When she was 6 years old, Rachel Novak made her stage debut at a talent show in Dalton, Ga., performing as a Hannah Montana look-alike. Now 11, she is determined to graduate from imitating other stars to becoming famous in her own right.
In 2008, Rachel began honing the skills she felt she needed to follow in the footsteps of her idol, actor/singer Miley Cyrus.
"When she started out, [Miley] was my age," Rachel said. "It made me want to do it, too."
Her quest for stardom received an early jump-start when her older sister, Ashley, 28, alerted their mother, Julie Novak, to the Nashville-based auditions for the "Hannah Montana" movie.
Novak contacted Darlene McDowell, the executive director for the film's casting agency, DS Entertainment, which signed Rachel almost immediately, despite her lack of experience.
McDowell also represented Miley Cyrus early in her career, and from their first meeting, she said she could tell Rachel had the indefinable qualities necessary for success.
"I've been in business over 20 years, and you can actually feel if a young actor has 'it' or if it's mom and/or dad that has 'it,' " McDowell wrote, in an emailed response. "Rachel had the 'it' factor, and her mom is a great 'supporting mom,' which we love."
Rachel said being taken on by someone with such close ties to her idol made her dream seem all the more attainable.
"I was hoping that would get me somewhere, that God would open the doors for me," she said. "It made me feel like, if they can get them somewhere, hopefully, they can do the same for me."
After signing with DS in 2008, Rachel started training as an actor, auditioning for commercials, TV shows and films.
Because of the frequency of her casting calls, Rachel left Calhoun Elementary School during her third and fourth grade years and was homeschooled by her mother. Last year, she re-enrolled.
CLAIM TO FAME
Rachel Novak, 11, aspires to be the next Miley Cyrus, a role she has prepared for by signing with Darlene McDowell, Cyrus' former agent in Nashville, and by taking vocal lessons from Karen Alayne, who briefly worked with "American Idol" finalist Lauren Alaina Suddeth.
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For two years, however, she and her mother made monthly trips to Nashville. Eventually, she landed roles as an extra in a student film and a pilot.
Simultaneously, she was training in other disciplines, including modeling and hip-hop dance.
Last year, she began taking singing lessons at the Chattanooga-based Ambiance Models & Performing Arts Center. She has since performed at several local festivals, including the Cookeville Fall Funfest, North Georgia Fair and on the Kids Talent Stage at Riverbend.
Rachel said she expected acting to be her strongest asset but said she has come to realize singing is her true passion.
"It just got me out of my shyness a little bit," she said. "I go on stage and it's like being a whole different person because I feel like I'm the happiest I could ever be."
Novak said her daughter is transformed when she takes the stage.
"She's very quiet and conservative ..., but when she gets on stage, it's like, 'Who is that person?' " Novak said. "She actually shocked me the first time I saw her on stage. I couldn't believe that was my child."
Six weeks ago, Rachel began taking lessons from vocal instructor Karen Alayne, who also worked briefly with "American Idol" finalist Lauren Alaina Suddeth.
Rachel may have started off pretending to be her idols, but Alayne said she is convinced her student has the dedication and potential to reach that same level of success.
"She's the total package," Alayne said. "She has a hunger and desire to learn.
"Within a year's time, you'll see a complete change in Rachel. I think she'll be a force to be reckoned with."