Not a lot happens in Napanee on a snowy Monday night. It's suppertime in this two-stoplight town, and main street is pretty much bare. But the lights of The Superior Restaurant, at the corner of Dundas and Centre Streets, beckon. The plastic pink geraniums in the window look cheery, and a few tables are filled. Encouraging signs.
A friendly, middle-aged waitress takes my order for chicken souvlaki (juice or soup; salad or fries; rice pudding or Jell-o; tea or coffee; all for $9.99) and then settles into a chair at the back of the room to watch Pat Sajak and Vanna White spin their wheel. The food comes out. The waitress delivers. The cook in a white apron spots the notepad on the table. He hums and haws. "How's the chicken?" he asks. "You like Greek salad?"
I nod gamely, mouth full, iceberg lettuce protruding. The waitress joins him. "You here to do something on Avril Lavigne?" she inquires. "Nice girl. Great for the town. I know her family. Lovely people. They live right around the corner. The older people are getting a little tired of all the fuss. But I say it's great. Put Napanee on the map. Avril's been great for our business. You ready for rice pudding?"
So goes life in this Eastern Ontario town of 5,000, located a half-hour west of Kingston, and recently voted by Harrowsmith Country Life magazine as one of Canada's prettiest towns. Friendly but foreign, it has 14 churches and 13 beauty salons, all within a three-kilometre radius. Nothing in Napanee (pronounced Nappa-NEE) is more than a two-minute drive away. Parking is free. Coffee is under a buck. People light up in restaurants without ducking. And the average house (every second one has a satellite dish) is under $100,000.
The girl from Napanee It's low-key. Its people - largely retirees, since the young 'uns take off for brighter lights after high school - are low-maintenance. And it can't believe its dumb luck that Avril Ramona Lavigne - Avie to her friends - hails from here. Since last June, the 18-year-old has sold over eight million copies of her debut album, Let Go. Tomorrow she's up for five Grammy nods, and will perform at Madison Square Garden with the likes of No Doubt, James Taylor, Yo-Yo Ma, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. She's also in the running for six Juno nominations, beating that award show's glam host, Shania Twain (who has five).
Lavigne's stardom has inadvertently transformed Napanee from a Highway 401 tinkle-stop to a full-blown destination. The international press has descended on the place to the point that elementary schools have appointed media reps (as young as 13) to deal with the media, onslaught, and principals from Lavigne's her former schools cope by reading from prepared texts: "I am thrilled for her success," says Kerry Stewart, principal of Napanee District Secondary School (where Avril attended from Grade 9 to 11, before dropping out at 16 to pursue her career in New York). "We think she's an excellent role model for students who have lofty dreams." Stewart gets up to 20 calls a day from media around the world.
Everywhere in town there are accolades to this scrawny teenage tomboy with the fine set of pipes. Heading into town, a big sign-on-wheels reads: "Napanee Carpet says: Good Luck Avril on Grammy Night!" The hometown paper does a weekly Avril Alert. The Napanee Beaver has a 16-page Avril supplement that will hit local mailboxes this weekend. La Pizzeria has a special pie named in her honour (green olives, mushrooms and pepperoni). Her school yearbook has been sold for hundreds of dollars on eBay, along with some Napanee rocks ($1.50 each). Home Hardware has sold more than 2,500 T-shirts since Lavigne appeared wearing one of theirs in January on Saturday Night Live. Rumour has it there's talk of an Avril Lavigne Day in Napanee. Maybe even a statue that could be placed near the Greek Revival town hall.
Yet the girl herself says growing up in Napanee was, well, dull. "It was really boring," the she says of her years in the retirement community, where a handful of local gentry still live in 19th-century mansions on so-called Piety Hill. "And there was nothing to do."
In an interview from New York, Lavigne also balked at suggestions that Napanee might have played a role in shaping her and contributing in some way to her success. "They didn't have anything to do with making me who I am," she said during a break from a Rolling Stone magazine shoot. "I'm who I am because of myself, and how my parents brought me up. Napanee had nothing to do with it."
