Things You Didn't Know About Tori Kelly

Tori Kelly's smooth sound has attracted millions of fans, been showcased at the MTV Video Music Awards, and even featured in a Pepsi commercial, but the young singer's road to success was riddled with adversity. How did she get where she is today? Hint: it took a lot of reality TV to make it to the top.

Simon Cowell called her "almost annoying"

At age 16, the California girl auditioned for the ninth season of American Idol. She received glowing remarks from Randy Jackson, Kara DioGuardi and guest judge Victoria Beckham, but the notoriously ornery Simon Cowell had a different opinion. He referred to her voice as "almost annoying." Kelly made it through to the show's Hollywood rounds, but was eliminated before the top 24.

Reflecting on Cowell's words in a 2016 interview with Seventeen magazine, a 23-year-old Kelly admitted, "Deep down, I knew I was good, and I knew I could do it. I needed to get knocked down and to build up a thick skin. Who knows what I would have been singing about otherwise? You have to go through things in order to inspire others with your story." She told Ryan Seacrest she was "thankful" for being eliminated because it encouraged her to start writing songs. "If that didn't happen, I would be a completely different person," she said.

She had better luck on America's Most Talented Kids

If you thought auditioning for American Idol at age 16 was young, that's nothing compared to Kelly's previous stints on reality competition television. At age 10, she competed on Star Search, singing "Blessed." Despite good reviews from the judges, Kelly did not win.

Luckily for her, she bounced back the following year when she competed on PAX's America's Most Talented Kids. Kelly actually won that season, with a little help from Christina Aguilera's "Singing My Song." Her competition included another soon-to-be-star, Hunter Hayes.

Her first record contract didn't pan out

At age 12, Kelly was signed to Geffen Records, but the deal fizzled out after a few years. "Whether I liked it or not, I had to learn about the business side of things," Kelly told the Chicago Tribune of her experience with Geffen. "I'm actually really grateful that deal didn't work out, and that I got to step away from the industry and be an independent artist around 15 or 16. There was a point that I lost the fun of it all. You've gotta be a businesswoman sometimes, but at the end of the day, if you're not loving it, I question why you're still doing it."

In an interview with NPR, Kelly recalled one of her finest meetings with the label. "I'll never forget, there were music videos playing on the screens of just different female artists who were a little bit more revealing in their choice of clothing. And I was so confused as a 12, 13-year-old walking in. I was like, 'What? Is this like what he wants me to do? Like I don't know what this is about.' I remember that being the moment where I was like, 'OK, this doesn't feel right.'" Kelly said she was grateful for that experience because it showed her she did not have to be that person. "I can take my time with who I am and keep my clothes on," she said.

She turned to YouTube

After her record deal died, Kelly used YouTube as a way to channel her energy and share her music. She found great success with a cover of Frank Ocean's "Thinkin Bout You," which quickly went viral; the video has since amassed more than 24 million views. Kelly's videos, which featured both covers and originals, eventually attracted the attention of talent manager Scooter Braun, the same guy who discovered Justin Bieber.

Braun inadvertently Inspired "Unbreakable Smile"

Speaking to Seventeen in 2016, Kelly admitted her relationship with Braun wasn't always filled with hugs and kisses, recalling a moment when Braun clued her into some industry gossip. "He told me, 'People are saying you are vanilla and that you have nothing to say,' she told the magazine. "I was like, Whoa. I remembered record-label guys telling me I was really reserved when I was younger. Like, 'Wake up, you should be bubbly and happy!' And I was thinking, But this is my personality; I'm just chilling."

Despite her critics' harsh words, Kelly ultimately turned a negative into a huge positive. "I went right back to being that little girl who was just so freaked out. I acted as if I didn't care, but I went home that night and just poured all the feelings that I was holding back into my music. That's how 'Unbreakable Smile' came to be."

She battled stage fright

In recent years, Kelly has won over the likes of John Legend with her natural and beautiful live performances. But, as she told NPR, singing live didn't always come naturally. "I had a lot of stage fright." she said. "My first competition, I guess singing-wise, I was six-years-old, I'm like stick straight not moving at all, and I'm just singing. I think as a kid, it's interesting because there's nothing around your life. You can literally just be in this bubble like, 'I love music. I just want to sing.'" She continued: "And so as I got older, that's when the fear started to creep in because now you have other people's opinions to worry about. You have this whole world out there where it's like, 'Whoa, I don't know if I'm ready.' So I think I've kind of come full circle and tried to channel that little girl again who just wants to sing."

No, she's not dating Ed Sheeran

During her rise to fame, Kelly developed a close working relationship with singer Ed Sheeran, who invited Kelly to perform at his sold-out show at Madison Square Garden in 2013. He was also featured on Kelly's song, "I Was Made for Loving You," off her album, Unbreakable Smile. Despite the lovey-dovey sound of that song, Kelly remains adamant that her relationship with Sheeran is strictly business. "Working with him was a really cool experience because I was a fan and I didn't know how it would go, but right away he made it super-chill," she told Seventeen. "Ever since then, he's been someone I consider a friend and even a mentor."