Pulse: Music: Hard-Knock Life

The comeback of the Annie girl

Last year, Mayfair native Joanna Pacitti met Kelly Clarkson while the American Idol winner was out promoting her latest platinum-selling release. Most 21-year-old aspiring singers would be forgiven for acting starstruck, but as Pacitti gushed, Clarkson returned the sentiment: “You’re the Annie girl!” she shouted.

Indeed, back in 1996, when Simon Cowell was scowling in obscurity and Paula Abdul was eligible for unemployment, 12-year-old Joanna Pacitti won fame through a different talent competition — the Macy’s search for a new Orphan Annie. But the next year, three weeks before the musical was to hit Broadway, Pacitti was replaced by her eight-year-old understudy, prompting national headlines and a $50 million lawsuit. (The case was eventually settled out of court.) After nine years of demo tapes, stylistic experiments and record-label woes, Pacitti — now the Geffen recording artist known as just “Joanna” — is finally back. Her first single, “Let It Slide,” will be released July 17th, while her debut album, This Crazy Life, arrives in mid-August.

In April, as she sat backstage at the Tin Angel — where she had come to show off new songs from the record — Pacitti looked back on her journey with a mix of bubbly excitement, pride and weary disbelief. “A lot of people gave up on me,” she says. The hometown gig proved that Pacitti has what Cowell calls “the ‘it’ factor,” with impressive pipes and a sound that falls somewhere between a soft-focus Pat Benatar and Miss Clarkson herself.

Asked if she resents that TV turns wannabes into stars in five months’ time, Pacitti says, “It’s handed to people way too easily. I’d rather have my experience than overnight success.” Despite her major-label record and high-profile pals like Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas, not everyone understands that in her mind, she’s arrived: “My family said, ‘You should go on American Idol!’”