Merit Leighton is the epitome of sunshine and soda, pure energy and effervescence. She’s just as cute as the KawaiiHappii (cute happy) things she likes to vlog about, but this talented fifteen-year-old is also an actor, voiceover artist, and singer whose passions run deep and her empathy wide. She’s currently starring in the Netflix sitcom, Alexa and Katie, as a freshman who learns one of her best friends has cancer. And yes, you did read that right. This is a sitcom, one that shines the light on teen illness, not with tear-jerking, overwrought drama, but with authentic laughs, sensitivity, hope, and reality. It’s a concept that hits all too close to Merit, come meet her:
Is it really true you started acting at five after a manager saw your picture on the Internet? I mean, how does that even happen?
Yes, it’s completely true, actually. It’s crazy, but it’s true. It sounds like some kind of fairy tale or a movie, but it really did happen that way.
That is so cool. Most people wish something like that would happen. I love that you have one of those wild stories.
People always ask me, “How do you get into acting?” and I’m like, “Wellllll….”
You voiced Lucinda the Witch on Sofia the First. You did that for four years. How did you become a voice actor and what’s the best thing about voicing your character rather than playing one on screen?
I’ve always wanted to be a voice actor. I’ve been doing voices for as long as I can remember, but fortunately, it kind of came along with on-screen auditions and I was lucky enough to be able to work on Sophia the First. Voiceover is different because your face doesn’t really matter. You could do whatever it takes to achieve the emotion or the sound you want from your voice. It’s really cool because you can be anything, like ever.
And I imagine you could go in your pajamas if you wanted to.
[laughs] That’s true.
KawaiiHappii is the name of your YouTube channel. What inspired you to start vlogging?
Nothing is ever really too awkward for me. You always have someone to talk to. It makes everything a lot more fun. I really love sharing all the cool stuff I get to do and lately I’ve really been into K-pop. My channel kind of changes a bit with what my interests are, so video games, cute things. It depends because my channel is about all the things I love and all the people I love.
You mentioned a secret voiceover project that you hoped to announce soon. I’m hoping you can share that with us today.
Actually, two projects that I can’t talk about, but they’ll be worth the wait. Should be coming out this year.
You’re also a singer–you really do a little bit of everything–and even sang backup on Halsey’s New Americana. Do you have a desire to put out your own album?
Being on Halsey’s album and recording at Capitol Records was so awesome. I don’t have any plans to come out with an album of my own right now, but I do love singing. Maybe one day it’ll happen.
Do you do any songwriting?
My sister, she loves writing music and she’s actually written a lot of songs with this program called Vocaloid, which is kind of hard to get into, so I’m not going to explain it all right now. But I do kinda help her write some of her songs and her lyrics and I’ve tried to help inspire her. She’s really inspired me to try and write some of my own songs, so maybe someday.
On Alexa and Katie, you play their friend Hannah. I noticed that show creator Heather Wordham originally wrote and produced for Hannah Montana and now she’s doing your show. I have to ask, is your character’s name a nod to Hannah Montana?
Never really thought about that. My character… if my character was a reference that would be really, really cool.
You’ll have to ask her.
I think Alexa and Katie filmed on the same stage that Hannah Montana was too. The first few weeks everyone was like, “Aha. Another Hannah on Hannah. It was kind of like a “ha-ha” type of thing. The Hannahs are very different.
Yes, they are.
With Alexa and Katie, I’m really good friends. And she’s a wacky character, always has a different point of view than anyone else. I love that about her.
The show deals with your friend, Alexa, having cancer. Have you known someone your age or someone young who has fought cancer or who’s dealt with a chronic illness?
Yes. Actually, my best friend has Crohn’s. I really relate to the show and the friendship that Alexa and Katie have. Even in the first scene of the show, where Alexa and Katie are sharing Alexa’s I.V. chair, I’ve actually done that with Izzy at her treatment. She’s super strong like Alexa. She plays lacrosse, she loves sports and she’s amazing. I will say that the show has taught me how lucky I am to have such a close best friend like Izzy. She’s like my sister and I love her so much.
She’s lucky to have a friend like you who goes to treatments with her and is so supportive. This is the kind of discussion I really wanted to have and bring focus to. The show is great because there are so many different chronic illnesses, and things like cancer, that teens deal with. Unless it’s a tear-jerker book or movie, there’s very little representation for teens who struggle with serious illness. And certainly not with positivity.
Alexa’s cancer is not that visible, you can’t really tell, except that she has no hair. There are people who have cancer and chronic illnesses that really do look completely fine. I feel like those are people who really struggle and aren’t talked about a lot. I’m really glad the show is shining a light on that.
I would describe Hannah as very peppy, good-hearted, a bit of a goof. And maybe, maybe, slightly clueless at times. But you can’t help but love her. She’s adorable and always has the best intentions. How are the two of you similar? And how are you different?
I’m a bit of a goof myself. We have a lot of similarities, for sure. I can be a little bit oblivious at times, but she’s a really good friend and I try to be the best friend that I can. We both have an offbeat sense of style. Sometimes I even joke like her, but I think I’m a little more tech savvy than Hannah is and I’m definitely more of a nerdy gamer type. I also love languages. I’m in my second year of Japanese and I’m planning to learn Korean next.
Imagine this, you’re stranded on a desert island and you can take one and only one K-pop band with you. Who would you pick to sing and entertain you for the rest of your life and why?
Ultimately, I’d choose Exo because they’re one of the most vocally talented groups in the K-pop industry. I’d love for those golden pipes to entertain me for the rest of my life, but honestly, I had a hard time deciding because there are other groups I like, like NCT, that have double the amount of members so I’d be a lot less lonely. [Still] Exo wins.
What do you nerd out about? We already know about KawaiiHappii and K-pop.
I nerd out about a lot of stuff, but I love video games. I love talking about video games, mechanics, and graphics, figuring out the best way to play video games, different game-playing styles. I just love video games! I’m also low-key obsessed with anime figurines. I love looking at all their intricate details.
What is your favorite video game?
Oh, ah, uh, um, that’s really hard, that’s really hard because it’s like trying to have someone decide between a beautiful steak and a piece of cake. They’re like different things that you enjoy differently. So, um, uh, I really love Splatoon 2. I also really love The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Arms a lot, but I also really love Project Diva Future Tone. All their games. I love the Project Diva franchise.