INTERVIEW: Marietta’s Cristina Rae preps for ‘America’s Got Talent’ semifinals amid wildfire smoke, pandemic

AMERICA'S GOT TALENT -- "Auditions" Episode 1503 -- Pictured: Cristina Rae -- (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC)

Credit: NBC

Credit: NBC

Due to the pandemic, NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” has largely sequestered its performers in their hotel and the studio.

And now with the wildfires turning the outdoor air into a smokey haze in Los Angeles, it’s just as well.

Marietta singer Cristina Rae, who is performing tonight live during the semifinals, has spent the past month in Los Angeles pretty much 24/7 with her three-year-old son Jeremiah while prepping for the $1 million prize.

“The sky is a constant yellow-orange,” said Rae from her hotel room while prepping for call time at 9 a.m. PST. “You can smell the smoke inside the hotel."

She bought a steamer because “I feel like I’m a chain smoker,” she said. “It’s intense. It really smells like fire by the elevator." While rehearsing in her hotel room, she goes into the bathroom and turns on the shower to help clear the air. Fortunately, she said the ventilation system at the TV studio is much better, and she can focus on singing there without thinking about the smoke outside.

Despite the isolation, she said she is enjoying the entire “AGT” experience.

“I’m really blessed to be here,” Rae said. “A lot of the world has paused. I get great meals. I have a home for my baby right now to be comfortable and sleep. I don’t have to worry about anything except singing."

Jeremiah, she said, has been amazingly patient and loving. He will sometimes ask his mom to replay her “Golden Buzzer” moment when Heidi Klum gave her a clear path to the live shows after her powerful opening audition song “In the Air Tonight.” Sometimes they’ll just sing together. His current favorite: Queen’s "Who Wants to Live Forever.”

MJ Santilli, who runs a popular reality show website MJ’s Big Blog, thinks Rae has a solid chance of winning the $1 million prize, calling her the best remaining act. Her take: “She has a story, but more importantly she’s a phenomenal singer with tons of raw potential. Last time, she delivered a performance of ‘Hallelujah’ that I liked, which considering how sick I am of that song, is a miracle. Even if she doesn’t win the show, and I think/hope she does, I’d be flabbergasted if she wasn’t in the finale next week.”

Rae’s backstory is full of heartache and pain. She has struggled to get a break in the music business the past decade, performing in cruise ships and doing back-up singing. She lived in her car for a time while pregnant. Her family and friends would often discourage her, and she had to battle her own demons and doubts.

“America’s Got Talent” has lifted her out of her doldrums and given her genuine hope. After her Golden Buzzer moment, she performed the Rolling Stones' “Gimme Shelter,” then Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

She said she was thinking of her grandfather who died last year while rehearsing “Hallelujah" and decided to stop compartmentalizing her pain and feel the song. During her performance, she felt the presence of many of her relatives who have died.

“My voice was so shaky,” she recalled. “I was about to break, like all the way down. I was thinking, ‘Why are you all showing up now? You know this is a huge moment, and I’m about to break down.’” But despite all the imperfections of her performance, her emotions carried the moment.

“I felt peace,” she said. “’Hallelujah” was the chance for me to heal from the fact my people who loved and supported me are not here anymore. "

Although she didn’t feel all that confident after the performance, viewers voted her to the semifinals.

She couldn’t say what her song will be tonight, but she said it will be a vehicle for her own emotional release.

“I have gained so much knowledge of myself through this journey,” Rae said. “I know this is only the beginning. With this song tonight, it’s going to be very freeing. In order to sing this song, I literally have to forgive people I feel have not supported me. I am asking God to soften my heart and allow me to accept what they are doing and release me from what they did or did not do."

ON TV

“America’s Got Talent,” semifinal performance show starts Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on NBC; results show will be at 8 p.m. Wednesday

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