Benicio Bryant almost cried. On national TV.
The 15-year-old reality-television sensation from Maple Valley had just finished baring his soul on heartfelt original song “Who I Am” in the quarterfinals of “America’s Got Talent.” The judges mostly loved his vocal. But for the first time he got a few negative comments, too, with Howie Mandel saying he didn’t respond to the song and questioning whether it was the right choice.
“Oh, yeah, totally,” Bryant said when asked if he was on the verge of tears. “There’s so much stuff going on. There’s people looking at you. The judges are saying stuff. You’re looking at Terry Crews. There’s just so much stuff going on, you’re definitely overwhelmed with emotions up there. All of it was good emotions.
“I think people on social media took it the wrong way,” he added.
Boy, did they ever, raining down insults on the comedian and actor turned reality-show judge. Far from sad, though, Benicio said Mandel’s comments reinforced his resolve.
“I respect that because I don’t like a lot of songs,” Bryant said. “I think that everybody has their own opinion, so I respected what he said. OK, yeah, cool. But this is who I am, so sorry, you know? Then the next round, he felt really bad and was like, ‘Yeah, I take back what I said.’ ”
Well, Mandel was a little more effusive than that after Bryant sang his second original song, “Fall Apart,” during the show’s first semifinal round. He went on to say, “I love this song. I love you. I truly believe that you’re the biggest star that could come out of this season. … You’re someplace between Troye Sivan and Harry Styles. That’s how I see you. You are beautiful, you sound beautiful. I think you could win this thing.”
Fans then advanced him into the finals, which will air live 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 17, on NBC with the results reveal the next night.
Benicio had no inkling he’d make it this far on the show, which pits amateur entertainers from many disciplines against each other. The winner takes home $1 million and the chance to perform in Las Vegas.
Only recently has Benicio allowed himself to daydream about taking home those prizes. Thanks to his success, he’s been living the life of a professional singer in Los Angeles. Instead of spending the first few weeks of his freshman year at Tahoma High School — “I’m not bummed at all, no offense to my high school” — he’s been receiving tutoring on set. He spends the rest of his time rehearsing for his finals appearance and working with a team of professionals who help him develop his act.
“I’m not sure if I can say too much, but they’re really cool,” Benicio said. “It’s a good team of people. Everybody’s talented in their own way. It’s a really cool experience working with these people because they have so many ideas. I think that’s my favorite part, is working with people. Cause you know you can have ideas, but it’s good to have people to build off of them.”
Rather than be overwhelmed by the experiences and the people around him, Benicio has fiercely maintained his own sense of self. Mandel is right that it’s easier to get the audience’s attention with a song they already know. But Benicio has more than winning in mind.
“The reason why I sing my original songs is I’m showing who I am and what I have to offer,” he said. “It’s just really important, I feel, that I want to be myself and I want to show people that. So I’m singing my own songs.”
With one notable exception, the response has been overwhelming. Simon Cowell, the former “American Idol” judge and producer who brought you Styles’ boy band One Direction, practically salivates when Benicio takes the stage. And his fellow judges have been just as effusive about his decision to sing originals.
“I feel like those lyrics are so poignant,” Julianne Hough said. “And sometimes in pop songs people just sing words and you’re like, ‘What did that even mean?’ But you, you just created an entire world for us to join.”
Added Gabrielle Union: “You are a world-class talent. Two weeks in a row, two original songs and two hit songs. You are a star, my friend.”
Benicio won’t change his tactics now that he’s reached the finals. He can’t reveal what he’s performing, but he says it will be an original song.
“I don’t know what other people will think of it, but I can hear people singing along to it,” he said. “So this one I’m super excited about.”
The final round of “America’s Got Talent” airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 17, on NBC. The results show airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 18.