San Diego's Got Talent: Locals Fall Short of Finals on ‘America's Got Talent'

NBC Universal, Inc.

Not one but TWO competitors with roots in San Diego County strutted their stuff this season on NBC's hit show "America's Got Talent," but unfortunately both fell short of reaching the finals

Both Celina Graves of Escondido and the Voices of Our City Choir delivered jaw-dropping performances that earned compliments from the judging panel Tuesday night, but their survival on the hit competition show depended on the final tally of America's vote, and it was revealed during Wednesday's results show they were not moving on.

NBC 7 caught up with Graves and choir cofounder and director Steph Johnson before their Tuesday night performances and learned how their bond formed well before either appeared on the show.

About a decade before Johnson met Graves, she met Graves' father, who plays bass guitar. Graves' father invited Johnson to sit in on a gig and the two became friends.

Fast forward some years, and...

"Over the years I started to see Celina Graves' videos shared on social media... I remember sharing her videos and then her dad was like 'That's my daughter!' So that's been really cool for us to have that connection," Johnson explained

AGT host Terry Crews slammed the Golden Buzzer way back in May to automatically advance the Voices of Our City Choir to the semifinals. Crews' approval turned out to be bigger than the show and more impactful than he might ever realize.

"It feels like we won already," Johnson said. "I mean because of our first appearance on "America's Got Talent," we had a fundraiser going on online... this week we helped three people move off the street into housing."

The choir, which outmaneuvered several setbacks this year to advance to the semifinal round, was assembled to provide a creative outlet for San Diegans experiencing homelessness and became an instant hit in May when its jaw-dropping audition performance earned them the Golden Buzzer, advancing straight to the live shows.

An inspiring local choir has advanced to the semifinals on Americas Got Talent

Making it back to the stage for the quarterfinals was difficult for the choir. The pandemic stopped the weekly choir practices that serve as a lifeline to many of the homeless members.

“A home-stay order is a home-stay order, but if you don’t have a home or if you’re staying in a shelter, or you’re living in your car, you know, that can be pretty grim,” said Johnson.

There was another devastating setback when choir co-founder Nina Leilani Deering died in a car accident in June. She had stepped away from the organization a couple of years ago but kept in touch.

“She was the music. She loved the music. She loved people,” said Johnson.

Through the hardships, the group found a way to keep going. Donation dollars helped the nonprofit provide laptops to keep members connected and prepared.

Celina Graves has been singing her entire life but was told over and over again that she would need to change her image to make it in the music industry, reports NBC 7's Steven Luke.

For her part, Graves, an Escondido native, advanced to the semi-finals with help from viewers, who gave her the nod for last week's Online Public Vote.

"I want them to think, 'Wow, she really upped her game from last time. She really stepped it up and gave us an even better performance," Graves said.

And if things don't go her way, Graves will make the graceful transition from competitor to superfan.

"Even though this is a competition, I see these people as family and I just I'm rooting for everybody like we're a team. It's weird because it is a competition, but I look at it like we’re a team," she said.

The same goes for Johnson.

"I walk around and I’m like, "You’re going to win, and you’re going to win,'" Johnson said, describing the pride she feels in being a part of this season.

Graves, 31, first rocked the stage back in June and heard raving reviews from the judges.

“I have a good feeling about you, Celina,” AGT's Simon Cowell told her.

Due to COVID-19, AGT can no longer perform in front of a crowd, but Graves was less worried about how she can feed off of her audience’s energy and more concerned with her own effect on them.

“It doesn’t really matter where they are watching from as long as I can touch them with my voice,” Graves said, adding that it’s up to her to help lift people's spirits during this time of crisis.

If all of San Diego could speak as one, they'd tell her she accomplished her mission without a doubt.

Viewers, of course, will have to wait until Wednesday night's Results Show to see if our San Diego stars will advance to the finals, which will be broadcast Sept. 22 and Sept. 23.

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