You don't have to look at Rion Paige to know that she's different from most people; you need only listen.
The 13-year-old Jacksonville native has recently catapulted to fame on Fox's "The X Factor," Simon Cowell's musical competition reality show, inspiring millions with her stage presence and vocal prowess as much as her extraordinary, moving story.
Paige was born with a rare congenital disorder, arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, which caused a permanent curvature of her wrists. Her back muscles are smaller and she is mostly blind in her right eye. Navigating middle school is difficult enough without a physical handicap, but Paige handles her limitations with grace, a smile and a shrug. She is so upbeat and positive that people often can't resist asking how she does it.
"Honestly, God just gives me this. I don't know how I'd do it without Him," Paige said. "It's a part of my personality."
The daughter of a waitress and a carpenter, Paige has been cutting her teeth on stages all over Florida since she was literally cutting teeth. Her mother, Alisa Thompson, said she noticed her daughter's affinity for music when Paige was a babe in the crib.
"When she was little and she would cry, the only thing that would calm her down was me singing," Thompson said.
With her mother holding the microphone, Paige gave her first performance at a Karaoke night at Wing It in Mandarin when she was just 3 years old — and was rewarded with her first standing ovation.
In the 10 years since, Paige has honed her technique singing all around the state, ranging from Karaoke nights at Hurricane Patty's, Wing It and Opie's, to performances at The Florida Theatre, The Jacksonville Landing, Suwannee River Jam and Mavericks. She likes to say that other families had Little League; she had Karaoke.
This past summer, Paige approached her parents with a serious question.
"I printed out all the paperwork that you have to print out for ‘X Factor,' I showed it to Mom and I said, ‘I really wanna do this,' " Paige said. "She was really scared."
"As a mother it was hard for me to say, ‘OK, go ahead,' " Thompson said.
After prayer and reflection, the family decided to let their girl go to try-outs in Charleston, S.C.
No one in Paige's family, who she says are her "biggest fan[s]," was surprised when she was invited to audition on the TV show in California. In fact, it was Thompson's recognition of her daughter's talent that made her hesitant to let the girl go. As the trip to LA approached, Paige literally counted down the minutes and watched endless YouTube clips of previous contestants to get a feel for how the show might present her story. She's nothing if not prepared.
"I actually love to organize things; it's really weird but I love it," she said.
While other girls her age obsess over hair, boys and friendship alliances, Paige meticulously prepares for her future as a star.
At the televised audition, Paige's rendition of Carrie Underwood's "Blown Away" brought the crowd — even cantankerous Cowell — to its feet. Judges Cowell, Demi Lovato, Kelly Rowland and Paulina Rubio then put her through to the next round. Another round of cuts put her in the top 40 as one of 10 girls younger than 25.
On Oct. 2 and 3, Fox began airing the next round of eliminations with a new high-pressure scheme for cutting each group of 10 — the older-than-25s, girls, boys and groups — down to four, called "The Four Chair Challenge." Each contestant performs, then one judge — in Paige's case, Lovato — decides who makes the cut and gets a chair.
Everything was at stake when Paige approached the microphone in her trademark cowboy boots, which she wears "like, every day," with her curly blonde hair flowing. "My nerves were really high, and I think they were a good thing this time; I stood there and was like, ‘God … have me in your arms right now because it's your plan.' " With her family cheering her on, Paige's performance of Rascal Flatts' "I Won't Let Go" left many in tears; it was no surprise when Lovato, encouraged by Cowell, gave her a spot.
Paige returns to LA on Oct. 14 with a
one-way ticket to her dreams.
"I want people to see me as another part of the competition. Don't underestimate me because I do have a difference," she said.
She already has a vision of herself as an artist. "I see myself as a country star with a different vibe because I do have a difference," she said. "I choose to look at it like I've gotta be me and nobody else can be, so I've got to shine my light; that's all I can do."
"The X Factor" airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday on Fox.
The final two Four-Chair Challenges — for boys and groups — broadcasts Oct. 9 and 10, with the top 16 decided. Paige's next appearance is expected to be on Oct. 29, during the first live show.