'The Big Neal' returns to his alma mater, MU, a star

Friday, November 21, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 11:27 a.m. CST, Monday, November 24, 2008
NEAL BOYD, winner of "America's Got Talent"

COLUMBIA — It seems unlikely that renowned tenor Luciano Pavarotti and rapper Eminem could have anything in common.

But they both provided inspiration to the most recent winner of NBC’s reality competition series “America’s Got Talent.”

Sikeston’s own Neal Boyd, a 2001 MU graduate, nabbed the winning spot on the show’s finale, which aired Oct. 1.

By many measures, Boyd had already achieved success. He had four college degrees and a knack for opera singing that even curmudgeonly Simon Cowell, executive producer of the show and a judge on Fox's "American Idol," would be hard-pressed to deny. But in the wake of his rise to the spotlight, Boyd still appears to be the same humble guy who visits his college town and takes his mom's advice.

Boyd, 33, admits that before his name was announced, he felt the sting of fear and described the experience as “surreal.”

“At one point, I turned around and I kind of bent down, and one of the producers said, ‘Neal, are you going to be OK?' And I’m like, ‘I’m fine. I’m great,’ ” Boyd said. “Then I realized when I watched it back on television I looked as bad as I felt.”

Boyd’s penchant for opera began as a child when he heard Pavarotti for the first time.

“I remember how I felt the first time I heard ‘Nessun Dorma,’ ” Boyd said. “Just the impact of it on me. I’m this 13-year-old kid. It wasn’t normal. You’re not supposed to be that moved by a song.”

Nineteen years later, Boyd found himself belting out that very song during his victory performance on national television.

Boyd’s moment of glory immediately catapulted him from “hometown boy” status to overnight celebrity, or, as he said "Talent" host Jerry Springer dubbed him, "The Big Neal."

“There’s no more being this shy kid who wanted to be a star," Boyd said. "Now you are a star. You make people happy wherever you go. You stop, take a picture, sign an autograph.”

Despite his recent stardom, Boyd said, he keeps himself grounded. He returned to MU for homecoming weekend and was on campus the following week visiting the chancellor’s office, hanging out with friends and his former voice teacher, Ann Harrell.

“I had a great outpouring of love," Boyd said. "You get back to your roots and tell people about your experience — that you’re still the same guy but that you have new, big opportunities."

Those opportunities include performances at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the New York City Marathon and the Rockefeller Center tree lighting, to name just a few.

He's already booked some major gigs, and he’s also set to record an album in Europe that is expected to be out by Mother’s Day next year.

Looking back, Boyd remembers the day he found encouragement from Eminem’s well-known song “Lose Yourself,” which Boyd said he listened to constantly right before the audition.

“The biggest lesson I learned is how to become confident consistently,” Boyd said. “Especially that first audition when I looked at the judges and saw Simon Cowell, I realized the magnitude of what was getting ready to happen.” Cowell is not a judge but was present for the audition.

Boyd credits his mother, Esther Boyd, with teaching him the importance of preparation so he didn’t miss this potentially fleeting chance.

“My mom didn’t believe in luck," Boyd said. "She said, ‘But if luck was anything, luck is when preparation meets opportunity,’ and I gotta be the luckiest man in the world.”

Before finding success on the show, Boyd was an exceptional overachiever. He had two bachelor's degrees, one of them a Bachelor of Arts in music from MU, one master’s degree and an artist’s diploma, leaving him well-equipped to build a musical career.

But while adjusting to life after school, Boyd developed a voice polyp and took a brief hiatus from heavy-duty singing at 27. During that time off, Boyd worked in the rental car industry and in insurance sales and was developing a successful career in business.

He even dabbled in stand-up comedy, he said, “just so I could be onstage and because I always considered myself an actor.

“Anybody who knows me will tell you that if you’re in a room with me for five minutes, even five seconds, you’re going to start laughing eventually,” Boyd said.

It wouldn’t become clear that Boyd’s future was in opera singing until he was standing onstage awaiting a result that would change his life.

Boyd forged strong friendships with contestant Sarah Lenore and runner-up Eli Mattson from the beginning and said it was amazing to go through the journey with a friend and to be the last ones standing.

“It’s bittersweet,” Boyd said. “You either spent the last eight months pouring your heart out to America for a victory or a loss, but you wouldn’t change it. You would absolutely do it again — win or lose.”

Boyd thinks his story will bolster the dreams of his peers and those who look up to him.

“Everything’s possible. It could happen for them, too. It will,” Boyd said. “People in my hometown have dreamed bigger than they’ve ever dreamed in their life, all because one of their hometown boys did well.”

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