AYLA BROWN IS BEING FUSSED OVER by a pair of tanned and toned middle-aged salesmoms in the fitting room of the Burlington Mall Caché, a suburban clothing chain known for its midpriced “occasion wear,” and for which Ayla is a spokesmodel. The ladies parade through the store with armfuls of pop-star attire: sparkly tops, Lycra pants.
Tonight Ayla, a 22-year-old recent Boston College graduate, legendary local hoops player, aspiring country singer, and elder daughter of U.S. Senator Scott Brown, will perform a live set as part of the mall’s back-to-school fashion event. When she played basketball at BC (on a full scholarship), Ayla was bound by certain NCAA rules: no free clothes, self-promotion, or singing at malls. Not anymore. “When I was at Boston College, if people wanted to dress me or have me wear their jewelry, I couldn’t,” she explains. “Now that I’m out of school, I’m like, ‘Bring it on!’” She chooses a sequined beige top and black leggings, which she pairs with her own knee-high leather boots.
Before her dad went from obscurity to Senate sexpot Scott Brown, Ayla was the most famous member of her family, a multitasking overachiever who’d made a name for herself as a record-breaking high school basketball star and American Idol finalist. The latter accomplishment led to so many gigs singing the national anthem at Boston-area sports events, concerts, and fundraisers that the local press dubbed her “the Anthem Girl.” Other extracurriculars included reviewing episodes of Idol for the Boston Herald, and, after her father was elected, doing semiregular segments as a correspondent for CBS’s Early Show. Her first big interview: Scott Brown.
The music thing used to be a part-time gig. She recorded and independently released harmless, generic pop singles like “I’m So Happy” and “Sugah” during breaks and summer vacation. (User reviews on iTunes range from “You are very talented” to “These are some of the worst songs I’ve ever heard.”) But since graduating in May, Ayla’s entire focus has been her singing career. Now she logs up to 70 hours a week writing, networking, tweeting, making appearances, and performing live shows wherever she can get them: at malls, fairs, festivals, games. She spent the summer touring New England to promote Circles, her latest self-released EP; signing CDs; and selling Ayla Brown T-shirts, posters, and other merchandise. All those $5 laminated backstage passes add up. She’s been able to buy her own condo (though she rents it out and, like a good girl, continues to live at her parents’ house in Wrentham).
In August, however, in the middle of her curiously named “Fizzically Fit” tour, Ayla made an announcement: She was giving up pop and going country. Her abandoning a genre that tends to celebrate — or at least pay more attention to — boobs and bad behavior has nothing to do with her father’s conservative politics, she insists, though she does make an effort in interviews, and in life, to be wholesome. She doesn’t swear, and she doesn’t slip up. The truth, she says, is that she’s been a country fan since being introduced to Rascal Flatts in high school; she only fell into pop because that’s what people told her she was good at. “Those were the people who told me to do ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,’” she says with mock bitterness, referring to the song that got her through Idol’s early auditions but eventually prompted judge Simon Cowell to label her “robotic and somewhat empty.”
“Of course I was robotic!” she says. “I was 17 and never sang in front of people before!” Two little girls appear at the door of the Caché fitting room to ask if Ayla will sign their glossy pictures of the singer; the salesmoms shoo them away, but not before Ayla obliges. As a performer, she has found her niche as an idol to six- to fifteen-year-old girls and their moms, a fan base she expects will easily follow her over to country. (“They don’t really care,” she says, adding that moms like her because she’s both an athlete and a singer.) “The best feeling is when I bring kids up onstage and they go to their mom and dad and say, ‘I really want a CD, because I got to dance onstage with Ayla!’ They have fun, I have fun, and then they buy music afterward.”
Ayla — who isn’t self-conscious even when self-conscious might be a good thing — says the song she should have performed in those early rounds of Idol — not that she’s dwelling — is the Oleta Adams power ballad “Get Here (If You Can).” She then proceeds to demo an impromptu few verses of the song under Caché’s bright fluorescent light. It’s an awkward moment. While pretty and photogenic, Ayla is still a bit of a tomboy, and not particularly sexy. On Idol, her shimmies often looked more like squats. Playing coy is complicated when you’re 6 feet tall. As Mickel Picco, a BC teammate, says, “Ayla might look a certain way, but she’s really just a big dork.”
