When her stint on season two of “American Idol” flared into controversy, Frenchie Davis became infamous. The promising young singer had been kicked off early on because of some risqué photos found on the Internet.
The singer managed to turn that infamy into hard-won fame through sheer hard work and by maintaining a focus on what was really important to her.
Her answer to all that media fuss was to turn to theater. She was offered a part in the long-running Broadway musical Rent, and she took it. She parlayed that into a West Coast tour of Dreamgirls that brought her to Sacramento and San Jose.
She’s back in the Bay Area as part of an ongoing series of former “American Idol” contestants performing at the Rrazz Room, a posh cabaret in the Hotel Nikko.
Davis performs through Aug. 2 with a rotating roster of “Idol” kids, and at 29, it’s clear Davis has done a whole lot of growing up since she was last here.
“My sanity is important to me,” Davis says. “I like the fact that I’ve been able to do what I love and still enjoy my life. I can tell you, I have crossed paths and met so many women who are way richer than I am, way more famous, but they don’t enjoy their lives more than I do. They’re miserable, empty shells, thoroughly Botoxed. They don’t even remember who they were when they got into the business.”
During the media melee that erupted during her post-“Idol” days, Davis says she nearly forgot who she was – a girl from Inglewood, California, who didn’t grow up with much money – and what she loved.
“I don’t want to lose my love for this, for performing,” she says. “Most black girls started singing in church. I started in musicals. I always was a little theater queen. I genuinely got into this business because I love to sing. I can’t even describe what it feels like when I’m on stage and I open my mouth. When I’m in a bad mood, I turn on some Aretha and sing along, and I’m over it. By track 4 I’m over it.”
After the Dreamgirls tour, Davis went back to Rent and ended staying four years and nearly driving herself to exhaustion. The grind of eight shows a week on Broadway wore her down, and she developed polyps on her vocal chords and had to have surgery.
But all the hard work also resulted in a slimmer Davis, who is a whole dress size smaller than the last time we saw her around here four years ago.
“Part of it was doing eight shows a week and having a New York Sports Club right next to the theater,” she says. “The other part is about my grandmother, who passed away with diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity. On her deathbed, she made me and my mother promise to be good to ourselves.”
Davis still appreciates her big girl status – “My curves are sexy. I like them and my boyfriends like them.” – but she has a greater appreciation for fitness than she used to.
“Trust me, I’m not trying to be thin, not even a little bit,” she says. “I want to keep my dress size in the double digits. I’d be happy with a 14 to a 16. This is about pushing my body to the limit. Doing theater, if you can’t sing and dance without running out of breath, you’re in trouble. I’ll tell you this: an hour of cardio workout followed by the steam room opens me up, and I can sing anything.”
A hit on the gay pride circuit around the world (she just returned from Carnivale in Rio), Davis will record some dance music. “I owe that to my gays,” she says. But as for a debut album, she’s still soul searching on that topic.
“Everyone says, `Frenchie, you gotta do an album,’ but I just don’t know,” she says. “The recording industry comes with so much stuff, and nothing that has to do with music. You know, Nell Carter never recorded an album, but we know how fabulous she was. If I keep working to make it better, people will remember my contribution to the arts. I truly believe my contributions to the world will be outside of music. Like the Frenchie Davis School of the Arts. I’ll definitely have a legacy.”
When Davis headed to “Idol” land, she left Howard University in Washington, D.C., about 30 credits shy of her diploma. Education is important to her, and she had planned on going back to finish this fall. But then musical theater interfered. Instead of hitting the books, she’ll be hitting the road, along with “American Idol” Season 2 winner Ruben Studdard in a production of the Fats Waller revue Ain’t Misbehavin’.
“I’ll go back to school in the fall of ’09,” Davis says. “I can still work on the weekends. And I won’t be a poor student again. I remember that was like. I’ll have the time and money to finish the degree right.”
In the meantime she’s looking forward to touring with her good friend Studdard.
“Ruben’s my boo!” she trills. “When we were on the show we hung out a lot. Us and Rickey Smith and some of the other kids. Everybody else, well, let’s just say they were advanced. Maybe in college I had a glass of wine or smoked a joint, but I didn’t dabble beyond that. Some of those other kids were advanced. They’d be full out. And me and Ruben and Ricky, Nashika and Julie and some others would be playing cards in my room. We didn’t have time for shenanigans.”
When her show business shenanigans are over, Davis says she’s turning toward making a difference in the world like her father, who works with a human rights organization in Darfur. She may even get a master’s degree in international affairs at NYU.
“You know, I’m not 23 anymore. I’m not even 25,” Davis says. “I’m thinking about my life goals, not just career goals. When do I want to become a mother? I don’t want to wait ’til I’m 40 to have kids. And theater takes such a toll on the voice and body. I have to figure out what I’m going to do when my body says to me, `Bitch, I’m not doing eight shows a week anymore.’ In the theater, you can’t fake it. It has to be real, and I want to keep it real and then move on.”
For information: Frenchie Davis appears with other former “American Idol” contestants Rickey Smith, Julia DeMato and Trenyce today (July 25) through Sunday (July 26) and with RJ Helton, Julia DeMato and Trenyce July 29-August 2. The Rrazz Room is in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$55 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 866-468-3399 or visit www.therrazzroom.com.