Emily Taylor Kaufman is a little powerhouse. Just 12 years old and in the 7th grade, she’s already graced the musical stage, won a singing contest run by Phil Collins, and been signed on by a national talent agency.
Emily was diagnosed type 1 diabetes three years ago, she took it in stride, her mother Bonnie tells us. Now, the South Florida mom-daughter duo are focusing on Emily’s budding career, while carefully maintaining her blood sugar levels. Watch the video below and more at Emily’s YouTube page to witness her star qualities, and you can also find them at @EmilyTKaufman on Twitter. She’s appeared in 15 musical productions including her favorite roles as Tracy in Hairspray and the witch in Into the Woods, and earned high accolades for her tap and jazz performances at regional and national dance competitions.
We were happy to connect with Emily and her mom Bonnie just before Christmas to learn more about this amazing preteen and her can-do attitude toward life and T1D.
DM) Bonnie, how did this all get started? Was Emily just one of those babies who came out singing?
Bonnie K) Yes, she’s been singing since she was 2, and she’s been singing around the community since she was 6. For seniors, community musicals and doing shows.
I used to have these sing-along videotapes (it was VCR) back then… and she just never missed a beat, she was always on pitch. It was amazing!
Emily K) Not really (giggles). I had these stuffed bears that sing when you press their hands, and I would just press their hands on and on and on, and just sing with them. That’s basically how I got started singing, for family.
So Emily is now juggling middle school and working hard on her performance skills, right?
BK) Yes, Emily started taking classes when she was about 7 — singing, dancing and improv.
Now she goes to Performing Arts Center after school every day, and I usually pick her up by 6:00, sometimes 7:00 if she takes extra dance. Seventh grade is that much harder (because) she comes home and she’s got a million hours of homework. And then she also practices her piano, and a little guitar, but she’s more involved with the piano.
What happened when Emily got diagnosed? That must have put a huge damper on things…
EK) My diagnosis was Monday night, February 24th, 2014. We went to the hospital and they took a blood test, and my sugar was, like 330 or so. It was kind of weird, because it was apparently a low number for a diagnosis, they told my mom.
BK) Yes, she was sleepwalking to get water and chugging, chugging, chugging, and that was weird. Then she was constantly running to the bathroom all the time. But when we got to the hospital, she was perfectly fine. She walked in singing and dancing, and that’s how she walked out, and that’s how she stayed. They were like, ‘She has diabetes, but why are you here so early…?’ Like we shouldn’t be there. I asked, ‘Does it change the outcome?’ and they said no. So I thought ‘that’s good’ because Emily was fine. She thought it was like a play, like a vacation for her.
Wow, you’re lucky you caught it early! And it sounds like your clinic experience was a good one?
BK) Yes, Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, FL, is an amazing, amazing place. The people were just great. They had a playroom, a dog that came to play with the children, and a guy that did some schoolwork with them if they wanted. The nurses were so great, we wanted to write them thank-you notes when we left. They just made you feel really good.
EK) Yeah, it was fun in the hospital actually.
Wow, so the diagnosis wasn’t traumatic at all?
BK) For me it was. But she didn’t know any better to be scared or upset, because I was trying to put on a good front so that I wouldn’t frighten her, and just make it (seem normal). You can’t flip out. You want to be a part of society and live well, be in a family, and do what you have to do — there’s no other choice.
Going home from the clinic for the first time is the hard part, right?
BK) True, we were afraid to go home. At least I was.
EK) Actually, I wanted to leave because I had an improv class with my favorite teacher. Also, I had missed the writing exam in fourth grade, and I was really sad because I was really good at writing. But then the principal said it was OK, you don’t have to make it up.
BK) When we got home I held it together and I said, ‘Oh you know, maybe there’s a reason, maybe a bigger purpose to this.’ We looked up all the famous people, and all the singers, who have diabetes that are in the limelight, so she could see the potential no matter what your obstacle. Of course when she went to sleep, I just cried all night.
