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Nellie McKay's age, colorful background questioned

Singer-songwriter Nellie McKay is a prodigy. She's outspoken. She's quirky. She's got an amazing voice. And she's only 19!

During an interview with McKay for a Sept. 10 Gusto article to preview her concert at the University at Buffalo, News Pop Music Critic Jeff Miers asked her, "How the heck did you figure all of this stuff out by age 19?" In response, Miers wrote, "McKay only laughs -- something she did often during our conversation, in a delightfully infectious manner."

It seemed too good to be true.

It was.

McKay, who has charmed interviewers across the country with colorful stories about her unconventional 19 years of life, was actually born on April 13, 1982, making her 22, according to her father, London-based director and author Malcolm McKay.

In her official biography, as well as interviews given in the past year with the New York Times, USAToday, New York magazine and National Public Radio, McKay has claimed to be 19. Most of the interviews featured her teenage status prominently in overwhelmingly positive stories about her songs. Miers called her a "pop genius."

Her talent may be genuine, but her age isn't. A search of national records supports Malcolm McKay's report of his daughter's birth date -- her Social Security number was issued in California in 1982 or 1983. Her official bio does not mention her ever living in California.

McKay is not the first woman in entertainment to fib about her age, of course. And 19 is not that far of a stretch from 22. But to so aggressively market herself to media through a direct lie brings up legitimate questions about the young woman and her motives, experts noted.

"This goes to an issue of veracity and credibility," says Aly Colon, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, an independent school for journalists in Florida.

And a faked biography "speaks not only to her credibility but also to how you evaluate her with regards to her talent, her maturity, her abilities. And you begin to wonder: How about other things she's told us? Are they truthful?"

Nellie McKay's spokesperson, Carla Parisi, maintained as late as Sept. 10 that McKay was 19, but admitted three days later that McKay was 20, saying, "It's show business." When confronted with the evidence that McKay was born in 1982, Parisi said, "This is all news to me."

"I love my daughter but I'm afraid she's been letting her imagination run away with her," wrote Malcolm McKay in an e-mail from London. Nellie McKay has told interviewers she and her father are estranged.

A 1998 article in her hometown newspaper, the Pocono Record, quotes Nellie McKay and identifies her as a 16-year-old junior at Pocono Mountain High School. In an interview published in March 2003 in Time Out New York, she told reporter Jay Ruttenberg she was 18, managing to age only two years between 1998 and 2003.

McKay has also been stretching the truth about other things. She told Ruttenberg she spent her childhood in a drug-infested area of Harlem, is the granddaughter of a murderer, the great-granddaughter of a bullfighter. In a USAToday interview, she said she was a cousin of Dylan Thomas.

Ruttenberg reported McKay's Forrest-Gump-esque claims in his 2003 story, under the now-ironic headline, "The Real McKay."

While neither Nellie McKay nor McKay's mother, Robin Pappas, returned a call seeking comment for this story, her father denied many of these claims. Dylan Thomas' daughter, Aeronwy Thomas, denies that the McKays are related to her.

In an interview published Sept. 12 in the British newspaper The Mail on Sunday, Pappas commented on the claim about her grandfather: "Nellie's got it a little confused. . . . I don't have proof that he was a murderer. I never saw him murder anybody."

The story of why she and her mother left their crack-infested Harlem neighborhood for Olympia, Washington -- which her official biography says happened in 1994 -- has threads of a real tragedy woven through it. but it's not a tragedy that affected Nellie.

McKay claimed that she and her mother fled after her lawyer was brutally murdered "and found in various parts of the five boroughs."

A tenant organizer named Bruce Bailey, 54, was indeed abducted and murdered, and his dismembered body was found on a South Bronx street. But Bailey was killed in 1989, a full five years before McKay's official bio says she and Pappas packed up and fled to Olympia, Wash.

Robert J. Thompson, professor of media and pop culture at Syracuse University, says the discovery of Nellie McKay's faked biography may not hurt her professionally.

"I think it all boils down to whether she keeps delivering the goods. If people like her performances, if they like her songs, if they like her voice, not only would it be possible for this not to derail her career, it adds another element to the mystique. In the new kind of outlaw entertainment world, this gives her a whole new dimension that she might be able to cash in on in another way."

McKay told Miers, "My music is me. So I want it to be exactly what I want it to be. I'm going to say what I believe, and I want my career to be handled exactly the way I want it to be handled. That might mean I p--- some people off. But, oh well!"

Malcolm McKay wrote, "There is obviously not much wrong with a young singer wanting to create a dramatic past for herself full of poets and bullfighters, but when it comes to seriously hurting, not to say libeling, the living and their families, then I'm afraid it has to stop."

Nellie McKay has denounced her father in interviews as "a jerk and a hypocrite and a lech" and says they are estranged. Malcolm McKay says he's kept in touch with, often visited and financially supported his daughter through the years.

"It seems as if Nell has decided to create a myth for herself as a tough, criminally begotten, street chick. This is not true," wrote her father.

"And the real Nellie? She is a gorgeous, nervous, imaginative and lonely dreamer with a prodigious talent. She is a brilliant musician (piano, cello, saxophone, percussion), a wonderful lyricist and has a fantastic voice. She is also very bright, politically aware and committed. If she speaks through her music she won't go far wrong."

News Researcher David Valenzuela contributed to this report.


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