Mary Grace Langhorne has the happy face of a 12-year-old girl, the voice of a 30-year-old blues singer, and the resilience and outlook of a 40 year old. She’s one of ten finalists this year in Joe Lambert’s Teen Star talent competition, happening tomorrow night at The Granada. The “American Idol”-style show features ten teens (and two alternatives) from Santa Barbara County, performing together and individually in front of celebrity judges, a packed audience of family, friends and supporters, and an ever-increasing internet audience.
Last year’s competition (its third annual) was a much larger event than previous years. It sold out The Granada and the winner, Allie Nixon was awarded a $1,000 scholarship, a chance to record at Santa Barbara Sound Design, and since then she’s had radio and TV appearances, as well as opportunities to appear at various entertainment events around the country.
Last month, auditions were held over three days in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, and at the end, the finalists were announced: Jason Paras (Dos Pueblos High, 12th grade); Karlie Mack (San Marcos High, 12th grade); Zoe Burritt (Cabrillo High, 10th grade); Nathaniel Neumann (Dos Pueblos High, 11th grade); Grant Bower (Santa Barbara High, 10th grade); Mary Grace Langhorne (Goleta Valley Junior High, 7th grade); Brandi Rose Lentini (Santa Barbara High, 9th grade); Luana Psaros (Dos Pueblos High, 11th grade); Sulema Mejia (Pioneer Valley High, 12th grade); Dylan Ortega (Santa Ynez Valley High, 10th grade). Two alternates were also chosen: Olivia Huffman (Solvang School, 8th grade) and Sydney Shalhoob (La Colina Junior High, 8th grade).
Mary Grace Langhorne’s story is similar to many other contestants: a love of singing, a musical family, and a can-do attitude. But she’s also different from the pack — and from the previous years — as she’s the first Teen Star competitor to be in a wheelchair. It’s not stopping the musical routines — Joe Lambert and his team have cleverly altered the choreography to work with Mary Grace. As anyone who knows her story has figured out, her past was very different, and her future holds hope.
In 2012, Mary Grace was just like any other young girl. She had a history of performing in pageants, and is a certified scuba diver. She was in Mexico with her family that year, vacationing, diving, and even watching the race of tiny sea turtles on their way to the ocean. But when she returned, she had caught something, with no idea how or where. What nobody knew yet was she had contracted “PANDAS,” short for Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections.
“It came out like a wet, chesty cough like bronchitis,” she says. “It was every second I breathed.” A series of doctors misdiagnosed what they thought was asthma or a chest infection. Misdiagnosis — as Mary Grace’s condition is very rare — led to being prescribed the wrong kind of drugs, which led to an even worse reaction: Neuroleptic malignant syndrome. In February of 2013, Mary Grace found herself unable to walk, and at the worst of it, paralyzed, her body’s muscles curled up into themselves. As part of her therapy, she must be put under so doctors can inject Botox into the muscles to bring them back into a normal position.
“I wouldn’t be here (like this) if I hadn’t received the medication,” says Mary Grace. “I’d be standing in Teen Star and going to Cabo.”
Parents Eddie and Monica Langhorne are by her side as we talk, and have been her source of strength. During the worst of it, she sang to her father to get her mind off all the needles and the pain.
“Pain is just something that gets in the way,” Mary Grace says. “Meditation really helps; it helps you just be in the moment and understand that this is what you need to do. It’s great that I have a chance to get back on my feet, so I really want to take that chance and grab it.”
She’s much better now. She’s gone from paralysis to being very mobile in her wheelchair. The symptoms seem to be leaving from the top down, as her hands are expressive as any teenager. She can even lift her legs into a cross-legged pose with a combo of upper and lower body strength. Doctors tell her if she continues exercise and treatments, she’ll eventually get out of her wheelchair.
Her goal is to walk by this summer, as she’s scheduled to join other kids her age to go to Europe as part of the People to People Ambassador Program, an educational exchange. And she wants to at least stand or walk a step or two before her upcoming birthday. She has a specially made brace for her feet that looks like ski boots, and she’s already got a fancy pair of UGG high heels for when she’s fully recovered.
“All the doctors have said, well, that’ll be a miracle,” she says of her early recovery date. “But I say, ‘hey, miracles happen.'”
“I think if I prepare for Teen Star too much, like I have done already without trying to, I’ll just be scared to bits,” she said. “So I’m going to surround myself in a bubble of the moment. I’ll say, ‘Mary, it’s a make it or break it moment. If you break it, oh well, get a cast. Just do your best and have fun’ … I will keep trying every year.”
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Granada, 1214 State St.
Information: granadasb.org or 899-2222