Drew and Lea Lachey offer access to the arts and mentorship through their nonprofit

When performing artists Drew and Lea Lachey ventured off to New York City to build their careers in the arts, Cincinnati was a lifetime behind them. But since returning in 2009, after 15 years away, they’ve dug deeply back into their hometown. They’re now giving back to the city that raised them and building an arts nonprofit — Lachey Arts — that mentors young, gifted artists who are pursuing their own dreams.

From Cincinnati to New York City

Lea and Drew are Cincinnati natives from Westwood and College Hill, respectively. The Lacheys met in the fifth grade at the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA). They became quick friends and ran in the same circles for the next few years. In 11th grade, they became a couple.

After receiving training and mentorship at SCPA, Lea knew she wanted to be a dancer. She secured a full dance scholarship to Marymount Manhattan College and, in 1994, she moved to New York City to pursue her career in the performing arts.

Her college career didn't last long. Only a month and a half in, she walked into her first professional audition and landed the job. College took a backseat. She was now a dancer at Radio City Music Hall.

Drew made his way to New York, too, but not as a performer. He says he wasn’t as passionate about a career in the arts as Lea was. He was interested in adventurous things like outdoor search and rescue. So, after high school, he enlisted in the Army and was trained as a medic. After his training, he worked on an ambulance crew in New York City.

While Lea continued to build her career in dance, Drew’s love for performing lay dormant for a while. But he remembers seeing a performance of Miss Saigon with his father, who was visiting them in New York, and how it sparked a little bit of longing in him.

“You don’t realize how big a part of your life something is until it’s taken away,” he explains.

Into the (inter)national spotlight

In 1996, Drew's brother Nick called him with an exciting opportunity. Nick’s music group 98 Degrees was on the brink of signing a contract with Motown Records but one of their members had left the group. He wondered: Would Drew take his place?

This wasn’t an opportunity for only Drew, though. Lea was now three years into her dancing career and was ready to take the next professional step. She had experience in dancing, choreography, and stage production. So, she approached their manager about becoming 98 Degrees’ choreographer.

“I was 21 and gutsy,” she says. “This was something I really wanted to do. I knew I was ‘the girlfriend,’ but I took my chance and proved myself.”

From 1997 until 2002, creating, recording, and touring with 98 Degrees dominated the Lacheys’ life. They had a home in Cincinnati when they first married (in 2000), but called Los Angeles home until 2009.

When 98 Degrees took a hiatus in 2002, Drew moved on to other creative endeavors. He appeared on Dancing With the Stars. He starred in the Broadway shows Rent and Spamalot. He even did a stint in Vegas.

It was during this time that the Lacheys welcomed their first child — a daughter. Lea took a break from dancing and they traveled and toured as a family. It was good to be together, but raising a family in Los Angeles and on the road wasn’t exactly the “family life” the Lacheys had dreamt about.

“We had our daughter in L.A. while we were in a whirlwind,” Drew remembers. “As she got a little bit older, we saw what childhood is like in L.A. It was a childhood that was foreign to us.”

They’d always said they’d never move back to Cincinnati, but they missed home and felt disconnected on the West Coast. There were charms to their life in L.A., but they wanted their kids to experience the childhood they remembered in Ohio—things like sleepovers at their grandparents’ house and growing up around family and friends.

The Lacheys moved back to Cincinnati in 2009. Their son was born in 2010.

The students become the teachers

Back in Cincinnati, the Lacheys got connected to their alma mater, SCPA. They were quickly recruited to help revive the dwindling musical theater program, the very one that helped them fall in love with performing when they were students.

What started as part-time teaching gigs snowballed quickly. In the summer of 2012, the Lacheys launched their arts summer camp. That first session had 33 students — 22 from SCPA musical theater department and 11 others. Now in its ninth year, the Lachey Arts Camp has the capacity for 80 students, ages 12–19.

Unlike some performing arts camps where the goal is a single, culminating performance in which everyone plays their own part, the Lachey Arts musical theater camp is more like a two-week masters class for young performers.

Students at SCPA can migrate into the summer program, but it’s also open to the public. And because they’re more concerned with a student’s potential than their level of formal training, there are no auditions. Anyone can apply with a teacher or instructor’s recommendation.

