Pint-Sized Phenoms: Terrific Teens Edition

This group of outstanding teenagers might make you feel bad about yourself! They all have found ways to achieve in distinctive and varied ways-- from sports to extreme activities to academics-- at such a young age. Here are some impressive feats they accomplished in the past month or so (Note: I think it's important sometimes to focus on older "kids," for fear of building up hype for kids so young they can never live up to it, like Cody Paul, who was recently featured in a great follow-up in ESPN The Magazine). 1. Mikaela Shiffrin- At just 16 Shiffrin is making waves on the slopes.  Just before the new year she became the youngest female skier on a World Cup podium since 1978, placing third in the slalom.  She is also the youngest US national slalom champion. I'm guessing we'll hear her name a lot at the 2014 Olympics!

2. Laura Dekker- Dekker is another impressive (if controversial) 16-year-old girl. She just became the youngest person to circumnavigate the  globe alone.  Her record isn't officially recognized though because after some disastrous recent attempts (like Abby Sunderland, and her brother, Zac, both of whom I've written about before), neither the World Sailing Speed Record Council nor the Guinness Book of World Records will recognize those records to "discourage dangerous attempts."  Dekker's parents fought the Dutch government for the right to let their daughter pursue this goal (the government thought it was unsafe). No word on what her next record-breaking adventure will be.

3. Jordan Romero- Well, she won't be breaking the record for youngest person to summit the tallest peaks on all seven continents, because 15-year-old Jordan Romero just earned that honor. At just ten Romero scaled Kilimanjaro and he finished his feat on Antarctica. Currently a high school sophomore I'm guessing he is going to write one heck of a college admissions essay.

4. Sierra Mudra- 16-year-old Mudra also has a great story to tell on her college applications. When she was born she weighed under two pounds. Now a high school junior who has a slight case of cerebral palsy, Mudra hopes to become the first professional skateboarder with a disability.  Based on her story she recently attended The X Games and will soon appear on a billboard in Times Square.

5. Samantha Garvey- The big recent feel-good student story, of course, is that of Samantha Garvey, the 18-year-old high school senior named a semi-finalist in the Intel science competition for her research on mussels (not to be confused with the Seimens competition, which had Angela Zhang as its impressive winner). Garvey achieved this honor despite living in a homeless shelter (though in many ways her teacher, Rebecca Grella, is the real hero of the story).  Though she did not make the final cut of 40 to reach finalist status, Garvey now has an agent and even attended the State of the Union (where, coincidentally, my husband's research on how much a good teacher is worth was discussed by the President [See slide 36]).  Though her college essays are almost certainly completed, Garvey will have some impressive tales to tell for years to come...

The Justin Bieber Effect?: Kids and Competitive Reality Shows

Kids and reality television are a popular, if controversial, mix. What happens when you add competition to the mix? The situation can become volatile. It seems that kids are appearing more often in what are "competitive reality shows," as opposed to "candid reality shows." What's the difference?  Candid reality shows, which would include the Real Housewives and The Real World franchises, follow people in their everyday lives or as they prepare for a specific event. That event could be a competition, as in Toddlers & Tiaras-- but the show itself isn't a competition. American Idol and Survivor, on the other hand, are competitive reality shows. The competition is the show, and because we get to know the contestants over a season a narrative arc develops (which separates them from straight game shows, for example).

Long before the boom of reality TV Star Search ruled the airwaves. If you're like me, or hundreds of other children of the 80s, you wanted to dance like the kids from America's Apple Pie who won many consecutive weeks in 1988.

After Star Search the next big talent show to hit the airwaves was, of course, American Idol, in 2002.  The biggest show on television tried to add a children's competition during the summer of 2003-- American Juniors. The show, meant to create a kids' superstar pop group, faltered in the ratings and never returned (though it did bring us Lucy Hale, who now stars in ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars). I suspect that many viewers felt uncomfortable voting out tweens, preteens, and teens, crushing their dreams.  (At the time I read that many of the parents were difficult behind the scenes as well, but it's unclear if this had anything to do with the decision not to renew the show.)

Shortly after American Idol lowered its entry age, allowing minors to compete.  While this has produced several stars and winners, like Jordin Sparks, it's hard on both the show and contestants to be limited in rehearsal time, fit in schooling, and deal with guardians who must be present (even on tour).  Other shows have emerged, briefly, to stage similar competitive talent competitions in the high school age group, including  2008's High School Musical: Get in the Picture (which also was a ratings flop).  It seems like Americans want their (Disney) pop stars produced behind the scenes, rather than eliminated in front of them, and even at our own hands in audience voting shows.

But in the past week two new shows started that have made me wonder if times are changing and we are now willing to put kids through the same televised competitions as adults.  First of all, Simon Cowell's new show, The X Factor, allows kids as young as 12 to compete. This is much lower than the American Idol minimum age requirement (just lowered to 15 last year). I know the show is trying to attract new and different talent, but to me this decision (and lack of protest) suggests a new willingness in the American viewing audience to subject kids to the same rigors as adults.

And, then there is a new series on The Hub: Majors & Minors.  Majors & Minors (I'm sure the pun was intentional) focuses on twelve aspiring musicians aged 10-16.  The host said at the beginning of the show that no contestant would be eliminated and no one would vote.  Yet, the first episode centered on the "final callbacks," in which 29 kids were cut to 12.  Clearly there was a cut-- but unlike other reality shows, the eliminated contestants weren't really featured (you could get glimpses of them in footage of classes from the final callbacks).  Some of the kids seem extremely talent, so I'll be interested to watch as the series unfolds. While there aren't eliminations, this is a "music competition series," and the kids are competing for a recording and tour deal.  There will be a "winner," and I'm sure all the parents and kids want that prize.

