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Is Johnny Z. the New Justin Bieber? A Chicago Summer Camp Creates a New Teen Star

On a sleepy summer afternoon at the Water Tower, a high-end mall in Chicago, a gaggle of teenage girls spot teen heartthrob Johnny Z., star of the British reality TV show.
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On a sleepy summer afternoon at the Water Tower, a high-end mall in Chicago, a gaggle of teenage girls spot teen heartthrob Johnny Z., star of the British reality TV show Irresistible.

The girls start shrieking, following Johnny Z. and filming him with their iPhones. Johnny Z. walks with a handsome man in his mid-thirties wearing a nice suit. The man pulls 8x10 glossy pics of Johnny Z. out of his suitcase for Johnny to sign for his fans.

The throng around Johnny Z. grows. Soon adults are pushing in for pictures, asking to shake Johnny's hand, and telling him how much their grandkids love his show. The mall security comes to Johnny's aid, whisking him into a store, locking the glass doors behind him so that the famous Johnny Z. can have a private shopping experience.

Outside the store, a growing crowd of excited kids and adults film Johnny Z. with their iphones through the glass while teen girls scream his name.

But what the eager "fans" and the security guards don't know is that Johnny Z. doesn't exist; and that the whole uproar has been meticulously planned by 13- and 14-year-old campers at The Underground Camp, an innovative summer camp created and run by Jeff Stone, a fifth grade teacher, and Duane Freeman, a middle school counselor, at The Francis W. Parker School, a private school in Chicago.

Each year, a camper is selected to play the role of "Johnny Z.," an entirely fabricated teen idol. "It's kind of like Menudo," Camp Director Jeff Stone says, "The characters change, but the name stays the same." The other campers are grouped in threes and assigned various roles from "screaming girls" to "boys who are drawn by the ruckus" to "iPhone photographers." Camp Director Duane Freeman stays in the crowd, pretending to be an onlooker, but he's really running things, texting instructions to the campers as the drama unfolds. Camp Director Jeff Stone plays the role of the manager with a briefcase accompanying Johnny Z.

The campers' actions are carefully orchestrated to effectively create a scene around Johnny Z. And Stone and Freeman instruct them to be intentionally vague when other shoppers begin to crowd around and ask about Johnny Z. When a shopper asks, "What does Johnny Z. do?"

The fame-struck kids yell, "What doesn't he do?"

When strangers in the crowd "Google" Johnny Z. to confirm his fame, the search leads them to Johnny Z.'s website and blog, which the campers created earlier in the week.

As other people start gathering around Johnny Z., The Underground Campers back off until it's just strangers thronging around Johnny Z., taking pictures, asking for autographs and telling him how much they love his TV show.

Stone says, "We want the kids to have a great time. But we can't pull it off without massive preparation. The kids learn that great preparation leads to a great event. Afterwards we watch the videos. The kids are in awe of how strangers respond to fame. Strangers take pictures of Johnny Z., they ask for the autograph of someone they don't know. The kids think it's hilarious."

The event gives the kids a chance to discuss the random nature of fame and the way even adults "suspend reasonable thought" when they are around someone they believe to be famous.

The "Johnny Z." event remains the most hyped Underground Camp activity, but it's one of many that teach campers how hard work, planning, and stretching beyond their comfort zone can result in a fun and rewarding pay off.

Stone and Freeman base The Underground Camp on the premise that the success of the camp's activities depends on how willing the campers are to buy into the activity. "The campers are willing to work hard because they are interested in the event they create," Stone says. "They realize their level of enthusiasm and the amount of preparation they put into the event are directly related to the pay off they experience at the end."

In the Paper Clip activity, each group of campers receives a paper clip and the challenge to go out to Chicago stores and ask to trade the paperclip for bigger and better things.

One group traded up for a mug, then a t-shirt; eventually they had a baseball bat signed by a Cubs player. They traded that for four Cubs tickets. They sold the Cubs tickets on eBay and bought an electric scooter for all the students to use on campus.

The activity teaches the kids how to overcome shyness, pitch their situation, and be convincing. It's a life skill that could come in handy for everything from a job interview to pitching a movie idea to a producer. And it often yields comical results.

"One year a group pushed a vacuum cleaner down the street and took it into a Petsmart and tried to trade it for a gerbil," Stone said. "Another group traded for an octagonal poker table and they had to try to roll it down the street. They were all stared at the whole time but they got used to it. And they learned an octagon is not an ideal shape for a wheel. Another kid kept trying to call the Mayor's Office to see if he could trade for a key to the city."

Other Underground Camp activities have the same focus on hard, focused teamwork that yields exhilarating results; the activities teach the kids to let go of self-consciousness and take risks. The campers make go-carts they then race. They design their own clothing they show off at an impromptu fashion show at The Lincoln Park Zoo. The kids travel to different Chicago neighborhoods and taste food from various ethnic groups; the next day they have a cooking contest judged by three local chefs.

Stone and Freeman have created a completely original summer camp that has become legendary in Chicago. "There is nothing like this. Parents look around and try to find things for their kids to do in the summer. There are so many ordinary things going on, so many predictable things, but nothing like this," Stone says. "We teach the kids not to be afraid of new experiences."