When Lauren Ianuzzi graduated from Swarthmore in 2007, it seemed as though she had hit a wall. “Nothing was happening!” she said of that period. “I was babysitting and doing part-time college essay tutoring to make extra money, but at the end of the day I just didn’t know what to do. I was recording, singing, playing shows, and it was really depressing because it led up to nothing. I was literally counting pennies to go get coffee with a friend.”
After completing her Swarthmore education having written, choreographed and composed a two-hour musical comedy, Jersey native Ianuzzi (better known now by her stage name “Chevonne”) knew she wanted to pursue pop music. The musical, which was produced on a grant from former President Al Bloom, is a singing, dancing example of the quirk and personality that landed the alumna spots on tours with Estele and Lady Gaga, and now on NBC’s The Voice.
But before all this, Chevonne was just a Swattie with a dream and a meal plan. Her musical, We Are So Them, started as a “silly idea in the cafeteria” with friend Katie Chamblee ’07. Watching the idea grow from something she and her friend giggled about over pasta bar into a full-fledged show, she says, was “unbelievable”, and helped solidify her desire to pursue a career in pop.
Chevonne describes the comedy as “surreal, based on fantasy elements.” The plot plops itself into a middle school, where it follows the protagonist: a pretty, popular girl who acts out her secret nerdiness through experiments on a rat in her basement. A rat which sometimes turned into a human and spoke in a British accent. Overall, Chevonne says she and Chamblee wanted to speak to the idea of challenging the mold you’re in and embracing your inner weird. British animorphs seemed to fit that bill.
Chevonne attributes her success to years of perseverance, and partially to her experience here at Swat. “Swarthmore definitely helped me see the beauty of highs and lows. I had to learn I wasn’t going to be the smartest, and people are going to open your eyes, change your opinions – they come from different walks of life than you.” Her first such lesson came her junior year, when she received a D+ in a music theory class because she was spending so much time traveling to New York to sing. For the normally straight-A student, it was shocking, but worth it. She cites experiences like this as part of what has helped her succeed in the music industry. “The ebb and flow I experience now in my career I experienced first at Swarthmore – the experience of getting bad grades and being challenged.”
Beyond the academic challenge, Chevonne also partially attributes her affinity for working with socially aware, highly creative artists to her four years at Swat. “The embracing the freak thing that’s now trendy in pop culture has been going on for years at Swarthmore – not everyone wakes up in the morning with these strange ideas about how they’re gonna dress and act and that’s beautiful – we’re a proud collection of strange people.”
And these strange people prepared her well for more strange people to come. After a few years of marginal success pursuing solo artistry and singing in cover bands, Chevonne heard of an open call audition for Lady Gaga’s backup singers. As anyone in their right mind would do, she pieced together a costume from her mom’s lingerie closet and stomped her way through to the last round of auditions.
But with Gaga within reach (literally, in the room), Chevonne was cut from the very last round of the tryout.
Devastated but still determined, she followed up on an opportunity she had heard of at the Gaga audition to tour with Estelle, another artist whose work Ianuzzi had long admired. This opportunity was the push her career had been waiting for. “Estelle scooped me up and we started touring right away. I told the people from the Gaga audition they were right when they told me to stick with it – I had a job touring now.”
Chevonne was happily touring with Estelle for a while before she heard from Gaga’s people again. This time, though, they had more than words of encouragement to offer – they wanted to feature her funk-pop style on the Monster Ball tour.
With Estele’s blessing, Chevonne shacked up in the house of Gaga. Of the experience, she says, “whatever Gaga says about house of Gaga is real – her crew is full of forward-thinking people, just true artistry on and off the stage. And the fans are truly one of a kind. To know that Gaga was sharing her fans with us, her cast, was a more and more humbling experience.”
And so Chevonne spent the next year or so in front of a constant barrage of lights, cameras and meat dresses. One of the best things for her, though, was the trust that grew between the cast members as the tour went on. “Gaga trusted us to hold her show. We became more and more grateful for each other being there.”
But as with all things, the Monster Ball came to an end last year and Gaga pared her cast down to half for the Born this Way tour. So Chevonne, as she describes it, “went back to the grind.” She was getting back into the groove of trying to pursue her solo artistry when she heard about auditions for The Voice, her current gig.
“I had known about The Voice, and something just told me I should do it – this is the right time. I felt like this is where I needed to be. The show is in the public eye, but, like Estelle and Gaga, has progressive messages and substance. It’s incredibly supportive of artists.”
When it came time to audition, Chevonne says she was surprisingly nervous. “I should’ve not been nervous given my experience, but being up there by yourself is different. It was just me barebones, my voice, nobody else onstage, being judged by 4 people I respect immensely. It was the most pressure of my life.”
But she nailed the audition, and has since been putting all her energy into winning the grand prize of the competitive reality show: a recording contract. For her, working with Cee-lo as a performance coach has been a dream come true. “I’m where I want to be right now. Cee-lo understands my genre combo of rock, funk, and pop. Having his stamp on me as a singer is unbelievable.”
After her battle round episode last night, Chevonne was momentarily defeated in competition, but saved by Christina Aguilera. The show has a “coach steal” function, which allows a coach to save a competitor from elimination and add them to their own team. For the upcoming “knockout” round next week, Chevonne will be working with “the voice” herself, Ms. Aguilera, as her new coach.
And as for the future? “I’m just trying to live in the moment because I know what it’s like for something to end. When you finish a project you have to go back to where you started.”
Photo: Chevonne’s first Laday Gaga audition. Courtesy of Chevonne.