Pfc. Paul Ieti wowed the judges Tuesday night on 'America's Got Talent.' (Chris Haston/NBC)
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A soldier’s cover of the Rihanna hit “Stay” posted on YouTube more than a year ago piled up more than a half-million hits — and drew the eyes of the producers of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”
Pfc. Paul Ieti’s audition for the show aired Tuesday night. He went with what brought him there, and his performance of “Stay” drew a standing ovation, wowed the judges and earned him a spot in the contest, which offers a $1 million grand prize.
Ieti, who did not perform in uniform, received applause before he started singing with a simple answer to judge Howie Mandel’s question about where he worked: “I’m a soldier in the U.S. Army stationed in Savannah, Georgia.”
He also told the audience his unit had recently returned from a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan, drawing more applause. An Army news release from April announcing that Ieti would be auditioning for the show identifies him as a petroleum supply specialist with Company A, 603rd Aviation Support Battalion.
That release also identifies the soldier as an “online celebrity” based on the Rihanna cover and other video clips — his fan base may have gone mainstream after Tuesday night, with the Twitter hashtag “#singingsoldier” earning national attention.
“That just really happened,” Ieti said in a Facebook post after the audition aired. “Wow. So blessed. Thank you all for your support. I can't thank you all enough.”
The American Samoa native has received glowing hometown press and has several other covers posted on his YouTube channel, including takes on songs performed by Michael Buble, Beyonce and Luther Vandross. His vocal range is on display in his version of the Etta James clasic “At Last” — apparently performed in Afghanistan, in uniform, calmly seated on a floor, in one take.
That range floored the four-member “America’s Got Talent” panel consisting of Mandel, Mel B. of Spice Girl fame, supermodel Heidi Klum and radio legend Howard Stern. Mel B. and Klum bounded onto the stage for hugs after the performance. Stern, to further applause from the crowd, followed suit.
Live “America’s Got Talent” shows are slated to emanate from Radio City Music Hall in New York City in late July, the New York Post reported in April. It’s not clear when Ieti will appear next.