Idol Find: Pittsburgh Rapper Teams Up with Dad Jimmy McNichol for New Show
Research led Kellee Maize to discover she is the daughter of the former teen singing sensation. Now she and McNichol are teaming up to develop a television series to help other parents and children find each other.
photos by Caitlin Martinez
Kellee Maize took a deep breath as she dialed the phone number of the musician who had been the Justin Bieber of his generation.
Maize, a hip-hop artist, was at ease performing in front of hundreds of fans, yet she was terrified to talk to this stranger. But she figured if she was ever going to answer the question that was haunting her, it had to be now.
Her call from Pittsburgh to Colorado went straight to the man’s voicemail. Maize hung up without leaving a message, relieved to put off this emotional moment. A moment later, her phone rang. “Hi, I missed your call,” said the man breezily.
Panic swelled inside her. Oh my God! He called me back!
Maize introduced herself and then got straight to the point. “I am doing some genealogical research,” she said. “Is this a good time to talk? Are you alone?”
“Yes, I’m making lunch for the kids,” the man replied.
Then she blurted it out. “I recently have been told I may be related to you. I have been told you may be my father. Is that possible?”
There was a long pause from Colorado. “Anything is possible.”
Maize wasn’t sure what was going through the man’s head at that moment, so she started talking. She told him she was a musician, too, and directed him to her music videos on her Facebook page.
Some 1,600 miles away, he clicked on a computer link and watched a video of a dynamic blonde rapping and dancing to her own music. Amazing, he thought. The connection he felt with Maize was chemical, pure magic. He knew it the second he saw her perform. This was his daughter.
To be sure, though, he and Maize agreed to take cheek swabs for a DNA test.
Jimmy McNichol — former child actor, singer and brother of actress Kristy McNichol — got the results 10 days later. He immediately fired off a text to his “new” daughter. “Welcome to the family.”
With his tousled sandy hair and boyish exuberance, Jimmy McNichol, 54, still bears a resemblance to the child star who once graced scores of magazine covers. In the 1970s and ’80s, he was akin to Justin Bieber and Zac Efron rolled into one — a teen singer and matinee idol with international appeal.
Mobbed by teenage girls wherever he went, he was half of the talented sibling pair of Kristy and Jimmy McNichol. Shaggy-haired and boy-band cute, he wrote his own music and performed with his band, which backed up major artists such as James Brown and Stephen Stills. He starred in TV shows such as “California Fever,” the popular soap “General Hospital” and made-for-TV movies.
At age 30, he walked away from it all. Burnt out, he left the glare of Hollywood and built a quiet life with his wife, two children and assorted animals on a remote ranch in Colorado. He became a real-estate developer, an environmentalist, a philanthropist and a dad who transported his kids to music lessons and sports practices.
Over the years, though, the tug of show business never completely died. When Maize shocked him with that phone call three years ago, he already had been planning a Hollywood comeback. Ideas had been swirling in his head. A show about rescuing animals. A late-night talk show, building on his experience as the teen-aged host of the weekly talk show, “Hollywood Teen.”
For one of his TV projects, McNichol now has decided to team up with his 36-year-old daughter, Maize. They’re developing a TV show called “Finding Family: Search Angels,” which would help adoptees find their birth parents and document their stories.
With the story of Maize finding her birth father as the pilot episode, McNichol is in negotiations with a content provider and is hopeful the series will air soon. He has offered Maize the job of host, if she wants it. She’s a natural performer, which is immediately evident to anyone viewing her 20-some YouTube rap videos, which have been viewed millions of times.
“She is a ball of energy, and so am I,” McNichol says. “There are so many synchronicities of how we mesh and how we think and how we are extremely energetic and creative and you can’t keep us down.”
Maize agrees. “I think we’re both really driven and both easily distracted, and I think we both have a lot of plans and ideas. We talk really, really fast when we are excited,” she says, her syllables bumping into each other as she flashes a dazzling smile.
Though it sounds as if their reunion was destined to happen, it’s remarkable that Maize and McNichol found each other.
