When I first met Skylar Stecker she was 9 years old and eating bean soup and a smoothie at a Panera Bread on Madison’s West Side.
Late Thursday morning, nearly two years later, there she was again, at the same Panera, with the same order. The bean soup must be good.
But if her lunch order was the same, much else in Stecker’s life has changed.
I’d arranged the first meeting after hearing Stecker sing the national anthem at the Wisconsin-Marquette basketball game at the Kohl Center in December 2011. She brought down the house. Both coaches crossed the floor to shake her hand.
At the time, Stecker was attending West Middleton Elementary School. The Kohl Center appearance was just the third time she’d sung the national anthem to a large crowd (a Badgers hockey game a month earlier was the second). People were sharing video of her performances, and no one doubted she had a future. Still, it was early.
Certainly, in many ways, it’s still early. Stecker is 11 and turns 12 in April. But she has relocated to southern California with her family, and her show business career is in full flight.
She has a Los Angeles-based manager, Andrew Flad, himself a Madison native, son of the prominent local developer John Flad. Stecker recently appeared as a guest star on the ABC series “Super Fun Night,” and next month she will share a concert stage in New York City with a 10-year-old YouTube sensation (1.7 million subscribers to his channel) from Atlanta with the memorable name Matty B Raps.
She continues to perform the national anthem in ever bigger settings, including an NFL preseason game in New Orleans in August in which the Saints hosted the Kansas City Chiefs.
On this visit back to Madison, Stecker will sing the national anthem at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday prior to the Wisconsin-Brigham Young game. It figures to be her largest audience yet. Tuesday night, she’ll be back at the Kohl Center, doing the anthem before the Badgers play Florida.
It all does not appear to have gone to her head. At Panera this week, in the company of her mom, Kara Stecker, and Flad, her manager, Stecker was bubbly and still a bit wide-eyed about her new life, be it the trip to New Orleans (“the best food ever — charbroiled oysters!”), the perks of network television (“I got my own trailer!”) or all the fun people she would never have met if she hadn’t learned “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
She came to singing through the piano. Neither of Skylar’s parents are particularly good singers. Aaron and Kara Stecker met on the UW-Madison campus. Aaron was a running back for the Badgers (before transferring to Western Illinois), and then spent a decade in the NFL.
With Aaron out of football in 2009, the family — Skylar has a younger brother, Dorsett — settled back in Madison. At West Middleton Elementary, Skylar signed up for a talent show. She was taking piano lessons and planned to play “Maybe,” a song from “Annie,” in the show. One night she asked her mom if she might sing it, too. Kara was skeptical, but Skylar had been practicing. She was good, almost scary good, Kara remembered later. Soon there were voice lessons, and before too long, the first national anthem performance, at an air show in Beloit in 2011. Stecker’s first Kohl Center appearance followed a short time later.
The turning point may have been an International Models and Talent Association competition in Los Angeles in early 2012. Stecker placed first in multiple categories, earned $1,600 and had close to 50 agents asking for a meeting. They met with a few. Nobody suggested it was practical for Skylar to pursue a show business dream from Wisconsin.
At Panera on Thursday, mother and daughter recalled the big decision of renting an apartment in California in February 2012. “Skylar was begging,” Kara said. Her daughter grinned. “My second job is being a lawyer,” Skylar said. The family has since purchased a home in Irvine, in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. Even Aaron, who was dubious at first — “I’m a Wisconsin boy” — is settled in and happy, with the climate in particular.
Andrew Flad has helped them navigate the sometimes choppy waters of the entertainment industry. He’s officially been Stecker’s manager since February, but Flad got in touch early, after seeing one of the Kohl Center videos, and he’s been advising the family informally since they moved west.
The move has allowed Stecker to regularly audition, which has also meant learning to handle rejection. “She’s great at bouncing back,” Kara said, a necessity in a business where one hears “no” far more often than “yes.” Still there have been plenty of gigs, including the national anthem at a Los Angeles Lakers game, a Microsoft commercial, the recent guest shot on ABC and the upcoming concert with Matty B Raps.
Saturday’s Camp Randall performance will be special, both as a homecoming and because the stadium audience will be the largest of Stecker’s career. She’s not worried about that. Skylar’s only concern about singing at Camp Randall is one that indicates she is now at home in Orange County.
“We need thermal shirts,” she said.