I wrote a piece just last month on Frances Manzo’s latest film project, Redlight Kate, which is still in pre-production. Even though tackling the role of producer is still fairly new to Frances, she’s no newbie when it comes to show biz. In fact, she has some pretty impressive credentials, particularly as a dancer, with a resume that includes working with the likes of Mitzi Gaynor, Britney Spears, and Destiny’s Child (back when people still realized there were two other girls in the group besides Beyonce).
Obviously not one to procrastinate, Frances eagerly agreed to an interview with me and her detailed and prompt replies to my questions impressed me, considering her very busy schedule and how many irons she has in the fire. Also a talented singer and songwriter, she’s a former member of the Los Angeles-based girl group Darling Stilettos, and has recently released her first single entitled “MJ’s Coursing.” Her first album is also in the works. As I write this, her latest co-authored song, “Long Way Down,” will be featured on the episode of CSI:NY that airs tonight (February 8th) on CBS. Check your local listings. (Above photo by J. Blair Images)
CHRIS CHARLES: It’s a pleasure to be featuring you here, Frances. Do you prefer “Frances” or “Franky”?
FRANCES MANZO: (Laughs) I’m not sure! I like both! Musically, Franky is my stage name, and I go by Frances for acting and dancing purposes.
CHRIS: As you know, last month, I did a short write-up on your upcoming film, Redlight Kate. Has it gotten much closer to completion since I wrote that piece?
FRANCES: We are still in the pre-production phase, but we’ve done some more casting and solidified everything a bit more! We still plan on shooting later this month! It has definitely come a long way since I first came up with the concept for the film. I have had more support than I could have imagined, and I’m so excited that we have as many fans as we do!
CHRIS: I interviewed Melanie Robel, one of the ladies you cast in the film, a little over a year ago. Is Redlight Kate the first time she’s worked with you?
FRANCES: This will be the second time we’ve worked together. In 2011, we were cast mates on the set of Girl Scout Cookies. From the moment we had our first chat on set, I knew that Mel and I were going to be great friends on and off set. She and I get along so well partly because neither of us has any tolerance for unprofessionalism or ignorance. We are both incredibly serious about what we do, and we have very supportive families! At the end of the day, I know Mel has my back and I have hers. I call very few people best friends, and she’s definitely one of them.
CHRIS: Yes, Melanie’s a real sweetheart ….and she looks like Jessica Lange. So, I really like the song accompanying the Redlight Kate teaser; “Suffer Kate” by Maudlin Strangers. Did you have a hand in writing that one?
FRANCES: I’m so glad you like it! Yes, I co-wrote and co-produced that song with Jake Hays of Maudlin Strangers before Redlight Kate was even a thought in my head. I’m so happy with the way it turned out, and I hope that it’s a song that will be remembered for years to come.
CHRIS: I recently read you also co-wrote another song for them entitled “Long Way Down” that will soon be featured on CSI:NY
FRANCES: Yes, you are correct! We just got the news recently that the song will be featured on the February 9th episode, and it will be getting pretty good air time! Be sure to tune in!
CHRIS: Who are your musical influences?
FRANCES: I love Michael Jackson and Led Zeppelin! I’m also influenced by Stone Temple Pilots, Depeche Mode, Blondie, Janet Jackson, Interpol, Pink Floyd, and Kylie Minogue. Random, I know!
CHRIS: We have some similar tastes. What are some of your other songwriting credits?
FRANCES: I have a single on iTunes called “MJ’s Coursing” which I wrote! It has received a lot of radio play. I’ve also co-written some of the other songs for Maudlin Strangers on their upcoming, self-titled album. Currently, I’m writing with an up-and-coming R&B artist and working on writing songs for my own album.
CHRIS: You’re a former member of the group “Darling Stilettos.” Tell me how you hooked-up with them.
FRANCES: I met the lead singer, Ace Harper, prior to moving to Los Angeles. We were both dance assistants on Tremaine Dance Conventions in our teens. We crossed paths a few times over the years in LA but never really hung out. She asked a mutual friend of ours, also our former dance teacher, Desiree Robbins, if she knew of any girls that would want to be in the group, and Desiree suggested me. After that, I met up with Matt Sorum (Guns N’ Roses/Velvet Revolver) and Ace, and they asked me to be in the band. Ace also brought in Tiffany Panhilason and Krystal Ellsworth to complete the fearsome foursome.
