“I used to be not that big, but bigger than people wanted me to be,” says Wells, 46. “So every time I [auditioned], people were like, ‘Yeah, you can sing, but you’re just too heavy.’ I just allowed that to become my truth.”
So Wells gave up on becoming a recording artist or musical theater performer, continued her education, and spent the next two-plus decades working as a registered nurse while raising two sons. But after dusting off her pipes and winning Houston’s Pride Superstar singing competition in 2016, the single mother got the attention of scouts from “America’s Got Talent,” won over the judges with a rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been” — Motormouth Maybelle’s “Hairspray” showstopper — and made a rousing run to the NBC competition’s 2018 semifinals.
Within months, Wells quit nursing to at last take a crack at singing full time. Now, when she’s not recording her own tracks or working as a motivational speaker, Wells can be seen as Matron “Mama” Morton in the 25th-anniversary tour of “Chicago’s” Broadway revival that arrives at the National Theatre this week. In playing the lascivious jailer, who exchanges favors for bribes in the Cook County Jail women’s ward, Wells has found validation in Fred Ebb, John Kander and Bob Fosse’s jazzy sendup of celebrity criminals of the Roaring Twenties.
“I’m a dramatic woman — I’m loud, I’m over the top and, for so many years, I thought that I was just wrong,” Wells says. “I’m just too fat, I’m too dramatic, I’m too loud and nobody wants to hear me sing Broadway tunes at the top of my lungs. Now, I’m just the right size, I’m just dramatic enough and people do want to hear me sing Broadway tunes at the top of my lungs.”
In a phone interview earlier this month, during a tour stop in Austin, Wells discussed her “America’s Got Talent” experience, the appeal of playing Mama and her advice for others pursuing unlikely dreams.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: “America’s Got Talent” obviously changed your life. How validating was it to find success on that stage?
A: You know, it’s a mixed bag. [Executive producer and judge] Simon Cowell is not really known for liking people who are plus-sized, and I’m not a little fat — I’m a big woman. So a lot of people online were very angry about that at first. It was like, “Why is Simon saying yes to you when he said no to all of these other people?” A lot of people were really talking about my body online, and that was a journey. But I think what really happened is I just started to realize that [success in show business] isn’t as far away and magical as everyone thinks it is. For me to be doing a live national television show, it shows it’s possible.
Q: What’s been the trickiest part of pivoting to a new career in your 40s?
A: The hardest thing is the transition, I always say, from being a senior back to being a freshman. Because in nursing, I’m a trained, educated, certified person and I have years of experience. So when I walk into a hospital, I know what I’m doing. Coming into this field, I just sometimes feel like a fish out of water. I just don’t know all of the terms, all of the language, and it’s been really eye-opening. But I’ve been trusting that I’m talented enough, and also trusting that if I figured out how to navigate nursing and do “America’s Got Talent,” I can do this.
Q: How familiar were you with “Chicago” before joining the show?
A: People have asked me to sing “When You’re Good to Mama” because it fits my vocal type, but never have I delved into the role or really thought about it. Like, Motormouth Maybelle feels very, very cellular to me, but “Chicago” wasn’t like that for me. It’s a very sexy show, and I think it’s a challenge to view myself as sexy when it comes to being onstage. I see myself as motherly, I see myself as warm, I see myself as knowledgeable, but I don’t always see myself onstage as sexy. So I’ve been finding that energy onstage of being loving and smart and cunning, but also being sexy.
Q: What have you come to appreciate about Mama as you’ve explored the character?
A: It’s been interesting to figure out a woman in charge of a prison in the 1920s, who has the brass to be in charge of all of these murderers but is warm enough to love them and care for them — and savvy enough to make sure she keeps her wallet thick enough to protect herself. I find new things in her and the show every week.
Q: As a motivational speaker, what would you say to other people chasing improbable goals?
A: I’m not exactly what you would expect to see, so if you just feel different or feel otherness — like, if you’re “other” in a category of very clear choices — live in that otherness, because that uniqueness is what has afforded me my opportunities and that’s what has made me relatable to people who watch me, both on television and onstage. So I just want to encourage all of us out there that are different — which I’m learning is everybody — to be yourself. Be truly, rawly, uniquely yourself, and allow that to shine through.
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