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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FOR YEARS, NBC’s America’s Got Talent drew their pool of contestants from those willing to travel to one of four major cities to audition. Then they realized this was too limiting. They opened up the competition and allowed individuals to post 90-second videos to YouTube and let viewers vote for their favorites. The top-12 vote getters would then be brought to the AGT stage to perform on national TV.

This was 2012, and Bria was 16. She had the raw talent. Her skills had been honed by years of instruction. And her stage presence was that of someone who had put in countless hours on the road. She was ready.

Bria uploaded a video, and within days she became an internet darling. She was invited to perform in the live shows broadcast from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in downtown Newark. When her turn came, she strutted the length of the horseshoe-shaped stage in a glittering silver top, playing to the three judges at its center, the surrounding crowd of 2,800 and millions of others watching on TV. Her song that night was “Gunpowder and Lead” by Miranda Lambert, a rowdy country song that fit her style at the time and showcased her big voice.

As Bria finished, host Nick Cannon stepped in from the wings and slapped her five, saying “Awesome.” The three judges were similarly impressed. Sharon Osbourne commented on her strong voice, and Howard Stern implored viewers to pick up the phone and vote for her. But it was Howie Mandel’s comment that had the most lasting impression. “In my opinion,” he said, “so far tonight, you, young lady, are the standout.” America agreed, and she was voted through to the semi-finals.

There she performed a country version of Pink’s “Perfect” while wearing a sequined cocktail dress. This time she stood at the microphone while a kaleidoscope of color bloomed on the screen behind her and strings of spotlights on both sides sliced their beams through the darkened auditorium.

Only six acts could advance to the finals, and the judges were much more critical with the performances. “No doubt about it,” said Sharon Osbourne, “you were born with great pipes, as we say in show biz ... but that song is so great, it needs so much emotion in it. I just wish that I had seen more of that from you.”

America was also unconvinced, and Bria did not advance. Days later, she was back in Smithfield performing at the farmer’s market. “That was one thing we all thought was kind of admirable,” says Norman. “One day she’s in [Jersey] and the next Smithfield. She does these big venues, but if she’s obligated herself to one of these little, local things, then she shows up and does it. She’s gotten big but doesn’t act like she’s too good for us.”

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