Right, like any mom would. Were there other children to worry about as well?
BK) I have a 23-year-old, her brother. I’m a single mom, divorced, so we live together Emily and I. She’s the only one in our family who’s ever had diabetes, as far as I know.
How did you go about getting noticed and signed on by a talent agency?
BK) There’s a program in New York called ‘Broadway Artists Alliance’, and they have summer camps for a week at a time. You have to audition, and they go around cities in the country before the summer, throughout the year. If you’re accepted, you have to pick a ‘major’: either voice, dance, or acting.
We went right after Emily was diagnosed, so I was really nervous about that. They go 9 to 5 rehearsing and performing the whole week, gearing up towards performing for industry experts on the Friday. Right after she performed, some wonderful lady came up to her and said, ‘Are you represented by anyone?’ Emily’s answer was very funny. She said something like, ‘Oh, unfortunately not at this time.’
The woman said she was with Bohemia Group and would like to represent her if we were interested, but we’d have to be willing to fly up to New York whenever there were auditions, or at least send a tape. We’ve been doing that now for two years. We’ve gone up a lot, we’ve had callbacks for Broadway TV and movie rolls.
Has Emily hit it big with any of those roles yet?
BK) This summer, she got asked to come up with just few other candidates to possibly play the daughter of Richard Gere and Julianna Margulies in an upcoming movie. Unfortunately getting there was very expensive and then they wanted us to come back again, like two days later. It was fourth of July weekend, and it was so much money to go back, so we decided to just send the audition tape. When they didn’t pick her, she said, ‘See Mom, we should’ve went back.’ Funny. But we’re confident the right breakthrough role is just around the corner.
The week-long theater camp you described sounds intense. How did you handle Emily’s diabetes during those long, active days?
EK) They give you a chaperon who watches over you. She knew about my diabetes, and she was very cautious.
BK) We stayed in a hotel so I was by her side. But I was having a heart attack all day, every day. It was only four months in, and she didn’t have a pump or CGM sensor at that time. Many times, we would sit down on the street because I didn’t know that heat affects her BG levels, and she would be going Low right there in the street. Then every few minutes we’d be sticking her finger to see if it was coming up, giving her candy, whatever. That part was difficult!
Tell us about Emily winning the Phil Collins contest, which is her big claim to fame so far…
BK) I found this competition online. Phil Collins’ third wife, Orianne, started this ‘Little Dreams Foundation‘ to help kids reach their dreams with some training and mentoring. She’s had it in Europe for 12 to 15 years I think, so this was the second year here in the U.S., and she lives in Miami, and he was moving here.
The highlight was when Emily auditioned for him in June 2015, and he picked her from more than a hundred kids – at number 44, she was the first one to go through.
EK) No, the highlight was sitting right in front of him when we were rehearsing, and you were going crazy!
BK) Nobody had been picked so far all day, and when she went in, she sang Whitney Houston’s ‘I Have Nothing’, and I wasn’t in the room but they picked her on the spot, and they made a big thing and they interviewed her. They were yelling, ‘We have a dreamer, we have a dreamer!’
It’s been great, because the first year she had a lesson a week with one of their experts, and then she got to perform with Phil onstage at the Miami Beach Fillmore and also he had a special guest, Lou Graham from Foreigner, so she go to perform with him and the other nine kids who were chosen that year.
Is this an ongoing program?
BK) Each year they pick new kids, but we’re still involved even after Emily’s win year (2015). We’re still going twice a month to work on group songs, and they said they‘re going to help Emily produce an original song, and have it recorded.
Also, Emily performed for Phil in a holiday show on December 29th, and will again for the gala again on March 11th. They continue to keep the winners in the fold and help them.
She mainly does cover songs currently?
