Fame and fortune weren’t top of mind when Shayy Winn decided to try out for American Idol last fall. While the 18-year-old would be happy with a career in music, her immediate goal was to encourage others not to be afraid to go after their dreams.
“I knew her main goal was to inspire someone,” says Shayy’s mom Sandra about her daughter, who is legally blind. But the family was surprised – Shayy included – when the teen inspired millions of viewers across the country. “I’ve received messages about this [Shayy’s performance] from places I’ve never heard of,” says Sandra.
It was clear for anyone watching American Idol during auditions that the judges – Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, and Lionel Richie – were moved by Shayy’s story and her soul-stirring performance of Andra Day’s “Rise Up.”
“You have wrecked me,” Richie said, wiping away the tears and getting up to hug Shayy. “You are a lesson to us all because it’s the power of the spirit. You are a reminder of how blessed we are… you touched me.”
Shayy’s story aired during a pre-recorded video package that played prior to her audition on American Idol. Since then, more than four million people have viewed it on YouTube. The teen’s message is clear: “I tried to make the best light of what I had been dealt… things happen. I still look the same and act the same. It’s just that I can’t see as well. People say, you can’t do this, you can’t do that, but you can do it.”
Seeing Things Differently
Shayy (whose given name is Shayla) had perfect eyesight growing up, and she has been singing ever since she could talk, according to her mom. “She had a love of music as a baby. I had to play jazz music or something soft to get her to sleep,” says Sandra.
As a youngster, Shayy was very shy, often hiding behind her mom to avoid singing in front of people. “I didn’t want people to know I could sing,” says Shayy, who lives in Chesterfield with her mom, father, Lawrence, and 16-year-old sister, Lauryn.
By the time Shayy got to Swift Creek Middle School, “there was no more hiding,” her mom says. Involved with chorus in middle and high school, Shayy began singing the National Anthem at basketball games.
During her freshman year at the Specialty Center for the Performing Arts at Thomas Dale High School, she started singing at the Richmond Peace Education Center’s Annual Youth Peace Summit and has been singing for that event ever since. She also sings for the Center’s Generation Dreams event, held in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy.
In 2017, Shayy performed twice on CBS 6 Virginia This Morning. She says she’s more comfortable with singing now. “I still get nervous, but I am better about getting out there.”
During her sophomore year at Thomas Dale, she auditioned for The Wiz and landed the role of Aunt Em. “I really enjoyed it,” she says. “It was fun.”
In the spring of her junior year in 2017, Shayy auditioned and was cast as the lead in Aida at Thomas Dale. Before rehearsals began that fall of her senior year, her life changed. She started experiencing problems with her vision when transitioning from indoor light to the outdoors. “It took her eyes a minute to adjust in bright light. It bothered her some,” says her mom. When school started in September 2018, she told her mom she couldn’t see the board in class.
Shayy’s vision rapidly deteriorated. She was having trouble seeing her cell phone and laptop. When she went to the eye doctor at the end of September, the doctor could see that her optic nerves were swollen. “They made a call to a neurologist and told us to go to VCU Health,” Sandra says. “We went on Friday, and Shayy had surgery that following Monday.”
Shayy was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, where excess cerebrospinal fluid builds up in the cavities of the brain. The MRI revealed an epidermoid cyst (an extra layer of skin that grew into a cyst) on her brain. She underwent surgery, and doctors removed approximately 40 to 50 percent of the cyst.
“They couldn’t get all of it because it was attached to the ventricles of her brain,” Sandra says. “They didn’t want to do more damage. They wanted to do the least invasive brain surgery they could do.”
Shayy now has tunnel vision in her right eye. Her left eye has a little more vision. “She has fields she can see and fields she can’t see,” Sandra says. “She can see bright contrast, colors, and she can see the outline of a face, but she can’t see the face. Things have to be close up and enlarged for her.”
From the Operating Room to the Stage
Sandra recalls how Shayy was brave during the entire process. Going into the operating room, she was singing the songs from Aida. “The pediatric ward fell in love with her,” says Sandra. “The night we went to the emergency room, her good friends came to the hospital and spent the night with us.”
After her surgery, Shayy was concerned she would lose the part of Aida in the Thomas Dale production because of her eyesight. When her theatre teacher came to visit, she assured Shayy she still had the role.
To help Shayy prepare for the role, her friends would visit the hospital and go over the script with her. When she got home they continued working with her on the script. “My understudy was my friend, and she told me what movements I had to do on stage,” Shayy says. “She gave me soundtracks to listen to.”
Three weeks before the premiere, Shayy showed up for rehearsal after getting approval from her doctor. “I had the gist of what was going on,” she says.
