No sacrifice too great for Alt for Norge?

In a quest to discover her heritage, this Norwegian American gave Alt for Norge

Photo courtesy of TVNorge
In order to complete her “russ baptism” and earn her outfit, Kate Mills had to endure the bizarre russ tradition of dunking her head in water, then flour, and then kissing a pig’s snout!

Molly Jones
The Norwegian American

When Kate Mills first heard about Alt for Norge, she knew it would be a life-changing experience—the missing piece in the puzzle of her heritage.

While the elementary-school teacher from Bellingham, Wash., had always been proud to be Norwegian, she had only distant memories of her heritage after losing her mother at a young age. A mother of two girls herself, Mills was determined to learn about the culture and share it with her daughters, enabling them to embrace their Norwegian heritage.

As one of the fortunate Norwegian Americans selected for Season 7 of the popular Norwegian reality-TV show, Mills battled her way through a series of challenges, competing each week for the grand prize of meeting her Norwegian family. Although Mills was certainly heartbroken to finish as the runner-up to Johnny Bartz of Miami and Minnesota, it is no doubt that she embraced her heritage and won the hearts of many Norwegians along the way.

Here, Mills shares her thoughts on her great Alt for Norge adventure with the readers of The Norwegian American.

Molly Jones: Had you heard of Alt for Norge (AFN) before you went to the casting call?

Kate Mills: I had never heard of AFN before the casting call. The president of my Daughters of Norway lodge had shared a news article from a Ballard newsletter or something on Facebook, and I took a look. I read a little about how they reunite you with relatives and found myself looking up clips from the show and crying as I watched these people learn about their families and some even going to their family farms! I knew in that moment I had to go to Norway and be a part of this!

MJ: What were your thoughts when you found out you had been selected?

KM: When I found out I was actually going, I could hardly believe it. It was like a life-long dream becoming a reality. I had always wanted to go to Norway and now that would be happening!

MJ: Prior to auditioning, you had joined Daughters of Norway and the Damekor and started learning Norwegian. What had sparked your desire to learn about your heritage at that point in your life?

KM: Having lost my mom at nine years old, I only remember remnants of things about my Norwegian heritage. I had done little things up until that point like buying a krumkake iron off of eBay since I remembered mom making those, but when we moved to Bellingham, I found myself at the annual Scandinavian Fair. When I walked in, it was like walking into a piece of my childhood.

The fair is put on by the DON each fall, and I joined on the spot. I had this deep desire to learn as much as I could so I could teach my girls. Although I don’t remember many details about what I knew as a child, I knew I loved being Norwegian and always had a sense of being very proud. I wanted that for my girls too. It was only a couple months after I joined that I learned about Damekor, and I started doing that because they practice at church a couple blocks away from me once a week and it was just one more thing that I could do to immerse myself as much as possible.

MJ: How did this experience change the way you feel about your heritage?

KM: The entire 10 weeks were highly emotional for me. It was like “meeting” my mom when I was there. Even though she had never been to Norway, there was this connection with learning about not just my Norwegian roots but hers too that made me feel close to her, which of course brought up so many feelings. I often thought of my heritage like a puzzle, and being in Norway and everything I was learning, whether it was about my family specifically or simply typical Norwegian customs, it was like pieces of the puzzle being put into place. I finally had the bigger picture; it was no longer remnants of memories but something complete that I could bring home to my girls.

Photo courtesy of TVNorge
Kate Mills (left) with a few of her friends and program leader Fridtjof Nilsen (center).

MJ: You’ve had a lot of press already, even before you were selected. Why do you think people are so interested in your story?

KM: I’m not too sure, other than that people love a happy ending to what would otherwise be a pretty sad story. It truly is a remarkable thing to be able to go from searching on your own to having the help of this incredible show—they gave me my dream of going to Norway and so much more. I came home with a sense of belonging in the Norwegian culture. I knew I was Norwegian and I knew about some pretty typical traditions, but being immersed in it, learning the language, learning about where my family comes from, and living in Norway for two months changed me. Like my good friend Jeff from the show said, “There was I time when I stopped referring to the Norwegians as ‘them’ and started saying ‘us.’”

MJ: What did your daughters think about watching you on Alt for Norge? How do you plan to share what you learned about your heritage with them?

KM: We watched each week with a big crowd at weekly watch parties and they were thrilled! Both of my girls, especially Ella, were very emotional as they watched. Not just when they saw me being emotional, but everyone on the show.

