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Escondido singer Celina Graves moves ahead in TV’s ‘America’s Got Talent’ competition

NBC's "America's Got Talent" judges greet Celina Graves on video.
In this screenshot from the pre-taped July 28 episode of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” Escondido singer Celina Graves on the live video scren waits with anticipation for an answer from the judges.
(Courtesy photo)

The 31-year-old casino security guard was the first of this season’s auditioners chosen to compete in the live rounds

Fans of Celina Graves, the Escondido singer who wowed judges in her audition last month for NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” TV series, didn’t have to wait long on Tuesday to find out if she will move forward in the competition.

Just 15 minutes into the the inaugural two-hour “Judge Cuts” episode Tuesday evening, Graves was the first performer pushed through to the live competition round. The judges, who include Simon Cowell and Heidi Klum, initially selected 100 acts from the hundreds they saw audition in the spring. They’re now winnowing that number down to 60 semifinalists who will compete in live rounds that begin airing on Aug. 11.

Because of the pandemic, contestants in the pre-taped episode interacted with the socially distanced judges via a video link from their homes. The episode was filmed on a set that looked like a drive-in movie theater without a live audience.

Graves said Wednesday that the filming of the Judge Cuts episode was a very long day as contestants waited for hours for news from the judges. Several auditioners who were low on the judges’ scorecards were given a second chance to perform in Tuesday’s episode. Graves was told beforehand that she wouldn’t be asked to perform again. She thought this meant that she was going to be told on camera that she was eliminated. Instead, the judges told Graves she was so good that she was immediately moving ahead.

During the episode, Klum said Graves was “born to be onstage.” And when Cowell greeted Graves on camera, he didn’t waste any time delivering the news.

“I will get straight to the point,” Cowell told Graves. “You are one of those people who are going to be sailing through to the next round.”

Celina Graves, an "America's Got Talent" contestant from Escondido, poses for a portrait.
Celina Graves, an America’s Got Talent contestant from Escondido, poses for portraits at Daniel Bourget’s studio space in San Marcos on June 24th, 2020.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The news came as such a shock that Graves started crying and her wife, Erica Graves, rushed to comfort her in the music room of their Escondido home. Graves said she was happy to be able to share that moment with Erica and their dog, Hope.

If watching that moment was a highlight for Graves, what followed was a letdown because she was sad to see that some of the other contestants she met backstage during the auditions didn’t survive the judge cuts. But Graves said she has been in their shoes, having auditioned for many singing competitions without success. She said the experience will ultimately make the performers stronger.

“I‘ve been told ‘no’ so many times that all I can do is give them encouragement to keep going. It’s part of your journey,” Graves said. “But it broke my heart to see their hearts break.”

Graves’ emotional vocal audition of Shawn Mendes’ “Mercy” on the June 9 episode of AGT brought the audience and all four judges to their feet and a video of that performance has since racked up more than 4 million views on Youtube. In the video, 31-year-old Graves explained how she grew up dressing in boys clothes, was mistreated by other girls and feared by business owners for her seemingly tough exterior. But AGT lead judge Cowell told Graves in that episode that she looked great and she should never let a stylist change her look.

Over the past few years, Graves has been working security at Valley View Casino & Hotel in Valley Center and has been training for a career in law enforcement. But her real dream since her mid-teens has been to follow her father into the music business. Ed Graves, a longtime bassist and singer for the local bands NRG and Fattburger, said his daughter struggled growing up with rejection, bullying and a lack of self-esteem, so seeing her succeed on the national television show has been extremely touching for him.

In recent years, she has been developing a part-time singing career by recording songs and posting them on her Instagram page, which has grown in the past five weeks from 40,000 followers to more than 50,000. It’s at instagram.com/celinagravesofficial.

For more information on upcoming episodes of “America’s Got Talent,” visit nbc.com/americas-got-talent.

Celina Graves, holding her dog, Hope, and getting a hug from her wife, Erica, on "America's Got Talent" on July 28.
Celina Graves cries while holding her dog, Hope, and getting a hug from her wife, Erica, after hearing in the July 28 episode that “America’s Got Talent” judges have voted to move her through to the competition round.
(Courtesy photo)


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