Maize grew up far from Hollywood in the small town of New Berlin in central Pennsylvania, an only child raised by loving adoptive parents, Christine and Terry Maize. She sang and danced before she talked and walked. A photo of her strumming a Smurfs guitar at age 3 is on the cover of her most recent album, “The Remixes.” In elementary school, she began competing as a gymnast and recorded her own hip-hop song on a cassette tape with her best friend, gluing a photo of them on the cover.
At age 18, she moved to Pittsburgh to attend the University of Pittsburgh, first as a drama major before switching to communication. Through her move to the city and her university studies, she became more aware of social injustices in the larger world. The rhythmic cadences of rap became her way of expressing her views on those injustices as well as the feelings swirling inside her.
She wrote her own lyrics, but she largely stayed in the shadows of Pittsburgh’s male hip-hop artists, content to play backup or organize events. “I was pretty much the only female [in my crew],” she says. “I wasn’t ready to put myself out there.”
At age 21, she decided to look for her birth parents, a decision supported by her adoptive parents, who long ago had told her she was adopted. Because the adoption process had been closed, however, they didn’t know any details about her birth parents.
When she sought the help of the attorney who arranged the adoption, however, she says he told her a fire had destroyed the records and her inquiry was a lost cause, which was devastating to her. “‘You are setting yourself up for failure. It will be heartbreaking and expensive,’” she recalls him saying.
She figured it was hopeless. A few years later, she joined an adoption support group to help her work through some of the identity issues that left her with a sense that something was missing from her life. In her small town, she didn’t know anyone else who was adopted. She adored the parents who adopted her, but she struggled with depression as she wondered why her birth mother had relinquished her — and the fear that she might never learn her birth parents’ identities.
Then she met a woman, whom she describes as “a hardcore activist,” who was adept at searching records. She helped Maize to locate records that led her to her birth mother in 2004.
Maize, then 24, called her birth mother, and both women became emotional. “She was kind and happy that I had a good upbringing,” Maize says. She didn’t answer questions about the birth father; she only said she didn’t know much about him. They talked about getting together, but after a few months, her birth mother cut off contact, saying the relationship was too difficult to continue. Maize was crushed.
Six months later, Maize’s adoptive father Terry, a construction estimator, died of a heart attack. Maize, who had struggled watching her adoptive mother battle and survive cancer, was devastated by the loss of her father. What she didn’t know was that he had taken an adoption secret to his grave.
Birth mother never even gave me a chance
Found her after a long 24-year absence
Like mother, like daughter she said she like to dance
And like the first day of birth out my life she prance
Birth father don’t even know that I exist
The tru mother couldn’t conceive she full of cysts
I almost died two times, thoughts of slitting wrists
Don’t know my heritage life so full twists
And turns Watched Ma morph into a skeleton
The burns from radiation god was fore tellin’ the urn
I would fill w/dead parent mind swelling
Concerned ’bout the cancer sticks they still sellin then
Ma lived, but daddy did die. I watched him go
Will never forget the last breath there went his soul
Slavin everyday to make sure I could eat
Bear hugs and pure love I cried for a week at his feet
Fighting for his honor his pain his generosity
Taught me to never judge and to value reciprocity
I feel his eyes lookin down on me, you were the world to me, r.i.p.
Daddy r.i.p. r.i.p.
—lyrics from "Story of Me" by Kellee Maize
Maize poured her grief from the death of her adoptive father into her songs. Male rappers welcomed her to the microphone. In a genre infamous for some misogynistic lyrics, she sang about female empowerment, spirituality, environmentalism, human rights and love.
Her music was marketed through her all-female firm, Näkturnal, which uses viral and online marketing as well as street marketing to promote events. She is a success story for what works with arts marketing. In 2014, she signed a deal to appear on Toyota Hybrid Prius’ national ad campaign — a marketing coup.
By 2009, Maize was happy with her life and career and had given up on finding her birth father. That changed during a visit with her aunt Gloria, Terry’s sister, who had been involved in arranging her adoption.
Her aunt was catching up with Maize and her then-boyfriend Joey Rahimi. Out of left field, Rahimi, now Maize’s husband, asked Gloria, “Don’t you know something about Kellee’s birth father?”