Country, on the other hand — where a singer can get away with a stool, a microphone, and some down-home earnestness — suits her. Not that any of that factored into her decision to leave pop. If she has limitations, she’s not aware of them (or doesn’t want you to be).
She spent last fall commuting to Nashville, where she worked with veteran songwriters who’ve penned tunes for Christina Aguilera, Taylor Dayne, and Rascal Flatts. An album is due out this spring, followed by a tour. The first single is scheduled to hit iTunes next month. But Ayla has yet to land a record deal, so Jim McGregor, a New York State–based manager and producer who has worked with her since she was 17, will shop the record around to major labels in Nashville and New York.
But country is going to be a challenge. Though the industry has been particularly welcoming to Idol alumni, including Kellie Pickler and Carrie Underwood, Nashville is a small town, and it doesn’t always take kindly to strangers. “People in Nashville like to hear the story behind what got a person to where they are,” says Autumn House, vice president of A&R for Capitol Records Nashville. “I don’t really feel this way, but some people might think that a TV show that propels you to fame is less worthy than working clubs across Texas.” Or, for that matter, the election of your father to the United States Senate.
SINCE SCOTT BROWN BEAT Martha Coakley to win the Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy, Ayla has both benefited from and been burdened by her father’s public life. She admittedly capitalized on his political success by moving up the planned April release of Circles to shortly after the election, and showed up at the victory party with boxes of CDs. But the self-promotional push wasn’t entirely her doing: Her father served as her manager through the election, fielding press inquiries and weighing in on marketing strategy, only handing over the job to McGregor a few weeks after he headed to Washington.
It’s not easy being the daughter of a politician, and like many before her, Ayla is being forced to find her way as an adult while under the scrutiny of a press corps eager to criticize her father’s politics — not to mention her own career choices, outfits, and hobbies — just because they can. Ayla has been dubbed a GOP fameball, a conservative northeastern belle, Daddy’s little pit bull, and the Tracy Flick of Republican daughters.
Some of this she brings on herself. Her website, aylabrown.com, includes a 2,100-word bio listing Ayla’s achievements in categories like The Athlete, The Actress, The Journalist, and more. And yet she’s not out there selling personal stories to Us Weekly like Bristol Palin, or tweeting shots of her cleavage à la Meghan McCain. She’s just not that sort of girl. She’s also driven less by a need to be famous than by a need to be right. “Ayla is the classic case of, Tell her no and she’ll do everything she can to prove you wrong,” says Alex Gallagher, her high school basketball coach at Noble and Greenough in Dedham. “That drive is a defining characteristic for her. She will simply not give up.”
Cathy Inglese, the former Boston College women’s basketball coach who signed Ayla as a high school sophomore, says it was the young woman’s blue-collar drive that appealed to her most. “She was an undersized player inside,” says Inglese, “but one of the things she was best at was her work ethic and her scrappiness.”
Ayla’s not entirely self-made, though: She was born with looks and talent, to parents with professions where looks and talent are recognized, cultivated, and celebrated. On one hand, Ayla’s confidence is typical of a recent college graduate who has the freedom to test-drive a career; she has been afforded the luxury of security. But she’s also a girl who has been raised, since she was small, to expect to be the best at what she does. Extraordinary is all she’s ever known.
As Gallagher says, “There is no question that she was built to handle the spotlight…. Ayla is at her best when the most possible people are paying attention.”
AYLA WAS 10 WHEN HER FATHER first took her to a karaoke bar. “My parents knew I had a good voice when I started singing before I could even talk,” she says. “My first-grade teacher called home and said, ‘Ayla won’t stop singing in class.’ I thought I was Ariel from The Little Mermaid.” When she was 8, she auditioned for Zoom, the PBS kids’ show, but didn’t get the part. At 15, her father took her to meet with music producers in New York. “Dad basically called them and was like, ‘Whatever artist you have, I believe my daughter’s better,’” she says. From a young age she was an unabashed Daddy’s girl. “We’re like two peas in a pod,” she says. “We were inseparable.”
Where Ayla really excelled, though (to her father’s delight), was sports: basketball, cross-country, and softball. She played varsity for all three starting in eighth grade at Noble and Greenough. On weekends, she played Pop Warner football for a local boys’ team in Wrentham, or she’d tag along with Brown to his triathlons and pickup basketball games. “My dad pushed me all the time, always challenged me, always made me work out,” she says. “I loved it and hated it at the same time. My mom was the mediator. If she thought my dad was pushing me too hard, she would step in, but…I loved that connection we had. It was our time.” (“Listen,” Senator Brown says. “You can’t force someone to get off the couch and work out. That comes from an inner strength, and Ayla’s really always had that. When she was born, she had the cord wrapped around her neck. She had to be torn out with the forceps.”)
