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10 ON TOP
When: 10:30 a.m. Saturdays.
From Fridley to the 'Top' of MTV
- Article by: NEAL JUSTIN
- Star Tribune
- May 13, 2011 - 11:30 AM
Lenay Dunn grew up in that house. The one with the pool table and pinball machine in the basement. The one with pork, chicken and ribeye steak on the patio grill for last-minute dinner parties. The one with cool parents who don't flinch when teenagers chat openly about dating and drinking. Yeah, that house. The one that usually spits out brats.
Instead, Fridley's Ted and Kim Olsen raised one of the more energetic and bubbly young celebrities on the scene. Dunn just finished her first year with MTV's "10 on Top," a weekly recap of pop-culture highlights that was supposed to be co-hosted by Justin Bieber. When "the fever" broke out, Dunn was left doing a solo act. Not that she needs any help. She's managed to score perfect grades in high school, snag a rock 'n' roll husband and get discovered by a major cable outlet, all before age 25.
At the same time, Dunn comes across as so childlike, so giddy, you have to wonder if show business will eventually flatten her. During a recent whirlwind visit to the Mall of America, Dunn walked and talked so quickly that it was tempting to make an emergency stop at the oxygen bar. She sang Rebecca Black's inane Internet hit "Friday," declared that Forever 21 is her favorite store, bought a perfectly silly straw hat and befriended every salesperson within reach.
"I love malls," she said while trying to hunt down a Starbucks. "Malls make me happy."
On the way to her parents' house for dinner, she cranked KDWB on the car radio and swooned over a billboard of her idol, Taylor Swift.
"I have not met one mean person in my life," she said.
It's sweet. Suspiciously sweet.
Those who know her best insist it isn't an act. MTV exec Steve Tseckares believes her show would have flopped in the first week if its key audience, 12- to 24-year-olds, thought Dunn's pumped-up personality was a put-on.
"Kids can sniff out fake stuff more quickly than people in their 30s and 40s," he said. "When Lenay's on the air, you don't feel like she's been through a bunch of training. That untaught quality serves her well."
Dunn's unconventional path to stardom began in 1985 in Zaire, where her parents served as teachers for the Evangelical Covenant Church. By 1988, the family had moved stateside, where Dunn's father served as a minister in Chicago, Wisconsin and, finally, the Twin Cities.
By middle school, Dunn had already started making wacky videos with her friends, a hobby that reflected both her technical skills and her attraction to adventure. (You can find much of her work at www.lenay.tv.)
Lauren D'Cruz, a longtime pal, said Dunn is always drawing her into random escapades, like popping up on a Telemundo TV show in crazy dresses or driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for a party.
"I've never met anyone else like her," D'Cruz said. "She can take something that seems boring and see the entertainment in it."
Her parents say they've always trusted their oldest daughter, giving her a long leash because she's quick to read people.
"She was traveling with friends in South America when they met some strangers," Ted Olsen said. "Lenay was the first one to figure out they were hustlers and she got her group out of there."
Her friends and family weren't the only ones who were impressed.
Red Bull caught some of Dunn's videos on YouTube and hired her to drive a truck and do promotional work while she attended college at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
After graduation and a five-month backpacking trip across South America, Red Bull gave her even more exposure, signing her for a series of videos in which she did everything from driving NASCAR to skydiving.
On MTV, she's hung out with such guests as Zac Efron and Ken Jeong ("Community"). But the showbiz spotlight hasn't shaken her enthusiasm -- nor her faith. She's been married since 2009 to Jason Dunn, lead singer of the Christian punk band Hawk Nelson. The couple live in small-town Tennessee and Dunn commutes over long weekends to New York, where she's still dazzled by the red-carpet events and Times Square hotels.
Dunn said she sees no conflict between her religious beliefs and the fact that she's on the same network as "Teen Mom" and Lady Gaga videos.
"I have a very open kind of Christianity," she said. "I respect all kinds of people's beliefs. It's cool. Nobody gives me any problems with it."
That openness comes out even to strangers. As she speed-walked through the mall, babies stared and smiled at her. The entire staff at a shoe store ignored most of the other customers to wait on her.
And then there were the two young men who approached her in a coffee line, eager to tell her that one of them had just returned from service in Afghanistan.
Dunn made a joke about whether the soldier knew a military friend of hers. He seemed puzzled and the pair walked away.
"He looked like he hated me," Dunn said. It was the only time all day she wasn't beaming.
- Follow Justin on Twitter: @nealjustin
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