Millions of viewers know MK Nobilette as the 20-year-old singer from San Francisco who has made history as “American Idol’s” first openly gay contestant, the young woman with a soulful voice and supercool style, and one of just 11 competitors still in the running as of earlier this week.
But at Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco, she is better known as Michaela Spatt Nobilette, who made her public singing debut at her 2007 bat mitzvah.
“Idol,” the Fox TV competition now in its 13th season, purports to choose America’s next singing superstar. Contestants perform each week and viewers vote for their favorites; the person with the lowest tally is sent home until the last one standing is crowned as the “American Idol.”
Viewers are just now discovering a talent that has been apparent in Nobilette’s home community for many years. Her Hebrew teacher at Or Shalom recognized it early on.
“The first time I actually heard her sing, it was through the ceiling of our Victorian,” said Naomi Goldner, Nobilette’s bat mitzvah tutor and also her downstairs neighbor in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood. “I heard her belting out a bunch of different songs, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ That’s when I realized that she sings so beautifully. She had been hiding it.”
Nobilette attended Or Shalom through high school and stayed “very much involved in the Jewish community after her bat mitzvah. She always stood out as a charismatic and unique person,” said Goldner, who remains close with her and her family.
Goldner recalled when Nobilette, then 8, was asked to read Hebrew from the board. She insisted on lying on the floor and reading it backwards and upside down. “That was how she wanted to do it, and she did it,” said Goldner. “She would challenge me, but I think I learned the most from her about being open-minded in my teaching.”
Mindy Spatt, one of Nobilette’s two moms, said the Jewish community and Hebrew school “were an important part of her childhood. We were also really lucky that for her whole life we have been part of a moms group who all happen to be Jewish and lesbian and have kids around the same age.”
A six-summer alumnus of Camp Tawonga, Nobilette graduated in 2012 from the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts as a vocal major. An aunt convinced her to audition for “American Idol,” and the judges were moved by her singing, with Jennifer Lopez commenting after one performance, “She’s like a quiet storm.”
Reached in L.A. earlier this week, Nobilette said the judges’ feedback has helped her improve her performance, especially her stage presence and ability to connect with the audience. “Before I get onstage I get nervous,” she said, “but then I’m performing and it goes away. You don’t think about it. You’re only thinking about your song. It goes so fast, and I always want to do it again.”
She said her days have been filled with nonstop singing and vocal coaching. “We get up early, we stay up late, we’re pretty much always practicing,” Nobilette said. All that togetherness has made the contestants a tight group. “We’re really close. We’re all here for the same thing, so it’s easy to connect to each other.”
Though the “Idol” experience has been exhausting, it also has been life-changing. “Definitely this is the best thing I’ve ever done,” Nobilette said. “I knew [singing] is what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know this was the way I was going to do it.”
Spatt, who has traveled to Los Angeles twice to watch her daughter perform on the live show, described the experience as “nerve-wracking” and said she couldn’t help but cry watching her. “To see your child up there taking such a huge risk, the audience is what, 10 million people — it’s a big thing for a young person to take on, an enormous amount of pressure. And then to have the audience cheer her, and she just looked so beautiful …”
Nobilette has brought a distinct San Francisco spirit to the competition. She wears a backwards baseball cap on stage, sports a lower-lip piercing and a California tattoo on her calf, and one night rocked a pink suit with high-top sneakers. She has been open about her sexuality from the start of the competition, though she acknowledged early on that “there are always going to be people in America and everywhere else who are definitely going to hate me.”
But even so, she did not anticipate becoming a role model for gay youth all over the world, according to her mother. “Before this she hadn’t talked about anything publicly, let alone about being gay,” Spatt said. “It’s all new.”
“Things haven’t always been easy for her,” added Goldner, “but since she was 8, I’ve seen that spark in her that set her apart from others. She’s so sweet and so beautiful inside and out.”
Goldner, who said her two children consider the singer a big sister, reported that her 6-year-old wasn’t happy last week when Nobilette had enough votes to make it through to another week. “He was very upset because he wants her to come back home,” she said. “My kids miss her.”