I was at Auburn First Baptist Church a month or so back, writing a story on their college choir reunion, and when I asked who had travelled the farthest to be there that morning, they pointed at Kate Higgins. I walked over. Los Angeles? Wow.
We talked. She actually grew up in Auburn. She sounded familiar. She would have sounded familiar to you, too.
No, you’ve never heard of Kate Higgins. But trust me — you’ve heard Kate Higgins. At least chances are pretty good that you’ve heard Kate Higgins. At least if you’re into video games. Or anime. Or parenting. Or the Iron Bowl.
It came on during last year’s game. Or maybe before it. Maybe at halftime. She can’t remember.
“But it was a special on Spirit the eagle, and I voiced her,” she says. “An audition came through all the agencies, and I called my agent and I said ‘I’m an Auburn alum, please get me that job.’ And I got the job.'”
Kate usually gets the job. She’s had at least 310 of them since escaping to L.A. during the Blizzard of ’93 barely six months out of college to work with some big-time voice coach (who, it turns out, did not turn her into Madonna). And those are just the jobs IMDB knows about. There’s been plenty more. She can’t remember them all. She can’t even really remember her first… probably because she didn’t really realize it was her first.
It was 1998. For five years she’d survived on tickling the ivories and singing, putting that Auburn jazz degree (and choir practice) to good use in hotel bars every night.
Voice acting? What’s voice acting?
“I would occasionally do jingles for commercials as a singer, and there was a job I was doing singing for a little cartoon that I got through a friend of a friend,” Kate says. “I don’t even know if it came out. I don’t even remember what it was for. I was a squirrel. I was the voice of a squirrel singing squirrel songs. I was just waiting to go in and I was talking to this woman who had overheard me, and she was like ‘oh, I’d love to help you.'”
The woman gave Kate her card. It had mouse ears on it.
For the next year, one of the ways you knew you were watching the Disney Channel was when Kate Higgins told you you were watching the Disney Channel. She’d go in every now and then and record a “Coming up next!” or a “Stay tuned!”
Stay tuned indeed.
“At the end of that year I was at the mall buying $1,000 worth of clothes I should not have been putting on a credit card and I got a call from the head of the channel, and he said ‘Kate, tell’em to ring it up, you’re going to be the voice of the Disney Channel.”
Voice of the Disney Channel didn’t mean a new job. It meant a new career.
“I didn’t know at the time that [being the voice of the Disney Channel] was, like, a coveted job–that it was something people really wanted to do. Because it was just handed to me,” Kate says. “I kind of entered the voice over world backward. That doesn’t really happen, but I could kind of get any agent I wanted then because I was already bringing them a great job. Then you start getting sent stuff.”
And stuff. And even more stuff. Stuff she’d never heard of.
Anime? What’s anime?
“I went from promos for the Disney Channel right into anime because many of the promo writers were also anime voice directors,” she says. “It’s a small little world, but they would call me in to audition for their anime series.”
How many anime series has she done? It’s probably easier to count how many she hasn’t done.
Things started slow. She’d voice a couple of one-off characters on a short-lived show, maybe land a role in a short film or two.
“I remember I played some girl called Megumi,” she says of the early days. “I can’t remember the name of the show.”
That would be Megumi Shimizu from “Shiki.” I Googled it.
Then in 2006 or so, someone ordered an anime version of “Naruto,” one of the most popular manga series of all time. Kate auditioned for Sakura, the female lead. She didn’t hear anything.
“I had to go on a trip back home to Auburn and they called me in Auburn and asked me to come back for a second audition, and I was like, ‘no, I’m in Auburn, I can’t go,'” she says. “I was just, like, ‘OK, bad timing, bad luck.'”
Then her agent called. Forget the second audition, he said–the job was hers.
“It was just, like, ‘they’re convinced you’re Sakura,'” she says.
She was Sakura… for 500 episodes.
“Naruto” ended in 2017… after 500 episodes.
When fans approach her for autographs at conventions–making the con scene is pretty much a law if you voice a beloved anime character–they usually have Sakura photos in their hands.
“I could probably go to cons the rest of my life just as Sakura,” she says.
Of course, she could say the same for dozens of other characters. When I talked with her for the second time, she was cruising through L.A. on the way to voice some Sailor Mercury lines for two hours, Sailor Mercury being the alter ego of one of the Japanese schoolgirls on the hugely popular “Sailor Moon.”
But it’s not just anime anymore. It hasn’t been for a while.
Have you ever heard of Barbie? Yeah, she’s Barbie on Netflix’s “Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse” show, which my 7-year-old daughter Phoebe is watching as I write this, but that has actually developed a cult following among millennials.
“The average age of people who watch that show is, like, 25.”
Kate is also Phoebe’s favorite character on “Glitterforce,” another Netflix show always on in my house.
I look at her. “Next thing you’re going to tell me is that you’re on ‘Blaze and the Monster Machines.'”
“Blaze” is my 2-year-old son Quinn’s favorite show.
“I am on ‘Blaze and the Monster Machines.'”
She’s not just on it–she’s a main character. She’s Starla, the cowgirl truck. I think that’s when my jaw dropped. I’m standing there in the pews of Auburn First Baptist Church on a Saturday morning trying to write a story about a choir reunion and I’m talking with Starla from “Blaze.”
“Do your kids have the new Mario game?”
“OK, well I’m Pauline on ‘Super Mario Odyssey.'”
That’s when I took the selfie and texted it to Sadie, my 13-year-old. Because Pauline is the character who sings “Jump Up Superstar,” this jazzy, big band-esque song from the game that’s so popular it broke the Top 40 iTunes All Genre charts in both the U.S. and Japan.
What with that Auburn jazz degree, it was right up Kate’s alley. She nailed it. Nintendo actually asked her to perform the song live at the 2017 Game Awards show last December in front of an army of fans in Mario hats.
“I’d never sung with an orchestra that big, and I’d never sung in front of that many people before,” she says. “There were maybe 5,000 there, but millions of people were watching online.”
These days you’re as likely to hear Kate on a video game as you are on a cartoon–probably more so, actually. She’s done some “Legend of Zelda” titles, “World of Warcraft,” several “Sonic the Hedgehog” games, a “Final Fantasy” or two. There are literally hundreds of others. But she’s tried to be more selective as of late.
“I stopped auditioning for violent video games because I don’t want to put that out there,” she says. “I’m not judging or knocking people who do those kinds of games, because they’re huge games. But I have kids that I don’t want to play violent video game and I just kind of started feeling like a hypocrite, cause I’m on there shouting ‘kill him, shoot him!'”
So far she hasn’t had to turn down any Fisher Price gigs.
“Yeah, the toys are very near and dear to my heart,” she says. “I like doing things for kids. I feel like I’ve contributed something to society.”
Since 2000, Kate has been teaching your toddlers the alphabet, teaching them how to count, and now even how to speak Spanish as the pink kettle in the Laugh & Learn Sweet Manners Tea Set, as the Laugh & Learn First Words Smart Puppy, as the voice of the Laugh & Learn Smart Stages Tablet, as a dozen more Fisher Price products.
“Oh my gosh, we have some of those,” I say. “This is so wild.”
She smiles and nods.
“I know, I know. I’m in your house.”