Her sister, Arianna, two years younger and now a sophomore at Syracuse, was more “free-spirited,” like their mom. Ayla never understood Arianna. “I always had this inner drive to compete, and I didn’t understand why she didn’t,” Ayla says. “When I watched her play basket-ball and she wasn’t taking it as seriously as I did, I kind of blamed her for not being focused or determined. It took many years for me to understand that she was focused and determined in other aspects of her life, like school.”
Ayla’s relationship with Arianna ultimately taught her that not all battles are meant to be won; it also taught her how to be respectful of the competition and not to crush people just because you can. “My dad would obviously spend more time talking about basketball with me, so Arianna believed that I received more attention,” she says. “But that wasn’t the case, not really.” Eventually, Ayla says, she learned that just because the spotlight was drawn to her didn’t mean she always had to step into it. “Everything that she is good at, I don’t even touch,” Ayla says of her sister. “Like, she loves animals, and because of that I don’t even really like animals.” They’re now very close.
But the attention became increasingly difficult to avoid. As a high school basketball player, Ayla was virtually unstoppable. She began getting letters from college recruiters in eighth grade, and later became the state’s 20th female player to score more than 2,000 points in high school. In fact, by the time she graduated from Nobles, where she was team captain, she was the school’s all-time leading scorer — male or female. “We used to joke with her, like, ‘It must be so hard to be so awesome,’” says Picco, who admits that she and Ayla weren’t necessarily friends their first year. “But she deserved all the attention she got. If she doesn’t give 100 percent, she doesn’t feel accomplished as a person.”
THE FIRST TIME A REPORTER APPROACHED Ayla after a Nobles basketball game, during her first year at the school, she started stuttering. At home soon after, Brown launched a media-training boot camp. “He would pretend he was a reporter and ask me really hard questions, and I would try and, like, answer them the right way,” she says. “For example, the reporter would say, ‘You played a great game. How does it feel to score 20 points?’ And instead of saying, ‘Yeah, it was awesome,’ I would say, ‘Yeah, it was my team that really helped me out.’”
As an athlete, Ayla’s life was barely her own: She was told when to eat dinner, when to work out, when to do her homework. While playing for BC, she got 11 days off a year. “I’ve been so tied down since I was 12 years old and made a commitment to play basketball full time and try to get a scholarship,” she says. “Now that I’m done with it, people ask if I miss it, and I don’t, not yet.” She says she hasn’t touched a basketball since her last college game in March.
“Ayla was a person who wanted to excel at a lot of different things,” says Inglese. “I think some of the goals she set for herself were high goals, and she worked hard to try to reach them, but playing Division I takes a major commitment. At the same time, it took a lot of people to make her schedule and commitments happen, but I knew she was a worker and wasn’t going to slack off. I knew she liked basketball and would follow through with keeping in shape and improving her game, and she did.” Plus there were her parents to help keep her focused. Gallagher, the Nobles coach, describes the Brown family as one of the most insular and supportive he’s ever known. “Ayla had tough days, but always came back more motivated, more inspired, more angry to succeed at a higher level than she did the day before,” he says.
Ayla’s mom, Gail Huff, the former WCVB newscaster, used to think her daughter’s future was in professional basketball. “When she was little, her only desire in life was to be an athlete,” says Huff. “The whole Idol thing came out of left field.” Still, during Ayla’s senior year of high school, Huff encouraged her to audition even though her husband was against the idea. “She was on her way off to play basketball with a full scholarship,” Senator Brown says. “It had been the only focus of her young-adult life, and I thought she would do very well. I was scared that she would throw it all away.” In retrospect, he says, “It was a good learning process…a positive experience.” Ultimately, it helped Ayla — and her parents — realize there was life beyond basketball.
Huff remembers the first time she saw Ayla onstage during Idol’s Hollywood rounds. “Oh my God, I was hysterical,” she says. “I was like, Who is that? I couldn’t even put that person onstage in my daughter’s body.”
