Des Plaines teen was destined for Kidz Bop
Sitting poolside last year at a Sunset Strip hotel, Steffan Argus strummed his guitar and harmonized with 11 other talented young artists as curious onlookers watched the impromptu show from their balconies.
The Des Plaines middle schooler just got the news he was among five tweens picked for the worldwide music sensation known as Kidz Bop, but felt he couldn't leave L.A. without one more jam session with his new friends.
That, Steffan recalls, was one of the most surreal and rewarding days he's ever experienced as a performer.
"It was really exciting, but it was also bittersweet because I had become so close with the other kids," said Steffan, 13. "So I knocked on everybody's doors and said, 'Let's go to the pool.' It wasn't too long before we were back to being just friends, making music."
It's been a whirlwind ever since for Steffan, who in the past year has co-starred in two Kidz Bop compilation albums, music videos and commercials and performed a concert in front of 1,000 screaming fans at the Dallas World Trade Center.
Kidz Bop, which has put out 21 CDs since 2001, features child musicians singing contemporary pop songs edited to change any negative or adult content. Its most recent release debuted last month at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, and kidzbop.com runs an extensive kid-friendly social media network.
Steffan's journey can be traced back to an impulse he had around age 4 to jump onstage at summer camp and sing "Jesus Loves Me." At that moment, he knew a life of performing was in the cards.
Acting, voice and guitar lessons soon followed as well as learning the piano, French horn, ukulele and percussion. At 10, Steffan landed the role of Alfalfa in "Little Rascals" at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights. A CBS TV employee and an off-Broadway actor happened to see the show and separately approached Steffan's parents, Dina and Bob, urging them to seek professional opportunities for their middle child.
"We dismissed it at the time and didn't tell Steffan," Dina Argus said. "We thought it was so nice of them to say, but we didn't do anything about it because it's such a strange journey to think about taking."
But the family saw a production of "Mary Poppins" a few months later at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre, and a mesmerized Steffan left more determined than ever to perform at that level.
So he auditioned for two Chicago talent agencies, both of which offered contracts on the spot. He signed with the Stewart Talent Agency, and quickly landed modeling gigs for Kohl's and Carson's department stores.
He also did commercials and learned that while they're not really his thing, acting -- and owning a role -- is.
Last month, with student films and spots as an extra in "The Dilemma" and "Contagion" under his belt, Steffan auditioned for the starring role in the independent short film, "Stitches," by director Mike Eisenberg.
The movie follows a 12-year-old coming to terms with the death of his grandpa with baseball, which happens to be Steffan's favorite sport, serving as a backdrop. During his audition, the casting panel told Steffan to talk about a loved one's death, real or not, so he made up a story about losing his dad and surprised even himself how emotional he got.
"The producer came out into the hallway with puffy eyes and said everyone was bawling," Steffan's mom said.
Again, Steffan was offered the role on the spot. Filming is due to start next month in Crystal Lake.
While Steffan's natural talent is obvious -- just listen to him play the piano while soulfully singing Adele's "Set Fire to the Rain" -- he's also extremely hardworking and humble.
Elizabeth Gray has been a mentor to Steffan, working with him as vocal coach. She said he commits to and thoroughly enjoys everything when it comes to music, even if they're doing technical exercises.
"He's a true musician in every sense of the word," Gray said. "I noticed from the start what a great spirit he has, and he can light up a room immediately just through a conversation. It's so refreshing because he's just being himself."
As if his schedule weren't busy enough, Steffan manages to swing straight-As, plays in his school's band and orchestra and is active in sports and his church youth group. He also enjoys traveling to Louisiana every year with his family to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.
Sometimes he has to miss out, though. He was available to perform at Rockit in Chicago for a March 8 fundraiser benefiting FAME (Foundation of Artists Mentored in Entertainment), meeting Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan in the process. But a couple weekends later, he was committed to another benefit and had to decline an invitation to be an honored guest of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and meet cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
While Steffan's success is leading to a growing pool of fans, not all his peers are supportive.
"The girls are fine with it, but some of the guys can be harsh," Steffan said. "I've always been bullied for some reason or another, but I never pay much attention to it because of the friends I do have and the love of my family. They're just wasting their time."
Along with his acting and Kidz Bop, which may go on tour this summer, Steffan is focused on songwriting. He loves crafting his own material, much of which is far beyond his 13 years, and hopes to put out his own CD in the near future. He considers himself a mixture of Bruno Mars, Adele, Jason Mraz and Christofer Drew, so that's what you can expect to hear for a long time to come.
"I want to be playing music, no matter if it's at Madison Square Garden or like at a coffee shop," Steffan said. "It's what I want to do and I'm not going to stop."
• Kimberly Pohl wrote today's column. She and Elena Ferrarin always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to firstname.lastname@example.org or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.
Steffan James ArgusAge: 13
Hometown: Des Plaines
Who inspires you? I love the music of Bruno Mars, Jason Mraz, Christofer Drew and Adele
What's on your iPod? Lately a lot of contemporary pop and dubstep
What book are you reading? "Bridge to Neverland," by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, but I'm a HUGE fan of "The Hunger Games" and I can't wait for the movie!
The three words that best describe you? Passionate, Outgoing, Musical