CHRIS: How long were you in the group?
FRANCES: There were other versions of the band before Tiffany, Krystal, and I were brought in, but our version was together for approximately eight months.
CHRIS: What was that time like?
FRANCES: In the beginning, we were absolutely unstoppable and immediately became very, very close. Each of us had a role in the group, both on and offstage, that wasn’t necessarily assigned, but something we fell into organically and it worked for us. You could even see the chemistry we had on stage, and that’s part of what made us so popular. We had an amazing run; opening for Godsmack …Sully Erna is a dreamboat! …and Three Days Grace, performing at the original CBGB’s, playing at a Miami Dolphins game with Dave Navarro, performing at Ryan Seacrest’s company party, hanging with Steven Tyler, Juliette Lewis, and the list goes on! Unfortunately, a difference of opinion tore us apart. Despite the fact that we parted ways, I felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself, like I was destined to be in that group. Those were some of the best times in my life. As brief as my time with them was, those memories will be with me for the rest of my life. I will always love those girls.
CHRIS: You majored in biology at Loyola Marymount University. How did you go from that to performing arts?
FRANCES: Good question! I have always been in the performing arts, but I decided to get my degree in the midst of all of the craziness happening in my career. I moved to Los Angeles in late 2003, worked for a bit, then decided to do something else while waiting for my career to take off. I started out as a fashion design major, but I found that it didn’t challenge me in the way that I needed to be challenged so I switched to Biology. I graduated with high honors and was in several honors societies. While I was attending school, I still maintained my entertainment career by touring with Britney Spears, starring in a play, working on TV shows like Glee, Fresh Beat Band, Hannah Montana and movies like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. I also taught dance lessons and choreographed a lot, so I was a very, very, very busy girl!
CHRIS: You have some pretty impressive credits as a dancer and a choreographer. Besides the ones you just mentioned, there’s also been the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards. What have been your most memorable experiences from all the shows you’ve performed on?
FRANCES: Thank you! Working with Britney Spears was definitely one of the most memorable experiences. I did one of her music videos and toured with her. It was a high pressure gig because she’s one of the most well known artists in the world and there’s no room for mistakes when you’re working with high caliber people. Britney has been known to have some of the best dancers in the world, so it was a lot to live up to. I was a big fan when she first started out, and I could knew who all of her dancers were from the music videos. I actually got to meet one of them shortly after the release of her “Sometimes” video, and I felt like I was meeting an idol. I never forgot that feeling. So, to actually be able to dance for her myself and have people recognize me in the same way was an amazing thing. I hope I inspired somebody the way that I was inspired!
CHRIS: When it comes to dance, do you have any major influences?
FRANCES: Most definitely! Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo were the first people to take a chance on me by hiring me for my first tour when I was only 17 years old. They really molded me as a hip hop dancer. Desiree Robbins, Joe Tremaine, Steven Boyd, Dorrell Martin, Heather Ferguson Nicholas, and Michelle Smith were some of the most influential dance teachers for me when I was younger, and they had a huge hand in inspiring me and encouraging me to be a better dancer and person.
CHRIS: I’ve interviewed a few girls who are very skilled pole dancers, and no, they were not strippers. Was the first time you studied pole dancing for Redlight Kate or had you before?
FRANCES: As far as pole dancing, yes, it was my first time studying it for the film. However, I’ve done burlesque style dancing before, which will definitely be used in the film! As a dancer, I believe I can be strong in any style, but pole dancing requires a different kind of strength. I don’t have a lot of arm strength, so it’s harder in that way! It’s definitely a different mindset.
CHRIS: What have been your toughest jobs as a choreographer?
FRANCES: Fortunately, I’ve had great experiences as a choreographer. I’ve done all kinds of choreographing from music videos to dance competitions, and it’s all been relatively easy in that no one has been a diva. The tough part comes when I do stage/movement direction for singers who’ve never taken a dance class in their life! I have to figure out the simplest way to communicate complex concepts to them, but the people I work with are so eager to learn which makes my job fun.
