Decked out in a black evening gown and sporting a half-shaved head, Yoli Mayor closes her eyes and raises a microphone to her lips. Amid light chatter, supermodel Heidi Klum turns to co-judge Howie Mandel and coos, "She's going to be amazing. I have a feeling."
A light piano ballad plays, and the 21-year-old begins to croon huskily: "I put a spell on you, because you're mine." The audience whistles.
This past summer, Mayor, a first-generation Cuban-American from Little Havana, showed off her gravelly, raw vocals on the NBC hit America's Got Talent. Immediately, judges hailed her as a "solid-gold star." The songstress took her talent all the way to the show's semifinals, quickly becoming known as the competition's powerhouse singer and a role model for body-image positivity.
"I want to teach little girls that they can be both the warrior and the princess," Mayor says.
Growing up in Miami's Little Havana, Mayor was no stranger to the neighborhood's old Cuban classics. Her parents, who had made the 1980 exodus in the Mariel Boatlift, often blasted ballads on a record player while cleaning the house. Even as a toddler, Mayor often hollered along with the melody. "My mother always said I started to sing before I could speak," she says.
Before long, baby Mayor was rapping Dr. Dre verses and chirping the lyrics to The Little Mermaid's "Part of Your World."
When she was 10 years old, she won her first talent show at a YMCA, and by the time she was 17, she had worked her first paid gig, singing a 45-minute solo at a yacht club on Valentine's Day. "I was so excited," says Mayor, who was often bullied in high school for her weight. "People aren't as quick to put a bigger girl as a frontwoman, but the response I got was so profound. I never felt more at home."
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On a whim, she signed up for the 12th season of America's Got Talent. She got to mingle with the music industry's biggest and brightest, including guest judge DJ Khaled. "I never could have imagined I'd have this opportunity," she says.
After she was eliminated following her cover of James Arthur's "Say You Won't Let Go," Mayor returned to her hometown. She says she was shocked at the overwhelming response. "Life got crazy," she says. "People were stopping me on the street and saying, 'Hey, you were on AGT. Can I have your picture?'"
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So Mayor began booking concerts. Just a few weeks ago, she held a homecoming concert on Miracle Mile, where she performed covers and a couple of original songs, including "Lay Here" and "Dazed and Confused." The show's theme was heartbreak, and it resonated.
"It started raining, but people just sat there, listening to the music and crying," she says.
Mayor plans to release an EP next year. The style, she says, is "soul with a twist." What that twist is, she won't divulge.
"I don't want to box myself in. I'm still learning who I am piece by piece."