Entertainment

Meet Keeshlinooo — a little person (3 feet 5 1/2 inches) with a big Instagram following

MyKesha Smith has had her whole life to get used to being stared at.

People gawk because, well, that tends to happen when you’re extraordinarily little. Three feet and 5 1/2 inches short, to be exact.

“I’m older now, so it doesn’t really faze me,” she says. “The only thing that really bothers me, I would say, is when you’re old enough to know better.”

But these days, the 26-year-old Charlottean — who was born with an unknown type of dwarfism — is increasingly getting eyeballed for reasons that go beyond her diminutive stature.

For one, Smith might be familiar to fans of Lifetime’s cult-hit reality TV show, “Little Women: LA”; she was introduced in April as a new cast member during the early part of the current eighth season, which recently returned from a seven-week break. (She’ll appear in “a number of upcoming episodes,” according to show reps.)

On top of that, she’s a bona fide Instagram star who delivers a steady diet of hip-hop-inspired dance videos to the 318,000-plus users who follow her on the social media platform — and she got a big boost after she teamed up to get down with “dancing meteorologist” Nick Kosir from Fox 46 earlier this summer.

“I can tell by the way you look if you’re looking to find out if I’m the girl from Instagram, or if you’re just staring. Like, that’s two different looks,” Smith says. “Your interactions are different. (If someone recognizes me) they’ll be whispering to each other, or pointing, like, ‘That’s the girl, that’s the girl.’ But then there are those who just stare and are just like, ‘Oh my God...’ I can tell it’s just because I’m small.”

Since we fully expect that her fame will only continue to grow, we put together a list of key things you should know about Smith — who goes by MyKesha on “Little Women: LA” but is best-known to her fans simply as Keeshlinooo (a nickname we’ll explain, of course).

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MyKesha Smith at a pageant around the time she was 5 years old. Courtesy of MyKesha Smith

1. She’s been dancing since she was 2. In addition to tap, jazz and ballet classes, her mother also had her competing in pageants as a child, and eventually introduced her to cheerleading. “That’s really where a lot of my courage comes from,” she says of all of those activities, which had her on display next to average-height girls almost constantly. Though she excelled in each and proved she had fewer limitations than people might have otherwise expected, she learned that there were things she wasn’t cut out for. “In middle school, I tried out for volleyball. All my family members, they thought I was crazy. Like, ‘You’re really trying out for volleyball? You’re under the net.’ I hit the ball over the net a few times ... but I didn’t make it.”

2. She used to be scared of little people. Back when she was a young girl growing up in Clemson, S.C., her father (who died last November) took her to watch a basketball game that pitted a team of little people against a team of normal-sized players. Smith cheered for the little people throughout the contest, but they lost, and when she went down to congratulate them, one of the players started throwing chairs and knocked over a cooler of ice. “After that,” she says, “I didn’t really care for little people. I don’t know, they just were weird to me.”

3. She made a name for herself while attending Livingstone College (a private, historically black Christian college in Salisbury), thanks to Instagram videos that featured her as a member of the school’s cheerleading squad. By her final season, in 2015, her presence was creating buzz at the CIAA men’s basketball tournament in Charlotte, and she eventually transitioned to where she was making dance videos in her downtime. Once she graduated and didn’t have cheer videos to post anymore, she focused exclusively on the dance videos — and Instagram started taking notice. Among those that re-posted her videos and boosted her profile? WorldStarHipHop and The Shade Room, two accounts with enormous African-American followings.

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The Livingstone College cheerleading squad poses on Senior Day in 2015. MyKesha Smith is front and center in the photo. Courtesy of MyKesha Smith

4. As for the story behind Keeshlinooo ... She adopted it in college. It wasn’t totally her idea. Smith explains: “My friend, his name is L.J. He goes by Yeddi Lino. LINO actually stands for Life Is Never Over. LINO. And so he has this thing called LINO Cartel. He created it into a business where he sells apparel and everything. But he (came up with the concept) my freshman year, and all of the friends that we were around, we all stuck ‘lino’ on the back of our names. And when I was in school, I was known as Keesh. So I stuck ‘lino’ on the back of it ... but made it three Os, just to make the name look different. I don’t know. I had to be extra.”

5. She was originally opposed to the idea of doing “Little Women: LA.” Some of it, she says, went back to that fear of little people from her childhood. But there was also the fact that she didn’t view herself as a little person. Because she had talent as a dancer that made her stand out even among average-height folks, and because her type of dwarfism didn’t come with deformities often seen in other types, “I always saw myself as average — even though I’m not average-height. Like, I just felt like I didn’t fit in that category.” Smith gave in, however, after realizing she had developed a superiority complex; so she viewed it as an opportunity to overcome her fear and accept her own differences. At the same time, “I wanted people to see me for (my dancing ability), and not just be on there as a little person.”

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MyKesha Smith poses with other cast members of “Little Women: LA” during a break in filming. Courtesy of MyKesha Smith

6. She’s dancing through pain. She was more concerned with fashion than form growing up, so she never wore the leg braces prescribed to her. As a result, she has knock knees and considerable arthritis pain in both knees (as well as in her back). “It’s real bad,” she says. “When I dance a lot, for too long, or if I go too hard, it hurts.” But she doesn’t let it stop her from doing her fanciest footwork, and still can pull off the back handspring she learned while cheering in middle school at the old Crossroads Charter.

7. She teaches hip-hop dance classes at Fuzion Force in north Charlotte, and coaches multiple competitive girls’ teams for the studio. If there’s a challenge her size presents as a teacher, she says, it’s that “a lot of times ... I’ll be like, ‘OK, I want y’all to do this move, but I need y’all to do it bigger than what y’all see me doing.’ Because me doing a move and then them doing a move, it’s way different, because — for one — their body structure is a little bit more full-out, and their limbs are longer.”

8. She’s also an aspiring hip-hop vocalist. Smith has started recording rap songs, in part simply because her fans asked her to.

9. One specific long-term goal of hers, as an entertainer, is to be featured as a dancer in a music video with a known artist. “Just to say I did,” she says. “And just to say that I can dance beside average-height people.” A specific short-term goal of hers? “I want to meet Chris Brown. I found out that he follows me ... and he liked a picture of mine. He’s doing a concert here in August, so I’m actually working on trying to see how I can meet him to say, ‘It’s me!’”

10. But Keeshlinooo’s days may be numbered. Well, that name’s days may be numbered, at least. “I’m trying to debate if I want to keep that. I don’t want to really be attached to him (her college friend). I give him credit all the time, but I want to be able to say that this is me. Like, it’s nothing behind somebody else. I mean, everybody already knows me as Keeshlinooo, so it’s not changing yet. And if I was to change it, I don’t know what to.” One possibility: Baby Chief. She says when she was at West Mecklenburg High School, all of her friends went around calling each other “Chief,” except her nickname was “Baby Chief” — because she “was the baby of the group.” We have a suggestion, though, too: Keeshalina, which maintains the flow of her current nickname but instead gives it a Carolina feel...

Finally, we had to ask: Does she ever long to be taller?

Absolutely. “I wish I was tall enough to ride roller coasters,” Smith says, laughing. “But that’s the only time. Other than that, no.”

Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.
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