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If you missed her performances on America’s Got Talent during the summer of 2010, go ahead and kick yourself. Even a hint of Debra Romer’s backstory, from the Kalamazoo Gazette is intense. I know few details (save ‘em for your memoirs, Debra), but quotes ripe with emotion like, “When I was 17 years old, I ran away from home, and I haven’t been back since,” must have made Simon Cowell and AGT’s other producers drool. Golden stuff. Romer is an astonishing natural talent with looks that make boys swoon (and thus girls jealous), and a purity of presence that makes grownups sigh.
Between her occasional “coffeehouse” performances, and her day gig waiting tables, Romer had popped down to Chicago to audition as a contestant on NBC’s AGT. The judges loved her. The crowd loved her. America loved her. Over several weeks, she built up a great following, even as her performances varied in strength. Although she didn’t win the competition, her natural talent — and forthcoming success — was obvious.
As you’ll see at Debra Romer’s website, she’s still working on a shoestring. (This summer, it was more obvious, when Romer used a free WordPress blog, now echoed at DebraRomer.com.) Quite literally, she is budgeting to buy gas, to drive herself to LA. No big agency fronting her, no big money backing her — simply a young woman with a marvelous style, and one of those magical instruments that makes other vocalists wonder, “Why do I even bother to sing?”
I was lucky to hear Debra perform in Kalamazoo this past summer, at a venue on Western Michigan University’s campus. I recall well back into the 1970’s when the same room (the Wesley Foundation, a free rental then, perhaps still so today) was one place novice folk groups could, should, and would appear. It’s a bit spare, you might say bare, and earthy. As we sat in that church sanctuary — exactly what Wesley was designed and built to be, and still is — Romer offered us the voice of an angel.
After her gig, just as sweetly, Romer stepped off the tiny stage to hug friends, fans, and strangers. She leaned gently over a little girl for one photo, and let a gawky fraternity fellow squeeze her a bit too tightly for the next. That same genuine humility was evident again today, when Debra Bethell Romer wrote on her FaceBook page, as pledges passed twice her goal: “I’m legitimately in shock. Every time I check my e-mail my jaw hits the floor. I’m disbelief. I don’t know if I should jump for joy or cry. I think I’m gonna jump for joy.”
Look out Hollywood: Authentic Person(tm) coming your way.
I mention the Wesley gig for more profound reasons, though. I arrived late, just before Romer left the stage for intermission. What she did during those few free moments speaks volumes about her — more than her honesty on stage, her subtlety online, or those gracious hugs.
As I approached the venue, at the outer door — literally propped against the open door — a young person sat confined to a wheelchair. Parts of the building may be ADA compliant, but not that entrance near the parking lot. Between the heavy metal door and the foot of the stairs was barely room for the wheelchair. Obviously, this young person was a true fan, listening intently to Debra’s voice wafting down that dark, narrow staircase. I couldn’t pass, so I waited nearby outside, thinking I would step away to enter another doorway between tunes.
I fear I may say this too coarsely, not being qualified to assess such conditions, but… that young person, listening with such focus, was confined by more than a chair. Their demeanor, their speech, and something else ineffable told me they were truly, deeply (perhaps even sadly?) not “able-bodied.” But, it was equally clear how much Debra’s voice was lifting their spirit.
As I stood near the blocked doorway, I heard Debra announce intermission; the audience applauded vigorously. But Debra did not step toward their lively approval. She turned instead away from the gathered crowd, and passed down those dark, narrow steps — in my direction. For a moment, I expected the puzzling interlude I’ve observed while gigging late jazz clubs: a gifted vocalist hacking down a quick cigarette between sets.
Instead, Debra Romer walked to the foot of the stairs, knelt down, and began speaking directly into the ear of the young, wheelchair-bound fan. She acknowledged me, and two women (I later realized were aides, wheeling that fan to and from the concert), but focused most intently on the one person who could say the least in response. They exchanged brief phrases hinting that they had spoken before, perhaps many times. Debra was clearly joyful for the chance to share; her fan was equally inspired by the exchange. The scene was over in a few moments, but truly human, and deeply moving.
If this is what we can expect from Debra Bethell Romer — running on fumes, yet killing every crowd; singing like fresh crackling wine, yet soulfully touching those in greatest need among us — then there is no upper bound on the heights she and her instrument can reach.
Postscript: During the hour I wrote this entry, Debra’s total Kickstarter pledges crossed above $9,000.
2010-12-02 08:00 EDT: Now over $10,000 in the first fifteen hours — but another detail is more intriguing. Among the first sixty backers for Debra Romer’s music career, five individuals pledged $1,000:
Pledge $1,000 or more
[sold out] 0 of 5 remaining
Also revealing: judging from their names, of the first sixty backers, perhaps only eight to ten are women. Kickstarter doesn’t reveal the details, but it was obvious (as I monitored the board) that at least three of those $1,000 pledges came from men; I’d wager all five of them did. I doubt that’s driven entirely by some special entrepreneurial spirit in men, or statistical bias in income or net worth. It’s driven by… that girl!
Debra, as soon as you hire a publicist tell them this first!