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Malia Baker Read by Momona Tamada

From reinventing an iconic Babysitters Club character for a new generation to overcoming anxiety to stand up for her beliefs, Malia Baker proves there’s power in contradictions. Classic yet updated, shy yet outspoken—Malia can be it all!

Get to Know Momona Tamada

Get to know Japanese Canadian actress, Momona Tamada! Momona who brought us the story of her costar from the Babysitter’s Club– Malia Baker. Listen as she tells us about her love of dance, acting, and family!

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Nicole Haroutunian with Momona Tamada and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Momona Tamada. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Our executive producers are Joy Smith and Jes Wolfe. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Eleven-year-old Malia Baker had a chemistry test. But this wasn’t the kind of test she could study for at school. This was to see if she had chemistry with the other actors on set in the role of a lifetime.

 When Malia got the call to audition for the part of Mary Anne Spier in The Babysitters Club, she and her mom ran around the house shrieking. Malia loved the book series and felt so connected to Mary Anne—the shy one. And the new tv show was going to be more diverse, so Mary Anne was going to be biracial, just like Malia. 

Malia had filmed her first audition and sent it in, fingers crossed. She journaled as Mary Anne for months, and made playlists and pinterest boards of the character. She was asked to do a second audition, which was on a zoom call. Then a third…in person!  

And now…here she was, in LA, fidgeting in her seat, waiting to see if she had chemistry with the other actors being considered for the show. 

Malia had woven her long curly hair into Mary Anne’s iconic braids and was wearing her plainest, Mary Anne-est clothes. 

You’ll be great, she tried telling herself, but she felt so nervous and shy.

Then, across the room, a girl about her age flashed a wide smile. “Hey,” she called out to Malia. “You must be Mary Anne.”

While Malia had been sitting there quietly freaking out, the room had filled with a group of girls who looked like, well, The Babysitters Club. Was it possible that her nerves, in this moment, were actually a strength? She must have seemed like a great actor, impersonating this shy character!

“Yeah,” Malia answered. “I’m Mary Anne.”

I’m Momona Tamada. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us.  

On this episode, Malia Baker, an ambitious and determined teenager who’s learned to channel her anxiety into a strength as both an actor and an activist.

Malia was born in Botswana, a spectacular country in southern Africa full of wildlife habitats, savannas, and the dense, bustling city where she was born, Gaborone [GAB-or-OH-nay]. Though she was very young, Malia loved the energy and excitement of being in Botswana, surrounded by family and friends. 

But she and her immediate family moved to Vancouver, Canada when Malia was just 2 and a half years old and as a kid, she often felt like she stuck out. She didn’t see a lot of other Black kids in her neighborhood or at school, and she didn’t know where she fit in. Her mom always said that Malia just had to be herself and she’d find good friends soon enough. But Malia wasn’t so sure…

The one place where Malia felt most herself was in dance class. From practically the moment she could walk, she was leaping and spinning across the floor. She felt so buoyant and bright when she danced. She had dreams of becoming a professional dancer. Or a painter. Or a spy, an astronaut, a civil rights lawyer. Malia had so many dreams. And anything felt possible when she was dancing.

But, as she got older, dancing at Malia’s level became competitive. Stressful. Though she had always been anxious, now she was feeling waves of anxiety that seemed to take over her mind and her breath. 

Then, when she was in fourth grade, she felt a deep pain in her left foot. By the next day, the pain was radiating up her leg. She thought maybe she’d broken something in dance class. She didn’t know what was going on. She could only think of how much it hurt.  

Malia was in pain for months. Nothing was broken, but she couldn’t do any of her favorite things like dance. She was devastated. Dancing was her way of releasing emotions and finding strength. She felt like she had to be physically active in order to be fully herself, but she was in so much pain on her feet that soon, she had to be in a wheelchair!

She and her parents met with various doctors who ran test after test, but it took a long time to get some answers. Eventually, Malia was diagnosed with something very rare called CRPS—complex regional pain syndrome. While there was nothing physically wrong with her legs, Malia’s anxiety was keeping her body from listening to her brain. Malia was grateful to know more about what was going on, but how could she adapt to this new reality? And would she ever feel pain-free and dance again?   

Malia worked very diligently with different therapists to help rewire her brain to her body and manage the pain. She did physiotherapy, water therapy, emotional counseling, anxiety groups and more. It was exhausting, and really difficult to not get discouraged. But slowly, mindfully, she was able to put more pressure on her feet and take one step forward. And then another.

After many months working to regain her strength, Malia showed her physiotherapist that she could even jump! Malia felt so resilient as she lifted off the ground! And with continued therapy, she was soon able to get back on her feet full time. 

Malia’s family and doctors helped her see that anxiety can be an all-encompassing emotion that affects the entire body. With their help, Malia developed new coping strategies for dealing with anxiety. She wanted to share her emotions so they couldn’t build up and take over again. It would be a life-long journey for her, but Malia was ready for the challenge.

