CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Theoden Janes | The Charlotte Observer) - If there's one thing you need to keep asking Johnny White as he talks about his journey to "American Idol," it's this:
"Can you repeat that, please?"
To be fair, he's on a sofa in a coffeehouse that's filled with chattering customers, background music and whooshes from the espresso machine. And he's telling a story that's difficult to tell. But he's definitely having trouble projecting his speaking voice – and he knows it.
"I was always quiet in school. I was very to myself, just didn't really talk to people. I'm surprised I'm talking to you right now," says the 19-year-old Hickory native, letting slip a gentle laugh.
So how did this painfully shy boy grow into a young man who – thanks to news spreading about his "Idol" audition, which airs this Sunday night on ABC – has become something of a celebrity in this small blue-collar city an hour northwest of Charlotte? You could say it wasn't easy.
And that would be an understatement.
Johnny White says he didn't get nervous during his audition for the celebrity judges. "When I sing, I go to like a whole 'nother place. ... I (almost) didn't know that they were there. ... I just kind of blocked things out." (Credit: Guy D'Alema | ABC)
White says his father left before he was born, and that his mother was addicted to drugs and alcohol. She made sure he and his sisters never had to sleep on the street, but White says for the first several years of his life they lived as nomads – sometimes with other family members, sometimes in homeless shelters, sometimes with people he didn't know.
It affected him exactly the way you might expect.
"I was a very, very, very sad kid," White says. "When people asked me something, I'd just say, 'OK,' or, 'Whatever.' It was 'I don't care about anything.' But it was also me holding everything in."
One of the only ways he could escape? "American Idol."
At age 5, he watched High Point's Fantasia Barrino outlast the competition on Season 3 of the hit show, and was inspired by her own story of struggle: illiterate, a high school dropout, pregnant at age 16.
When he was a little older, he says, he began writing down his feelings and putting them in songs that he would sing to his mother, about trials that the family was going through, or tribulations he didn't understand. "That was my therapy, and my way of letting all of the pain and everything that I was feeling out."
But "she'd kind of brush it off," he says; his mother was too busy with her own problems, bouncing around between "a lot of different relationships with a lot of different men." He says he saw some of them abuse her, and also saw her harm herself. "Just a lot of different things that you shouldn't witness as a kid."
Child protective services intervened more than once over the years, he says, putting him and his sisters in a temporary foster-care arrangement, then reuniting the family, foster care, then back together again.
At age 7, though, his relationship with his mother came to a violent end: White says he was playing outside of the home his family was living in when a man shot someone inside, then came out and shot another person, in front of White. In the aftermath, child protective services stepped in again.
"It was definitely very, very, very, very scary to witness," Johnny White says of the shooting that caused him to be taken away from his mother permanently. "There were nights I couldn't sleep because I would have flashbacks and I would constantly think about it over and over." (Credit: Diedra Laird | The Charlotte Observer)
It was the last time he would live with his mother. But it also put him on a path toward stability – and, finally, happiness.
After a two-year stay in a foster home, White was adopted by a couple in Hickory when he was 9. They helped him to talk about his feelings instead of just singing them, and also encouraged his vocal talents by getting him involved with the choir at church and musical theater at school.
Instead of the brush-off, he'd get cheers, hugs and high-fives for his singing voice. He discovered gospel artists like Tamela Mann, Marvin Sapp, Mary Mary and Tasha Cobbs. He was still shy, but smiles eventually came more easily and more often.
Since then, there've been three seminal moments in his fledgling career as a singer.
First, after enrolling as a sophomore at Hickory Career and Arts Magnet High School, White found an instant fan in theater arts teacher Jackie Finley, who was moved to tears the first time he sang for her.
Second, after two unsuccessful tries, White won a singing contest in 2017 called "Rotarian Idol," hosted by The Rotary Club of Hickory, with his rendition of James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World." (He put the $2,500 prize toward buying his first car, for which he'd been saving for years.)
Buoyed by the victory and excited by the news that ABC was bringing "American Idol" back to television, he then set his sights on a much bigger competition. With a huge assist from Finley – who started a GoFundMe page to raise money for his travels and coached him – he set off for Asheville and New Orleans, where he impressed producers enough to earn an invitation to sing for the celebrity judging panel in Savannah last fall.
And on Sunday night, a TV audience numbering in the millions will get to see that third seminal moment, when he'll tackle that James Brown song once again in front of Lionel Ritchie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan.
As White has waited for this moment, he's continued quietly working his day job – on an assembly line for an auto parts manufacturer in nearby Maiden – and trying to get used to being treated like a celebrity by the denizens of Hickory who've seen or heard about his "Idol" turn (which ABC has teased with a promo that hints at his hardscrabble youth).
Last week, he returned to his alma mater in style, arriving by limousine and walking a red carpet before addressing hundreds of star-struck students. He's done interviews with local TV stations and newspapers. He's shaken hundreds of hands, signed autographs and posed for selfies with complete strangers, including two young women sitting at the table next to him here, inside the Taste Full Beans coffeehouse.
Of course, it could all be over as quickly as it started. Even if he passed the test in Savannah, it's unlikely he'll go on to run the table on the show the way his childhood idol, Fantasia Barrino, did.
But at the end of an hourlong interview, his voice somehow sounds stronger and clearer than ever when he says: