“Before, I wasn’t that tall, but taller than people wanted me to be,” says Wells, 46. “So every time I [auditioned], people were like, ‘Yeah, you can sing, but you’re just too heavy.’ I just allowed it to become my truth.
So Wells gave up on becoming a recording artist or musical theater performer, continued her education, and spent the next two decades working as a registered nurse while raising two sons. But after dusting off her pipes and winning Houston’s Pride Superstar Singing Contest in 2016, the single mom caught the eye of ‘America’s Got Talent’ scouts, won over the judges with a rendition of ‘I Know Where I’ ve Been” – Maybelle’s Motormouth Showstopper “Hairspray” – and made a spirited run to the semifinals of the 2018 NBC competition.
Within months, Wells stopped breastfeeding to finally try singing full time. Now, when she’s not recording her own tunes or working as a motivational speaker, Wells can be seen as Matron “Mama” Morton in the 25th anniversary tour of the Broadway revival of “Chicago” which arrives at the National Theater this week. . Playing the lascivious jailer, who trades favors for bribes in the women’s ward of Cook County Jail, Wells found validation in Fred Ebb, John Kander and Bob Fosse’s jazzy dispatch of famous criminals of the Roaring Twenties.
“I’m a dramatic woman – I’m loud, I’m over the top, and for so many years I thought I was just plain wrong,” Wells says. “I’m just too fat, I’m too dramatic, I’m too loud and no one wants to hear me sing Broadway tunes out loud. Now I’m just the right size, I’m just dramatic enough and the people want to hear me sing Broadway tunes out loud.
In a phone interview earlier this month, while on tour in Austin, Wells talked about her “America’s Got Talent” experience, the appeal of playing Mama, and her advice for others pursuing careers. unlikely dreams.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: “America’s Got Talent” obviously changed your life. How rewarding was it to find success on this stage?
A: You know, it’s a mixed bag. [Executive producer and judge] Simon Cowell isn’t really known for liking plus-size people, and I’m not a bit fat – I’m a big woman. So a lot of people online were very angry about it at first. It was like, “Why is Simon saying yes to you when he said no to all these other people?” A lot of people were really talking about my body online, and it was a journey. But I think what really happened was I was just starting to realize that [success in show business] is not as far and magical as everyone thinks. For me, doing a national live TV show shows that it is possible.
Q: What was the trickiest part of pivoting to a new career in your 40s?
A: The hardest thing is the transition, I always say, from being a senior to being a freshman. Because in nursing, I am a trained, educated, certified person and I have years of experience. So when I walk into a hospital, I know what I’m doing. Entering this field, I sometimes feel like a fish out of water. I just don’t know all the terms, all the language, and it was really an eye opener. But I trust that I have enough talent, and also that if I figure out how to navigate nursing and do “America’s Got Talent,” I can do it.
Q: How well did you know “Chicago” before joining the series?
A: People asked me to sing “When You’re Good to Mama” because it fits my voice type, but I never got into the role or really thought about it. Like, Motormouth Maybelle feels very, very cellular to me, but “Chicago” wasn’t like that to me. It’s a very sexy show, and I think it’s a challenge to see myself as sexy when it comes to being on stage. I see myself as motherly, I see myself as warm, I see myself as learned, but I don’t always see myself as sexy on stage. So I found this energy on stage to be loving and smart and cunning, but also to be sexy.
Q: What did you come to appreciate about Mama as you explored the character?
A: It was interesting to discover a woman in charge of a prison in the 1920s, who has the brass to deal with all those murderers but who is warm enough to love and care for them – and savvy enough to s make sure she keeps her wallet thick enough to protect herself. I find new things in her and in the show every week.
Q: As a motivational speaker, what would you say to other people pursuing unlikely goals?
A: I’m not exactly what you expect to see, so if you just feel different or sense otherness – like, if you’re “other” in a category of very clear choices – live in that otherness, because this uniqueness is what gave me my opportunities and what made me accessible to people who watch me, on television and on stage. So I just want to encourage all of us who are different – what I teach is everyone – to be ourselves. Be truly, brutally, only yourself and allow that to shine through.
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