Janine Stange knew she wanted to be a singer at a very young age. Between going to school and working at her parents' bagel shop, the Long Island native from a tight Italian-American family would spend hours in her room listening to albums by artists like Amy Grant, Whitney Houston, and Celine Dion and trying to imitate them. She also received some classical training and sang arias.
The first time she ever performed in public was when she sang the National Anthem at her high school homecoming game. "I was nervous," she said. "I was gripping the mike so tightly I had trouble unclenching my fist after I was done."
Those nerves were what propelled her to keep trying to perform. "I forced myself to conquer it," she said.
So she started performing wherever she could around the tri-state area -- coffee shops, church youth group gatherings, and small-scale sporting and civic events. She wrote her own music and independently produced several albums.
"I had no life outside of trying to pursue a music career," Janine said. "I blame my mother for my drive and for telling me I could be anything I wanted if I worked hard enough."
She also credits her mother, who passed away from breast cancer four years ago, with instilling a sense of patriotism within her. "People would come into the bagel shop in uniform, and she would make them feel like a million bucks. She knew what it meant to sacrifice. Although she never used the word 'patriot' to describe herself, it's who she was to the core."
Janine worked odd jobs to fund more albums, including a stint as the PR director for Major League Lacrosse's Long Island Lizards - a role she accepted with the proviso that she would sing the National Anthem whenever they didn't have somebody else they were obligated to book.
Finally she ran out of patience with the plan of funding her music career by having a lucrative day job, so she took out a loan and moved to Los Angeles to work with a producer who promised to take her to the next level.
"My plan was to go out there and within three months be selling 30,000 albums and have a world tour booked," Janine said. "That's not what happened."
Three months turned into six months, and when the album was done she wasn't proud of it. "The producer didn't do his part, basically. I couldn't give the album to anyone in my network that I'd worked hard to create."
She considers that experience her masters degree. "I learned that you have to check everyone out and do everything yourself," she said.
At that point she started performing the National Anthem exclusively. "I would always say, 'When I make it I'm going to give back,' and then I started saying to myself, 'when are you going to make it because you haven't given anything back,'" she said. "It was aggravating me."
Janine quoted Theodore Roosevelt: "Do what you can with what you have" as she explained the logic behind focusing solely on the National Anthem. "I resolved to sing it with everything I had. I really felt if I could do that song justice that would be a good thing."
She started reaching out to organizations and offering to sing the National Anthem at any reputable event that would have her. After she'd sung it in eight states, she was struck with the idea of singing it in all fifty.
One day early on her homemade tour, she was late for a performance at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. She pushed past the line of people waiting to get in and went up to one of the gate personnel and said, "You have to let me in; I'm the National Anthem girl."
As she was running toward the middle of the field that was set up for a Supercross event she had a brainstorm: Attach a good cause to the name 'National Anthem Girl.' To her surprise the domain name 'nationalanthemgirl' was available, so she took it and started marketing herself with that moniker.
She also realized the "Star Spangled Banner" was about to turn 200 years old, and that motivated her to hit all fifty states before it did. "It forced me to focus on the power of that song and how it unites us," she said.
She appeared on NBC and Fox News and other national outlets, which gave her the publicity to get just enough funding to reach her goal. "Without those people I would have been known as 'the girl who hitchhiked to get it done,'" she said.
The journey taught her a lot about the country. "America is beautiful, and Americans are beautiful," she said. "I had to trust a lot of people along the way -- that events were real events, that people would take me to the airport as they'd said they would -- and I was never let down in all those months across all of those states. If you trust America's spirit it will come alive."
Now watch Janine Stange's highlight reel:
See more about her efforts here.