Rahimi remembered that Maize’s aunt had let it slip years earlier that Maize’s father was a musician, but he wasn’t sure whether she meant her birth father or adoptive father.
When her aunt heard Rahimi’s question, she “looked as though she had seen a ghost,” Maize says. But then Gloria revealed the secret she long had been afraid to share with her niece.
Twenty years after Maize’s birth and adoption, her aunt ran into an old friend — a nurse who had worked at the hospital where Maize was born. They had lunch to catch up, and the nurse referred to Maize as “the McNichol baby,” explaining her father was the pop icon.
Her adoptive father, Terry, had learned her birth father was a celebrity, Maize says, but he delayed telling her to give her time to get over the crushing experience with her birth mother. “My aunt said he wanted to tell me,” she says.
The sheer number of coincidences that led to Maize’s discovery of her birth father still amazes her. “There were so many variables — this nurse having lunch with my aunt randomly so many years later. Joey remembering what she said, [even though] his memory is terrible.”
When Maize learned her birth father was Jimmy McNichol and looked him up on the internet, it all made sense. This is why I am the way I am. After DNA confirmation, McNichol and Maize agreed to meet in San Francisco.
Christine, her adoptive mother, was supportive yet felt protective toward her daughter. “I was happy that she found him but worried that she would get hurt again,” she says. “What if he didn’t want to see her or didn’t show up? I was a Momma Bear.”
Her fears were allayed after they met. Nervous about the West Coast meeting, father and daughter both brought along a close friend to help break the ice, and before long, the foursome was laughing. McNichol says he had never known Maize existed and does not remember signing any papers relinquishing his parental rights to her.
When Kellee Maize told Jimmy McNichol her life story, he marveled at what he had missed and said, “Wow, this is cool.”
On a sunny day last fall, McNichol was making up for lost time. He, Kellee and her son, Mateo, then 6 months old, frolicked at Sandcastle Waterpark in West Homestead. McNichol was behind the camera, not in front of it, and he was videotaping Maize as she dabbed sunscreen on his grandson’s tiny arms.
“Is that the first time with sunscreen?” asked McNichol. The new mother nodded. McNichol was tickled by the family milestone he had documented on a smartphone camera. Not the first word or first step, but the first sunscreen application.
A week earlier, McNichol had met his new grandson for the first time. He walked up to Maize’s house in Shadyside, where she stood holding a smiling baby. He scooped up Mateo and stared at him in awe for a few minutes.
“I am a grandpa,” he said. “It sounds so weird, but totally worth it.”
Maize watched the man she now calls Pops coo over the baby. “It was surreal.” Maize has met her father’s wife, Rene, who welcomed her into the McNichol family. She’s also bonded with her Aunt Kristy and her two musical half-siblings, Nash, 18, and Ellis, 17. “I always wanted a sibling,” she says.
Nash is spending this summer at Kellee’s house, interning at her marketing company. Ellis visited recently, and Kellee sent her father a photo of Ellis holding Mateo.
“I am in hog heaven right now,” McNichol texted. “You are the best sister. A McNichol baby at heart!! One more for the future king Mateo.”
Maize and McNichol text or talk weekly, and in preparation for long-distance collaboration, they both are constructing recording studios in their cities.
She would love to tell her story on the TV adoption show they are pitching. Rather than a gotcha show or a phony reality show, she wants to explore all of the angles of adoption with understanding and empathy.
Maize sympathizes with how her birth mother felt when she cut ties with her. “I understand the pain and anguish and wish I could help her release it. Giving up a child is such a brave thing, and it has to be so painful. Now that I have a child, I can’t fathom it,” she says.
But she always wants to talk about the other side of it — that fateful call to a former teen idol that changed her life. She had been so sad that her father Terry died before he got to become a grandfather.
“There was a hole in my heart. Now there is a grandfather figure and he is very loving and he makes me feel like he is there for us.”
Frequent contributor Cristina Rouvalis profiled Pittsburgher of the Year Billy Porter for Pittsburgh Magazine in January. Her work also has appeared in Hemispheres, PARADE, Esquire.com and other national publications.