It was on the stage of the Millennium Cardiff Theatre in Wales where Paul Potts' life changed forever — just six months ago, when Potts, a shy 36-year-old mobile phone salesman, auditioned for the TV show "Britain's Got Talent."
Nervously, Potts took the stage in front of a packed house and three judges, among them "American Idol's" Simon Cowell.
"I'm always nervous before I perform," Potts said. "At that point, I was asking, 'What the hell are you doing here?' I felt myself shaking."
Potts sang "Nessum Dorma," the famous Puccini aria, and within seconds, judges and audience members looked as if they knew they were in the presence of something rare. At song's end, the audience was on its feet, one of the judges was in tears, and even Cowell had lost his trademark sneer.
"It was one of the most incredible auditions I'd ever witnessed, because everything changed like that," Cowell recalled. "My first impression was 'Oh, my God, here we go again,' and then, within 30 seconds, I was sold."
"I couldn't believe it," Potts said. "I could tell that the audience had enjoyed it, but it was the three people that sat in the judges' chairs that were the ones that would decide how far I'd go. I thought that would be my final performance and I'd go back to work at the store, and selling phones."
When the moment of truth arrived, Cowell gave his evaluation.
"I wasn't expecting that. This was a complete breath of fresh air. I thought you were absolutely fantastic," Cowell said.
Not only did Potts nail his audition for "Britain's Got Talent," he also went on to win the entire competition.
In the six months since he won, Potts has scored a record deal with Sony, sold nearly 2 million CDs worldwide, and earlier this month, sang for the queen of England. Video of Potts' audition on "Britain's Got Talent" has become a YouTube sensation, getting more than 18 million hits.
"It's just mind boggling," Potts said. "I often sit back and think, 'what the hell is happening, why me,' you know? I never ever dreamed that anybody would think that much of me, you know. It's more than I could ever dream of."
Even the notoriously hard-to-please Cowell was happy for him.
"You always like the underdog to do well. We all secretly wanted Paul to win," Cowell said.
Just a Regular Guy
But before the fame, Potts was just your everyday working man in Port Talbot, Wales. He was in serious debt and trying to make ends meet. He worked nights in a supermarket for five years, and then later, as a cell phone salesman.
"I always used to do whatever I had to do to pay the bills," Potts said.
But if it all ended tomorrow, would he go back to the cell phone store?
"Well, I hope I don't have to," Potts said. "But I'd go back, and I have no hesitation at that. Nobody in this world owes me a future, nobody owes me a living."
Like most overnight sensations, the truth is a bit more prosaic. Years ago, Potts sang in local operas across the United Kingdom, but in 2003, doctors found a benign tumor on his adrenal gland and he was put on a ventilator — a procedure that could have silenced his now famous voice forever.
Love at First Sight
His wife Julie helped him through it. Shy Potts met her online on an MSN chat room, and ever since their first face-to-face meeting six years ago at a train station, he knew she was special.
"I'd never seen her before, but I was blown away, and for me, you know, it was love at first sight," Potts said.
That powerful moment inspired Potts to add the song "La Cantina" to his debut album.
"The words of that song, you know, just take me back to that day when I was just getting off the train, and saw her at the edge of the platform," Potts said. "She was so beautiful, beautiful to my eyes, and the moment I saw her, the sun filled my sky. That's the way I felt on that day, and it all clicked from there."
And to think Potts almost didn't send in the application to audition for "Britain's Got Talent."
"I was doing some work from home and came across the 'Britain's Got Talent' Web site," Potts remembered. "I didn't know if I had enough talent to do it, whether I was too old, or whether I was what they were looking for. I flipped a coin and said that if it landed on heads, I would send in the application — if it landed on tails, then I would cancel it. Thankfully, for me, looking back, it landed on heads and I did send it in."
Potts has joined the ranks of those who could be called "pop" opera singers, performing operatic covers of rock songs, like R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" in Italian.
"He is the normal guy that has done well," said Cowell. "Everything was stacked against him, he was bullied, he was in debt, he was shy, and then he enters this competition, and within two months of winning, he's number one in 15 countries in the world. It's a fairy tale story," Cowell said.
Cowell also had some words of wisdom for Potts to take on his journey to the top.
"He [Cowell] told me two things: one, don't change, be who you are. And secondly, try and enjoy it," Potts recalled. "And, you know, that's kind of my way of dealing with things — try not to change and enjoy it as much as possible. I'm just me. The way I see things, I'm just an ordinary guy doing what I love doing, and I'm just incredibly fortunate."
Potts' suits may cost a bit more these days, and he's spent a little on dental work, but in the important ways, he's still just Paul, and all this new found fame, he says, won't change who he is.
"I'm not going to be anybody other than who I am," Potts said. "Otherwise, you actually move away from the people that you love and who love you."