Kristina Maria

Kristina Maria (photo credit: Randee St Nicholas)

The transformation from pop fan to pop star has not been completely effortless for Kristina Maria Chalhoub, a.k.a. Kristina Maria. The 22-year-old Ottawa native, whose singles "Let's Play" and "Co-Pilot" have done well on Canada's dance charts, found her inner fan girl awakened when she had the chance recently to work with former 'N Sync member JC Chasez, a scenario she could have only dreamt of a decade earlier.

"You have to learn to put the fan aside, because I was so star-struck when I saw him," she says during a recent interview in Toronto. "I was like, 'Can you serenade me?' I'm telling you, the first ten minutes were brutal. And he's like, 'No!'

"We were just joking around, but I was being like a monkey on his back: 'Come on, tell me everything about 'N Sync! Can you guys get back together?' So then I kind of got that out of my system and learned to simmer down."

The result of Maria settling down into her role of pop star is Tell the World, a dance-pop album recorded over the course of 18 months in Sweden, Anguilla, New York, Los Angeles, Montreal and Miami. All of that effort coalesced in a substantive way last year when she heard her first single "Let's Play" on an Ottawa radio station for the first time while driving.

"At first it's like 'Is it my CD player?' because you start pressing the eject button. 'This is definitely not the CD player!' And then all of a sudden you're so proud because you and your team worked so hard, and those are my lyrics! You can almost feel the sweat dripping off my forehead when I hear my songs because it's hard work. It really is."

"Let's Play" and its follow-up single, "Co-Pilot," have sold over 100,000 digital copies so far. The provocative video for "Let's Play" has likewise caused a stir, racking up nearly 1.5 million YouTube views as of this writing.

Directed by photographer Randee St. Nicholas, who has worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to Britney Spears, the "Let's Play" clip depicts Maria being driven via limousine to Montreal's W Hotel for a ménage-à-trois with two handsome, young men. Although ultimately the "play" mostly involves some innocent romping on a bed with a couple of Nintendo DSs, the video does see the 22-year-old going topless, a scenario which required the singer to put herself in her director's hands, at least figuratively.

"She's just incredibly talented, and honestly she just looked at me and said: 'Trust me,'" Maria says of her director. "Because at first I was just panicking and I did not want to do it. She just said: 'Trust me. I'm not going to make this trashy or tasteless.' It's done with taste, and it's super classy and super nice. You don't see my boobs just hanging out."

Perhaps surprisingly, her Lebanese-born parents were okay with the results, although, of course, they had their reservations.

"My mom was so proud. My dad was like 'oh my God, my daughter...' for like a minute -- just like any father, naturally. But after a while he learned to just look away. He knows when it's coming. He still showed it to his friends and our family: 'Well, there it is!'"

One of the more endearing videos on her YouTube channel depicts the Ottawa native and her team putting on a showcase in Los Angeles. Her choreographer is seen praising the singer for her hard work in learning the requisite dance steps although it's obvious that dancing doesn't come naturally for Maria. I ask if it was difficult for her...

"To learn how to move? It's been a challenge for me," she admits, laughing. "We had to take dance lessons, just for the simple steps that I did. Honestly, I think I've come a long way since Los Angeles and that show. But it's really important to have those things, and I am working on making them better every day because it is what I want to do, right? But, for me, voice was always common sense so everything else is a little harder."

Fortunately, Kristina Maria's ambitions are such that hard work is no problem. I ask if her sense of what she can accomplish in her pop music career has changed since the days when her mother Huguette was guiding her career, arranging for her to sing at fairs and family parties. (She is now managed by Vito Luprano, the same Montreal-based music vet who signed Celine Dion to Sony Music as VP of A&R back in the 1980s.)

"You have to be open-minded," she says of pushing herself to do new things. "You learn so much by doing things that people ask [of] you. Of course there's a certain limit. Would my manager let me do something horrible? No way.

"That's what's fun about it. We're partners, and if I really, really, really don't feel comfortable doing something, and he feels, obviously, that's not something we would want to do, obviously he wouldn't let me. But that's his job: to push me towards something. I trust him. We trust each other, and it's his job to show me the right thing to do, and I learn from it."