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At 5, singer hits high notes in her career

September 04, 2009|Catherine Cheney | Catherine Cheney writes for the Washington Post.

WASHINGTON — Kaitlyn Maher stood at the window of her suburban 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! :)."

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, of Ashburn, Va., said they'd send a video of Kaitlyn singing. When they couldn't e-mail the video, they resorted to YouTube.

Five months later, NBC's "America's Got Talent" asked Kaitlyn to audition for last year's Season 3. Reuben and Alison said they debated the idea, 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. "OK, sweetheart, just try your best and have fun," answered Reuben, a director of an information tech practice.

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 nationwide, she walked to 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, immediately turning viewers into fans.

Kaitlyn moved with the show from New York to Las Vegas to Hollywood to the top 40 contestants 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 (and eventual winner) Neal E. Boyd, Kaitlyn was eliminated and excluded from the top 5. "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 watched from home in awe as, in the final shot, the top 10 walked onto the stage. The winner held Kaitlyn up in the air as the "sparkles" came down.

Kaitlyn has since performed at the 2008 lighting of the national Christmas tree and the 2009 National Cherry Blossom Festival. She spent January through April in Hollywood with her mom and baby brother to meet with agents for "Santa Buddies," a Disney movie expected on DVD on 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 prefers singing. "It glorifies God and it makes people happy," she explained.

Reuben and Alison said they believe Kaitlyn can make a difference, and even bless people, with her voice.

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.

"We want to give [fans] 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 said.

He and Alison devote two to three hours daily to tweeting, checking and responding to MySpace and Facebook messages, and managing the YouTube account. They show selected messages to Kaitlyn, who never goes on these sites.

"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.

Kaitlyn said she enjoys singing, acting, dancing, swimming, taking piano 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, reads at the fourth-grade level and loves playing math and spelling games. She memorizes lyrics quickly, usually in about 15 minutes.

"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."

In her basement, Kaitlyn practiced and performed several songs, including "Daddy I Love You" from her upcoming CD, "You Were Meant to Be."

Afterward, Kaitlyn and her dad were dueling with inflatable pink and blue balloon arms. Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and YouTube would not be updated this evening. This was family time.

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