c. 2000 Religion News Service In her music and her manner, singer Jaci Velasquez projects the fresh-faced aura of the classic girl next door.

Somehow this youthful Christian diva -- who had a hit CD by the time she was 16 -- brings the best of pop, Latin and Christian contemporary music to her work without relinquishing the faith that got her started. This fall, Word Records released the 21-year-old's latest CD, "Crystal Clear," to strong reviews and even stronger sales.

But success has not changed Velasquez's orientation. She continues to hold fast to her values and her perspective.

"I want it to be crystal clear to people that I am who Christ has made me to be, and I'm attempting to follow in his footsteps," she said.

The sultry images so closely associated with some other young female singers don't fit Velasquez's style and substance. She draws upon her musical and ethnic roots, integrating Latin rhythms into her performances. She projects the presence and timing of a well-trained professional entertainer.

"I think I am more the girl next door -- the type that guys, girls and their parents can listen to," she says. "As a role model, I would hope to be someone to inspire young women to live out their dreams. To be everything that they can be and then some."

Achieving those goals takes time, effort and faith, she says, advising fans to "believe in yourself" and "be true to who you are as a person."

Long before Velasquez had become a public singing sensation, her gifts were apparent to her family. She was born in Houston to David and Diana Velasquez. Her father, a traveling evangelist and singer, often toured preaching and singing. His family sang back-up vocals.

Family lore says Velasquez's parents realized she had rhythm when she was a baby. From her crib, the story goes, she snapped her fingers in time to music being played in a nearby room.

Later her folks realized she could sing when the family was at a small church in Houston singing the hymn "Our God Reigns," in the congregation. The pastor soon shushed the worshipers, listening as a powerful little voice belted out the the hymn from the church nursery.

The voice was Jaci's. She made her solo debut at age 3.

Nine years later, the big break came when the family band was performing in Houston. A local pastor called Mike Atkins Management to alert him to "the bright new talent" he had discovered in Jaci Velasquez. Within two years, Atkins was her manager and Velasquez was signed to Myrrh Records. She now record for Word Records, its sister label.

By age 16, Velasquez had a hit CD, "Heavenly Place," to her credit. It spent 83 weeks on Billboard's Heatseekers chart. Her second CD, "Jaci Velasquez," released in 1998, also did remarkably well. In 1999, in honor of her grandparents and her Hispanic heritage, Velasquez released "Llegar a Ti," her first Spanish language recording.

Her first three albums sold more than 3 million copies worldwide. In the past year, she has been named "Female Vocalist of the Year" for the second consecutive year by the Gospel Music Association and received her first Latin Grammy nomination.

In the competitive climate of the music business, Velasquez has managed to rise to a dominant position on the Christian charts by relying on her musical gifts. She has moved from merely singing well to cutting CDs that challenge her ability and her creativity.

With "Crystal Clear," she illustrates the dynamism and rhythm behind her music. In this, her third English language recording, she digs below the surface, exploring the sorrows and the joys of the faith that has shaped her life.

One reviewer noted Velasquez's "multiformat appeal," saying "this fine new album should keep expanding her borders."

In the CD's first song, "Every Time I Fall," the artist articulates the uncertain center of a searching faith:

"Every time I try,
To explain the reason why,
I have let You down,
I fall to the ground,"
she sings, her voice a litany to the anger, doubt and unintentional stumbling that is so much a part of a faith journey.

"What is it You see in me," the song asks. "That makes You believe, No matter how far I stray, I will still find the way."

In the album's final cut, she voices a growing, increasingly secure

sense of her walk with God:

"You're just a prayer away,
No matter where I am,
I know in my heart,
You're never too far,
When I I'm losing my way.
You're just a prayer away."

Velasquez believes that "doors have been opened" for her to bring a Christian message to a Latin audience. Yet she also reaches out to young people of diverse races and nationalities. She has been a guest columnist for Campus Life magazine and is national spokesperson for the True Love Waits campaign, which urges young people to sign pledges promising they won't have sex before they marry.

"I try to let my records reflect who I am," she says, "because songs are soundtracks of life."

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