SALT LAKE CITY — When she was 4, Kenadi Dodds dubbed her “My Little Pony” stuffed animal the head honcho of all her other stuffed animals.
Kenadi and her toys would regularly “perform” for the authoritative pony who, in the young girl’s eyes, resembled reality competition judge Simon Cowell.
One day, Kenadi’s dad asked her why she had selected the pony to embody Cowell.
“‘Cause the way they stitched the mouth on,” she said. “They stitched it into a frowny face.”
From “The X Factor” to “Britain’s Got Talent” to “American Idol” to “America’s Got Talent,” Cowell has long had the reputation of being hard to please. He doesn’t hold back, and he’s not afraid to hurt people’s feelings.
But unlike that “My Little Pony” toy, Cowell’s face can break into a smile.
Which is exactly what happened when Kenadi, now 15, walked onto the “America’s Got Talent” stage earlier this year and finally faced the real Cowell for the first time.
Kenadi’s demeanor was somewhat timid while talking to the show’s judges. But the Utah singer took a complete 180 when she burst into “One Way Ticket to Tennessee,” a song she wrote about chasing her dream of becoming a country star.
“Well you’re a little firecracker, aren’t you?” Cowell told the teenager during the audition that aired June 30. “Your voice sounds as if you were from Nashville when you sing. I love artists, particularly people your age, who know what kind of lane they want to go down.”
“You know where you want to go, and I think we can help you get there.”
That was a huge moment for Kenadi. Yes, she believed she was capable of making the stern Cowell smile. But it had taken her a long time to get to that stage.
She had auditioned for “AGT” twice before. And she’d tried out for “The Voice” at least three times, waiting several hours only to never make it past the open audition round, where aspiring singers from all over line up like cattle for a shot to be discovered.
“I’ve definitely been told ‘no’ a lot in my life,” Kenadi told the Deseret News via a recent Zoom video call. “It’s been such a crazy ride.”
‘A family effort’
Talking from her home in Logan, Kenadi sat on a black couch. A family portrait hung on the wall behind her.
She called her 9-year-old sister, Alexis, one of her “best friends in the whole world.”
She spoke with pride about her youngest sister, 4-year-old Brooklyn. “She has pipes bigger than I did her age,” Kenadi said with a laugh.
She talked about her mom, Brandi, who over the years has cleaned the house, kept her fed and supported her while she focused on music. Kenadi said she never could’ve reached “AGT” without her mom.
And then there’s her dad, Chris, who years ago would play Steve Wariner’s “Holes in the Floor of Heaven” on the guitar for her each night before bed.
“That was kind of like the bedtime story routine, where he’d play that song and I’d say, ‘Do it again. Don’t leave,’” Kenadi said. “But that’s what really inspired me to pick up the guitar is because I wanted to make music as pretty as that song my dad used to play me.”
It’s a tight network of love and support. But sometimes, Kenadi has to search beyond the immediate family circle for help.
Kenadi is the only one in her home who doesn’t have retinitis pigmentosa — a rare eye disease that comes in many forms for her family but, ultimately, causes many people to be fully blind. It prevents her parents from driving her to auditions, singing lessons in Salt Lake City with Dean Kaelin (David Archuleta’s voice coach) and other activities.
“We either take the bus or we walk. And if it’s a show that’s farther away than that, sometimes it’s hard to find a way to get there,” she said. “Friends and family have been supportive to come pick us up and bring us to our destinations. So yeah, we’ve been really blessed with that.”
Earlier this year, Kenadi’s grandmother — who lives four hours away in Roosevelt, Utah — picked Kenadi and her cowgirl hat-wearing sisters up in Logan and drove them to the Miranda Lambert concert at Salt Lake City’s Vivint Arena.
When they arrived, they learned the concert had been rescheduled for three weeks later.
Standing outside the arena, the three sisters weren’t going to be defeated. They decided to have their own fun, putting on a little show for their grandmother and singing the Lambert song “Mama’s Broken Heart.” Then, they went to the Disney store at the City Creek Center — Kenadi’s “favorite store on the planet.”