BK) Yes, she sings (popular songs) for a lot of charities. She’s been writing her own stuff since she was little, but in bits and pieces. We had the idea to create a diabetes channel, with diabetes take-offs on songs like ‘Counting Stars’ – as ‘Counting Carbs.’ I know a lot of people do parodies like that, but they don’t sing as well as she does. (chuckles)
Emily wears an OmniPod tubeless pump and Dexcom CGM now, right? Is she self-conscious about those devices?
BK) Actually, last December was one of the first times she was going to sing for Phil at his holiday party, and she put her Pod on her arm with a sleeveless dress. I said, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to put it somewhere else for tonight?’ But she said, ‘Oh, no it doesn’t bother me.’ I am sure not going to be the one to make her hide it. She wore it and she wore it proudly, and so clearly she doesn’t care.
That’s awesome, we love it! But Emily, you must get some questions?
EK) Sometimes a lot of people ask me, ‘What’s that?’ And when I have the receiver in my bag, kids are like, ‘You’re backpack’s open, and there’s something in there — either a wallet or a phone case.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, actually, it’s neither.’
BK) People always ask her, and I always tell her to just say it’s her plastic pancreas.
Have OmniPod and Dexcom reached out, in terms of having Emily as a featured user?
BK) As a matter of fact, when we did the ‘Warrior’ video (Demi Lovato cover), our local rep sent it to OmniPod, and they had their PR people call right away. They combined it with the Phil Collins thing, so right before the gala they featured Emily in the paper, and had her on the radio. She sang a little, and talked about diabetes and the gala.
Recently, the Dexcom people called as well, since they actually have a Warriors program, and they had me interviewed for a story. It was for the health and lifestyle section of the Miami Herald, on one of the racecar drivers with diabetes, and they needed a parents’ perspective.
Has Emily also been involved with diabetes camp(s)?
BK) She’s so busy. She went to diabetes camp the first summer, which was great, but I think she should maybe start some kind of activity once every few months or so to get together, go bowling, or whatever, because she doesn’t actually have any other friends with diabetes. It would be good for her to be with other people who are going through the same things.
But you’ve been involved in diabetes advocacy efforts with JDRF?
EK) For a project in fifth grade, it was mandatory that we had to come up with a non-profit organization to support, and I chose JDRF because it’s pretty obvious. I had to write a persuasive essay, everyone had to write one, and we had to review it in front of the class explaining why we picked it, and how we raised money for support.
BK) They raised a thousand dollars selling cards for Valentine’s Day. She was chosen to present, and got to give the JDRF a $1,000 check at her fifth grade graduation, which was really nice – reps from the local chapter came.
We also did the JDRF walk last year, and we made T-shirts for our small team called ‘Emily’s Warriors.’ Also, she just got elected as a JDRF Youth Ambassador, where they choose about 150 people nationwide, just two or three from each state. So that will be an exciting channel for her.
And wasn’t the ‘Warrior’ video she did in the name of diabetes too?
BK) Every year for her dia-versary, Emily wants to do something fun or exciting, to celebrate the strength that we all have. The first year we went to a Maroon 5 concert, and the second year we released that video called ‘Warrior,’ a Demi Lovato song.
I put that video on Facebook and within two months, it got about 400 comments from people around the world – many from people who’ve had diabetes for 30, 40, or 50 years saying how she inspired them, and she would write back, ‘Well you’re inspiring me. Look at how long you’ve had this!’ She wants to keep doing things like that.
Lastly, maybe it’s a silly question, but what does Emily want to be when she grows up?
BK) I ask her once in a while, ‘What do you see? What would you prefer to do?’ And she says, ‘Sell out arenas and do a tour.’ When we went to the Jingle Ball last year and she said, ‘You know when I do my concert, I’m going to come out from underneath the stage.’ That foresight, just thinking that way, really made me smile. Then she came home two weeks ago and said, ‘I want to be a diabetes doctor, I changed my mind about the performing.’ I was heartbroken in a little way, but wow… isn’t that amazing?
Emily, is that another dream maybe?
EK) Maybe. Major, minor. (beeps in the background as Emily checks her sugar)