Talent comes in unlikely packages. Case in point: Susan Boyle, the dowdy songbird who wowed viewers with her angelic performance on Britain's Got Talent. • Much less dowdy, but nearly as shocking, is 18-year-old Tiffany White, a white girl from Carrollwood with wicked beatboxing skills. • Tiffany, a senior at Tampa's Chamberlain High School, makes sounds with her mouth that cannot be put into words. She can sound like a bass drum, cymbals, a trumpet or a scratching record. Her lips vibrate to mimic a motorcycle. She flicks the inside of her cheek to replicate a water drop. • "I just beatbox randomly everywhere," Tiffany said. "Going out to dinner, at school, wherever."
Beatboxing is the centuries-old art of vocal percussion. It peaked in the 1980s, as hip-hoppers like Doug E. Fresh proved beatboxing was harder than it looked.
So how did a member of Gen Y master a skill that had waxed and waned before she was born? The same way teens discover other lost arts, like how to crochet or tie a Windsor knot: the Internet. Tiffany's life is a classic example of old-school meeting new-school.
About two years ago, Tiffany came across a MySpace video of a beatboxer. She thought it looked cool, so she poked around online until she found humanbeatbox.com, a cache of video tutorials. Tiffany came up with a screen name, LuckeyMonkey, and signed on to learn a few techniques. She learned the kick drum first, which sounds like saying the letter "b" without the vowel.
Tiffany doesn't do anything halfway. She took five AP classes this year. The aspiring singer is in not one choir but three — one at school and two with Gulf Coast Youth Choirs. She's competitive, even when it's just against herself.
Tiffany has played a few open mikes and school talent shows. When a song comes on the radio in her white Chevy Cobalt, she tries to reproduce the beat with her mouth. She has even learned to sing and beatbox simultaneously, with a repertoire that spans the range from Yankee Doodle to In Da Club.
She began spending hours a day holed up in the family's computer room, shyly practicing so as not to tick off her brother Chris, 19. Her other brother, 25-year-old Jeffrey, though it was cool. Her mother, Susan, was skeptical.
"I had never heard of beatboxing, had no clue," said Susan, a registered nurse whose idea of good music is waterfall soundscapes.
But Tiffany was falling in love with more than just beatboxing. The more time she spent on humanbeatbox.com, the better acquainted she became with one of the site's administrators, Anthony Ashfield, a.k.a. Fat Tony, in Milton Keynes, England.
The two began instant messaging, and eventually Tony came for a friendly visit. He liked Tiffany's smile, her humor, her intelligence. She liked Tony's humor, his manners, the fact that he'd fly across the world to see her. By the end of the visit, they were a couple. (Initially nervous about the relationship, Susan said Tony is "just a real nice guy" and has stayed with the family several times.) LuckeyMonkey and Fat Tony have been long-distance dating more than a year.
"It's brilliant dating a beatboxer, too," said Tony, 21, a college student and aspiring writer, in an e-mail to the Times. "We can do all kinds of things together that nobody else has tried."
Like beatboxing into each other's mouths.
The pair debuted their trick, which they call human panpipes, during an open mike in Orlando. Mom Susan attended the show.
"First I thought, 'That's gross,' " Susan said. "I was like, 'Don't spit in his mouth.' "
Tiffany smiled. "I only did that once."
With beatboxing such an integral part of Tiffany's life, it's been growing on her family. Susan even started dancing to it and learned to appreciate a well-executed rendition of My Humps. Dad Jeff, a programmer, encouraged Tiffany to launch the video-sharing site beatboxworld.com. For Christmas, Tiffany and her parents went halves on a $300 loop station, which allows Tiffany to layer sounds and become a one-woman show.
She has even made a believer out of her longtime choir director, Dr. Lynne Gackle, who learned of Tiffany's interest during a choir trip to New York City. Gackle describes Tiffany as traditional. Intriguing. Quiet. Bright. A model student.
"That's why it surprised me when she said, 'I'm into beatboxing,' " Gackle recalled. "I said, "You're into what?' It doesn't fit her personality."
But what exactly is the proper personality for beatboxing? There's Blake Lewis, the Justin Timberfake-type who beatboxed his way to American Idol's top 2 a few years back. And Butterscotch, the 21-year-old female beatboxer from America's Got Talent. So why not a shy teenager who enjoys a cappella choral music as much as Chris Brown and Jason Mraz?
Something happens to Tiffany when she beatboxes. She stands taller, gestures deliberately, makes eye contact. It's a confidence booster, having a rare skill.
Tiffany begged Gackle to let her beatbox during a choir concert. She finally got her chance a few weeks ago at Carrollwood Cultural Center, and again at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, when she supplied the percussion part for the calypso standard Shut de Do. There Tiffany stood with the other altos, looking like a debutante in her choir dress but sounding like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
This fall, Tiffany starts classes at Florida State University, where she'll study commercial music. She's thinking of auditioning for America's Got Talent. She would love to make money off her beatboxing, like Tampa's DJ Effex.
Effex, a.k.a. Cory Michael, is perhaps Tampa's best known beatboxer. He once earned $15,000 beatboxing for an energy drink commercial in Cape Town, South Africa. Tiffany has potential, he said. She just needs more stage time.
And another thing: "I wish she had a bit more of an ego, too. She's very soft-spoken. She's not very cocky," said Effex, 24.
So Tiffany needs to turn her confidence up a notch. As with Kanye, sometimes a little Haterade is all she needs.
"You get a few people that are like, 'Oh, I can do that,' and then they try to do it, but it's nowhere near as good," Tiffany said. "Gotta show them up."
Dalia Colón can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 225-3112.