A month and a half later, Kenadi’s grandmother drove the family to California for the “AGT” audition. At this point in March, “AGT,” like most TV productions, had stopped filming without a live audience due to the coronavirus pandemic. Kenadi expected the rows and rows of empty seats going in, but she wasn’t prepared to not have her family by her side.
The singer was told the night before her audition that her family wouldn’t be able to join her backstage. Just before the audition, though, they got the green light to be there.
“I was just honestly grateful that they could come. Not having an audience was kind of a bummer, but nothing would’ve been worse than that,” she said. “It’s really a whole family effort.”
An audition during a pandemic
With her family cheering from the sidelines, Kenadi stepped onto the “America’s Got Talent” stage in her cowgirl boots, dress and denim jacket.
She only had an audience of four — Cowell, Howie Mandel, Sofia Vergara and guest judge Eric Stonestreet. But it was the biggest stage she’d ever been on.
“I don’t think I was scared,” she said. “I think it was new, and I didn’t quite know what to expect. … But I was mostly just excited. Doing those things, you just really gotta shut out any nerves and just remember what you’ve practiced to get there, what got you there.”
“It was really weird just to see it so echoey and quiet, you know?” she continued. “But I just stood there on that X and did my thing.”
Her eyes were largely fixed on Cowell as she performed, determined to make him smile. She gave off such a strong country vibe with “One Way Ticket to Tennessee” — a song she and her dad wrote a year and a half ago — that Cowell even told her he was surprised she was from Utah.
Following her performance, and after years of auditioning for “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent,” Kenadi finally got her “yes” — from all four judges. She would be moving on to the next round of the competition.
But from there, things took an unexpected turn. When Kenadi returned to her hotel, she got an email saying her high school was closing. Her choir concerts were canceled. Store shelves were empty. And production for “America’s Got Talent” halted.
“Everything just got shut down,” she said.
But, like the Miranda Lambert concert, Kenadi made the most of the moment. She joked that it would be easier to keep her audition a secret since she wouldn’t be seeing her friends anymore. Her family celebrated that night with Domino’s pizza. They wrote in their journals. And they talked for hours about it.
“We definitely said our prayers and said thank you so much,” Kenadi said. “It’s definitely not what we pictured it being, but it’s been probably even a little bit cooler, because how many people get to be on ‘America’s Got Talent’ during a historic event?”
With a number of safety precautions in place, production for “AGT” resumed in late June, although Kenadi said she hasn’t filmed another round yet.
According to Deadline, a Judge Cuts episode will air on July 28. Live shows are expected to begin Aug. 11. But the network is still figuring out the logistics of what those episodes will look like.
In the meantime, Kenadi is adjusting to her newfound fame.
On June 30, 8 million people watched her audition unfold on national TV. Becoming known nationally while not being able to visit with her closest friends has been an odd experience, Kenadi said.
“I still haven’t really seen my friends at all,” she said. “I’ve heard from some of them on social media, but I haven’t really gotten to celebrate with anyone live, outside of family and social media.”
But Kenadi has kept plenty busy. The rising sophomore at Logan’s Green Canyon High School finished her freshman year with straight A’s. She’s been mowing the lawn and learning the art of audio engineering, with the hopes of producing her own album someday.
And she’s written three songs since lockdown: A song she surprised her dad with on Father’s Day; a song called “Dancing Through the Stars” that she wrote for her 9-year-old sister, Alexis; and “My Dopamine,” a drug awareness project she completed for her health class.
“It’s basically about finding that natural drug without harming your body, like reading a good book. Or my dopamine is getting on stage and singing for thousands of people,” she said. “So that one was really fun. And I think my teacher liked it because I got an A in her class.”
If Kenadi were to win “AGT,” she said she’d put some of her winnings toward designing her own guitar. Regardless of how far she goes on “AGT,” though, she hopes the show gets her closer to her dream of being a country star — something she’s envisioned since 2015, when she saw Shania Twain from the front row at Vivint Arena.
“I see my shows in the future hopefully looking kind of a mix between Shania Twain, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift, that kind of thing,” she said. “I just want people to be able to escape and have their money’s worth. I want to have fun and put on a show.”
And, above all else, she wants to make people smile.