knew he had a gift," says his mom, Ramona. "He had an ability to hear the distinct qualities and styles of other singers and reproduce them."
Smith has been singing since he was 7, but for fun, not fame. "Rickey has always been a strong singer, but he never thought of himself as being the next Luther Vandross," says his mom, Deloris Moore. "Some people like to read books or sew or exercise. Rickey loves to sing."
"His preschool teacher told me that he wasn't afraid to get in front of a crowd, that there was just something special about him," says Emily Studdard of son Ruben. That sentiment was later echoed by his high school peers, who voted him Most Talented.
"Vanessa is truly a unique person, always has been," says her mom, Elizabeth Parillo. "She just flies by the seat of her pants. But we always knew she was bound to be a singer. She loves to entertain. In kindergarten she dressed up as Madonna
and wanted to sing 'Like a Virgin.'" Her parents said no.
Camille Marsh remembers the first time she heard her sister sing. "We had The Little Mermaid
in the tape player," says Marsh. "I was singing and pretending I was Ariel, and Carmen tried to sing too. I was like, 'How is that voice coming out of her?' "