The Rise of Bria Kelly
Behind The Scenes Of The Smithfield Singers Wild Top 10 Run On NBC’s The Voice
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BRIA KELLY had prepared for this moment, but she was only 17 and scared to death. In a few minutes, she would step onto stage to sing 90 seconds worth of music to four titans of the music industry—Usher, the No. 1 Hot 100 artist of the 2000s decade; Blake Shelton, the Country Music Award’s reigning vocalist of the year for four consecutive years; Shakira, whose “Hips Don’t Lie” was the number one song in 55 countries; and Adam Levine, front man for Maroon 5, whose latest album, Overexposed, set the record for No. 1 songs (six in total) in the Top 40 chart’s 20-year history.
A senior at Smithfield High, Bria had sung throughout Coastal Virginia at festivals and bars and private clubs. She was used to enthusiastic crowds that energized her with their reactions. But here, on NBC’s hit show The Voice, the audience would be invisible, set back in a darkened studio. Her performance would be taped and then played on television months later or maybe not at all. More intimidating yet was the fact that these four judges would be sitting with their backs turned to her. If any of them liked what they heard, they could press a buzzer and their chair would spin around. This meant they wanted to act as her mentor throughout the rest of the singing competition. But they had to be selective. Each only had space on their team for 12 contestants. By season’s end that initial field of 48 would be whittled down to a single winner signing a record contract and taking home a prize of $100,000. Bria’s fear was that no one would hit their buzzer and she would be singing to a silent room.
She needn’t have worried.
Her voice split the darkness like a lightning bolt. She was practically screaming into the mic, but her tone stayed crisp as fresh linen. Before she finished belting out the first, sustained note of James Taylor’s “Steamroller Blues,” two judges—Blake and Adam—smacked their buzzers. Not that Bria noticed. “My eyes were closed,” she says now, “so I didn’t see them turn around. As soon as I hit the first note I was completely into the song, and I wasn’t thinking whether or not I was going to turn a chair. I was just trying to sing the song to the best of my ability.”
As Bria continued, her voice displayed a gritty timbre that often takes artists decades to achieve. A third chair spun and there sat Shakira, astonishment splashed across her face as she took in this sprig of a girl dressed in black leather, golden hair spilling down her back. Beside Shakira, Blake whooped and clapped his hands. Adam jumped to his feet and pumped his fist in the air.
“It was nuts,” Bria says. “I opened my eyes finally once Shakira turned around. I was just thinking if I can only get that last chair to turn it would be amazing.”
It wasn’t that Usher was holding out. He was paying attention, brow furrowed, elbow resting on his knee. Finally the studious expression broke, replaced with pure joy. He hit his buzzer, and relief washed over Bria’s face. She had just achieved the singing competition equivalent of a World Series grand slam. Bria remained composed until the final chord and then shook her head and mouthed the word, “Wow.”
The judges were equally amazed. They gave her a standing ovation atop their spinning platforms. At their feet were the lighted words, “I WANT YOU.” Adam stood with arms raised over his head in celebration while Blake and Shakira threw out compliments. But it was Usher who summed up what everyone was thinking. He held his arms out in Bria’s direction and bowed his head. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “we have just heard The Voice.”
Now came the interesting part. It was Bria’s turn to decide. The judges now had to sell themselves, each trying to win Bria’s favor and convince her to join their team. The judges talked over one another, squabbling like schoolchildren on a playground.
Bria had planned to pick Adam if he hit his buzzer, but Usher had something up his sleeve. A gold-plated something. “There is one thing that I have that I want you to have as well,” he said, reaching into his lectern to remove a Grammy award. “Would you like one of these?”
“I would love one of those!”
He sauntered over to Bria and handed her the heavy, gramophone-shaped trophy. He could afford to be magnanimous. He had eight of them.
Offstage, Bria’s parents, Bob and Jan Kelly, were watching everything unfold on monitors. “When he gave her his Grammy,” Bob says, “I was just thinking the whole time: Don’t drop it.”
The Grammy ploy worked. When it came time to choose, Bria pointed at her new mentor and said, “I pick Usher.”