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Gian Di Franco is 13 -- and on VH1's new show, 'I Know My Kid's A Star'

Palm Beach Post Television Writer

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

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Three years ago, Di Franco's mom, Sandy, rented the movie Shall We Dance? In the sexy comedy, Richard Gere plays an unhappy office worker who rekindles his zest for life through ballroom dancing.

"When Gian saw it, he was mesmerized," says Sandy, a former choreographer. "He watched that entire movie with me."

Gian (pronounced "John") was only 10 at the time, but he couldn't take his eyes off Gere's and Jennifer Lopez's sizzling tango scenes.

"I thought that was pretty cool and I wanted to try it," Gian recalls, smiling sheepishly while sitting in the dining room of his family's airy Royal Palm Beach home.

He not only tried it, he mastered it. The 13-year-old Bak Middle School of the Arts seventh-grader went on to compete in seven Latin ballroom dancing competitions, placing first in six of them. And now he's swiveled his hips onto national TV on VH1's I Know My Kid's A Star (Thursday, 10 p.m.).

In the new reality series hosted by former Partridge Family star Danny Bonaduce, 10 wannabe child stars and their stage parents compete in a series of challenges while living in a five-bedroom, 9,000-square-foot house in the Hollywood Hills. Each week one child/parent team is sent packing by Bonaduce, who plays critic, judge and jury on the eight-week series.

So far, Gian and Sandy have made it through the first week. They're not allowed, of course, to say how long they spent in La-La-Land. But Sandy can say that living in a house with a bunch of, oh, passionate stage parents was different.

"I'm non-confrontational, and I was sort of along for the ride where some of these mothers were there for themselves," the 54-year-old Sandy says. "Let's just say there was some drama in the house. I'm a stage mom to an extent, but I didn't have to be a lunatic on the show."

As for Gian, he had a ball with the other kids. "I felt like a big shot TV star," he says excitedly. "I really thought, 'Wow, I could be living like this every day if I make it big in Hollywood.' That's how I want to live."

Gian, who had a tutor on the set, admits he was a little homesick and that he missed his two dogs, Bella, a 6-month-old Boston terrier, and Sam, a 3-year-old schnauzer poodle.

Looking at her son, Sandy shakes her head. "He was not homesick," she says, smiling broadly. "He loved every minute being on that show. If he could've moved his family out there, he could've had it all."

Bonaduce was impressed with Gian. "He's really talented," the gravely-voiced bad boy reality TV star says in a telephone interview. "The show wasn't called The Next Ballroom Dance Star, but his ballroom dancing was spectacular. I wonder what his feet look like when he takes his shoes off."

Making Gian's accomplishments more impressive is the fact that he wears a pacemaker and has done so since he was 2. Gian's family has a history of heart problems. His great-uncle and grandmother also wear pacemakers.

"We had a hard time dealing with this at first," Sandy says quietly. "You don't imagine a child having a pacemaker. For a long time, Gian thought everybody had a pacemaker."

Says Gian: "People would be shocked I have a pacemaker because I do all of this stuff."

Yes, Gian acts (he was recently tapped for a lead role in a local feature film), models (he was hired by the prestigious Ford Modeling) and sings. But Gian admits singing isn't his strong suit. His idols include such old-school stars as Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and James Dean. "I want to be a legend like Frank Sinatra," Gian says matter-of-factly. "A hundred years from now I want people to say, 'I want to be like Gian Di Franco!'"

You don't find many teen boys who are passionate about ballroom dancing. When Gian decided to take lessons and later compete, he was often teased by friends. But Gian, who practices 21/2 hours a day, six days a week, took it all in stride. He even made light of the comments.

"They'd say ballroom dancing was so gay," Gian remembers. "And I'd say, 'What other time are you going to get alone time with a girl for two minutes? If you want to dance hip-hop, that's fine. I'm dancing with a girl.'"

But even Gian's dad, Pompeo, took a few months to fully embrace his son's career choice. When asked how he reacted, the 53-year-old Di Franco, a Masserati/Ferrari mechanic, laughs heartily and says, "I almost fell out of my chair. I told my wife, 'Let's humor him. Where could this possibly go?' How little did I know."

Gian admits his dad's initial reaction bothered him. "It hurt a little bit," he says. "I was like, 'Dad, c'mon, you gotta come around. I'm dancing and this is what I want to do. I'm not gonna be some Arnold Schwarzenegger.'"

Gian's teachers at Bak aren't surprised he has excelled at ballroom dancing. "He's a very hard worker who walks to the beat of his own drum," says Carlos DeBarros, a dance teacher who specializes in modern, jazz and ballet. "He doesn't really seem to care what other people think, which in the future will be a pretty good trait for him to have."

The Di Francos admit Gian's passion isn't a passing fad. Sandy quit her job as a medical office administrator to manage Gian's career. She estimates she and her husband have spent at least $10,000 on headshots, dance lessons, costumes, competitions and mailings the last three years. She also found out about VH1's show while scouring the Internet.

"I'm just a mother and I got my kid to L.A.," Sandy says proudly. "That was a pretty good coup."

But L.A. isn't all sunny and bright - as a host of former drug-addicted, booze-guzzling, tabloid-making child stars, including Bonaduce - can sadly attest. Sandy says she's doing her best to keep Gian grounded so her son can realize his dream.

"I just love getting on that stage and dancing or acting or modeling in front of people," Gian says. "It gives me that adrenaline and makes me want to keep doing it and doing it."

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