Napanee's mayor David Remington doesn't blink when he's told Lavigne's less-than-glowing take on her hometown. "I think if you asked any teenager in New York City, 'What do you think of their home town? They'd say, 'It's boring, There's nothing to do' " Remington says. "Personally, I don't think it's any different from what any honest teenager would say."
Currently, Remington's a driving force behind a Grammy shindig for 650 locals that will take place Sunday night in the high-school gym, hosted by a MuchMusic VJ. Twelve local bands will perform. Pizza, pop and chips will be provided, as well as some giveaways from Lavigne's label, BMG. Why all the fuss? Remington looks askance: "It's just a recognition of Avril. Just a chance for the community to come together and say congratulations. We're all behind you 100-per-cent. You're doing a great job."
The disconnect between Avril - the pop-punk princess whom Blender Magazine just picked as one of Rock's 50 Goddesses (up there with Shakira, Britney Spears, Madonna and Twain) - and the prepubescent Lavigne who used to sing country and gospel tunes in legion halls, arenas and waterfront festivals in nearby towns like Deseronto and Adolphustown is, well, huge. While she's speaking about her hometown, her publicist and handlers are urging her to resume posing for the Rolling Stone camera crew. While her townspeople are clamouring to claim her as one of their own, Lavigne is adamant: She belongs to no one.
Lavigne's made it clear she finds the media fixation with her tiring. "It's boring." The best thing about her success? "My dream is coming true. I'm doing what I wanted to do - be a professional singer - and I'm having a lot of fun with it." The worst part? "Press and promotion. And being famous off-stage."
Lavigne, who has made baggy drawers and wrinkled T-shirts ultra-chic, says she can't walk down a street any more without being noticed. "The other day I had a huge pair of black sunglasses on. I took off my shoes, and my chain (with the wallet) because that majorly looks like me. And I put a scarf around my neck. And they still knew it was me."
In New York and Los Angeles, Lavigne adds, people keep their distance. But everywhere else, she says, it's open season on celebrities. "I'll be sitting there eating, and they'll say, 'Can I take your picture?' And I'm like, 'I'm trying to eat here.' "
Even in her hometown she doesn't really go out any more. "Because it's too weird," says the singer bluntly. "Because every single person I know will stop and say something . . . I knew what it would be like. I go out the odd time. [But]it's too uncomfortable. When I go home the only reason I go home is to see my parents. So I just stay in. "
Lavigne's mom (Judy), dad (John), and youngest sister Michelle, 15, still live in the family abode, a 20-year-old, two-storey brick house with chocolate-brown paint peeling off the double-car garage doors. The house is on the westernmost outskirts of town and backs on to a farmer's field. Split-cedar rail fences as far as the eye can see. At the end of the block is the Evangel Temple (where the family parents took their kids went to church) and the Cornerstone Christian Academy, the elementary school Lavigne attended with her older brother Matthew. (he is now studying electronics at Loyalist College in nearby Belleville).
Stephanie Lush, a 19-year-old who went to the Cornerstone Academy with Lavigne and now works at Home Hardware, remembers Lavigne "as a nice girl, who sang a lot, and had really bushy hair," says Lush. "She wasn't a skater then. In Grade 9 she was still a Christian and everything. And then she started partying and stuff, getting crazier."
Lavigne tells much the same story: "At first, everyone knew me at high school as the singer-girl. Everyone would be like, 'Oh, yah, that's the girl who sings.' I've been singing around my whole life. My last couple of school years, I started skateboarding, and I hung out with skaters and the punks. It was like my group. I remember in Grade 9 I was like a little prep from the Christian school. And then when I got into high school, I changed. I became my person - who I am."
In Napanee, there are lots of rumours about Lavigne's wilder days, stories of skipping classes, drinking, smoking and basically driving her parents to distraction. But, then as now, most Napaneans couldn't care less. Their hometown princess beat the odds and became a star. That's enough.
