TAMPA — You wouldn't guess it from her exuberance and stage presence, qualities that helped her win last year's America's Got Talent, but Darci Lynne Farmer was once shy and withdrawn.
"It was hard," the 13-year-old singing ventriloquist said. "I wouldn't talk to people. I would hide behind my mom. I wouldn't look people in the eye."
Her parents entered her in an International Mini Miss pageant, competing in the talent portion as a singer. She won in her age group and became friends with the teenage winner, ventriloquist Laryssa Bonacquisti, which led her to take up the art herself.
The road begun through that experience now leads across the country, most of which she is seeing for the first time. She and a half-dozen furry friends — including a singing rabbit, a stuttering mouse and an Elvis-impersonating duck — have been selling out houses since she charmed the judges and a worldwide audience on television and on YouTube, where her AGT video of Petunia the rabbit singing Summertime was last year's fourth most-watched video.
Darci Lynne is still managing to complete her work as a seventh-grader in Oklahoma City, where she lives with her parents and three brothers. Her mother travels with her and helps keep her on track. We caught up with Darci Lynne on the road.
What was your first puppet?
I started with Katie, a doll I got on eBay on my 10th birthday. I don't use her anymore. I've got a new Katie now, a real ventriloquist's puppet.
Right, Katie the cowgirl. Your characters can do some brazen things. Oscar acted out his crush on Mel B, and Edna Doorknocker was pretty forward with Simon Cowell. Do you enjoy creating characters who do things you wouldn't?
Basically the puppets can get away with murder, but you can't. All of my puppets have their own personalities, their own background, and they enjoy what they do. How they say things, sing things, how they talk. I kind of created them out of my own personality. They are all me.
How did you get along with Simon and the other judges?
Edna was my favorite performance. He was so embarrassed. I really got a kick out of him turning red. … Before meeting him I was very intimidated because he does seem very scary on TV. But he is absolutely one of the nicest people you will meet. He's very kind. Howie (Mandel) was so funny, and Mel B gave me lots of advice and hugs.
Terry Fator, the first ventriloquist to win America's Got Talent, called you "one of the most unbelievable, perfect ventriloquists" he'd ever seen. And ventriloquist coach Gary Owen offered to train you for free. What did you learn from them about performing?
Terry gave me advice on a lot of things and told me just go out there and do my best, and so did Gary. But my parents have been such a big part of this and they are kind of my main supporters. Before every show we always pray together with the whole crew. That's how we take my nerves away. We are a very faithful family and that's very important.
What has this last year been like for you, the tour and all of the bookings?
It's been kind of crazy. Kind of mind-blowing. I would never would have imagined that it would be me. Before, if someone told me a couple of years ago that I would be touring America, I would have never believed it. I would have been like, "You're crazy. Not me."
There must be times you don't feel like practicing or performing while going to school. What keeps you going?
First of all, it's very fun for me. I love doing what I do, I'm very, very passionate about it. What has been so great out of all of the success is that I inspired so many people to take up ventriloquism, especially little kids. That made my very happy because that was my initial goal, to try to keep it alive. That makes me happy and excited, and motivates me to keep doing it.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.