After 10 years of kicking around the music business — and being kicked down by it — 27-year-old Danyl Johnson admits he had given up his hopes for stardom. But then students at an arts school in Reading, England, gave their teacher a morale boost.
Drama and dance instructor Johnson now carries the heady title of “the next Susan Boyle” after wowing the judges — including the notoriously hard-to-please Simon Cowell — when he performed in the opening round of a British forebear to “American Idol,” “The X Factor.” Appearing in his first U.S. TV interview, the man with a million-dollar smile and voice to match told TODAY’s Matt Lauer and Ann Curry Thursday he’s still processing his sudden fame — and revealed how his students gave him the push to make one last grab at the brass ring.
“I’ve been singing for about 10 years now, and I didn’t really get much interest,” Johnson said live via satellite from London. “I thought that dream had gone past.
“The kids have been so supportive and they said I should go into the competition. I just thought, ‘OK, I’ll send an application, and if I hear back I will see what happens from there.’ I’m so glad they got me to do it now, I have to say.”
More from TODAY.com
'Unconditional mother’s love': Get the story behind the sweetest photo
This photo touched thousands of hearts when TODAY viewer Ariane Grabill shared it with us summer — a shot of her cradling ...
- Can this hobby help you live longer? 104-year-old shares health secret
- How to make a traditional Christmas Eve dinner fit for kings
- Mike Myers brings back Dr. Evil in guest-filled 'Saturday Night Live'
- High school sweethearts wed in Hobbit, Harry Potter-inspired DIY bash
- 'Unconditional mother’s love': Get the story behind the sweetest photo
Johnson is now a household name in music circles, even though he’s just one show into his reality TV competition run. Performing the Beatles classic “With a Little Help From My Friends,” the teacher showed a veteran’s performing chops and a voice that got Cowell to give him what may have been the first standing ovation in all of his various TV judging duties in England and the U.S.
After his performance, Cowell said, “Danyl, that was single-handedly the best first audition I ever heard.” The estimated 11 million viewers evidently agreed — Johnson became front-page news in the British papers overnight. His performance has also become a viral sensation: Within days, a YouTube clip of his singing had attracted a million viewers. Video: ‘X Factor’ singer wows Simon Cowell
Johnson can do little but shake his head over the fuss — he’s used to singing in front of dozens, not millions. He had an ill-fated stab at stardom in the British “boy band” Street Level, and he actually auditioned for “The X Factor” in 2006, but was kicked to the curb before he even got to perform for Cowell and his fellow judges.
But after his students spurred him on, Johnson told Lauer and Curry, he decided he wasn’t going to let his chance to shine go to waste. The TV premiere of “The X Factor” meant Johnson got to perform before a live audience of 2,000, by far the biggest crowd he had ever sung before. He wasn’t about to turn into a shrinking violet.
“I just wanted to have fun on stage, and not just sing a song, but entertain a crowd,” Johnson said of the leaps and twists he made during his performance. “It’s the first time I’ve had a crowd, and [I wanted] to have a good laugh and make sure they had a good time.”
Miles to go
But while Johnson is an overnight sensation, he still has his work cut out for him before he can claim “The X Factor” crown — and reach the dizzying heights achieved by Susan Boyle. Shy, retiring pub singer Boyle became a pop-culture phenomenon on “Britain’s Got Talent” last spring, gaining some 200 million views on YouTube during her run on the show.
Noted British music journalist Rick Sky told TODAY that Johnson already carries a heavy burden of being the front-runner on “The X Factor” — even though the live portion of the competition doesn’t even begin until October. “The judges expect so much from him; the public expects so much from him,” he said.
Johnson admitted to Lauer and Curry that he’s still coming to terms with the splash he’s made — while trying to keep a level head about it.
“I’m just having a really good time and enjoying it, but it’s really humbling,” he said. “Everyone has been really nice to me; everyone has said really nice things.”
He’s clearly earned a fan in armchair music critic Lauer.
“Everybody really respects Simon Cowell’s judgment in the music industry; nobody respects mine,” Lauer told a grinning Johnson. “But I have to tell you, I can’t remember seeing anyone with so much stage presence at such a young age. We’re going to be rooting for you, Danyl.”
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints