An abbreviated version of this story appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Oklahoma girl Darci Lynne Farmer proves a ‘Golden’ contender on ‘America’s Got Talent’
A piece of notebook paper is taped to the narrow window flanking Darci Lynne Farmer’s front door, the childlike pencil scrawl representing the latest request for an autograph.
The Deer Creek Middle School seventh-grader obliged as soon as she saw the sheet, signing her name to the back and taping the paper back in place so that the young fan could pick it up.
It’s the kind of thing she’s learning to take in stride, just the latest sign of the strange and surreal summer the Oklahoma City girl has experienced.
“I do get recognized a lot in public. And that’s just kind of weird to me,” she said with a laugh. “I get recognized at the airport a lot and restaurants and at the mall.”
It’s been more than two months since the 12-year-old ventriloquist and her singing rabbit puppet Petunia wowed the celebrity judges and the television audience on the season premiere of the hit summer series “America’s Got Talent,” and Darci is still getting used to becoming a viral sensation, even as she prepares to get back into the competition.
“After I got the Golden Buzzer — and when everybody got to see it — it kind of went really crazy. Like, my phone blew up after that. I was like, ‘I can’t keep up with all this.’ And just a few days ago it slowed down,” Darci said in a late July interview.
“She got to 100 million (views) within 24 hours on Facebook,” added her mom, Misty Farmer. “They said she’s been the most-watched audition in the history of ‘AGT.’ They’ve never seen anything like it. It’s been crazy.”
With two nationally televised performances, a local talent title and even a British TV appearance on her resume, it’s hard to believe that Darci used to be shy. But counteracting her timidity actually led to her taking up ventriloquism 2 ½ years ago.
“Well, I used to have a really hard time talking to people or looking them in the eye. Or I’d always, like, hide behind my mom, and like when we went to restaurants I didn’t like ordering my food. I’d have my mom order it because I didn’t like talking to the waiters. But I’ve gotten a lot better,” Darci said.
“But she could sing,” her mom added. “If you had her here, she’d sing around the house, very personable. She wasn’t shy with us.”
Growing up in Beaver, Misty Farmer participated in pageants when she was a youngster, and the mother of four thought entering the International Cinderella Scholarship Program might help her only daughter.
“I thought, well, the Cinderella program is very low-key. You wear a church dress, you have a talent, it’s no makeup. So, I asked her … if she wanted to do it. She’s like, ‘I’ll try.’ And then we got there: she hid behind me and cried and she wouldn’t do it. I was like, ‘OK, I’m not gonna make you,’” Misty Farmer recalled.
But her mother did tell Darci, then 6, that she had to stay and watch her cousin compete. Once she watched the pageant, Darci thought she could do it, too. She tried again, and she won.
“Then it’s like, ‘I kind of like this,’” her mom said. “But it took lots of those little pageants to get that (shyness) out of her.”
While reigning as the Cinderella program’s 2013-14 International Mini Miss, Darci got to know the 2013-14 International Teen titleholder, Laryssa Bonacquisti, a ventriloquist who this summer won the Miss Louisiana pageant and will be competing for Miss America this fall.
“She is amazing,” Darci said. “I just watched and watched her. I was just super fascinated because I really wanted to learn how to do it.”
In fall 2014, Darci entered Edmond’s Got Talent, lending her singing and yodeling voice to a redheaded cowgirl puppet named Katie, whom the girl had owned for two weeks. She’d only been practicing the ventriloquism tips Bonacquisti had given her for about a month when she won first prize at the local talent show.
“She taught herself a lot,” her mom said.
“Some of it just came naturally,” Darci said. “I had a lot of fun, and I was pretty good at it for my first time.”
Word of her winning performance quickly got around to Edmond ventriloquist Gary Owen, who offered to become her coach. For the past year, she also has worked with a vocal teacher, Tiana Plemons, who has helped her learn the odd art of belting big notes through clenched teeth.
“I have to work on it a lot. I have to keep it open in the back instead of in the front, if that makes sense,” Darci said, touching her throat. “I used to have like a cheesy smile when I would do it, but now it’s more natural.”
Learning ventriloquism requires plenty of patience, she said, and mighty multitasking skills are a must.
“I am doing lots of different things. I have to control my mouth – and that’s hard enough – and then I have to manipulate the puppet and make it look real, like make its interactions look real. And then I have to sing at the same time, and I have to have my facial expressions reacting to the puppet. … So it’s a lot going on and I have to focus on every single thing at the same time,” Darci said.
