America’s Got Talent is known for its wacky circus acts, but every once in a while, there is an audition that is truly haunting. The one that resonated this Tuesday was the final performer of the night, Jane Marczewski, aka Nightbirde — a 30-year-old singer and three-time cancer survivor whose ethereal original ballad “It’s OK” not only left the judges in tears, but earned Simon Cowell’s Golden Buzzer, thus fast-tracking her straight to this season’s live shows.
Nightbirde took the stage looking thin and frail, but she exuded such serenity and strength that when she revealed she had “some cancer in my lungs and spine and my liver” and that doctors had now given her only a 2 percent chance of survival, shocked judge Howie Mandel gasped, “So… you’re not OK?” She answered, very calmly: “Well, not in every way, no.”
“You’ve got a beautiful smile and a beautiful glow, and nobody would know,” Howie then told Nightbirde, to which she replied with a stoic smile, “Thank you. It’s important that everyone knows that I’m so much more than the bad things that happen to me. … You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore before you decide to be happy.”
While the folk-pop chanteuse didn’t share any more details of her cancer battle during her time on AGT, a blog post on her website goes into detail about her harrowing ordeal. On New Year’s Eve 2019, Marczewski was diagnosed with terminal cancer after “innumerable tumors” were found on her lungs, liver, lymph nodes, ribs, and spine, and she was told she had six months to live. In July 2020 she went into remission, but tragically, the cancer soon returned. “I have had cancer three times now, and I have barely passed 30,” the singer’s blog post reads. “There are times when I wonder what I must have done to deserve such a story. I fear sometimes that when I die and meet with God, that He will say I disappointed Him, or offended Him, or failed Him. Maybe He’ll say I just never learned the lesson, or that I wasn’t grateful enough. But one thing I know for sure is this: He can never say that He did not know me.”
Nightbirde’s raw yet eloquent way with words translated to the lyrics of “It’s OK,” and her AGT performance was so quietly compelling that when she finished and shyly backed away from the microphone, there was a long, astounded pause — before a choked-up Simon stammered out a simple “wow,” followed by the entire theater finally erupting in a standing ovation.
“Your voice is stunning, absolutely stunning,” said Simon. “There was something about that song, the way you almost casually told us what you are going through…” Simon then did one of his little fakeouts, teasing, “I’m not going to give you a yes — I’m going to give you something else!” And with that, he hit the Golden Buzzer, as the overjoyed and overwhelmed Marczewski dropped to her knees, crying happy tears, and Simon went onstage to embrace her.
“I have a 2 percent chance of survival, but 2 percent is not 0 percent,” Nightbirde told AGT host Terry Crews backstage after her moving audition. “Two percent is something, and I wish people knew how amazing it is.” Meanwhile, a still-awestruck Simon sat in his judging chair, sighing, “God, that really got to me.”
Tuesday’s other most touching, albeit much more lighthearted, moment came at the very top of the show, when Mesquite, Texas’s Beyond Belief Dance Company hit the stage accompanied by their “fearless, fabulous teacher and director,” Justin Johnson — aka RuPaul’s Drag Race tongue-popping fan favorite Alyssa Edwards, the fifth most powerful drag queen in America according to New York magazine.
Alyssa, whose Beyond Belief dance academy was the subject of the RuPaul-produced Netflix series Dancing Queen, was decked in full, glorious drag for AGT occasion, already looking ready for Vegas, as she told the judges: “I’m very fortunate to have so many moms and dads and families Mesquite, Texas, that not only support me, but they celebrate me. As a very shy little boy, dance was the only way I could find the words to express myself, and I teach that each and every day to these kids. So I'm so very proud of you all, and so very honored to be standing on the stage with [my students].”
But even clad in head-to-pointed-toe in Alyssa eleganza, Johnson could not upstage the petite but powerful Beyond Belief protégés, who adorably strutted, sashayed, slayed, and just all-around werked during a jazz routine set to Drag Race regular (and former American Idol contestant) Todrick Hall’s empowerment anthem “Nails, Hair, Hips, Heels.” Simon called the girls, who ranged from 7 to 13 in age, “absolutely sensational”; Sofia Vergara called them “out of this world”; Heidi Klum said they were “perfection”; and Howie raved, “You were fierce!”
After their dynamite performance, one of the girls, who has spina bifida and was born with a tumor on her spine, emotionally revealed that she would use her share of the $1 million AGT prize money, if Beyond Belief were to win Season 16, to settle her medical bills. But she sweetly explained that the support of her mentor and fellow dancers has kept her in good spirits. “There’s always days when I’m weaker, but Justin has helped me to find my motivation. He always keeps me going. No matter how many times the spina bifida tries to knock me down, he’s always like, ‘C’mon, girl, you got this!’ And my teammates, they’re my No. 1 supporters,” she said, tearing up, as the other students enveloped her in a group hug.
This wasn’t the first TV crossover between RuPaul’s Drag Race and the dance competition circuit. Alyssa’s own drag daughter, Drag Race Season 6 contestant Laganja Estranja, once successfully auditioned for So You Think You Can Dance to RuPaul’s hit “Cover Girl”; SYTYCD alumnus-turned-choreographer Travis Wall mentored a ballet-themed Drag Race episode; and both Drag Race judge Michelle Visage and all-star Courtney Act have competed on international versions of Dancing With the Stars. A 2017 So You Think You Can Dance vogueing group number was even set to RuPaul’s “Call Me Mother.” Additionally, future Drag Race contestants Rosé and Jan once auditioned for AGT as part of the drag girl group Stephanie's Child, although Simon was less impressed by their routine. However, Alyssa’s remarkable students, who shantéd and stayed after receiving four yeses from the AGT judges, just might have what it takes to be a winnah, baby — or at least make it to the live shows.
Either way, stories like Beyond Belief’s, and especially Nightbirde’s, are what have made America’s Got Talent such an endearing and enduring show for 16 seasons.
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