CHRIS: You’re the fourth actress I’ve interviewed who was slated to appear in the indie film Girl Scout Cookies. Unfortunately, because of factors like you a a couple of the other ladies have mentioned, the unfinished film was put on the shelf and may remain there for the foreseeable future. Can you give me some more details about your experience with that project?
FRANCES: (Laughs) I have a lot to say on the matter, but I try to maintain professionalism by staying mum publicly. Loose lips burn bridges! I will say that yes, it is very unfortunate that such a highly anticipated film will probably never see the light of day, and it saddens me because I worked very hard. However, despite what some of the others have been saying about the film, the cast, or the crew, the blame absolutely cannot be placed on one person because there was a bit of a ripple effect on set. I don’t regret doing the film though because I met some great people that I’ve kept in touch with, and I also know who I never want to work with again based on set behavior. Even through all of the craziness, I actually had fun playing my character. I’m a tomboy, so I was in my element running around in the woods covered in blood and doing stunts. It was a great role for me, and I walked away from the project knowing that I did my job to the fullest.
CHRIS: Were you ever a cheerleader when you were in school?
FRANCES: No way! No offense to anyone that was. Let’s just say the cheerleaders didn’t care to get along with me in high school for many reasons. I won’t be too specific because the past is the past, and I’ve definitely moved on. Let’s put it nicely and say that we just weren’t cut from the same cloth. Between being in Honors and Advanced Placement courses and dancing 30+ hours a week in a dance company, there was no time for the “Go Team Go” spirit. The kids in my high school weren’t too accepting of anyone who was outside the box, and that was definitely me!
CHRIS: I understand you’re a pretty decent table tennis player?
FRANCES: Hmm, I haven’t played table tennis since I was in middle school, and I never played on a team or anything. I only played in our game room.
CHRIS: Do you have any other skills or hobbies that not many people know about?
FRANCES: I love video games! I also play the guitar!
CHRIS: What are you currently working on?
FRANCES: Right now, I’m working on getting everything together for Redlight Kate! Lots of work to do! Additionally, I’m coming up with concepts for my next script while working on my solo album. Busy, busy, busy!!
CHRIS: You live in Los Angeles but you’re originally from Texas. Would you say you’re now a California girl or are you still a Texas girl at heart?
FRANCES: I think I’ll always be a Texas girl at heart! I still say “y’all” and “fixin’.” I also say “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am”, which people in California hate! Ain’t no place like home, y’all!!
CHRIS: Oh one last question, did you ever find your Cranberries CD?
FRANCES: Sadly, I think my Cranberries CD disappeared along with half of my sock collection!
CHRIS: Well thanks again, Frances and I’ll definitely watch for your upcoming appearances and productions. In closing, any shout-outs to anyone? FRANCES: It makes me feel rather gangster to say it, but SHOUT OUT to my mom, dad, Lisa, David, Payton, Melanie Robel, Sean Williams, Michael Emery, everyone who has supported me, and Chris Charles, of course!!
Promo poster for Darling Stilettos’ August 2009 show at LA’s (in)famous Viper Room.
From left to right: Ace Harper, Tiffany Panhilason, Krystal Ellsworth, and Frances.
With Jessica Cameron during the (supposed) making of Girl Scout Cookies
With Cat Rendic on the set of Glee in 2009
They don’t make 45s anymore but if they did, this would be the
jacket cover to Frances’ current single, “MJ’s Coursing.”
October 2014 Edit: Frances’ acting reel has since be set to private and is no longer publicly viewable, which is too bad because it included rare clips from the unfinished Girl Scout Cookies and a couple from the 2008 comedy short film, Dirty Magazines. It’s been replaced here with her Dance reel, which was published on Youtube in July 2013.
Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Chris flirted with the music business there and in Nashville before joining the U.S. Army and serving in South Korea. He remained in Asia for several years afterwards, teaching English, traveling, and covering the regional entertainment scenes. Currently in a mindset between Seoul and San Francisco, besides Idol Features, you can also catch his writings in the print edition of the monthly magazine, Effective.