In years past, it might have seemed unlikely for a National Spelling Bee champion to be a famous face outside her hometown or the Washington, DC, hotel where spellers gather each year. But that was before ESPN broadcast the bee, and before a documentary shone a bright spotlight on the lives of some of the best young spellers in the country.
Now a freshman at Michigan, Lala’s spelling bee championship is five years old. Her fame, though, remains at a high level.
The main reason is the popularity of Spellbound, the film featuring Lala and seven other competitors in the 1999 National Spelling Bee that was nominated for an Oscar last year. The filmmakers chose the subjects before the bee and, as it turned out, “they made some serendipitous choices,” Lala says.
Indeed. The filmmakers, Jeffrey Blitz and Sean Welch, told interesting back-stories about the students from diverse backgrounds, then turned the cameras on them as they inevitably were eliminated. All of them, that is, except Lala. She was the last one standing—or, rather, the last one leaping, as she celebrated her win with a joyous victory jump after spelling “logorrhea” (pathologically excessive and often incoherent talkativeness.)
Lala suspected the movie would be good because of the care and attention Blitz and Welch had given it. “But I didn’t know that they’d turn it into a sweeping view of America,” she says.
In addition to the movie, Lala appeared on TV’s Today, Good Morning America, the Rosie O’Donnell Show and others after her win. Jay Leno mentioned her in a monologue as a possible running mate for Dan Quayle. A restaurant near her then-home in Tampa offered a misspelled “congradulations” to her.
Lala’s victory earned her a $10,000 cash prize, a $1,000 savings bond, a set of encyclopedias and two airline tickets. Last year, she returned to the Bee as a staff member and plans to do so again this year. Part of her job is to work in the “comfort room,” where eliminated spellers go for cookies and tissues before being approached by the media.
MTV recently offered Lala a chance to extend her fame by appearing on a reality show. She thought about it. But she has changed a lot since she was 14 and has become much more reserved, she says. Ultimately, she said no to MTV, deciding “it would be too invasive.”
If she is as reserved as she claims, it doesn’t come through in an interview. She is almost giddy in her description of the things she enjoys about the University and Ann Arbor. She is on the College Bowl team and wants to explore other extracurriculars.
“One day I want to do rugby, and the next day I want to take a bartending class,” she says.
She likes going to the Michigan and State theaters, Pinball Pete’s, Village Corner, Whole Foods and Borders.
She also likes the intellectual stimulation. One of the reasons she decided to come to Michigan was the strength of the departments across the board, including biology and biochemistry (one of which likely will be her major). Lala always has had a strong interest in other languages—something that helped her immensely as she and her mother trained for the Spelling Bee—and her interest is leading her to minor in Slavic literature.
Lala looks forward to becoming a doctor down the road, perhaps specializing in neurology. And she’ll always be grateful for the experiences she’s had because she was the National Spelling Bee champion.
But she also wants to continue moving forward with her life and doing new, interesting and noteworthy things. Who, after all, wants to peak at age 14?
“It’s a great, great thing to have under your belt,” she says, “but you want to do other things.”