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Spelling's busy bee

The winner of the 1999 National Spelling Bee says she owes a lot to her participation, but she never guessed it would make her a film star.

Published June 5, 2003

[AP photo]
Nupur Lala, right, who won the National Spelling Bee in 1999 when she was a Tampa resident, worked as a paid staff member at this year’s contest. Sitting to Lala’s left is Hannah Krug.

WASHINGTON - During the early rounds last week of the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, Nupur Lala watches from the back of the ballroom. Speller by speller, 251 kids step up to the microphone and speak the letters. There are grins of relief after "foliicolous," "maquillage" and "phrontistery," anguished shrugs from those taken down by "tagliatelle" and "ceraceous."

Lala watches intently. "I do miss it a little bit," she says, "being up there onstage."

She has had her moment of spelling in the spotlight. And it made her a star.

Well, not a designer-gown-and-red-carpet movie star. Nupur Lala is an energetic 18-year-old, a slim young woman with bobbed black hair and direct brown eyes who plays tennis and loves going to the mall. She just graduated from high school in Fayetteville, Ark., and at first glance what makes her stand out among other teenagers is her poise.

But she is a movie star. She and seven other competitors in the 1999 national bee are the subjects of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Spellbound, which opens in Tampa and around the nation Friday.

The movie has won more than a dozen awards at film festivals and is drawing media attention from the New York Times to Oprah, no mean feat for a low-budget slice of life by a filmmaker directing his first feature, Jeffrey Blitz.

The eight kids who battle to get the last word in Spellbound are all engaging. But Lala would have made her mark even without the movie: She won the 1999 bee.

She was an eighth-grader at Louis Benito Middle School in Tampa, living with her family in New Tampa. The last kid standing on the stage in Washington, she spelled "logorrhea," which means "pathologically excessive and often incoherent talkativeness."

Her win earned her $10,000. But that wasn't all she got out of it. "I can't imagine my life without the bee," she says. She is back in Washington this year as a paid staff member, stuffing goody bags, offering tips to spellers and grading the written portion of the contest.

"The whole experience of spelling bees shaped me in so many ways," she says. "It made me more mature, more poised, more intellectually curious. It made me a more resilient person."

And she values the friendships she made at them. In other academic competitions she has been part of, she says, "People are so competitive, they're afraid to talk to each other. At the bees, we're all cheering each other on. That's what's so great: the camaraderie."

And they can all spell it.

All spellers know the stereotype most people think of when they imagine the kid who competes in spelling bees: the nerd.

Never mind that, as the biographies in the official Bee Week Guide show, the competitors include varsity athletes, musicians, professional actors and even a kid who auditioned for American Idol.

These are, after all, kids who do their darndest to memorize every word in the bee bible, Webster's Third New International Dictionary, hulking copies of which are for sale in the lobby of the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Washington, where the bee takes place.

About 10-million American children compete in spelling bees each year, from the local level up. About 250 make it to the national contest. Watching them onstage and especially afterward, it's clear that they're getting something you might not expect from this: media savvy.

One duty of staffers and volunteers who have been spellers is to work in the "comfort room."

That's where the kids go after they have been eliminated, after an extra "e" or a misplaced "t" has brought on the sound most dreaded to a speller's ear: the sharp ring of the round brass library bell on the judges' desk.

In the comfort room, the staffers and Webster's await them. "Some kids never want to hear the word again as long as they live; they won't even look," Lala says. "But most kids want to look it up, be sure it really exists.

"The comfort room is just a place where they can go and cry, yell if they have to, maybe get something to eat. They can compose themselves before they go out and meet the media."

She says that off-handedly, as if every kid in America knows that you need to compose yourself before you meet the media. But these kids do.

They step out into the lobby, where reporters and camera people from various networks are camped in their own corners, and newspaper reporters squeeze into the room that's left, and they meet the media.

Their parents are standing by, wringing their hands and smiling through their tears, but the kids look right into the camera and are as calm and articulate as PBS commentators, even though they've just been dinged.

Having been through bees before (many spellers compete more than once), Lala was ready to step right into her next media experience when filmmakers Jeff Blitz and Sean Welch came calling in 1999.

"When they first asked us to participate in the movie, my brother and I thought it was going to be so Hollywood. We thought they'd do all this makeup, have an entourage. And then they showed up, and it was just Jeff and Sean.

"I had a wonderful time doing it."

Lala had seen the movie on tape, then saw it on the big screen the first night of the national bee. Most of the contestants saw it, too.

"They loved it," Lala says, "but I think it made some of them even more nervous, because of the tension" in the film.

She says she is happy to be doing promotion for Spellbound because she is so pleased with its portrayal of the spelling bee.

"It's really just this homegrown documentary. . . . They didn't put any spin on any of the families.

"There are a lot of movies about immigrants, about gifted children. But this is just such a broad view of America."

Lala is still friends with the other kids who appear in Spellbound. Two of them, Emily Stagg and April DeGideo, were also staffers for this year's bee. Seven of the eight will be college students this year, at schools from New York University to the University of California at Berkeley; one is still in high school.

