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Whitehall singer, 17, earns first runner-up, high praise at Kean Quest contest

| Wednesday, April 20, 2016, 8:12 p.m.
Katie Zemaitis
Katie Zemaitis

Even the judges were brought to tears as Katie Zemaitis belted out an emotional ballad onstage at the 2016 Kean Quest Talent Search.

Singing “She Used to Be Mine” by Sara Bareilles, Zemaitis, 17, of Whitehall took home the first runner-up spot in the competition that once claimed “The Voice's” Chris Jamison and “America's Got Talent's” Jackie Evancho as contestants.

Evancho, too, was a first-runner up in the Kean Quest competition.

Proceeds from the Kean Quest Talent Search, where Zemaitis placed in the youth division at the Kean Theater in Richland, benefit the St. Barnabas Free Care Fund.

“Out of all of the contestants there that day, many of them made me smile, but none of them were able to make me cry, except for her,” said judge Tim Ruff, a professional singer and songwriter from Pittsburgh best known for his viral YouTube video “Walking in Pittsburgh.”

“From her first line, it was clear that she had an emotional connection with her music. It's almost as if she wrote the song, that's how real it was.”

Zemaitis, a junior at Baldwin High School, has been performing since she was 9 years old.

“I've been singing my whole life,” she said.

Zemaitis said she loves being onstage, performing and singing.

In her short career, Zemaitis has performed in 15 shows, from Pittsburgh Musical Theater to The Grand Theater in Elizabeth and Crowne Plaza's Cabaret Dinner Theater in Bethel Park.

She also performed a few years ago at the Benedum on New Year's Eve as part of First Night Pittsburgh.

In Baldwin-Whitehall, aside from Memorial Day, Labor Day and community and sporting-event national anthem performances, Zemaitis has performed in musicals at J.E. Harrison Middle School and Baldwin High School.

Most recently, she performed as the Witch in Baldwin High's musical “Big Fish.”

Holly Van Hoey has been teaching Zemaitis voice lessons at Higher Voice Studio in Upper St. Clair for about six months.

“She's obviously extremely talented. ... You just know when someone walks in and has that raw talent,” Van Hoey said. “There's just people that shine and Katie Zemaitis is one of those people.”

Zemaitis has big goals.

“If I could do anything, I'd be a recording artist,” Zemaitis said.

She plans to major in voice in college, while also studying business or marketing.

Zemaitis said she enjoys writing her own lyrics. She has struggled in the past with showing emotion onstage.

Standing in front of the mirror or recording herself performing has helped her overcome that battle, Zemaitis said.

“I like to take songs and relate it to my own life,” she said.

That showed onstage at the Kean Quest competition.

Ruff said he was so struck by Zemaitis' performance that he sought her out after the competition.

“I had to tell her how much she had moved me,” he said.

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5818 or

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