AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Earlier this year, our Planet Money team brought us the story of a 14-year-old girl with an unusual business. Willow Tufano was reselling the remnants of Florida's housing crisis - couches, bed frames and microwaves - left behind in foreclosed homes. She advertised them on Craigslist, and racked up the profits.
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WILLOW TUFANO: About six months after I started doing all the Craigslist thing, I was like, what should I do with all this money?
CORNISH: When Willow heard about a $12,000 house selling nearby, she had her answer. At age 14, she became a homeowner; and this month, now 15, Willow bought another house. Chana Joffe-Walt checked in, and found the teenager had not only doubled her real estate empire; she, herself, had changed.
CHANA JOFFE-WALT, BYLINE: When I met Willow earlier this year, she was a flappy-haired kid with an unusual hobby; a hobby made possible by the unusual economic circumstances all around her, in Florida. I kept thinking: When a 14-year-old can buy a house for $12,000, that's got to be the bottom of the housing market, right? But Willow did not see herself as symbolic of anything. She kept - just saying: I don't know; I just wanted to buy a house.
She didn't see herself as remarkable in any way - until everyone, everywhere, began telling her yes, indeed, you are very remarkable.
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JOFFE-WALT: That is Ellen DeGeneres, of the "Ellen" show. Her producers called Willow, after our NPR story ran. And there, in this clip, is Willow in L.A.; onstage in a huge, velvet chair, in front of an adoring audience.
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JOFFE-WALT: Watching Willow in this interview thanking the crowd, you can see the beginnings of a personal transformation. It is like with each mention of how amazing she is, Willow believes it just a little bit more. Being a landlord at 14? Yeah, I guess most kids don't do that. Seeing a business opportunity where no one else has - you know what? That really does take some ingenuity. And it wasn't just the "Ellen" show.
WILLOW: Everyone started calling. It was crazy. "Good Morning America" did call - we want to fly you out to New York. And Anderson Cooper called, and people from Korea. I thought, well, oh, my goodness.
JOFFE-WALT: Then Willow was invited to be a keynote speaker at a college in Alabama.
WILLOW: Like, when I went to Alabama, I was just so nervous - with so many people looking at me. I - that's never been the way.
JOFFE-WALT: But Willow thought, maybe this is the way now. People are going to be looking at me; I've got to get used to it. And the way Willow thought to get used to the attention was so smart - and so something only a 15-year-old would think to do. On her way to Alabama, through three airports, Willow decided to put on and wear a bright-yellow Pikachu costume. Her mom says it was basically like seeing Big Bird marching through a bunch of Southern airports. Everyone was staring.
WILLOW: Someone said, oh, I know who you are; you're Chewbacca. I'm like, well, that's from "Star Wars," and I'm from "Pokemon," but close. I'm Pikachu. Yeah, someone said I was a bumblebee.
JOFFE-WALT: Did you feel like it helped, Willow? Like, did you feel like...
WILLOW: Yes, definitely. I felt like, confident that - having so many people look at me, I felt pretty confident that I could speak in front of just 200 people, and be OK with random people looking at me.
JOFFE-WALT: Willow's mom says it was that weird stunt that cemented the change in Willow. Everything around her was telling her she was interesting, and she was starting to believe it. And so she took the next logical step Americans seem to take, when experiencing an unusual amount of sudden attention. Willow determined she needed a reality TV show.
WILLOW: We are in the process of pitching a sizzle reel, which is sort of like, clips of me - just like, little highlights.
JOFFE-WALT: The show will document the life of a teenage real estate mogul; with problems like, teen landlord can't find new tenants willing to pay the 700 bucks she's asking in rent. The other day, Willow's mom told an interested couple that Willow would take 650 for her place. That was a mistake.
WILLOW: Oh, my goodness. She just lowered the rent without asking me. And I said, did you even ask me if I like those people, or I wanted to lower the rent to 650? I don't think so..
JOFFE-WALT: You're already sounding like a reality TV show star.
WILLOW: I don't want to be fake. I'm going to be cool. I'm going to be one of those people that loves their fans, if I have any.
WILLOW: If I have any.
JOFFE-WALT: If the show gets picked up, Willow will play the role she has already been practicing. And I guess this is what America is like, right now. We crash our housing market and then we make a TV show about it. Willow is ready to be the star.
Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News.
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