Like most girls her age, 13-year-old Kaylee Halko loves singing along to her favourite tunes in the bathroom. It has the best lighting in the house, which is important for Halko’s purposes.
Because unlike her peers, when Halko records her concert in the commode and uploads it to Musical.ly, a fast-rising social video network, millions of fans tune in to watch.
If you haven’t heard of Musical.ly yet, it’s probably because you’re older than 16 or don’t live with a teen. The app took off in 2015 and today, 50% of teens in the US have downloaded it, according to Alex Hoffman, president of Musical.ly North America.
The app allows people to upload 15-second videos of them dancing, performing comedy skits, or lip-syncing to today’s top hits, and it’s given rise to the next generation of social media stars. While most middle schoolers are worrying about zits and exams, overnight celebrities like Halko are learning to juggle international stardom with real life.
Halko has never been your typical American girl. Halko has a rare and fatal disease called progeria, which makes her body age up to 10 times faster than normal children. She stands less than four feet tall, with a smooth head and radiant blue eyes. Her voice sounds like tiny jingle bells.
Typically, people born with progeria show no signs until the age of two, when they start to exhibit growth failure, loss of body fat and hair, aged-looking skin, and stiffness in the joints. On average, they die at 14, often of a heart attack or stroke.
There are 135 known children in the world currently living with progeria. But only one is a rising social media star.
Growing up in suburban Ohio with three older brothers, Halko became the confident, fearless one in the clan. She always insisted on taking the bus to school. She took dance classes in jazz, lyrical, hip-hop, and musical theatre, and continues to enter dance competitions.
When she was 8, she appeared on ABC’s “20/20” and explained to Barbara Walters what the biggest difference between them was: “I have a bald head and you have hair,” she said.
Around the same time as her national news debut, Halko became a victim of bullying in her elementary school. A couple students created Instagram hate pages targeting her disease.
“It pretty much said, ‘We need to kill all kids with progeria,’ and, ‘I want to see all these f—–g kids die,'” Halko’s father, Tim, told a local news station.
When they complained to the administration, the school forced the students to delete the pages. They popped back up a day later. Eventually, Halko transferred to another school.
A year ago, when Halko’s cousin showed her what Musical.ly was, she downloaded the app and didn’t think much of it. Halko started spending 15 minutes a day creating lip-syncing videos that show her bopping along to her favourite hip-hop and dance tunes, serenading the camera in her bathroom.
Halko has since racked up over three million followers and a dozen fan pages on Musical.ly. She almost always cracks the top 25 leaderboard, a list of the most liked users on the app day. And on any post, there are thousands of comments complimenting her eyes, her taste in music, and her spirit.
For every bully that calls her a name, a flock of fans bury the comment with positive replies.
“I definitely feel [supported] because I’ve gotten a lot of nice comments and stuff,” Halko tells Business Insider. “They are definitely nice, so that makes me feel good.”
She says she will often respond to direct messages from fans and doesn’t mind posing for selfies in public. On a trip to South Carolina, she was ambushed for photos on the beach, in the store, and at a café. Fans often ask to take photos with her, but are too starstruck to strike up a conversation. Halko is happy to chat, and doesn’t mind their nervousness.
Just don’t expect her to talk about progeria on Musical.ly. Halko doesn’t make her disease part of the conversation, because that’s not why she’s on the app. She’s here to have fun.
“Like, I don’t want followers to follow me just because I have progeria,” Halko says. “I want them to follow me because they like me.”
That they do.