As she honed her skills, Darci also expanded her pack of puppet pals. Along with Katie the yodeling cowgirl, she developed Okie, a duck who impersonates Elvis; Edna Doorknocker, a grumpy grandma; and Petunia, a bashful bunny who is also a big-voiced Broadway diva. She received the cottontail puppet last year after a girl at the International Ventriloquist Convention won it at a raffle and gave it to her. Following her stunning performance with Darci on “America’s Got Talent,” the rabbit is now internationally known.
“All my other puppets are jealous,” Darci quipped. “They all have different personalities, and that’s what I kind of like because … they’re all unique.”
“With a little bit of you in each one,” her mom added. “Ventriloquism really helped her nerves because it really felt like someone else was with her.”
When she performs, the girl said the puppets feel like friends or partners, and she knows she’s doing well if she can make everyone – including herself — forget that she’s actually doing all the talking, singing and wisecracking.
“Sometimes when I’m performing, whenever my puppet cracks a joke, it actually makes me laugh,” she said, giggling. “One time, it was really funny, I was going on stage … and they were like, ‘Oh, we didn’t mic the puppet! Mic the puppet!’ So, that’s how I know that sometimes I do a very good job, because they think that the puppet is actually, like, real.”
The Oklahoma native made her national TV debut alongside Katie in spring 2016 on the first season of NBC’s family-friendly noncompetition variety series “Little Big Shots,” which led to an invitation to travel to Britain last fall and perform on “Little Big Shots UK.”
When she returned stateside, the girl decided she wanted to audition for “America’s Got Talent.”
“I’ve always watched it and I’ve always wanted to do it, so I thought I’d try it,” Darci said.
In November, she packed up her puppets and headed to Austin, Texas, to try out for the NBC reality show’s executive producers.
“They liked her, called us a couple of months later and said, ‘We’d like her to come audition for the celebrity judges in California,” Misty Farmer said. “That’s when she auditioned for the celebrity judges, and that’s what you saw on May 30. So we had to keep that quiet for two and a half months. We couldn’t tell anybody.”
“It was really hard,” Darci added.
During her audition, which aired on the May 30 season premiere, Darci and her bunny buddy crooned an incredible rendition of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess.” The performance earned a standing ovation from the crowd and the judges, with even curmudgeonly Simon Cowell declaring “you’re both brilliant.”
But it was Spice Girl Mel B. who was so impressed with Darci’s performance that she slapped her Golden Buzzer, meaning the stunned girl was able to bypass the rest of the competition and go straight to the live shows.
“When we watched it, when I came on the stage, my friends were screaming. They were like, ‘Oh my gosh, Darci!’ … When Mel B hit the Golden Buzzer, I couldn’t even, like, hear over my friends screaming. And then after the screaming – after they were done screaming for like a minute – then they all started crying, which made me cry ‘cause I was so happy that they were so happy for me. But literally they cried for over 45 minutes. I’m not even kidding,” said Darci, who had a small watch party at her house.
On a shelf in her bedroom, a rectangle of golden confetti is framed among crowns and keepsakes. It’s a piece of the sparkling shower that rained on her after her favorite Spice Girl hit the Golden Buzzer.
Her friends weren’t the only ones thrilled by her performance. Darci’s rendition of “Summertime” has notched 219 million views on the “America’s Got Talent” Facebook page. Her ventriloquist act also has been seen 29 million times on the show’s YouTube channel, with additional YouTube views totaling around 40 million.
About 600 people turned out on a June afternoon at Church of the Servant, where the Farmers are longtime members, for the filming of her “America’s Got Talent” hometown visit.
“I didn’t think there’d be that many people there. But like when I got there, I was like, Oh my goodness. Wow. That’s awesome,” Darci said. “Lots of people that I don’t know are rooting for me.”
In many ways, it’s been a fairly normal summer of hanging out with her friends and spending time with her parents, Clarke and Misty Farmer, and her three brothers, Nick, 20; Dalton, 17; and Nate, 9. But she said she has been working on new material as she gets ready to make her anticipated return to the “America’s Got Talent” stage.
“I like to watch ‘America’s Got Talent’ every Tuesday just to scout out the competition so I can see what I’m up against,” Darci said.
“It’s crunch time now,” her mom said.
The competition reaches the live show phase on Aug. 15, which means she won’t be in OKC for the first day of her seventh-grade year on Aug. 16. Instead, she, her family and her puppet partners will be in California, where a $1 million prize and a Las Vegas headlining opportunity are among the wide-open possibilities.
“Now it’s really unpredictable because it’s in America’s hands … and you never know: America could love you or could not like you at all,” Darci said. “Winning would be amazing.”
“America’s Got Talent” airs at 7 p.m. Tuesdays on NBC. The live shows, featuring Oklahoma City ventriloquist Darci Lynne Farmer, begin Aug. 15.