"Hey Mom, guess what! I'm going to sing a solo in the Christmas program."
"Oh, please practice before you sing in front of hundreds of people."
That was an exchange between 12-year-old Katie Orlofske and her mom, Sherrie, just before her first public singing appearance.
Katie Orlofske, who grew up in Powhatan Point and Bellaire, won $1 million on “The Winner Is.” Her parents, Terry and Sherrie Orlofske, live in Bellaire. The show’s finale aired Aug. 8.
And 11 years later, Orlofske, who turned 23 this month, has had her share of practicing under her belt before she belted out a couple of country tunes in front of millions of viewers to win a million dollars on NBC's "The Winner Is."
"The Winner Is" pitted singers against each other, with a crew of 101 people casting their votes. The numbers were displayed above the stage, and each contestant had to guess if he or she had the winning number of votes or the losing number. The contestants then had the opportunity to take a cash sum - ranging from $10,000 to $200,000 depending on the round. Taking the cash meant the contestant's road to the million-dollar finale was at an end.
At least one contestant during the course of the series took the cash, only to find out he had received the most votes.
Orlofske heard about the show earlier this year "through the grapevine," she said. Rather, the show heard about her through the YouTube grapevine.
"I had posted a video on YouTube," she said, which was viewed by an acquaintance's friend who happened to be in charge of casting for "The Winner Is."
"She said, 'I need to get hold of this girl,'" Orlofske related.
"They tracked me down and asked if I'd do a videotaped audition." She did tape the audition but warned them she was moving three days later.
On Feb. 1, she began her cross-country drive from Los Angeles, where she had been living for a couple of years, to her new home in Nashville.
It was mid-February when she learned she'd be a contestant. The contract, she noted, was 70 pages long. She went back to L.A. at the end of March to film her episode, which she won, and then to film the finale. Her preliminary episode was actually filmed sixth, but aired as the first one in June. It was a long couple of months between the first show and the finale, she said.
One of the details in the contract was that she had to keep the results to herself, or pay a fine of $150,000 - plenty of incentive to stay mum.
"I just knew I had to (keep the secret). I had this big contract hanging over my head. I tried to pretend (the show) didn't happen."
Keeping the secret got more difficult after the first show aired on June 11, at which time Orlofske won her rounds to continue on to the finale, which aired Aug. 8. She actually knew the results on March 31, her mom Sherrie's birthday, she recalled.
"My friends tried to get it out of me. They'd say, 'Oh, gosh, Katie, what are you going to do with your millions?' I'd have to say, 'I don't have a million dollars!' I had to keep a serious poker face."
She said that when she came home last month for Jamboree In The Hills, her friends were all discussing among themselves if it appeared she was acting differently or wearing nicer clothes or spending a lot of money.
They were hoping to get a clue if she'd won or not.
"It was Jamboree! I wore the same clothes I've always worn!"
But, on the set of the finale, she was treated like a queen.
"I got there (to NBC Universal) around 7 a.m. for hair and make-up," she said, and noted that it was the same staff that did hair and make-up for "The Voice," another NBC singing competition show.
"It was so awesome. I'm not used to being pampered. It was the best I've ever looked in my life! I'm not used to looking like a beauty queen," she said.
During the first show, she sang "Independence Day" and "Breathe." She sang "Cry," "You and I" and "The Climb" during the finale.
It was a collaborate effort between herself and NBC representatives to decide what songs to sing. She knew she wanted to go country. "We went through a bunch of songs," she said.
It took around two and one-half hours to shoot the finale. They'd stop for commercial breaks and re-shoot parts due to noise, she said.
"They made sure everyone looked and sounded their best. They wanted to present everyone in a positive light."
It was her mom who wanted Katie to present herself in the best positive light way back when she was 12 and about to sing at that Christmas program - her very first public solo.
Even though she refused to practice at home in front of her mom, the performance came off pretty well, she recalled.
"Luckily, I had parents who took the bull by the horn," arranging guitar lessons and getting gigs for her. She quit the guitar lessons, however, because she didn't "want to play 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.'"
"I started doing fairs and festivals. My mom and aunt would ask people they knew if their daughter and niece could open for them."
"I had these funny white pants and a mesh top with sequins over a tank and a cowboy hat - I swear I wore that to every show," she said.
A few years later, she decided to teach herself to play the guitar. She was grounded to her room one weekend for doing something to her sister, and got out her guitar. Inside the case was the beginner book - the one with "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
She asked her mom if she could use the computer to print out the notes to some songs, and "I went up and learned how to play." She was a freshman at St. John Central High School in Bellaire at the time.
At 17, she graduated from high school and went to Belmont Technical College (now Belmont College) to get a nursing degree. Her first job was as an intensive care nurse at Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling- a job she still recalls fondly as her favorite.
She then moved to L.A. to pursue her music career, while also working as an intensive care and emergency room nurse for two years before her trek back east to Nashville earlier this year.
"Sometimes a small part of me wishes I would've done the traditional college thing, but I did it the right way. ... I'm completely following my dream," she said.
Her time in L.A., she said, was worth it, though. She was able to play "some amazing shows," and "it shaped my work ethic."
Now that she's in Nashville, and with country music as her first love, it's time to jump on all that winning "The Winner Is" can do for her career.
"It's totally new. I've never been on national TV. The rest of the world may forget me, so I need to act quickly to make the most of it. I'm hoping it will mean good things for my career."
Winning the show didn't come with a promise of a recording contract as similar shows do. The prize is the cash.
Each contestant had to offer a reason as to why $1 million would change his or her life. Katie wanted the money to help her aunt with medical expenses because of a serious health issue.
In fact, during the show's finale, Katie's Aunt Kathie cheered her on to the end, telling her she believed in her as a winner.
Orlofske and the other contestant, had about three seconds to stare at the pile of $200,000 and make a decision.
"It was the scariest moment of my life. But, on the other hand, I believed in myself. ... You can hear the audience and how they reacted. I felt confident," she said. And she knew if she took the money and had won, she'd really regret it.
"I wanted to burst into tears. I'd look at my mom and my aunt, wondering 'what should I do?' Every time I'd look over, I'd start to cry. So I had to look away. I was so scared."
From the time the last two performances were over, it was about a half hour before Katie Ohh was named the winner.
"They had to tell the crowd to be quiet or to Swiffer the floor between takes, fix my hair, powder my nose. ... I kept thinking 'Can't we just get this thing rolling?' It seeemed like forever, truly."
While she hasn't given up her day job as an ER nurse at Centennial Hospital, "Now, I'm just looking forward to being a full-time singer. I love country. I love Nashville. I just want to support myself with my music. I'm looking forward to throwing myself into my music and furthering my career, touring and writing music. I'm hoping some day I can have that.
"I'm trying to build a team of people from the ground up; trying to surround myself with good people. I'm trying to get things moving. Now is the time. I'm trying to use winning to my best advantage and see what happens."