WAILUKU - For nearly five months, 9-year-old Jessica Griffiths had to keep a secret. Her extended family, her friends, even her dog, Bella, couldn't know the news.
Just as it turned midnight on New Year's Day, Jessica's mom, Lisa, and dad, Dan, were the first ones to tell - and they hit Facebook with the scoop. The next morning, friends and family were called, and the Wailuku family's celebration could finally commence.
Jessica, an Emmanuel Lutheran 4th-grader, had landed the coveted spot to represent the American Girl's 2011 Girl of the Year, Kanani.
Jessica Griffiths, 9, shows off her new Kanani Akina doll that she received in the mail Tuesday. Jessica, who was chosen by American Girl to model the Hawaii-inspired 2011 Girl of the Year, is wearing American Girl pajamas that come in doll and human sizes.
The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo
"At first I didn't actually believe that it was me," Jessica said. "But then I was like, 'Wow.' "
Images of Jessica's modeling shoot last August were unveiled in catalogues and stores around the nation after the highly-anticipated Jan. 1 release of the first Hawaii-inspired American Girl doll. The Griffiths promised to keep the information under wraps until American Girl owner, Mattel, the world's leading toy company, announced the new doll.
"After it turned midnight our time, I went on AmericanGirl.com and ordered the doll for Jessica right away and bought accessories. Then I went on Facebook. I wanted to beat Danny - he always steals my thunder," Lisa said with a laugh.
Kanani Akina is an 18-inch-tall doll with tan skin, golden brown hair and hazel-green eyes. Two books by Lisa Yee, "Aloha, Kanani" and "Good Job, Kanani," tell the doll's story and her aim of sharing the aloha spirit. The doll, along with her floral-print cotton dress and kukui-nut looking necklace, will be available for one year. Other clothing for sale includes a swimsuit, board shorts, denim capris, an aloha T-shirt and a hula set. Kanani can be accessorized with a paddleboard set, a shave ice stand, a lounge chair set and a plush monk seal, among other items. Prices range from $95 for doll and book, about $28 for extra outfits and $29 to $50 for girls' outfits to match the dolls.
American Girl spokeswoman Stephanie Spanos said Kanani's character was created based on research about girls' interests and feedback from cultural experts.
"Hawaii rose to the top for several reasons: It provided a great backdrop; it's an exotic location without being foreign. Lisa Yee, the author, said she wanted to focus on Kauai and include the Hawaiian monk seal. The island has the largest seal population. Furthermore, the aloha spirit, and how unique it is and how it can be found within all of the United States - the relaxed spirit of goodwill that pervades the islands - was also important."
So far, Kanani dolls are doing well, said Spanos, adding that luau demonstrations and professional hula troupes are present at launch events at retail stores.
"We are thrilled," she said. "I think girls are really excited . . . She's resonating with a lot of people."
American Girl is a wildly popular division of Mattel. About 132 million American Girl books have been sold since its inception in 1986, and 33 million visits are taken each year to its experiential retail stores in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver, Boston, Minneapolis, Boston, Kansas City and Dallas. Shoppers at American Girl stores often spend hundreds of dollars in one visit for tea parties, hair cutting and styling, and more - where both the owner and the doll are pampered. American Girl dolls are so detailed that owners may visit the website to admit the doll to Doll Hospital, "where a team of doctors examine the doll from head to toe to decide how best to proceed." Mattel has sold 18 million American Girl dolls since the brand's inception in 1986 through its retail stores, website and catalogue, which ranks among the top 25 consumer catalogues in the country.
Older sister, Christiana, 16, said she didn't realize the scope of the American Girl brand until after Jessica landed the job.
"It's kind of crazy," said Christiana, a St. Anthony Junior-Senior High School student. "I heard of the name, but I didn't realize how big it was until we went up and saw the store (in California)."
Jessica's dad, Dan, gets a laugh out of the coincidental similarities between Jessica and Kanani. Jessica helps operate a shave ice stand called Maui Girlz Shave Ice at the Maui Swap Meet each week; Kanani has a shave ice stand (Kanani's shave ice is $149, though, and Jessica's shave ice is $3). Jessica dances hula for Tihati Productions at the Wailea Marriott every Monday night and with Uluwehi Guerrero's halau on Saturdays; Kanani dances hula with uli uli and auana skirt. Jessica and Kanani share a local-girl look, according to her agent, Cynthia Clark, president of Kihei-based Chameleon Talent, the only agent representing Maui's talent - models, cast and crew - professionally for film, television, video and photographic assignments.
"(American Girl representatives) were looking for a look," Clark said. "They asked for height ranges. . . . I wasn't even aware that they were trying to look for a Hawaiian girl of the year. It's a big secret."
Jessica's talents transcend modeling, even though she's won multiple International Modeling and Talent Association awards, including third runner-up for model of the year in 2007. Her already deft skills in acting have landed her a role as "Island Girl" on Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter," which hit theaters last fall.
The Griffiths are quick to praise Clark and her Chameleon Talent agency for getting Jessica her roles with "Hereafter," American Girl and other high-profile gigs.
"Without Cynthia, Jessica wouldn't have gotten these jobs," Dan said. "She deserves all of the credit in a sense."
Both Jessica and Lisa appeared in the famous scene along Front Street and their names appear in the credits following superstars Matt Damon and Cecile De France. But the memories with the legendary Eastwood will stick with Jessica and her family the most.
"It was an unbelievable honor," Lisa said. "Clint Eastwood is so down-to-earth . . . he was so calm and yet he commands so much respect."
Jessica and Lisa said they wish they could write a letter of thank you to the director for the kindness he showed on and off the set.
"He was really nice," Jessica said. "I watched 'Gran Torino' and I thought he would be mean. But he's not.
"He lives in Makena, we could thank him."
"We can't just go knocking on his door," Lisa said, laughing.
But Jessica's accomplishments don't stop at modeling and acting. She maintains an array of activities including hula, tennis, gymnastics and playing guitar. And she still manages to nail a 4.1 GPA at Emmanuel Lutheran, all while staying grounded by spending time with family and friends.
And that's just at age 9.
Jessica turns 10 on Monday, and with her reaching a decade, as her dad jokes, there's no telling what's in store for the young phenom, who's filled with exuberance for life and the talent to achieve anything.
"Sky is the limit," Clark said. "I think she has a choice about what she wants to do. She has a charisma, charm, talent and self-awareness to rise to the very top of this industry. Whether it's acting or modeling, it's all in her hands. I think she's unique, personable and brilliant."
So what's next for Jessica?
She will appear in an upcoming Maui Jim sunglasses campaign and continue working on a clubhouse that she and her dad are building.
Jessica is already eying a move to Seabury Hall to prepare for college. She said her goal is to be an actress and a veterinarian.
"I think if I had to choose, I would rather be a veterinarian because I love dogs. But if I didn't have to choose, I'd do both."