To accommodate Shayy’s disability, her theatre teacher made a number of adaptations to make sure she was safe on and off stage. “What helped me through surgery was knowing I was doing Aida. She had to be strong for her people,” she says, about the role of the Nubian princess. “I thought if I got this part, it must mean something about me. Maybe I am strong just like her.”
The following summer in 2018, Shayy performed the same role in SPARC’s production of Aida. She is now learning and performing with hundreds of other kids of all abilities in SPARC’s Live Art program and will perform in Live Art: Family with hundreds of other young people at the June concert. “Shayy is super-easy to connect with and laugh with,” says Samantha John, part of the Live Art staff. “She is loved and adored by all.”
“Shayy is a magnificent shining person,” says Ryan Ripperton, SPARC’s executive director. “She has one of those very rare talents where her voice emanates more from the soul than from her throat. Her vocal talent is a rare gem. The way she has been able to channel it is remarkable. The fact that her lack of vision has become a recent challenge is part of her story. She is not an impaired-vision singer who is great. She is a great singer.”
The Live Art performance arts program has been a perfect fit for Shayy. Being a part of Live Art has helped Shayy learn to work with others with and without a disability “and to continue to show compassion, respect, and kindness to everyone,” her mom says.
The Road to American Idol
Shayy had not watched American Idol before she auditioned for the show, but her great-grandfather (who has since passed away) always told her he wanted to see her on American Idol one day. Sadly, he didn’t see her on stage, but he did inspire her to take a leap of faith and try out on September 3, 2018, when auditions were held at Main Street Station.
She impressed early-round judges in Richmond and later, the judges at a callback in Atlanta, before heading to Louisville for the next audition in front of the celebrity judges. When she walked in the room with her mom, she didn’t realize the judges were sitting in front of her. “At first it was like looking at holograms and then I realized Katy had blonde hair,” she says. “I realized it was her, and that kind of made me nervous.”
Hearing the judges’ comments after her audition was nice “but it was unrealistic,” she says. “I was taking in a lot of other stuff at the time. I didn’t know they were as emotional as they were until they said something.”
Her mom was watching from the side of the room. To see the celebrity judges so moved by her daughter’s performance was overwhelming, Sandra says. “When she performed in Aida, it was the same kind of response. People were crying afterward.”
When she heard she would make the trip to Hollywood in December and appear on the first rounds of American Idol, she was floored. “It was unreal because I didn’t see them hold up the golden ticket,” Shayy says. “They had to bring it over to me. At that moment, it was real. I thought to myself, I actually did that.”
When Shayy made it through Hollywood week, she and her mom were both excited and relieved. She bonded closely with her group on the show, Unexpected Vibes, whose members wore dark goggles to try to connect with Shayy’s experience on stage. The group sang the Backstreet Boys’ hit, “I Want It That Way,” in perfect harmony.
“We all still keep in touch,” she says.
At the end of Hollywood week, the contestants were divided into larger groups and sent to different rooms to await their fate. That was a nerve-racking experience, says Sandra. “We were sad for the groups that didn’t make it. You develop such a bond with the contestants, and it’s a shocker at times because some of the contestants that you think would’ve made it didn’t. I was proud of Shayy either way.”
The contestants who made it through – including Shayy – traveled to Hawaii in January where they performed with the hopes of making it to the round of twenty. Unfortunately, the good news about making it into the top twenty on American Idol did not come for Shayy. “I think she handled it well,” says her mom. “I was really proud of her response. Leaving the bonds she formed was what hurt.”
Shayy admits she was upset when she heard the judges’ decision, but she says she was also “thankful for the opportunity to come to Hawaii to sing and to touch people. I never thought I would be performing on a stage in Hawaii in front of hundreds of people.”
Would she consider auditioning again next year? “No, because I don’t think I would have the same bond with another group of contestants,” she says. “Plus, I achieved my goal to inspire someone. And I know that this is not the end of my journey.”
She also had another chance to perform on American Idol last month and catch up with some friends during a fantastic grand finale performance.
Shayy is graduating from high school with honors in June. Going forward, she wants to follow her dreams and passions. “She does have future plans to learn more independent living skills with her vision impairment and then, on to college,” says her mom. At the moment, however, Shayy is forging ahead with her music, with multiple appearances in the works.
What would she say to someone who wants to audition for American Idol? “Do your best and soak in every moment,” she says. “If you don’t make it, don’t let it stop you.”
For Shayy, the most important benefit from being on the show was being able to inspire people. “I learned that I have the ability to touch millions of people around the world.”
Living with her disability has also taught Shayy major life lessons. “I learned I could be stronger than I thought I was, and that I can handle tough situations pretty well.”
Photos: Scott Schwartzkopf, Eric McCandless (©ABC), Tom Topinka (SPARC)