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Legally blind student to audition before show’s celeb judges

October 7, 2018

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — What a difference a year makes.

Shayla Winn, a senior in Thomas Dale High School’s performing arts program, suddenly lost her sight last year.

Now, she’s preparing to audition for the “American Idol” singing competition in front of celebrity judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan.

“When my mom told me I made it to the second round of auditions, I was like ‘Oh!’ ” the bubbly, outgoing 17-year-old said during a break in show choir practice at the Chesterfield County school.

“Then I started crying. Like the ugly Kim K. cry,” she joked.

In September 2017, Winn’s vision suddenly got blurry. She couldn’t see the blackboard during class. Then she couldn’t read her cellphone or her Chromebook.

Her head was hurting the day her mother took her to an optometrist, who immediately sent them to the emergency room. Winn’s optic nerves were swollen, and she was diagnosed with an epidermoid cyst between the third and fourth ventricles of her brain. She underwent brain surgery, in which fluid was drained and the cyst was mostly removed.

“The doctors thought her vision would get better after the surgery,” said her mother, Sandra Winn. “But instead it got worse. I said, ‘Baby, you’re here. That’s all that matters.’”

Winn is now legally blind. She essentially has no vision in her right eye. She can see a little out of her left eye, but it’s blurry.

“It’s not as bad as people think it is,” Winn said. “I’m still going to be me. It’s not going to change me.”

She said she wanted to try out for “American Idol” because of her great-grandfather.

“The first time my great-grandfather heard me sing, he said, ‘I can’t wait to hear you on ‘American Idol’ one day,’” she said. “I thought: Why not do it? You never know what could happen.”

When the “American Idol” audition bus rolled into Richmond in early September, Winn and her mother lined up with hundreds of other hopefuls to try out for the show’s producers. She waited in the long line at Main Street Station until a security guard noticed her white support cane and brought her to the front.

She sang “Make It Rain” by Ed Sheeran and “Rise Up” by Andra Day.

Her performance helped win her a golden ticket to the auditions in Atlanta. Her mom started a GoFundMe page to cover their flight and hotel costs. In Atlanta, she won a second golden ticket — this time to audition in front of the celebrity judges. The location and date are being kept confidential.

“I’m so nervous now,” Winn said. “I mean, this is Lionel Richie and Katy Perry. And they’ll be judging me.”

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This isn’t the 17-year-old’s first time in the spotlight since suffering vision loss.

While she was still in the hospital after surgery, the first thing she asked her theater teacher, Sarah Roquemore, was: “Am I going to lose my part in ‘Aida’?”

Winn had won the lead role earlier in the spring.

She has been singing her whole life. When she was little, her favorite singer was Anita Baker. She had a cassette tape of Baker’s song “Same Ole Love” that she recorded off the radio and wore out. When she watched Baker perform, she thought: “That’s how I want to be.”

Winn spent her time out of school memorizing her “Aida” lines and songs and, with the help of her understudy, was able to quickly step back into her starring role three weeks before the musical’s mid-November run.

The theater department used several “stage secrets” to help Winn navigate the stage, like putting sand down for her footing, outlining the stage in white tape, and putting foam and towels on the steps.

“I was like, ‘Boom, I got this! I’m going to keep going,’” she said. “People tell me that I’ve inspired them.”

Winn’s performance in “Aida” was such a hit that she reprised the role for SPARC’s summer production of the musical.

“Shayla lights up when she steps on a stage. The whole stage lights up,” said Roquemore, her teacher. “She always knew what she wanted and stepped up to make it happen.

“I admire her perseverance. She’s had to persevere so much more than the average high schooler,” Roquemore added. “This is her dream. For so many, this would have stopped them. But she’s not going to let it stop her from being a professional performer.”

There are challenges and adjustments ahead for Winn. She has to continue to learn Braille and carry a cane. There are little things that frustrate her, such as having to quit Facebook because she can’t respond to her friends’ posts.

Next year, instead of going to college like many of her peers, she will take a year off to learn independent living skills through the Virginia Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and Vision Impaired.

“If I went to college right away, I wouldn’t be able to keep up,” she said.

But that doesn’t seem to upset her. Right now, she’s more concerned about learning the right steps and choreography for show choir with the help of a friend.

Her biggest concern is that if she makes it onto the next season of “American Idol,” she’ll have to miss show choir, which she loves.

“But then all my friends can see me on TV,” she said. “And that would be cool.”

The new season of “American Idol” will air in 2019 on ABC.

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.richmond.com

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