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Keala Settle On Bringing ‘This Is Me’ to the Oscars Stage

February 15, 2018 by Suzy Evans
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Keala Settle (Photographed by Jenny Anderson)

When songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song on Sunday, Jan. 7, they concluded their remarks by thanking the woman behind the music: Keala Settle, who plays the bearded lady Lettie Lutz in “The Greatest Showman” and sings the film’s rousing anthem, “This Is Me.”

“Her story inspired this song,” Paul said. “And you inspire us every day, so thank you.”

“Showman” skyrocketed Settle into the spotlight, and Hugh Jackman, who leads the cast at P.T. Barnum, has touted Settle’s contribution at every step of the movie’s press tour. He even posted a video on Instagram encouraging fans to purchase her first EP, “Chapter One,” which was released in January.

But Settle didn’t think she would end up on the big screen with the film. While she had been involved with early readings, she never considered that she would continue with the project, as films are often loaded with A-listers. Also, the vocally ambitious “This Is Me” was not part of the score until the final workshop, which was for the Fox executives to decide whether or not to greenlight the film.

“I was like, ‘I ain’t singing that!’” Settle remembers. “And they were like, ‘Hugh wants you.’ So I said, ‘If you buy me a bottle of Jameson, I’ll do it.’”

On the day of the reading, Settle cowered slightly behind the music stand, her voice soft. Then as the song crescendoed, she pushed the stand away and started riffing and belting. At the end, as the tempo slowed, she grabbed the hand of a teary eyed Jackman, and when the song kicked back into high gear, Jackman pointed to the sky and stood to dance.

After the reading, Settle shared her bottle of Jameson with the cast, thinking she’d reached the end of the road with the project. But the Fox executives came up to her, gave her a big hug, and said, “You just booked your first feature film.”

“I said to myself, ‘Well that’s a lie,’” Settle remembers. They called two months later and suddenly it became real.

Like her character in “Showman,” a bearded woman working as a laundress before being plucked for stardom by Barnum, Settle has her own rags-to-riches story. She started her career as a standby for Tracy Turnblad in the national tour of “Hairspray” in 2003, but moved back home to Hawaii, worn down by the grind of a show production schedule. She also knows what it means to be in the shadows, as she worked backstage at California’s La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe in San Diego as a stagehand.

Settle spent many years afraid there wasn’t a place for her in the industry, but in 2013, she landed onstage in “Hands on a Hardbody,” first at La Jolla and then on Broadway, and earned her first Tony nomination. Since then she has been consistently treading the boards in “Les Misérables” and “Waitress,” carving out her own niche in the business.

“We’re in an industry where it’s like you have to look European, and I’m just not European — I’m just not,” she says. “Ain’t got the genes. No DNA up in here. So it’s like, you fight that every day. And I think now we’re at a place in society, because of the changes that are going on now, you can actually say, ‘I’m not. And guess what? That’s cool.’”

She pulls from moments like that and from feeling like an outsider in her performance of “This Is Me,” which she finds difficult to perform even now.

“It’s still daunting to me,” she says. “In order to make it accessible to everyone and do the job that it’s supposed to do of pushing the story along and making people connect with it, I have to go there.”

Now, “This Is Me” is nominated for an Oscar, and come Mar. 4, Settle will perform on her biggest stage yet. So is she nervous? “It’s the same song,” she says, nonchalantly.

Fans of “The Greatest Showman” see Settle as an inspiration. She often finds herself in tears scrolling through Instagram, where she receives countless messages from people who have been affected by the song’s message of accepting who you are and harnessing your own power.

“It’s a universal thing; everybody feels that way,” she says. “My whole platform is to show the human condition and to start conversations, not bar fights,” Settle says. “And just try to connect. Because connection saves you.”

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