When rap legend LL Cool J turned up on Nadine Levitt’s doorstep in Los Angeles, she knew she’d made it. The Lip Sync Battle host was so impressed with the German-born, Kiwi-raised entrepreneur’s free karaoke app Wurrly that he decided to invest in her business – hence the home visit.
“We’d just moved house and everything was in disarray, boxes everywhere,” laughs Nadine, 37. “When I heard he was dropping by, I frantically tried to tidy up a bit. It’s not every day LL Cool J comes over!”
The successful Santa Monica-based mum-of-two now also counts Black Eyed Peas singer will.i.am and model Chrissy Teigen as pals.
But Nadine’s journey to the big time began in Auckland, where she studied opera in her teens, then completed a law degree at AUT University.
In 2004, she moved to the US to work as a lawyer and while working for a Kiwi company in New York, met her husband, Wisconsin-born finance whiz Mike. In the years that followed, Nadine ditched the law career – she jokes she’s still a “recovering lawyer” – and had two kids, Lucas, five, and Ariella, three.
A chance meeting with the coach of the LA Dodgers saw the former opera singer invited to perform the US national anthem in front of 15,000 people at New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden in 2008.
“Even though I was a lawyer, my passion was always singing,” Nadine laughs. “But being Kiwi, I didn’t know the words, so I had to learn them quickly."
"Luckily, I remembered them and managed to put on a convincing American accent. It was an incredible rush.”
Soon she was asked to sing a live duet with Aerosmith legend Steven Tyler and an operatic version of “Kiss from a Rose” with Seal. Nadine recalls, “My husband was impressed because he got to sit in between Heidi Klum and Kenny G, and we met Michael Bublé and all sorts of people.”
It was while rehearsing with Steven that the idea for Wurrly – essentially a portable karaoke machine and recording studio – was born. He asked Nadine, “Can you sing one of my songs in your own opera way?”
She picked Aerosmith’s hit “Crazy”, but she couldn’t find a backing track that suited the key of her voice and ended up having to hire an expensive pianist to record one for her. Over a few wines with her husband that night, she thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an app, so I could change the key, add stuff to it and share it if I like it?”
Now there is – and Nadine made it happen. Since it launched a year and a half ago, Wurrly has gone from strength to strength, and its creator has taken a meeting with software giant Apple, accompanied by her chart-topping pal will.i.am.
“He’s a creative genius and a great dude,” she tells. “He’s so busy with The Voice UK, but we’re looking at collaborating. It was surreal to be walking through the doors of Apple HQ with him.”
Within the first year, Wurrly chalked up 300,000 downloads and is now expanding into schools. “I’m passionate about that,” tells Nadine, who is on the board for Little Kids Rock, which encourages musically minded children.
She’s now developed a Lip Sync Battle app, which mimics the TV show, and has recently become a fully fledged US citizen. She smiles, “I just voted for the first time. I came home and I had this weird, emotional feeling that I had to tell everyone. I told my kids, ‘I voted for Hillary!’ and my son Lucas replied, ‘I’m sorry, Mum. You’re not going to like this, but I voted for Donald Duck!’”
Despite her US success, Nadine is keen to hold on to her Kiwi roots, returning to New Zealand at least once a year to visit her parents and brother. “I’m so excited to take my family to Queenstown this year,” she tells. “Eventually, I’d like us to be based here for a few months a year. I come home to keep my accent – and to feed my soul.”