When Darci Lynne Farmer was a little kid, she was painfully shy.
Now, at 13, she can talk and sing in front of millions — but her lips still don’t move.
Farmer came out of her shell (and how!) with a little help from her friends. Performing as Darci Lynne, she won the most recent season of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” with her Muppet-like pals, including Petunia the diva-like bunny and Oscar the bashful mouse.
The then-12-year-old wowed judges Simon Cowell, Mel B, Heidi Klum, and Howie Mandel by engaging in playful PG tongue-in-cheek banter and comedy routines with her puppets, and through them, belting Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” among other tunes.
It’s her closed-mouth, lung-busting voice that had the audience and all four judges on their feet — that video of Petunia crooning George Gershwin’s “Summertime” hit No. 4 on YouTube’s list of top viral videos of 2017.
“You make my heart melt. You are brilliant,” Spice Girl Mel B said after that performance, which earned Farmer the “golden buzzer” — an automatic advance.
“Most people can’t sing like that with their mouth open,” Klum remarked after another performance.
And Farmer’s old crank character, Edna Doorknocker, had Cowell blushing like a schoolboy when she divulged her crush on the judge.
Farmer: “But, Edna, what about the age difference? You’re so old. He could give you a heart attack.”
Edna: “Oh, don’t worry, Darci. Simon knows mouth-to-mouth.”
After Edna serenaded him with “Natural Woman,” Cowell told Farmer: “This was brilliant. And let me tell you why. Because you’re funny, and you’ve got a wicked sense of humor, and I’m imagining in my head now, a kind of a ‘Sesame Street’-type of show for you.”
The seventh-grader, now on her first national tour, brings the fun to Medford’s Chevalier Theatre Sunday.
Farmer’s love of ventriloquism started at age 9, when she was a contestant in the Cinderella International Scholarship Pageant. Her family hoped the show would help her overcome her shyness. Farmer’s talent was singing. An older girl performed ventriloquism.
“I was speechless,” Farmer says in a phone interview from her Oklahoma City home, where she lives with her parents and three brothers. “I was fascinated and obsessed with what she did. I memorized her routine. I practiced in my mirror. I said, ‘Mom, I have to try that.”
Mom initially said no. “At the time she was training 30 hours a week in gymnastics. I said, ‘There’s no way you have time for both.’ But she was persistent,” says Misty Farmer, a preschool music teacher.
“So her dad suggested we get her a puppet for her 10th birthday. I had no idea where to even get a puppet. I mean, I’d seen Jeff Dunham on Comedy Central or something, but we never really thought about ventriloquism before,” Misty says with a laugh.
She found Katie the Cowgirl on eBay, and soon Katie was yodeling pretty impressively around the house.
The most difficult part of ventriloquism for Farmer?
“Words with W, M, P, B, all of that jazz,” she says. “‘Peanut butter’ was hard.”
One day, her grandfather called about a talent show in Edmond, Okla., called “Edmond’s Got Talent.” He thought his granddaughter might sing.
“But I said, ‘Oh, can I do my ventriloquism?’” Farmer recalls.
In a few days, she came up with a routine on her own. She won the competition, advanced to “Oklahoma’s Got Talent,” and won that.
After the Edmond show, an Oklahoma ventriloquist, Gary Owen, reached out and offered coaching. And season two “America’s Got Talent” winner, ventriloquist Terry Fator, offered guidance on the show, she says.
But Farmer clearly has a natural sensibility. When she talks about her eight puppets, she sounds more like a novelist talking about her characters — or maybe like a ‘Sesame Street’ puppeteer talking about her Muppets.
“Petunia relates to me more than any other,” she says. “She was shy at first, but she’s definitely come out of her shell, I can tell you that. Petunia is like this small little rabbit, but her big huge voice comes out of her little body.
“Oscar is awkward and nerdy, and can’t talk to girls. And I’m not good at talking to people, so he’s like me in that way,“ she says. “And Edna Doorknocker, she loves to flirt. She’s funny. She’s naughty.”
So what about these puppets speaks to her?
“It’s just a feeling I get about them,” she says. “Edna, when I first picked her up, she had a voice that really spoke to me. Petunia came quick. Some I know in five minutes, others take a while. It depends on what I’m feeling and thinking.”
Watch Lynne here:
DARCI LYNNE & FRIENDS
At Chevalier Theatre, Medford, Jan. 21 at 3 and 7 p.m. Tickets $32-$99.75, 800-838-3006, www.chevaliertheatre.comLauren Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.