They are still a little young to understand the importance of it all I think, but they know who our relatives are now and are excited about meeting them someday! I started sharing as soon as I got home, beginning with our family tree and showing pictures that I had gotten. From there, I’ve been doing my best to teach them as much as I can about the Norwegian culture and even some of the language. Both girls are very proud to be Norwegian and are eager to share with others they meet about their Norwegian heritage.

MJ: I noticed that this season had many language-based challenges. From the start, you and Johnny had the most knowledge of the Norwegian language and you ended up being the final two—do you feel that this was an advantage for you?

KM: Honestly, I think it helped a bit in the finals, but up until that point, the show was so good about keeping the challenges fair and equal. You really didn’t have to know the language, and if there was language, we were all given the same information and the same amount of time to study. Being in Norway and hearing the language definitely made it easier to understand having done some audio lessons before leaving, but not so much so that I had any type of advantage I don’t think. Before you go on the show, they ask you to stop learning if you had been. I think in hopes to make it more even for everyone on the show.

MJ: What were your favorite and least favorite challenges?

KM: I think one of my most favorite challenges was the team challenge in Vardø where we had to pretend to be witches and rode Segways while throwing water balloons at people! It was a challenge that was really fun, and since I was always so anxious and tense since I wanted to stay so badly, it was fun to unwind a bit with that one.

My least favorite were always the individual challenges, especially the two individual challenges I was a part of where they were essentially just quizzes, and you either know your stuff or you don’t. The tension is very high since you are all right there, and the others are watching you. One wrong question or one delay in answering could have been my ticket home. Episode 4 was when this was the most scary for me.

MJ: Anyone who watched the show will know that you really wanted to win and meet your family. It seemed that with each challenge, you wanted it a little bit more. How did it feel to learn that Johnny had won and you would have to go home as the runner-up?

KM: There aren’t many days when I don’t replay that final challenge in my mind and think about how it might have ended had I done one or two things differently. Going into the last challenge, I truly had no hope for winning since I knew Johnny was such a strong competitor. But when I finished, I really thought I actually did pretty well, so I then my hopes got up a little, thinking I might actually have a shot at it!

Standing there waiting for Fridtjof to say who won felt like forever, and when he paused I actually envisioned him saying my name. So when he said Johnny, I was devastated. I love Johnny and was very close with him, so I felt so happy for him, but there was an instant where I was so sad to be that close to my family and not be able to meet them. When I calmed down a bit, I felt good—I felt so proud. I knew my family would be proud of what I had done and all I had accomplished. It wasn’t for nothing; I literally gained everything I wanted from this journey except to actually meet my family, which was something I felt so grateful for.

MJ: From my previous interviews with Alt for Norge contestants, I know that there is quite a lot of camaraderie among those that have shared this experience—do you agree? If so, how have they welcomed you into the community?

KM: Absolutely! Not only were all of us on season 7 very close (we chat via a group FB messenger string daily still), but the AFN alumni have been wonderful! It’s like you are part of this amazing extended family of people that understand what you’ve been through and what you’ve done. I have been lucky enough to meet up with multiple local alumni from the Northwest since coming home, and they have been a great resource when talking about all things Norway.

MJ: Have you been in contact with your Norwegian family yet? Did they watch the show?

KM: Yes! I was given my fifth cousin’s contact information, and we have been in contact multiple times. We’ve yet to facetime or skype since our schedules haven’t coincided, but we will soon.

MJ: I see that you have a GoFundMe page to raise money for a trip back to Norway this summer with your husband. Can you tell me more about this fundraiser and what a return to Norway would mean to you?

KM: When I was in Norway, I wanted to win so badly since I knew a trip back to Norway probably wouldn’t happen again for a long time due to cost.

However, when I came home after being so close to winning, my husband and I talked and made a plan to work hard to save so we could get back sooner. We thought about bringing the girls, but the cost doubles and we’d like them to be a bit bigger so they can really enjoy and remember a trip like that.

I was hesitant about doing a GoFundMe; however, I had so many Norwegian fans reach out to me and wishing I could come back and offering help that I put it out there just to see if I could get a little support. Little did I know I would get as much support from them as I have! So many have offered financial help, as well as places to stay once we arrive. The Norwegians are so extremely generous!

Returning to Norway would mean so much to me. I feel like meeting my family in person will be the final piece in the puzzle for me. I often described that meeting my family would be like being reunited with my mom in a way.

I think it will be weird to go back and have more freedom to do what I want when I want, but it will feel like coming home. When I see pictures of Oslo, where we had a sort of home base between episodes, it reminds me of being there and how much it will forever be a second home for me.

To learn more about the show, read “Alt for Norge: Exploring Norway one challenge at a time” in the July 1, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 24, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.