When Cristina Rae auditioned to be Effie White in the upcoming Clubhouse rendition of DreamGirls, she burst into tears.

The warm and boisterous Tennessean, whose powerful voice snagged her third place on America’s Got Talent‘s 15th season, is no stranger to the character. She’s portrayed the role four different times throughout her life. But the difference this time around was that she was reentering the role as a mother. When she originally auditioned for AGT, Cristina and her son were broke and living in her car. She gravitated towards AGT with the hopes of buying a home.

“I’ve experienced a lot of Effie’s trials,” the 31-year-old said. “There are so many things emotionally going on right now. So I’m singing not just about my relationship with my family, but I’m singing to my dreams. Because of this Pandemic, my dreams are further away now.”

When the pandemic hit last March, Cristina was bouncing back and forth between Atlanta and New York to hit the audition circuit, attend dance classes, and even do Burlesque. She wasn’t allowed to speak on her time at AGT until the auditions aired later that Spring, but by the time she became a viral sensation, her momentum had all but ceased. “It was beautiful, but I felt like I was still again,” she said. She begrudgingly continued on with the live season.

Strictly confined to a hotel room, she and her son underwent COVID tests three times a week and at one point learned that a contestant had tested positive and was quarantined in the same hotel as them. “It was traumatizing for my baby,” she said. “With the pandemic, I’m trying to still think positively when it comes to the creatives and my dreams, but it’s hard when everything is virtual.”

With that said, the technicalities involved in putting on a broadway musical via an app were a welcomed distraction. As she became embroiled in “tech week,” Cristina was open about how challenging it was to put on such a glamorous show via Clubhouse.

“Having to push play, before your music, and sing, while pushing unmute, and then mute, it’s all very tedious,” she said. “Most of the songs on there are also duets, so we’re trying to do the duets live, and there are these minor delays [and lag] on there. So I have to anticipate when to enter, and there can’t be dead air, or else the emotion of the moment is completely gone. But I welcomed the challenge.”

How did you get involved in this production? Were you familiar with Clubhouse prior to this?

I have a mentor who just happened to come across Leroy Church’s social media; and he sent it to me, and I didn’t know what it was. I downloaded it, came to the audition and sang “If Only You Knew” by Patti Labelle and forgot the words before I started. But I made it to the next rounds, and now I’m one of the Effie Whites!

How has your experience with DreamGirls impacted you? I imagine it spoke to you in a special way.

It did. There were over 4,000 people on the Clubhouse auditions. To know that we were being heard, to be able to perform again, even though it was in an unconventional way, it was a performance again. I think that’s what a lot of us need and want right now, so I’m just happy that I’ve been given the opportunity to perform again, even if it’s just through an audio app.

What was it like singing “And I’m Telling You, I’m Not Going?”

I sang that song for the final audition, and I was crying. I couldn’t sing the last words; but I could speak them, and I thought my audition was terrible because of that. But [Amber Riley], who was a judge, said, “That is Effie White. You have to be emotionally drained after singing that song. You emptied yourself on this audition, and it was amazing.” It was a beautiful thing to have the opportunity.

Golden Buzzer: Cristina Rae Gives a Life-Changing, Emotional Performance – America’s Got Talent 2020 www.youtube.com

Did it feel like that? Did you feel like you emptied yourself?

It really did. Afterward, I had to push mute because I was still in the moment, and I don’t know if it was the pandemic or just being a woman that made me that vulnerable, or just the fact that my body and spirit wanted that. That they needed that. I was able to leave it all on the stage, and I haven’t been able to do that in a very long time. So it was very emotional because I’m not a breakdown type of person, but I left it all in that audition.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?

Getting used to the equipment and trying to not let the equipment in the moment distract you. That’s my biggest challenge, staying in the moment so that the show is heard and felt.

Do you hope that your momentum will pick up again after this?

I mean, this moment was needed for me. I needed to sit still and rest right now. When this world opens back up, I know I’m gonna be moving at a rate far faster than I was before. So I’m just trying to listen to my body and how to be patient. I want my dreams now, but if I got them now I wouldn’t have the appreciation I will have when things open up.

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