Remington says her popularity was driven home to him a few weeks ago when he received an e-mail from a 19-year-old in Argentina. "He wrote he wanted to come to Napanee to see where Avril's hometown was, adding that he would be here on Feb. 11. And I totally set it aside, thinking yeah, right," remembers Remington. "Well on Feb. 11, my office downstairs buzzed me, and said, 'Mr. Remington, the boy from Buenos Aires is here.' And I went, 'Reeeeally?' And I laughed. And he really was. He came all this way."
Bill Kosmopoulous, the 54-year-old owner of Lavigne's favourite eatery in Napanee, La Pizzeria, says Lavigne was always a "nice girl. She'd come in with her girlfriends for lunch. She never caused any trouble. I just think people are jealous," he adds, pulling out a bagful of clippings that he keeps behind the counter with all the Lavigne interviews (particularly ones where she kindly mentions his 10-table establishment).
When Lavigne was 14 she won a talent contest and got the chance to sing with Shania Twain at Ottawa's Corel Centre. She also recorded a few folksy CDs with local singer-songwriter Stephen Medd. Two years later, Cliff Fabri stumbled upon Lavigne singing at a Chapters bookstore in Kingston. Fabri's Kingston company RomanLine Entertainment started managing Lavigne, and landed her an audition with an Arista talent scout, Ken Krongrad. Shortly after, Arista label head L.A. Reid signed Lavigne to a reported $1.25-million (U.S.) deal for two albums. With the help of well-known L.A. songwriters like Clif Magness and the songwriting outfit Matrix, she switched from the schmaltzy country-pop to the more sizzling punk-rock-skater dynamo that fans lap up. Her album was the second-best seller of 2002 in the United States. Her three singles, Complicated, Sk8er Boi , and I'm With You are all top-10 hits.
By nature, Lavigne says she's fundamentally moody. She doesn't know if that's a good or bad thing. "It's who I am," she says bluntly. "I get pissed off really easily if someone's bugging me."
And the anti-Britney label drives her nuts. "I'm just being myself. I just describe myself as Avril Lavigne. I don't want to say I'm this or I'm that. I'm much more than two words. Normal peopel don't walk around sticking labels on themselves."
She adds her bad-girl image has been blown out of proportion. The tales of bar fights and excessive profanity? "They were blown way out of proportion because that's what the media likes to do," Lavigne says. "I don't go around looking for fights and I don't like fighting. But if someone's throwing punches at me, of course I'm going to defend myself."
Fabri, who squired Lavigne through the early years of her career, insists the teen is a complicated person whose whole foundation is built around rebel lion against a mother "who would lock her in her room if she didn't behave.
"The dynamic of everything we're talking about here is mother-daughter," says Fabri, who split with Lavigne in the summer of 2001. She signed with the Nettwerk management empire. "The real Avril is extremely complex. But in the same way, simple. In her quietest moments, she's incredibly reflective and extremely depressed. In her wildest moments? She's a turbo engine."
Fabri says Lavigne is a force of nature. A huge talent who can be incredibly focused, and incredibly hard-edged. She's a rebel, he admits, but he's not sure of her cause. "I don't think she knows any more [who she's rebelling against]" adds Fabri.
Napanee-based Medd, who worked with Lavigne on two CDs in her early teens, says there are many misconceptions about the real Avril Lavigne. He insists she's a lovely, wholesome gal with a disarming personality. "She babysat both my girls. Today they still totally adore her. She made them feel special. She'd put the kids' hair in dreadlocks, and painted their toenails.
"My girls talk about her a lot," adds Medd, who hasn't seen Lavigne in a few years, since she came to one of his CD launches at the Canadian Legion in Napanee. "They'd love to have her babysit again."
At this point, the ever-present publicist tells Avril she's got to get back to the shoot. The interview's over. Lavigne sounds resigned and relieved.
Asked if she's nervous about the Grammys, the singer says, "Nah, I'm not nervous. It's just another gig."
As for where she now lives? "I have a bus and a hotel. I like it that way."