Kechi Okwuchi stood alone at the front of the AMERICA’S GOT TALENT auditorium. In a few seconds, she turned hundreds of smiling faces into shocked expressions.

“I was in a plane crash when I was sixteen years old back in Nigeria. It took the lives of 107 out of 109 passengers, and I was one of the two survivors.”

She was not an inspirational speaker who had come to preach to the masses about overcoming adversity. No — she was about to belt “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran on AMERICA’S GOT TALENT. Judges Heidi Klum, Mel B, Simon Cowell, Howie Mandel, and millions of home viewers watched her audition to win one million dollars and a headline show in Las Vegas. This was her response to Simon Cowell’s question,

“What got you into singing?”

AMERICA'S GOT TALENT
Kechi Okwuchi

In 2005, Kechi was flying home for Christmas break when she heard a “loud, searing metal scraping sound.” She grabbed the hand of her best friend — and never saw her again.

I had been sitting comfortably on a couch in my living room for the first 30 minutes of the episode; when a 34-year-old danced to “Anaconda,” I laughed. When a man spun his wife in the air with a pole, I stared in awe. But when Kechi came on and shared her story, my face experienced the transition between Greek Theatre masks like the audience had. Seeing tears well in Kechi’s eyes as she struggled to say the name of her late friend suddenly cleaved my heart in two.

“I had more than 100 surgeries. The pain and the itching were so horrible, but amidst all the procedures, music was an escape,” says Kechi in a pre-recorded clip. “I sang every single day.”

Unsurprisingly, she walked off stage with four yeses, a pass to the next round, and a giant smile.

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To many viewers, Kechi’s narrative would neatly file under the label of “sob story.” That is a story that evokes sympathy for the person telling it. She would be joining a growing stack of reality TV contestants with ill family members, tormented childhoods, near-death experiences, and other setbacks.

Controversy

Some believe sob stories are a manipulative tactic to inflate ratings and that they put the contestants without them at a disadvantage. A Reddit user, who created a thread called “No more sob stories on AGT” defended the title:

“I am saying this after seeing some real talent booted out, while a couple of mediocre contestants have gone through and even keep receiving praises. I think if their private dramas were private, the results would have been completely different.”

Even AGT’s own judges have expressed disapproval towards these attempts at tear-wringing. After a contestant on BRITAIN’S GOT TALENT talked about how music had helped her through rough times, Simon Cowell told her,

“I’ve heard the sob story before…I’m bored of these sob stories now. I hate to sound harsh but I am.”

AMERICA'S GOT TALENT
“I hate to sound harsh.”

However, as much as producers craft these narratives for maximum tears and carve air time to spotlight a select few, calling them “sob stories” and viewing them as cheap emotional appeals belittle the contestants’ struggles and ensuing triumphs. Their experiences range from assault to the loss of a family member, from bullying to homelessness. These have almost certainly influenced their path to the stage, whether by strengthening their dedication to their talent or precipitating their presence entirely.

(Niki Evans, a contender on the fourth season of UK’s X FACTOR who received the fourth place, softly told the judges that it was because of her late father that she had auditioned at all. He had died seventh months earlier, and she had found an application among his belongings that he had meant to give to her.)

Kechi’s Performance

Kechi’s story, along with many others, is so much more than a two-minute example of a two-word term. Through weaving her tale of loss, immense pain, and a changed relationship with music — it is implied that she did not take singing seriously until after the accident — she rejected the perception of her being another contestant trying to match the pitches of someone else’s song.

She gave us the key to savoring her performance on a more visceral level. On stage, Sheeran’s poignant lyrics — “When your legs don’t work like they used to before / And I can’t sweep you off of your feet / Will your mouth still remember the taste of my love” — took on new meaning when channeled through Kechi’s powerful, yet restrained voice.

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With the knowledge of her tragic backstory and how music carried her through it, I was able to sense the deeper layer of emotion Kechi evoked with the song, filled with notes of courage and hope. I could also appreciate the emotion behind her voice and the journey she took to reach that point.

She had forged a personal connection with the song and shared it with the audience. It resonated with me as if I had somehow become one of her vocal chords.

AMERICA'S GOT TALENT

Parallels to College Admissions

As I am starting the process of applying to colleges, I cannot help but draw parallels between the stories contestants have told to rivet millions of viewers and the stories I will be expected to tell to win over dozens of tired, coffee-driven admissions officers.

They have to package themselves into one short video. I will have to package myself into one 650-word essay. The producers solicit their tales. The Common Application forces me to write at least 250 words of gibberish before I can click “submit.” Both allow the person being assessed to explain their circumstances, whether they share “sob stories” or not.

The main difference is that sob stories in the college application process are welcomed with open arms rather than skepticism and angry Reddit threads. At times college admission officers even expect applicants to provide more details about their background. With this information, they can best evaluate students in the context of their environment.

An Admissions Officer’s Take

In Getting In: The Zinch Guide to College Admissions & Financial Aid in the Digital Age, Michael Muska, a former admissions worker at Brown University, recalls a memorable applicant:

“He was a first-generation, hardworking student of Portuguese descent who stood second in a class of 700 students. Test scores were not at our norms, but everyone raved about this student’s work ethic. No one explained, however, why he had no extracurricular activities or anything about his family situation. I remember calling the counselor at the school who reluctantly told me that the applicant didn’t really want his story known — that his father was a disabled fisherman and that the young man worked every day after school and on the weekends to support his family, while still achieving his impressive academic record. In his case, work, to us, was the sacred thing he did. I can guess you know what our decision was and the kind of aid we gave him to make his dreams come true.”

