Longform

Paint by Numbers

Page 6 of 7

"Hi, welcome to the gallery!"

A tall, blond young woman strides toward the door, a beauty-queen smile pasted across her face. She shakes hands gently but assertively, her perfectly manicured nails reflecting the afternoon light pouring in through the gallery windows.

Maybe she's Olivia's 25-year-old sister, helping out for the day while Olivia takes the afternoon off.

"It's so nice to finally meet you. How are you?"

But Olivia doesn't have an older sister. This is Olivia?

On her guided tour of the gallery, Olivia walks slowly through each section, expertly giving her audience a chance to soak in what seems like endless images of flowers. She speaks carefully and deliberately, always making eye contact.

"I did this one when I was 12. It's King Tut," she explains before moving on to a wall of limited-edition prints. In comparison with her floral work at the same age, the Tut painting looks more like the work of an art student than art prodigy.

This is gallery owner Olivia. She will walk toward an image, stand back just a few feet and make a soft, guiding arm gesture toward the work. Her every move is a lesson in poise as she showcases walls full of colorful flowers and the occasional landscape.

Michele ushers her daughter to a couch in the back of the gallery and excuses herself from the interview.

"I'm sure Olivia can handle this by herself. She's used to it by now!" Michele flashes her daughter another one of her big, worshipful smiles and is off to the front of the store to lay in wait for more visitors.

Olivia sits near the edge of her seat, legs crossed. She leans in, one elbow on her knee, and starts answering the questions that she must be so very tired of by now. You really can't blame her for being, well...charmingly robotic.

How was Oprah? "It was such an out-of-body experience."

Does she ever wish she had a "normal" life? "No, I'd rather be happy and a little bit different."

Details of the family's feud with Valenty are mostly off-limits.

"It was an unfortunate deal. But everything happens for a reason, and it makes me stronger," she says, unwilling to comment further.

She seems reluctant to talk in depth about anything personal--even boyfriends or her favorite movie. (At the time, incidentally, it was Anchorman, which she'd seen twice at the theater.)

If she seems mature way beyond her years, it's probably because her best friend is more than twice her age.

"My mom is my best friend. People think we're sisters because we get along so well," she says. "I don't hang out with many people my age. It's so hard for them to accept that I'm so different."

Olivia finally appears to loosen up just before a second interview. She doesn't know she's being watched.

"OHMIGOD! I'm so proud of you!" Olivia squeals to a teenage friend visiting the gallery. They whisper excitedly about the friend's (apparently) successful coffee date with a choice boy. Olivia flips her hair, smiles a big, toothy grin and even does the excited-teenager full-body wiggle that can come only from someone under the age of 16.

Then the giggling begins, and then the hugging, and then they notice that a reporter is waiting to interview Olivia. She composes herself and sends her friend on her way with another hug.

Cue another round of canned answers.

Once Olivia begins painting, parked in front of her watercolors, she loosens up again. She sings along quietly with an Alanis Morissette song on the radio and falls into an easy rhythm of brushstrokes.

Michele, again keeping busy cleaning up and managing a slow trickle of customers, has been asked to get tickets to the Oprah show for some friends--but to do so would involve some less-than-honest maneuvering. She asks Olivia what she should do.

"Mo-om, you can't lie to Oprah. Oprah is like God," she says, laughing. Olivia even admits to getting embarrassed every once in a while. Recently, while vending wares on the Home Shopping Network, she knocked over a stack of chocolate boxes printed with her work. She was mortified. In spite of the lawsuits and home shopping disasters, however, she says she couldn't be happier.

"I'm living out my dream right now. This gallery was my dream. I thought I'd have it when I was, like, 18, but I'm 14," she says.

But once you've been on America Shops and in Teen People, is there anywhere to go but down?

"I don't know what I'll do when I'm, like, 25. Get married, maybe?" Olivia laughs. As for college, art school is always an option, but Olivia says she's afraid it might mar her talent by dragging her down or taking her out of her box. She's also considering business school. Olivia is beginning to realize that flowers may not take her much further in her career.

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Andrea Grimes
Contact: Andrea Grimes