As she toddled around the house in diapers, everyone could see how much Mahaillie Griffith loved music.
She happily hummed along to songs on the radio. She got especially enthusiastic when she heard her favorite tune: LeAnn Rimes' Blue. Mahaillie hummed perfectly in synch with Rimes.
"I just thought, 'Oh my gosh,' " said Mahaillie's mom, Cori Griffith. "This girl is singing. She didn't even talk yet!"
Now 17, Mahaillie Griffith's singing is paying off. Her rendition of Astonishing from the musical Little Women helped her win the title of Distinguished Young Woman of Hillsborough County.
"I was really surprised," said a modest Griffith, who lives in Lithia and attends Blake High School in Tampa. "They were all really, really talented."
Founded in 1958 in Mobile, Ala., Distinguished Young Women is the largest and oldest national scholarship program for high school girls in the country.
Participants at each level are judged on scholastic achievement, interview, talent, fitness and self-expression.
Griffith and 16 others move on to Winter Garden Jan. 1 where they will compete for the title of Florida's Distinguished Young Woman.
Angela Kendall-Dempsey, Florida's volunteer chairwoman, said the 17 girls have an opportunity to earn $16,000 in cash scholarships and more than $3 million in college scholarships during the state competition next month.
The Florida winner will go to the national competition in June in Mobile and has a shot at more prize money and scholarships and the title of America's Distinguished Young Woman 2013.
Kendall-Dempsey said this program is much more than a beauty pageant. The competition is based around academics, leadership and talent. She said the winners seem to have one thing in common.
"They have a strong sense of self," she said.
Griffith has heard the stories of her singing and performing at an early age. She loves to be on stage.
"I just love to perform," she said. "Nothing brings me more happiness than performing. Musical theater is what I want to do with my life."
Griffith, a senior at Blake's School of the Arts, is hoping for a career on the stage after college. She is sacrificing a lot to try and reach her goal.
Griffith groggily rises at 4:30 a.m. each school day and boards two buses for the hour-long trip to Blake in downtown Tampa. She often stays at Blake after school to go over lines, create sets or help wherever she can with the drama department.
"Most of my life is spent at Blake," Griffith joked.
At night, she does her homework. She also likes to volunteer in her free time, especially with children involved in musical theater.
Seth Travaglino, Blake High's musical theater director, is thrilled to have Griffith in his troupe.
"Mahaillie is so talented," Travaglino said. "So smart. So sweet and so kind."
A good student, too.
Griffith, whose school load includes an AP psychology class, a college English class and an honors economics class, carries a 4.8 weighted GPA.
Griffith said she does have a lot on her plate but considers herself good at planning and time management. Is she sleepy some days? Yes. Is she exhausted some days? Absolutely. Would she change anything? No.
"I love my life," she said. "I love being busy."
Cori Griffith said Mahaillie could attend Newsome High School, which is a few minutes from their home. But her daughter wants to learn all she can about singing and acting so Blake is the perfect place.
"It's definitely tough," Cori Griffith said. "But it's her passion. It's her life."
Cori Griffith did all she could to help her daughter explore her musical and acting interests. There were beauty pageants, voice lessons, dance classes and musical theaters shows.
They occasionally tried other activities, too, such as gymnastics and soccer, just to make sure she had an opportunity to experience it all.
It didn't always work out.
"She was the kid on the sports field fixing her hair while everyone else was running," a laughing Cori Griffith said.
Griffith has big goals. After college, she hopes to be on Broadway or join the cast of NBC's Saturday Night Live. If it does not turn out, she thinks she'll be happy teaching musical theater.
Griffith said it might be fun to have a job like Travaglino's.
"He changes so many lives every day," she said of Travaglino, who is one of her favorite teachers. "He helps you find a personal connection to every character. He says he doesn't like acting. It sounds fake. He wants you to be real."
Travaglino is among those who think Griffith should go after her dream.
"She has all the tools, the determination and the talent," he said. "She has the talent to pursue it."
Monica Bennett can be reached at [email protected]