“It wasn’t that big, but it was bigger than people wanted it to be,” Wells, 46, says. “So every time [auditioned], people were like, “Yeah, you can sing, but you’re too heavy.” I just allowed that 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 children. But after dusting off her pipes and winning Houston’s Pride Superstar singing competition in 2016, the single mom caught the eye of “America’s Got Talent” scouts, winning over the judges with a performance of “I Know Where I’ve Been” – Motormouth Maybelle’s showstopper “Hairspray” and made a rousing run to the semifinals of the 2018 NBC competition.
After a few months, Wells left nursing to pursue singing full-time. Now, when she’s not recording her own songs 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” coming to the National Theater this week. Playing the lascivious jailer, who trades favors for bribes in the women’s ward of the Cook County Jail, Wells has found validation in Fred Ebb, John Kander and Bob Fosse with the jazz of famous criminals of the 1920s.
“I’m a dramatic woman—I’m loud, I’m over the top, and for so many years I thought I was wrong,” says Wells. “I’m too fat, I’m too dramatic, I’m too loud and nobody wants to hear me sing Broadway songs at the top of my lungs. Now I’m the right size, I’m dramatic enough and people want to hear me sing Broadway songs with full force.”
In a phone interview earlier this month during a stop in Austin, Wells talked about her “America’s Got Talent” experience, the appeal of doing Mama and her advice for others chasing unlikely dreams.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: “America’s Got Talent” obviously changed your life. How valid was it to find success at that stage?
To: You know, it’s a mixed bag. [Executive producer and judge] Simon Cowell isn’t really known for liking plus-sized people, and I’m not just a little fat – I’m a big woman. So a lot of people online were really mad 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 that was a trip. But I think what really happened is that I just started to realize this [success in show business] it’s not as far away and magical as everyone thinks it is. For me to be doing a live national television show, it shows that it is possible.
Q: What has been the most difficult part of arriving at a new career at the age of 40?
To: The hardest part is the transition, I always say, from being a senior back to being a freshman. Because in nursing I am an educated, trained, certified person and 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 lingo, and it’s really opened my eyes. But I’ve been confident that I’m talented enough, and also confident that if I figure out how to navigate nursing and do “America’s Got Talent,” I can do it.
Q: How familiar were you with “Chicago” before joining the show?
To: People have asked me to sing “When You’re Good to Mama” because it suits my kind of voice, but I’ve never gone into the role or really thought about it. Like, Motormouth Maybelle sounds really, really 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 look sexy when it comes to being on stage. I look motherly, I look warm, I look knowledgeable, but I don’t always look sexy on stage. So I’ve been finding that energy on stage to be loving and smart and crafty, but also to be sexy.
Q: What did you come to appreciate about Mama as you explored the character?
To: It’s been interesting to find out about a woman in charge of a prison in the 1920s, who has the power to take care of all these killers, but is warm enough to love and care for them, and smart enough to make sure it stays. his wallet thick enough to protect himself. I find new things about her and the show every week.
Q: As a motivational speaker, what would you say to other people who are pursuing improbable goals?
To: I’m not exactly what you’d expect to see, so if you feel different or feel the otherness, like if you’re “other” in a category of very clear choices, live in that otherness, because that otherness is the that has. it gave me my opportunities and that’s what made me relate to the people who watch me, both on TV and on stage. So I just want to encourage all of us who are different, that I’m learning that everyone, to be yourself. Be truly, fiercely, uniquely yourself and let that shine.
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