U.K. 'X Factor' Winner Little Mix Set Sights on U.S. Stardom

On a windy California day, hundreds of young girls have split themselves into two groups. To the left are those waiting in line to enter Los Angeles' Conga Room, and to the right is a large crowd collected near the venue's balcony, with homemade signs in tow, anxiously awaiting the arrival of Little Mix.

The U.K. "X Factor" winner, signed to Columbia Records, comprises four female solo artists--Jesy Nelson, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, Jade Thirwall and Perrie Edwards--who were grouped together during the competition and are now working on U.S. stardom. The intimate performance at the Conga Room marks the act's first stop in L.A., and the last on a 14-city promotional run.

During soundcheck, some of the members wave at fans from the balcony, and pandemonium erupts. By showtime, the standing-room-only crowd is packed shoulder to shoulder. Seated onstage next to a guitar player, Little Mix belts out a handful of songs including the hit "Wings," which debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 last week at No. 98 and rises to No. 91 this week, followed by a question-and-answer period. The members are then whisked backstage amid audience shrieks.

Early reviews of Little Mix, whose members' ages range from 18 to 21, draw comparisons to One Direction and the Wanted. Following in the footsteps of today's biggest British boy bands, Little Mix is poised for a stateside takeover with the release of its U.S. debut, "DNA," on May 28. But unlike the act's male counterparts, Little Mix's music ventures in the direction of R&B, rather than just traditional pop.

"The comparison [to One Direction] sometimes comes up because they came out of 'The X Factor,' but for a British girl band, they're really quite unique," Modest Management founder Richard Griffiths says. The firm manages Little Mix and One Direction, but the girls will not be marketed in the same way. "There's been some great British girl bands over the years, but there's never been a girl band that has their vocal ability. We felt they really can compete in America on that level."

As the name Little Mix suggests, the members cite a range of inspirations, from Beyonce to Steve Perry. But vocally, the R&B sound dominates. "We all have different musical influences and we've tried our best to squeeze that into one album," Thirwall says. "We're trying to bring back the kind of old-school harmonies, and that kind of '90s sound as well, but more up to date. There's definitely something [on the album] for everyone--big ballads, R&B, hip-hop, pop, old school, rock...We are basically a 'little mix' of everything."

Among the tracks giving the act a direct connect to the R&B world is "How Ya Doin'," featuring Missy Elliott, which samples De La Soul's "Ring Ring Ring." Linking with Elliott--a five-time Grammy Award winner noted for reconstructing the sound of R&B music in the late '90s-was a big get for the girls. "She's been my idol since I was little," Nelson says. "In every single interview that we've ever done, people would be like, 'Who's your dream collaboration?' I would say, 'Missy Elliott.'"

"Wings" debuted at No. 1 on the U.K. singles chart, becoming one of last year's top 50 best-selling songs in the United Kingdom. The U.S. marketing plan will build on an already strong American fan base by way of in-store appearances, increased radio presence and relaunching a "Mixer Magnet" digital campaign in which fans from 10 different countries posted Twibbons (Twitter ribbons) to their accounts in hopes of having Little Mix perform in their country. The label will launch a similar campaign in the United States.

"Everything we want to do with Little Mix is very fan-chasing," Columbia senior VP of marketing Doneen Lombardi says. "We want the fans to know they're the reason why these girls were [in America] for two weeks, and the reason they're coming back."

An R&B-leaning girl group hasn't cracked the mainstream since the days of En Vogue, TLC and Destiny's Child, and Little Mix is prepared to fill that spot. "We want to be able to inspire people," Pinnock says. "We want to be global--it feels like it has to happen. It's the goal, and what we're working toward."


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