Connecting to AGT

His case is comparable to that of Mandy Harvey from AMERICA’S GOT TALENT. Both of their stories brought a new perspective to their accomplishments.

A 29-year-old singer, Mandy would easily blend into the background of this season’s crop of singers, replete with guitar-wielding heartthrobs, little girls with big voices, and vibrato virtuosos. Except — she has been deaf since she was eighteen, and she composed her own song. (I guess you know what the judge’s decision was and the kind of aid they gave her to make her dreams come true.) Simon Cowell was so impressed that he pressed the golden buzzer. This allowed her to skip the judges’ cuts and go straight to the live shows.

AMERICA'S GOT TALENT
Mandy Harvey

Similarly, the latest episode of AGT featured 13-year-old Evie Clair. She explained to the judges that her dad recently stopped treatment for colon cancer after chemotherapy failed. After she teared up on stage, Cowell told her to take her time. She sang “I Try” with her dad watching proudly in the audience. Her voice wavered at a few spots, but the judges were understanding. They focused their praise on the emotion she had channeled over her technique.

“I don’t think you can ask more of a performer than to move your heart, and I feel moved,” said Howie Mandel. Heidi Klum told her, “Maybe this was not the perfect audition… [but] I still remember you and your voice at the end of the day”. Simon Cowell also acknowledged her flubs, but said, “You gave us heart, and that means a lot.” She advanced to the live shows.

AMERICA'S GOT TALENT
Evie Clair

Comparing Contestants

I am a girl who attends a public high school in the South. When my file is presented in a college’s admissions office, I hope I won’t be held to the same standards as, say, a boy who goes to a private school in New York or a girl from a small school in a rural town. Similarly, the contestants on AGT come from a variety of age groups, family situations, and experiences. They needn’t be evaluated in the same light.

READ: A Look Back On WONDER WOMAN And What She Has Done For The DCEU!

If people like Mandy and Evie were to be judged on their talent alone, recording their voices and labeling them with numbers would suffice. However, AGT never promised to be fair in the sense of being completely unbiased. Instead, it offers another angle: a more holistic view of the contestant that takes into account the life experiences they have faced to get to the level of talent they are at today.

What Mandy and Evie have gone through adds value and awe to their performances that can’t be conveyed through a blind playback of their voices.

Getting To Know The Performers

Of course, most stories are not intertwined with the contestant’s performance like Mandy’s, Evie’s, and even Kechi’s. In that case, I would say: bring them on anyway.

This season 15-year-old magician Henry Richardson performed a magic routine that earned him four yeses. His story was that his father watched AMERICA’S GOT TALENT with him — both were especially fans of the magicians. He helped Henry practice his own magic act.

He passed away when Henry was nine years old, and Henry found it difficult to do magic for a while. Then he realized:

“Magic wasn’t something that I lost from my dad. It’s something he gave me.”

AMERICA'S GOT TALENT
Henry Richardson

I have watched AGT with my family for years. Hearing his inspiring story and watching him perform a flawless routine nearly moved me to tears. His magic became more than a spectacle of cards and sleight-of-hand. It was the culmination of hard work and a son’s love for his father.

Admittedly, non-televised talent shows would never offer a few minutes for contestants to explain their life circumstances to the audience. (For good reasons, including the fact that that would be ridiculous.) However, AGT is a television show first and foremost, and its primary purpose is to entertain. In all honesty, not nearly as many as 12.88 million people (this season’s largest viewership) would tune into the two-hour show if it just paraded one stranger onto the stage after another.

We would miss the banter with the judges, the shots of their proud family members’ faces, the clips of successful contestants phoning their parents backstage and screaming in delight. After all, if the emotional appeal of the contestants’ sad stories unfairly influences the judges and the voters at home, so do their personality, charisma, and expressions of joy (outside of the realm of their acts).

AMERICA'S GOT TALENT

Becoming Inspired

Kechi Okwuchi was not an inspirational speaker. But she left the audience feeling a similar sense of hope and excitement for the future. By sharing their stories, contestants show people who are going through similar struggles that they are not alone. They are also still capable of accomplishing beautiful things. Under Mandy Harvey’s video, YouTube user Monica Aviles commented,

“My older sister who is twenty years old is deaf…I showed this to [her] because she thinks she’s not able to do anything. She may have lost all her hearing but it doesn’t mean that she’s not capable of doing something far more greater than what other people have done. She dropped out of college three years ago and is planning to go back. This was a huge inspiration for my sister and my family. Thank you.”

Mandy’s story showed me that nothing could stop me from going after my dreams. As contrived and exaggerated sob stories are sometimes, hearing them is how we can understand, relate to, and be inspired by the contestants on our screens. Seemingly everyone around me is obsessed with social media and portraying a perfect, effortless life.

The stories about the struggles, hard work, and tears behind people’s successes remind me of the extraordinary strength of individuals — and even my own.

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