Richard Rushfield, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and author of American Idol: The Untold Story, released this month, remembers Ayla as a strong singer. “She was also this quirky character, this 6-foot-tall basketball player with a likable personality and the politician father sitting there in the front row,” he says. “She definitely made a very good impression.” Most Idol critics, says Rushfield, felt her dismissal was premature.
The night she was voted off, Ayla cried so hard that producers sent a counselor to check on her. “I just felt like I was such a failure,” she says. “I thought that my singing career would be over, and I was having so much fun. I was like, No — now I have to go back and play basketball.”
AYLA NOW FACES ANOTHER sort of challenge. “As a U.S. senator’s daughter, she’s going to be put to a different test than other young kids just coming out of college, and that’s unfortunate,” says Huff. “If she was becoming a salesman or a cosmetologist, they’d say the same thing. But mistakes are a part of growing up.” It’s just that in her case, people are paying attention.
For much of her life, Ayla’s felt as if she has had something to prove: to the neighborhood kids who teased her for playing boys’ football; to the high school basketball fans who heckled her with “Simon” signs; to the college classmates who called her “that American Idol girl”; to the endlessly judgmental media; and now, to everyone who thinks she’s simply riding her father’s success. Overcoming people’s assumptions is what gets her out of bed in the morning. “Everyone’s always going to try to say something bad, but you kind of have to prove that you’re not quite what they say,” she says. “I’m convinced that so many people complain about my 15 minutes of fame — ‘Give it up, stop talking about her, she’s not good at singing’ — but I guarantee that if those people actually heard me sing in a live situation, they would take back every single word…. Those who maybe don’t know that I was on American Idol think I’m using my dad’s fame to bring my name to the spotlight. It’s like, I’ve been working on my singing career since I was 17.”
Ayla’s parents say they’ll continue to emotionally guide Ayla’s passion as long as she can financially support herself. “We’ve given her the tools to make the decisions, and now we’re letting her sink or swim,” says Senator Brown. “We’re obviously thinking of her all the time, but there’s a point as a parent when you have to let go and let life move on.” Adds Huff, “Ayla’s one of those kids that was born, like, 50 years old…. From the time she could say, ‘I do it,’ she didn’t want help with anything, and I mean anything: schoolwork, getting dressed.”
That could be her downfall. Ayla is set on proving that her success has nothing to do with her father, but that’s the problem. She may have been the most famous person in her family before the election, but she’s certainly not anymore. “We see a lot of beautiful girls and sexy, rugged, good-looking guys who can sing like birds, but they still need to have that X factor,” says House, the Capitol Records music executive. “A great song, great package, experience performing live, all that stuff certainly adds up, but, more, you just kind of know when they walk in the room.”
Ayla’s X factor certainly won’t be her ability to stir up controversy. When she’s not working, she and her boyfriend, whom she won’t talk about, watch Law & Order: SVU, maybe order some takeout Italian. She doesn’t like to drink, and she still volunteers at Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey in Wrentham, where she’s worked since high school cleaning up leaves. She’s more house-mom-in-training than country-star-in-the-making, meaning her success at self-promotion may be local and insignificant. If anything, Ayla’s biggest mistake might be not that she uses her dad too much, but that she doesn’t use him enough.
“By now, there are hundreds of former Idols,” says Rushfield, the guy who wrote the book about the show. “It’s hard to use it to get attention anymore, and there can even be a bit of a media backlash. So anything you can do to get a little attention for your singing and your music is a good thing. Ultimately, people don’t buy records because your father is a senator, but without some sort of edge it can be very hard to break through. Everybody needs something, and she’s got this.”
Ayla’s not deterred, and she has a team of people — a manager, a producer, assistant types, some songwriters — working with her and telling her she has what it takes to succeed. More important, Ayla believes her work ethic is stronger than anyone else’s she’s ever met, her Idol competition included. “I’m one of the most prepared and focused people I know,” she says. Her best moment from the show was when Simon Cowell said he believed she was the season’s hardest worker. “It kind of proved that I’m not just one of those -silver-spoon girls,” she says, “which a lot of people pin me to be.”
IT’S SHOWTIME AT THE MALL. Ayla’s long, brown hair is flat-ironed straight. On her left ring finger she wears a large white topaz, a graduation gift from her parents that doubles as an engagement stand-in: “When I travel, it scares off men who try to talk to me,” she says. The salesmoms come to ask if she needs any more accessories; Ayla politely declines. And then she heads out to a sea of expectant tweens crowding outside of Sephora and shouting, “I love you, Ayla!”