The four bubbly Orange County girls were bouncing through a long, sweaty photo session one recent afternoon, a hopping, spinning whirlwind of long hair, glamorous makeup and smiles so wide the lights glimmered off their braces.
But Brittany Rausch's expression melted into a pout when she slumped into a chair during a break and discovered that her blood sugar was too high.
"I'm a bad girl--a bad, bad girl," muttered the Costa Mesa 13-year-old with a sigh as she injected insulin into her abdomen with the pager-size pump she wears on her belt.
Meet the Pump Girls: poster children for juvenile diabetes, a disease that afflicts at least 130,000 American children. For many, the diagnosis means a strictly controlled diet and several shots a day . . . and the threat of side effects ranging from circulation damage, blindness and loss of limbs.
Although the Pump Girls light up stages with synchronized choreography and tightly harmonized songs about boys, love, yearnings, romance and following your dreams, their subtext is a celebration of the greatest thing that ever happened to youngsters with Type 1, or insulin-dependent diabetes: the invention in the early 1980s of insulin pumps that replace the daily travail of strictly controlled food intake and hypodermic injections.
"It's just fantastic," Pump Girl Colleen Cottrell, 14, of San Juan Capistrano said of her Minimed Model 508. "My favorite thing to do on weekends is to sleep in, and it's really great because when you're on the pump you don't have to worry about getting up at specific hours to take a shot. You're able to eat when you want to eat, and you don't have to take a shot or anything. You gain a lot of independence."
How four ordinary kids became role models on the verge of pop success is an only-in-Tinseltown kind of tale.
One evening two years ago when the Spice Girls were the rage, Brittany and a few friends attending a diabetes youth camp at Lake Arrowhead worked up a catchy song and donned flirty outfits to put on a skit for fellow campers.
Because the kids were just as excited about the pump as they were about the Spice Girls, the name for their group seemed obvious, recalled Sara Cronstedt, 15, of Santa Margarita.
In the audience that evening was Jackie Teichman, executive director of the Pediatric Adolescent Diabetes Research and Education Foundation, a partner of Children's Hospital of Orange County.
"They were really great, and I know music executives," Teichman said.
The youngsters were whisked off to audition for Hollywood record producer H.B. Barnum. Before long they had a record contract with the Little Star label, a voice coach, a manager . . . and the bookings started rolling in. Now Cottrell, Cronstedt, Rausch and newest Pump Girl, 12-year-old Sarah Ann Carey of Midway City, crisscross the country two or three times a month to pep up other youngsters with diabetes--drawing cheers from non-diabetics along the way.
"It's really been exciting," Cronstedt said. "I never imagined I'd be doing this in my wildest dreams."
As their performances have improved with practice, they've attracted increasing attention. They've been on the TV news magazine "Extra." CNN spotlighted them. They opened a concert last New Year's Eve in New Jersey before 8,000 fans for the popular boy band Youngstown. In coming weeks they're booked to play gigs in Florida, Connecticut and Texas. On June 10 they'll get a splash of high-caliber exposure with a segment on the Disney Channel's new-talent music showcase series "2 Hour Tour."
"They're a bright, bubbly group," said John Watkin, the TV series' co-executive producer. "We've had artists on the show from 12 to 23, so they are on the young side of the spectrum. But they have great enthusiasm."
The four earned their slot on the Disney Channel show with "Winter Sunshine."
"It says even in winter when it's cold and dark," said Cronstedt, "the sun is shining somewhere."
Young diabetics grow up fast, Cottrell said.
"When I was 7 1/2, my parents thought I had cancer," she recalled. "I was real skinny and my hair was falling out."
She was hospitalized for eight days. "I had to learn to take care of myself, to give myself shots. It's a big dose of reality."
With what is referred to as needle therapy, she had typical--but no less frightening--complications of glucose levels soaring too high or too low.
"I've blacked out at least twice," Cottrell said. "I've been asleep and couldn't wake up. I'm like, 'I don't want to go back to sleep.' "
The pump changed all that.
Most of their fans are Type 1 teens such as Jamie Frailey, 13, and Michelle Frailey, 15. The sisters, who live on a Irvona, Penn., dairy farm hadn't been coping well, enduring blackout and seizures. Pumps are an excellent remedy for such cases, but the cost--$5,000 apiece plus $250 a month for maintenance--can be prohibitive.
Last month they received pumps donated through the Pump Girls' fund-raising work and Sylmar-based Minimed Inc., which makes pumps.
"We went down to Harrisburg to see them perform," Jamie said. "And we got to meet them, and it was really exciting. Both of us feel a lot better now that we're on our pumps."
All adolescents get discouraged and lonely at times, but diabetics who do so and stray from their health regimen face danger. Thus role models can play a crucial part in keeping youngsters with diabetes committed to their health, said Lynda K. Fisher, an endocrinologist at Los Angeles Childrens Hospital. "Modeling after someone who successfully takes care of a medical problem like diabetes is really critical," she said.
So, of course, is the music.
"I don't think we're stars," Rausch said after pumping up and bouncing out of her chair back into her dance session. "We tell kids, 'Don't let diabetes keep you from your goals.' So who knows?"