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'Dancing' a smooth move for Mario

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore-born R&B; singer Mario lost out on one of the biggest stages in show business when he was voted off ABC's Dancing with the Stars this week. But his impressive run on the hit TV series has given the 21-year-old performer a shot at reaching new audiences - not just as a musician but also as an actor, industry analysts said yesterday.

The question now is what use he makes of the newfound momentum.

"Being on Dancing with the Stars opened up Mario to a whole different audience who didn't know of his talent and personality - and they got to see him in a different light than your usual R&B; singer," says Biff Warren, president of The Agency, a multicultural marketing and media company that includes such clients as Alicia Keys and Jamie Hector.

"So, this will benefit him and open more doors for him when it comes to television and film. Even in his own music career, it will make him more recognizable in different radio formats, because the show is so popular across the board. It will do for him what it does for football players like Jerry Rice - let viewers see them in a new and personal way."

Music critic Craig Seymour, author of Luther: The Life and Longing of Luther Vandross, sees Dancing with the Stars as a golden opportunity for Mario in so far as it may have helped him overcome mainstream cultural stereotyping. But it is crucial that the singer waste no time in capitalizing on his heightened recognizability.

"Often R&B; stars, especially young R&B; stars, have problems ... becoming distinguishable from one another in the minds of mainstream viewers. ... So, he's had an incredible opportunity to present himself as an individual to a mainstream audience," Seymour says.

"But he now needs to do something with that expanded platform. He might want to parlay into a TV series or something. But it's just really important that he uses this momentum that he has right now, because let's face it, by next year at this time, if he doesn't do something with this, everybody may have forgotten him and moved onto someone else."

While some TV interviewers like ABC's Jimmy Kimmel raised the question of whether the singer's appearance on a network TV show with a mass audience will hurt his credibility with his core urban audience, music industry experts and pop culture analysts generally dismiss such concerns.

"Mario's stint on Dancing with the Stars probably won't hurt him. With the show's enormous audience, he's made himself present in the minds of a whole new group of fans. It was a savvy move on his part," says Sean Fennessey, music editor of VIBE magazine.

"By going on the show, he has given up a certain amount of edginess, because Dancing with the Stars is not edgy," says University of Maryland pop culture professor Sheri Parks. "But I think that's outweighed by the fact that appearing on the show could help introduce him to older African-Americans and white audiences - if they don't already know him. Expanding his audience can give him a longer career and lead to something like Las Vegas."

Parks, author of Fierce Angels: The Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture, says Mario's potential is unlimited: "I don't think there is anyone on the pop culture landscape right now who combines that gosh-darn, clean-cut TV persona and the young black male the way he does."

He has already started cashing in on that potential, according to Carolyn Williams, vice president for urban marketing at J Records, the RCA Music Group label for which Mario records.

"Being on the show helped run his brand across the board - and we kind of see that as a longevity thing," Williams says. "We saw huge spikes in his digital sales [downloads and ringtones] every week. And I think it had a lot to do with his online visibility being at an all-time high while he was on the shows."

Mario says he understands the importance of striking while his image is still hit-TV-show hot. He says he will be reading today in Hollywood for a role in a feature film and a guest appearance on a TV series. J Records has just launched a promotional campaign for his single "Music for Love," which he will be on the road promoting in coming days.

"People have been calling and acting like they feel sorry or whatever that I am off the show, but I feel great about the way it went. I had a great time. I had a helluva of run, and I feel like it has opened a lot of doors for me," he said in a phone interview yesterday.

"If nothing else, I think some people who might have never really looked at me before now see me as a person beyond just music - I mean, integrity-wise. And because of that, they may now want to work with me. And if that's all that came out of this show, then that's good. That's enough for me."

Sun pop music critic Rashod D. Ollison contributed to this article.

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