In both Majors & Minors and the X Factor, Justin Bieber was was mentioned. I am guessing his pop superstardom (along with others of late, like Willow Smith) has shown record execs that young kids can succeed and sell a lot of records (my sense is that Michael Jackson's young success may have sullied these waters for some time, for multiple reasons).  Do you believe there can and should be another Justin Bieber, or even Taylor Swift, who started out as a successful songwriter and performer at a young age?

A final interesting kids/competition/reality twist this week: Last night while watching the premiere of The Amazing Race, I realized that one of the teams is the father and son from the Sunderland family. Who are they? Well the son, Zac, became the youngest person to sail around the world at age 17 in 2009. You may recall that his younger sister,  Abby, made international headlines in 2010 when she attempted to break his record.. but had to be rescued out at sea. At the time the rumor was that the Sunderlands, especially the father, had been/were shopping around a family reality show. I wrote about them, in light of the Balloon Boy scandal, and other kid reality scandals, in USA Today.  The reality show never materialized, but their appearance here makes me wonder. Was reality TV always the focus, as was rumored? How far will the father/son duo go and will they now parlay this competitive reality appearance  into their own show?

Resignations and Circumnavigations: Miss Maine USA and Abby Sunderland

As I read The Boston Globe this morning I came across this story at the back of the Metro Section: "Missing Out, Happily." The story is about Emily Johnson, Miss Maine USA 2011 (not to be confused with Miss Maine, who represents the state in the Miss America system). Johnson was crowned Miss Maine USA 2011 on November 27, 2010.  Two months into her reign, on January 25, 2011, the Miss Maine USA organization announced that Johnson had resigned due to a "personal family matter." The news was reported in some pageant publications, like Beauty Pageant News, on January 29, 2011.  The new Miss Maine USA 2011 is Ashley Lynn Marble (who was also Miss Maine Teen USA in 2000).

Over the past two days this story seems to have exploded. This is the most detailed article I found, out of Maine.  The Portland Press Herald reporter wrote a great first line, "For Emily Johnson, family trumped Trump." Why did this story break now? Did the Miss USA organization wait to release the story to drum up more publicity (in downtime from the other pageant crowning scandal of the year-- the dethroned Miss San Antonio legally fighting to keep her crown after being told she had eaten too many tacos to represent the system)? With The Donald at the helm, the organization is pretty savvy when it comes to working the media.  Yes, I guess I do believe in pageant conspiracies.Otherwise, I can't think of another reason why the story would break in the mainstream media almost three months later.

Second question, does anyone buy Johnson's reason for relinquishing her crown? The stated reason is that the pageant date of June 19, 2011 conflicts with her sister's wedding. The Miss USA Pageant, traditionally held in April, has been moved to June in Las Vegas to accommodate the television broadcast. Given the change, Johnson felt she couldn't miss her sister's wedding (and I guess it couldn't be changed so late in the planning stages). Some are praising Johnson for having her priorities straight, while others are criticizing her for not fulfilling the terms of the contract she signed when she won and representing her state.  Methinks there is more to this story... Feel free to suggest your own interpretation below!

Because I love random pageant facts, here are a few out of this story:
* The new Miss Maine USA 2011, Ashley Lynn Marble, now holds the record for length of time between holding Teen and Miss titles at eleven years apart.
* According to The Portland Press Herald, the past three Miss Maine USAs have all been college basketball players. I found that very interesting, but it makes sense given the focus on athleticism/fitness, which means the women likely look to be in great shape for the swimsuit competition, not to mention I assume they are all pretty tall, which helps carry an evening gown well. And, of course, having a lot of competitive drive and knowing how to work hard, two things collegiate sports emphasize, does not hurt at all!
* The third to last basketball-playing Miss Maine USA, Ashley Underwood (Miss Maine USA 2009), is currently a cast member on Survivor: Redemption Island. (PS. If you watch this, go Boston Rob!)

Speaking of television pop culture, as I was reading the paper and found the Miss Maine USA story this morning I was actually watching last night's House episode on my DVR. House has been a favorite of mine for a few years; not only is it smart but it is set in the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro hospital (when I was a Princeton grad student I lived in Plainsboro, so it's always given me a special thrill). The patient in this past episode, "The Last Temptation," was based on a story ripped from last summer's headlines.  Kendall Roberts is a fictional sixteen-year-old girl who collapses a few days before setting off to try to break the record as the youngest person to sail around the world.

This plot line was based on the story of Abby Sunderland, who had to be rescued last summer from her own solo circumnavigation after her boat was severely damaged in a storm. I wrote about Sunderland in a USA Today op-ed on kids and reality tv after it was widely speculated that the incident may have been a set-up for a family show (after this summer's rescue Abby's father canceled their contract with a production company and no show is currently in the works).

Sunderland is back in the news for another reason-- this time with her autobiography entitled Unsinkable, which was released last week. My copy is in that mile-high pile of books to be read that I have mentioned before.

Which would you prefer: winning a pageant beauty or sailing solo around the globe? My vote is that both sound great, as long as I'm not the one doing either activity...