By Catherine Cheney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Kaitlyn Maher stood at the window of her Ashburn home, waving and smiling, excited about the interview. Inside, three dolls waited on the stairs, a "welcoming committee" she had arranged for the occasion. Kaitlyn, one of the top 10 finalists on "America's Got Talent," who has an upcoming Disney movie and debut album, was still very much a 5-year-old.
Already, though, her Twitter account read: "kaitlynmaher Is looking forward to 'Washington Post' reporter visiting tonight to do an interview with her! :)."
Her life is online for all to see, displayed through blurbs, posts, videos and cellphone pictures, on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube. As artists use social media to market not only their music but also their daily lives, keeping a balance is a tough task for parents of child stars.
When Kaitlyn was 18 months old, her parents thought she might have a problem: She never stopped singing and always sang herself to sleep. Worried that she wasn't getting enough sleep, Alison and Reuben Maher took her to the pediatrician. The diagnosis: She just loves to sing.
When Kaitlyn was 3, relatives in Canada asked whether she would come sing at a birthday party. Alison was pregnant with her second child, Ethan, so the Mahers couldn't go. But they said they'd send a video of Kaitlyn singing. After the video wouldn't e-mail, Alison and Reuben resorted to YouTube.
Five months later, Reuben received a call from NBC's "America's Got Talent," asking Kaitlyn to audition for Season 3. Reuben and Alison said they debated the idea -- Kaitlyn had never been onstage -- but Kaitlyn was excited.
On the way to New York, she told her parents that she wanted to see "the sparkles come down" at the finale. "Okay, sweetheart, just try your best and have fun," answered her dad.
The Mahers said they told their daughter to pray if she really wanted to see the sparkles come down.
Kaitlyn was selected. On the episode when she was introduced to audiences across America, she walked to the big "X" at center stage as the audience and judges smiled. Holding the corner of her pink dress with one hand and a microphone with the other, Kaitlyn sang "Somewhere Out There" from the animated film "An American Tail," pronouncing her r's as w's and revealing her lisp with each s.
Her voice surprised everyone, and her song immediately turned viewers into fans.
Kaitlyn excelled as a contestant, moving from New York to Las Vegas to Hollywood to the top 40 and finally the top 10. She sang the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There" and, paired against an operatic rendition of "All by Myself" by contestant Neal E. Boyd, Kaitlyn was eliminated and excluded from the top five. "I don't think it would probably be fair to you to put you onto a Las Vegas stage," said judge Piers Morgan on the Sept. 17, 2008, episode.
"She learned you don't always win, which is a good lesson," said Reuben, 36. "But she was in it for the gold."
Kaitlyn was invited back to the Oct. 1 finale. Reuben, who stayed in Ashburn for his job as director of an information tech practice, watched from home. "I said a silent prayer," he said, and watched in awe as, in the final shot, the top 10 walked onto the stage. The winner held Kaitlyn up into the air as the "sparkles" came down.
Since then, Kaitlyn has performed at the 2008 lighting of the National Christmas Tree and the 2009 National Cherry Blossom Festival. She has been featured in a Harris Teeter commercial and spent January through April in Hollywood with her mom and baby brother Ethan to meet with agents for "Santa Buddies," a Disney movie expected on DVD Nov. 24, in which she is the voice of a dog named Tiny. And she is recording her debut album, set for release in early October, in Nashville.
Kaitlyn said she enjoyed filming the movie, but she prefers singing. "It glorifies God and it makes people happy," she explained.
Ruben and Alison said they believe Kaitlyn can make a difference, and even bless people, with her voice, and social media allow others to experience it.
"When you sing, what happens?" Reuben asked Kaitlyn, who was enjoying Thai food at the dinner table.
"Dad smiles," Kaitlyn said.
"And what else happens?" Reuben asked.
"People are blessed," she answered, smiling.
"We have had hundreds -- I would say thousands, but MySpace deletes them -- of people who have been blessed from her singing," said Reuben. He said he has heard from people who have medical problems or depression who claim they are cured after hearing Kaitlyn sing.
Reuben and Alison Maher devote two to three hours each day to tweeting, checking and responding to MySpace and Facebook posts and messages, and managing the YouTube account. Kaitlyn never goes on these sites on her own, but her parents do present her with selected posts and messages.
"We try to show her more of the things about how music has inspired people, as opposed to things like 'You're the greatest singer in the world!' " Reuben said.
"We have fans who think she walks on water," Reuben said with a laugh. "No one needs to hear that, especially at 5 years old."
Reuben and Alison often write about what Kaitlyn is doing, and they put the Twitter updates in quotes if Kaitlyn cares to chime in, such as the Tweet: "Yay! The ice cream truck came just in the nick of time!"
But Reuben and Alison say they are careful about letting fans access too much of their daughter's life online.
Last week, the family of four went to the pool in their gated community. Alison took a picture of Kaitlyn in her swimsuit. "We looked at the picture. It was adorable, one we would have loved to share with family, but there are some things you don't share with fans," Reuben said. "We want to give them a selective view into her life but, because of her age and because she is a child and because she's our daughter, we're very cautious about how big that view is."
Reuben explained that, when he and his wife first set up the social media sites, he warned her, "We need to be ready for the people out there who, because of the anonymity of being able to type something they can say things that are nasty, mean, and highly vulgar and offensive."
But Reuben and Alison say the touching messages more than make up for the offensive attacks.
Kaitlyn said she enjoys singing, acting, dancing, swimming, playing the piano (she is just starting lessons) and spending time with her little brother. "Most of all, I like being a princess and dressing up and wearing crowns," she added.
Kaitlyn, who is home-schooled, has always been bright. She reads at the fourth-grade level, and loves playing math and spelling games with her mom.
She also memorizes lyrics quickly, usually in about 15 minutes. Her parents reward her with jelly beans or an extra 30 minutes of playtime before bed.
"I can't tell you how many thousands of times I've heard, 'Let her just be a kid,' " Reuben said. "But she pushes us."
Kaitlyn practices every day with the help of her dad, who plays drums and some piano.
In the basement of the Maher home, Kaitlyn practiced and performed several songs including "Daddy I Love You" from her upcoming CD, "You Were Meant to Be," scheduled for release in October. She held the corners of her dress and sang, swaying ever so slightly, extending her hand to her side in the final word of the songs.
Next was "I Can See Clearly Now." "This is the get-funky song," Reuben said, laughing, as Kaitlyn ran around the room hopping and swinging her arms, even flipping into a cartwheel.
Practice was over, and soon Kaitlyn and her dad were dueling with inflatable pink and blue balloon arms. The iPhones were nowhere in sight. Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and YouTube would not be updated this evening. This was family time.