As Malia became more mobile, she realized that she had so many interests besides dancing. She still loved expressing herself through movement, but she wanted to do it in a new way — with acting. 

Malia was only 11 years old at this point, and she lived an hour from the city, so going to auditions would require her mum driving — a lot. 

Her mum was very supportive, but she also had to be realistic. She said, “I’ll give you a year. A year of driving you to auditions and of trying to make it work. If nothing clicks after a year, we’ll all take a break.” 

Malia agreed.

She started auditioning for different roles. The first one she booked was for a background character in a movie. Malia was thrilled to feel the lights on her skin and see how everything was choreographed and directed. 

And on that very first gig, someone with a speaking part got sick. The casting director looked around the room and asked Malia if she could take the part!

It was just a few lines, but when Malia opened her mouth to utter those words, she felt a current of excitement and confidence course through her. She felt like she was part of something amazing – making movies, being in a cast. All of these artistic people coming together to create something magical — this was where she belonged!

Almost a year exactly from when her mum agreed to let Malia try acting, she was in that audition room, holding her breath as the director announced, “You ARE the Babysitters Club.” 

Malia met her BFFs in the casting room that day. Shay, Xachitl, Sophie and Momo—that’s me!

We were all so similar to our characters, and clearly meant to be friends. Just as Malia’s mom had predicted, she had found her people. We had SO much fun!

One day, we were lounging on set, making each other

snort-laugh, when the director, Kim, suggested we do

some improv. Conversation flowed like it would between any friend group. And we had plenty to talk about! We related to what our characters were going through: everything from puberty to parents remarrying to first kisses. 

At some point, Kim interrupted us to yell, “Cut! Awesome day, guys, that’s a wrap!” None of us could believe it. We didn’t know the cameras had been rolling! 

Wow, Malia thought. That was a blast! She was so grateful to be part of a show that depicted young women entrepreneurs who were smart, kind, and honest, all while having fun. The Babysitters Club cast was diverse, and shared real experiences for young people to understand. 

For Malia, one episode really hit home. She pitched the idea of doing a scene where Mary Anne wore a scarf to bed to care for her curly hair. In real life, Malia did this all the time and usually it made her feel very uncool. But doing it onset, her heart swelled with pride, knowing that a kid looking up to Mary Anne, maybe nervous about wearing a scarf to a sleepover, would feel seen. 

These were the moments Malia lived for — creating art that could truly help a generation of Black girls feel represented. She and her character of Mary Anne were learning together how to be bolder and louder; how to take up space and feel confident doing so; how to be truly herself.

In the summer of 2020, Malia felt like there was a new area where she wanted to raise her voice and take up more space. As she watched people support the Black Lives Matter movement online, she felt like she had to do something out of her comfort zone to communicate her outrage and heartache too. 

One day, she and her mom Julia helped set up an anti-racism rally in Vancouver. Malia summoned all of her courage and stood up in front of hundreds of people not as a character, but as herself. She shared, for the first time in public, her own experiences with racism. She was shaking, but like she had for her audition, she used her nerves, turning the phrase “I’m still shaking” into a powerful call to action. 

“I’m still shaking,” she said, “for my Black brothers and sisters… I hope you’re all shaking in anger with me.”

 She felt so hopeful after that rally. And yet, she was haunted by the question: What did it actually change? She looked at all the social media buzz and people reposting pictures as if that solved injustice, and she got more and more upset. She held her phone out to her mom. “People post their hashtags, but it’s like hashtags and…”

“Breathe, Malia,” her mom said.

They took a deep breath together and talked about what was eating at Malia. It wound up being the same thing that was troubling her mom, too. 

Hashtags and reposts weren’t going to end violence or racial injustice. But maybe — Malia and her mom thought — people just didn’t know what to do next. So they started a campaign called #HashtagsAnd. It gave people resources so if anyone felt strongly about a social issue, they could be directed to concrete next steps, like calling an elected official. 

As Malia says, “Not everyone is the type of person to speak in front of hundreds of people at a rally and that’s okay,” Malia said. “But I feel like everyone is able to go to a website and click yes to a petition that they’re passionate about.”

Malia’s passions and her platform continue to expand every day. As an actress, she has been playing new and multi-layered characters that stretch her. And as an activist, she speaks out about so many causes dear to her heart — women’s rights, LGBTQIA+ causes, animal rights, and Indigenous issues to name a few. She knows that, as one person, she can’t solve global problems on her own, but she can use her voice to raise awareness about what she believes in.

And, although she still deals with anxiety, it doesn’t control her like it once did. Learning coping strategies has given her new strength and momentum, and only makes her dream bigger. She wants to win an Oscar, write a movie and a book, and reach as many people as possible with her activism. Most of all, Malia wants to remember that she has an incredible life and that this moment is the best place to be. She is happy, healthy, and excited for whatever happens next.