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The making (and marketing) of the latest tween star

By Kelley L. Carter, Special to CNN
  • 16-year-old Keke Palmer got her start with a role in "Barbershop 2: Back in Business"
  • Critics applauded her star-turn in "Akeelah and the Bee"
  • Palmer is one of the top 5 highest paid tween actors on television

(CNN) -- Things happened in reverse for Keke Palmer.

The 16-year-old actress landed her first job acting alongside silver screen heavyweights Queen Latifah, Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer in "Barbershop 2: Back in Business." Critics then fell in love with her in "Akeelah and the Bee," with famed movie critic Roger Ebert saying that after seeing her portrayal in the film, she should be an award contender for her leading role alongside veterans and Oscar contenders Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne. She was 11 at the time.

Clearly, her career was off to a fine start. The problem? No one her age was familiar with her work.

"I'd always done movies with older people, films that we targeted for older people," she says. "My peers didn't really know who I was. I would be out places and parents and teachers would know me -- they'd come up to me and say 'Hey baby! I know who you are!" -- and that would be good, but I wanted the kids to know me, too."

It's quite the quandary -- especially in 2010 and beyond -- because landing a kid-friendly TV show, the type that you can build a brand off, is almost a surefire recipe for supersized tween-idol success. Both cable outlets Nickelodeon and Disney know how to build brands -- and in the last few years have developed some of the world's biggest rock stars, most of whom aren't even old enough to buy a lottery ticket -- some barely have their driver's licenses.

Palmer got a taste of what that life would be like back in 2007, when she co-starred alongside "High School Musical" star Corbin Bleu in Disney's TV movie "Jump In!" It wasn't until that film started airing on the outlet that she began getting attention from people in her age group. It did something for her. When Nickelodeon came calling to offer her a starring vehicle, it was a no-brainer.

Carissa Rosenberg, entertainment director for Seventeen magazine, says that both Disney and Nickelodeon are sharp when it comes to developing talent and creating stars.

"They know what's appealing; they're experts in that demo. And that demo is never going away. There will always be tween girls. They're constantly just figuring out what these girls want and they get it and present it," Rosenberg says. "And for Keke, for a lot of these kids, they find that there aren't a lot of roles out there for kids that age. She was offered something that was really amazing from Nickelodeon. And it showcased her talents in so many different levels and really put her on the map."

Now, Palmer is one of the top five highest paid tween actors on television, and commands $20,000 per episode for "True Jackson, VP," the show that airs on Nickelodeon on Saturday nights. This weekend, the network is stepping it up and debuting the franchise's first TV movie, "Trapped in Paris," on Saturday.

The show has outperformed for the network; it's the No. 2 program on Saturday nights for the tween market and the series also is in the top three shows with kids 2-11 and kids 6-11 on Saturday nights, exactly the market Palmer wanted to tap into.

The first season of the show did so well that it was branded and merchandise went on sale in Wal-Mart. Because the show is about a 16-year-old fashion company whiz-kid, a test run of a "True Jackson" clothing line was released and sold out quicker than anticipated. Manufacturers had to rush to get more product in the stores.

Now the show is in its second season and has featured guest stars including Justin Bieber, Natasha Bedingfield and Willow Smith. Earlier this year, Palmer won an NAACP Image Award for outstanding performance in a youth/children's program.

Winning that award was a high for her. She says the image she puts out is extremely important to her, especially because she knows she represents young African-American girls. First lady Michelle Obama (her daughters are fans) even told Palmer how proud she was of her at a youth inauguration event.

"There are not many young African-American women on TV. I want young girls to see that it's normal, that it's natural to see a young black girl on TV. If they see it enough times, if they see more people like me on TV, then they'll know it's possible," she says. "I haven't been nude in anything in my whole life. I haven't done anything that's extremely out of my character, something that I would feel bad about later. You don't have to do anything crazy to make your dreams come true. That's a big part of what I do. I try to make it known to people that look like me that it can happen."

Palmer will be capitalizing on the success of the show, the merchandising line and the recent award by releasing an album in August. Her plan is to make music that stays on par with her wholesome, age-appropriate brand, but she hopes it still comes across as mature, so older people buy into it as well.

"I'm just trying to make sure that I'm not talking about things that I shouldn't be talking about. I'm trying to make sure they are mature beats and hooks, but I'm not talking about anything sexual or about drinking or getting drunk," she says. "There is a way to camouflage the music to make it sound older, with beats and hooks. I can do songs about having fun and not talk about anything crazy. The beats can be so fierce that it sounds like I'm talking about something older. It can make older people attracted to it and it's not illegal for someone my age to be doing it."

That's a smart move, says Ashley Dos Santos, a pop culture and marketing expert for Washington-based Crosby-Volmer International Communications. Teen stars like Palmer and her contemporaries like Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato are so hot right now because of their accessibility and seemingly wholesome demeanor in a world where sex, drugs and violence have dominated the culture for some time, she says.

"Go back a decade to the year 2000 -- 10 years ago we saw such a shift in the exact opposite direction. Parents were shaking their heads. They were worried about what their kids were watching and paying attention to," Dos Santos says. " 'Cruel Intentions' was out and it was rated R, yet 13-year-old girls were clamoring to see it. It was all about sex, all about stabbing people in the back, the exact opposite of what parents wanted to teach their kids. So it's a breath of fresh air to have the Selena Gomez's and the Miranda Cosgroves and the Keke Palmers out there -- they at least seem on the surface to be squeaky clean."

Marjorie Cohn, Nickelodeon's president, development and original programming, says Palmer really embodies her generation.

"She's just so positive and bubbly and natural. She's incredibly relatable and she feels like a real person -- that's why kids respond to her," Cohn says. "She'd been mostly in dramatic roles. But she's able to show off her versatility. She's a great physical comedian ... and she does this live in front of a studio audience, and seeing the affirmation and getting it right there in the moment has been unbelievably fulfilling for her. And she understands the responsibility."

Palmer says she hopes this is a banner year for her. When she looks back on 2010, she's hoping she can tick off a couple of high-profile accomplishments.

"In the next year, I want to have the No. 1 album. That's what I'm reaching for. And then I want to have a teen movie coming out," she says. "I do want to go to college, too. I want to go to Howard University. But if my career is still going fast and full speed, it'll be really hard. And I don't know if I should take time off if I've got a No. 1 album and doing movies. It's just so crazy because everything is moving so fast right now."