All grown up!

Published: Sunday | April 5, 2009

LEFT: Scripps Howard Spelling Bee champion Jody-Anne Maxwell and coach the Rev Glen Archer on their arrival in Jamaica after she won the competition in 1998.
RIGHT: Jody-Anne Maxwell today.

Sonia Mitchell, Gleaner Writer

THEN, she studied words to confound spellmasters. Now, she is weaving them together to convince judges. Although the jury is out on her future, lawyer-in-training Jody-Anne Maxwell is taking love, career and life in stride.

Almost 11 years after posing for pictures with spelling maestro the Reverend Glen Archer, her slightly unkempt hair has developed into more lustrous locks and the uncertain half-smile has widened into a confident grin.

Since she catapulted to international prominence, upsetting the apple cart of the Americans in their backyard, Jody-Anne Maxwell has changed a lot. But in many ways, she hasn't changed at all.

Maxwell, who turns 23 in May, is still buried in her books.

Currently reading for her law degree at the Norman Manley Law School at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Maxwell says she has traded the spotlight for a low profile.


Now, she spends most of her time 'chilling' with friends or assisting her mom with a dance group at their church, Agape Christian Fellowship in Kingston.

When Maxwell, a Gleaner-Children's Own Spelling Bee queen, led a coup in winning the Scripps Howard National competition in 1998, the 12-year-old became the first non-American to claim the crown. The first non-mainlander was Hugh Tosteson, in 1975, but his native Puerto Rico is a United States-administered territory.

"Life for me was a whirlwind at first, as I met so many people, and was rushed from place to place," she tells The Sunday Gleaner. "It became too overwhelming for me, and my parents had to set me aside to get me adjusted to what was happening."

Fame took her to most Caribbean islands, 15 states in the United States, and Canada to represent Jamaica. Later, she switched roles to become quiz master for the KFC Quiz Show for three years and has received many awards over time.

"My life was changed forever, and I credit first of all God, then my mother, sisters, and friends who have influenced me one way or another just to keep my head up high," she said. "My family helped me to stay calm in spite of the pressures, and helped me to feel more comfortable."


Maxwell is one of a long line of Ardenne High School champions in The Gleaner's Spelling Bee competition. Her sister, Janice, also triumphed in the Jamaican competition in 1990.

She regrets that some people still viewed her as a patron of privilege, a well-to-do celebrity who invites attention.

"I am happy when people would come and greet me, but some would just stare at me, which makes me feel uncomfortable, but I just enjoy being with my families and friends," she relates.

Her social life, she says, is adequately active. There is a significant other in her life, but she refrained from spelling out the facts on that one. Although her blinkers are trained on her career right now, Maxwell harbours hopes of starting a family before becoming too tied down in the hustle and bustle of the workplace.

She said exposure from the Spelling Bee competition had helped her to become mature enough to deal with situations from a tender age, which gave her strength for today's challenges.

"Many people still see me as the 12-year-old who has grown so much since 11 years ago and would comment on how I don't look like a little girl anymore," she remarked, "A lot of people, when they meet me on the road, still see me as the Spelling Bee champion."

Although celebrity status has its positives, Maxwell acknowledges that being in the public eye can make her vulnerable to uncomplimentary remarks from cynics.

"If you put yourself in the spotlight as a celebrity, you give people the opportunity to set you up, and criticise you, but when you keep a low profile, you lessen the possibility for persons to do that," she says.

Major distraction

When Maxwell is not leafing through case files or wrapping her head around legalese, her ears are plugged into music, mainly dancehall and reggae. Her juggling act finds her studying by day and socialising by night.

Maxwell describes her time in Barbados, where she studied at the Cave Hill campus for the first two years of her law degree, as being like a fish out of water. Adjusting to the norms and practices of the Eastern Caribbean isle was difficult at first. Not having her pals and family around was also a major distraction.

"I had to fuse their culture into my culture, especially the food, like the macaroni pie, which I still love," she remarked. "I made some Bajan friends and stayed close to the Jamaican friends who helped me to cope."

Studies in the Land of the Flying Fish were harder than in Jamaica, she recounts, but admits that the change of scene was a breather from the attention in her homeland. Dorm life, a radical difference from the more sheltered haven of Mom and Dad, hardened her already steely will.

"It developed my character as an individual because I had to cope with some of the rules that I didn't necessarily have at home," Maxwell relates.

After graduating from university, Maxwell will be taking a break until November before seeking employment. She will travel to Mexico to visit family and friends.