2018’s Rhode Islanders of the Year
We honor inspiring people — and one dog! — who moved the state forward in 2018.
Imagine that you could make millions and millions of people smile just by being you. That’s all West Warwick resident Mary Halsey did to become a worldwide viral video sensation. She simply did what she’s been doing for more than twenty years; she sang karaoke, one of the most requested songs she’s been performing since 2003, this time at an event in Warwick’s Goddard Park. It was the same song she sang the previous year at the very same event: Missy Elliott’s “Work It.”
“I only sang one song. It was ‘Work It,’ last year, and ‘Work It’ this year, because people were like, ‘I hope we have a repeat of that,’ ” Halsey says with a laugh, adding that she had practiced Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” for the occasion, but she could not disappoint the crowd that was expecting “Missy’s funky white sister,” as she dubs herself at the beginning of her act.
It turns out Halsey has been making people smile for decades. She works as a recreation assistant at Genesis HealthCare’s Coventry Center, where she entertains short-stay, long-term care and Alzheimer’s patients with music by playing the organ and the harmonica, which she calls a “piano in my pocket.” She’s been known to break out into impromptu concerts with her harmonica at work and in public places. At the rehab center, she also comes up with activities to keep the guests and residents entertained.
“I do trivia, spelling bees, armchair travelogues, transportation to and from activities, one-to-ones with folks who rarely attend group activities, bingo and card games, reminisce, sensory stimulation, aromatherapy…outdoor strolls, baking, sharing stories, poetry and any number of other activities we can think to do,” she says.
She’s also been working the karaoke scene for decades, performing each week at various dives in Providence, Warwick, Pawtucket and Central Falls, many that have since gone out of business.
“I started in 1989 at a small club in Providence. I sang ‘The Rose’ by Bette Midler,” she says. “My knees were shaking, my voice was quavering and I got so much love from everyone in the room. I got a bug for it, and I would go out as often as I could.”
Missy’s “Work It” was already an in-demand act more than fifteen years ago. “In October of 2003, I would go from place to place to place; three, four, five places in a night and just sing that song. People were waiting for me to come,” Halsey says.
In July, the same month as the famed karaoke event took place in Goddard Park, Halsey and her best friend of more than thirty years, Pamela Wilsey, had just gotten their first cell phones. It was thanks to a buy-one-get-one-half-off deal they secured at Metro PCS to bring on a trip to Halsey’s hometown in Leroy, New York, for a school reunion. With that phone, they decided to film Halsey doing her thing at Goddard Park. Before her performance, Halsey sounded her shofar to give a blessing in memory of some of the friends the karaoke community had lost that year, and then Wilsey hit the record button.
That evening, Halsey went home and posted the video on Facebook — “Fun times at Goddard Park! Feel free to share. Warning: explicit lyrics lol” — and it spread amongst her local following, gaining up to 70,000 views. People also loved Lynne in the video, who danced as she ate and earned the nickname “Snack and Step.” Then, on August 7, someone sent her a message and said that Missy Elliott herself saw the video and shared it, doting on Halsey as her “funky white sister.”
“I didn’t really grasp what happened, because suddenly it went from 70,000 views to millions, just like that,” Halsey says. “Just as fast as a star shoots across the sky. Just as fast as lightning.”
TV studios began calling, but Halsey was holding out for the big one. It turns out “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” contacted her early on, but she had to keep the news under wraps because the show was on hiatus for the first few weeks after her initial rise to fame. But in September, Halsey stepped onto the “Ellen” stage to discuss her viral video, and later performed “Work It” for the audience, followed by a surprise duet with Missy Elliott herself, who came on stage to join her.
Halsey is more than a one-hit karaoke wonder. Ellen liked her so much she invited her back out to Los Angeles to serve as a correspondent for her show on the red carpet at the American Music Awards in October. And now millions and millions of people know “Missy’s funky white sister.”
“I have messages from people around the world, people telling me how the video blessed them or changed their day or week,” Halsey says. “Some tell me that they suffer from depression and it snapped them out of it, and they watch it to start their day with a smile.” –Jamie Coelho