The national spelling bee has drawn increasing interest in recent years, even before Spellbound, beginning when ESPN began broadcasting the final rounds live in 1994.

In 1997, a homeschooled 13-year-old from Brooklyn, became an instant cult figure. A quirky, demonstrative kid, she leaped with joy when the pronouncer gave her the winning word, "euonym," then shouted the letters out like a demented cheerleader. She pogoed around the stage shouting "Yay!" when she was named the winner, then balanced the trophy atop her head - all on ESPN.

Sealfon was such a pop culture sensation, she inspired a character on South Park and countless Web pages. Lala, whose winning demonstration was a bit more understated, says, "She really did put the spelling bee on the map." Sealfon is now a student at Princeton.

There has also been "a vast difference in the level of preparation in the last five years," Lala says. The number of younger contestants is growing; this year the age range was 8 to 15 (contestants must not have gone beyond eighth grade). "Eight-year-olds - that has never happened before," she says.

"They're even more intensely driven, more savvy about how to study," Lala says, in part because of the growing publicity and increased sponsorship for the contest.

Methods of preparation vary, as do spellers' personalities, Lala says.

"I think being a good speller shows that a person is meticulous, has a good eye for detail. They're careful.

"But it doesn't reflect on intelligence in general. I know some very smart people who aren't good spellers."

People expect her to be fussy about spelling, she says, but she isn't. "Well, a few things." Some people who instant message misspell words that are misspellings, she says. "You know, like "ganna' for "gonna.' That just drives me crazy."

In one charming scene in Spellbound, her parents recall that she was always fascinated by big words. When she was 21/2, her mother says, she told them one day, to their astonishment, "I have no opportunities." She didn't know what the word meant, she just liked the sound of it.

Lala's parents came to the United States from India. She was born in Syracuse, N.Y., and the family lived in North Carolina for 10 years before coming to Tampa for two years.

Lala says she thinks that growing up bilingual (she speaks Hindi) helped her become a champion speller. "You're more aware of language," she says. She also thinks that being in a house always filled with books helped her.

The family moved to Arkansas not long after she won the bee, when her father, Parag Lala, left the University of South Florida for the University of Fayetteville, where he is a professor of computer science and engineering. Her mother, Meena, is a homemaker who, Lala says, "helped me enormously in studying for the bees."

Lala has a younger brother, Kunal, 15. "Spelling has never been his strong point," she says, but he competes in math contests.

Spelling is not Lala's only talent. She graduated from Fayetteville High School near the top of her class and will go the University of Michigan in the fall on scholarship. "The full ride," she says, grinning. She chose Michigan because it offers research opportunities (she knows that word now) and because "I like cold weather."

She plans on a double major, biology and economics. She wants to study virology - "This SARS thing is really interesting" - and she's intrigued by economics because she invested some of her money in the stock market and lost it. Eventually, she hopes to study medicine.

Although she competed in Quiz Bowl and academic decathlons, Lala says that her life is not all academics. "I play the violin, I read, I hang out with my friends, I play tennis, I go to the mall. I'm a big shopper. And sleep is becoming a favorite pastime."

She favors French and Russian novelists and was first violin in the Northwest Arkansas Symphonic Youth orchestra. She was also a volunteer for the Arkansas Democratic Party during the 2002 elections, and she holds a black belt in tae kwon do.

No romances on the simmer, she says. "There hasn't been much room in my life for another person. We'll see; maybe that will change once I get to college."

For now, Lala's considerable poise is getting a workout. During the early rounds of the bee, her job is to play traffic cop in the ballroom lobby, directing people away from the noisy center doors and trying to keep quiet the parents and younger siblings congregating in the lobby.

"I remember hearing that dull roar" from the lobby while she was onstage. "It's very distracting." The audience inside the ballroom is as hushed as a gaggle of Tiger Woods fans.

But as more spellers are eliminated, the crowd in the lobby swells, and so does the range of reactions. A blond girl tells her little sister, "I'm glad I'm out in this round, before it's on TV. I'd hate to go down on ESPN."

An animated woman in a flowered dress declares, "I just hate those extra vowels in the middle. That's what always gets them."

Nearby, a tall boy in a starched white shirt enters the elevator and turns to face front. His lips are set in a firm line, but his eyes brim. His mother looks at him, then walks past to stand behind him. As the doors close, she dissolves in tears.

"The bee is not just about words," Lala says. "People think it's all about these arcane words, and there's so much more to it."

Because the children who compete in the bee are gifted, many of them "have never really experienced any big disappointments," she says.

One of the most valuable things she learned was how to lose, she says. The year before she triumphed, she also competed. In 1998, she was knocked out in the third round. "It was really tough."

What was the word? Even now, five years later, she tucks her chin down and looks at her lap. "Commination."

What does it mean? "A threat or warning." She's one of the kids who looked it up, made sure it existed. And then, in 1999, she won.

"Getting out on one word isn't the end of the world."

- Contact Colette Bancroft at or 727 893-8435.

[Last modified June 4, 2003, 10:41:18]

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