For students, the camp is a chance to sit under mentorship of working artists and develop all aspects of their own artistry; for the Lacheys, launching the camp was a dream come true.

While she had resolved that she might never go back to dancing professionally, Lea always had other creative aspirations and dreams for what the next season of her career would hold. This summer camp is something she was dreaming of long before she moved back to Cincinnati.

The Lacheys had seen firsthand how the performing arts industry works in L.A. and in New York. They’d experienced how deep the connections run between students and teachers, between friends and colleagues, and how important those connections are to success.

But in Cincinnati, they say, kids don’t have the same opportunities in the arts that they would in New York or LA. It’s not a question of talent, but of access and mentorship. They thought they could offer both.

During the Lachey Arts Camp, Lea does a lot of teaching, choreography, and directing. Drew leans toward his passions — acting, character development, and audition technique. Both teach, but while she is more of the creative director, he acts as the producer of the camp behind the scenes.

And they don’t do this all alone. They have a staff of colleagues from across the country who they recruit to teach master classes and private lessons at the camp. They’ve collaborated with local professionals, as well, to lend a hand.

“I didn’t understand how great of an arts community we had here until I came back,” Drew admits.

Teaching musical theater may not have been the plan 25 years ago, but both Drew and Lea says this is exactly where they need to be.

“All the things I love have come back into my life in a very organic way," Lea says. “I’m so thankful I can say that, it’s exciting to be at this stage in my life with older kids and still have this creative outlet.”

Bringing up a new generation of artists — and people

In 2015, Drew and Lea officially launched their nonprofit organization, Lachey Arts. Though it's an arts organization by definition, the mission is far more than simply creating performers, Lea says.

“This is not just class,” she tells her students. “This is not just a show.”

“We pride ourselves on helping to create artists — genuine people with an honest connection,” she says.

Alongside all the creative skills, their program teaches respect, self-discipline, and confidence. And they work hard to cultivate a sense of safety and comfort within their Lachey Arts community. Drew adds that their greatest reward is giving kids an outlet to find their voice as individuals and then watching them use it.

“We’re the ringleaders of this wonderful little circus,” he says affectionately.

In 2016, the Lacheys launched a special project called label-less, a performance of music and spoken word poetry that explored the possibility of acceptance beyond labels. The idea for label-less came together after a classroom exercise exposed the overwhelming effects that things like racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and depression were having on their students. The performance was created as a proactive response.

The central theme of label-less has been common in the Lacheys’ work with students since the very beginning. They aren’t just creating performers; they’re helping them forge a path to their own dreams and goals.

Dreaming about what comes next

The past two months have been hard on the Lacheys and their students. With the global COVID-19 pandemic and forced school closures, their musical theater students at SCPA never got to finish their school year properly. Their final performance was cancelled a day before opening night.

Everyone was, understandably, devastated.

But the Lacheys have weathered a storm like this before. During another national crisis, on September 11, 2001, the Lacheys were on tour with 98 Degrees. They were in the airport in NYC on that fated morning.

Drew and Lea remember the uncertainty of those days, both as Americans and as artists. And they’re committed to moving forward with their work like they did then, even if it means doing things differently than before.

Lachey Arts recently moved into a new studio space and Drew and Lea are currently teaching classes online at SCPA. They’re now brainstorming ways to move forward with their summer camp, teaching, and consulting services, knowing that it may require the creative use of time and space.

It probably means expanding their scholarship program significantly and offering more classes online for free, as well. (In previous years, as many as half their students attended the camp on a scholarship.)

“Arts and arts education should not be an elitist thing, not only for the wealthy,” Drew explains.

This sort of flexibility and accessibility was a motivation behind establishing Lachey Arts as nonprofit endeavor in the first place.

The path forward is uncertain but, thankfully, the Lacheys are big dreamers.

“It’s too important to too many people for it to not happen in some capacity,” Drew says. “We’ll get creative and figure it out. When times are hard, that’s when the arts need to go to work. So we’ll go to work.”

Because our Boomerang series was so popular in 2019, we’ve decided to continue it in 2020. If you or someone you know grew up here, left, and cameback for various personal, professional, and sentimental reasons and would like to be featured in Soapbox, email [email protected]

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.