Thirteen-year-old Rion Paige was in gym class one day when she noticed a fellow classmate pulling a prank on students. Her friend was playfully running around and ripping the shoes off unsuspecting peers, seemingly benign shenanigans.
But Rion has a physical disability that has left her wrists at 90 degree angles. Getting shoes on and off, then, is a chore. No matter. The classmate proceeded to rip the sneakers right off Rion's feet anyway, leaving her a difficult task in the wake of the prank.
But she loved it.
Yes, you read that right.
"She came to take my shoes. She did it to me -- she didn't realize I needed help," Rion told TheBlaze with excitement booming in her voice.
In other words, the classmate didn't see Rion through the lens of her disability. The act was an equal opportunity (and she says not mean-spirited) prank.
It's that outlook that made America fall in love with the young girl earlier this month when she brought the judges -- and likely most of the country -- to their feet during her audition on "The X Factor."
In just a few short minutes, Rion showed the world that she has overcome her disability -- one that she refuses to be defined by. But while you may already know her talents, your knowledge of the spunky teen likely stops there. That's probably partly because for such a young phenom, Rion is hard to track down. After numerous attempts through numerous channels, we finally got her and her mom on the phone. And if you thought her voice was incredible, just wait until you hear about her life and what sustains her.
Surprised by success
As TheBlaze previously reported, Rion suffers from arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, a disease that has left her wrist joints deformed. She's also nearly blind in her right eye. Singing, though, has been her therapy, using it to both confront and process her struggles.
It was clear from the start of our conversation that Rion was stunned by the attention her story received -- she could hardly believe the the viral attention it has been given. When we told her that TheBlaze's initial story has been "liked" over 150,000 times on Facebook, alone, she couldn't believe it.
"That's crazy," she said, exuding the same excitement and joy for life that was evident on "The X Factor" stage.
Considering her unceasing positivity, we couldn't help but begin by asking Rion her secret to keeping so upbeat. After all, her maturity and spunk in light of the barriers she faces is inspiring. And while some might have assumed that the young girl was putting on a show with her smiles and demeanor on television, it quickly became clear that Rion was entirely genuine.
"It sounds like it's really complicated, but not, honestly: I go to church," she said. "I let God do it through me. It's not something I try to do -- it's something that comes out of me."
Overcoming Her Struggles
Despite Rion's positivity, the teen said that she's not entirely immune to feeling down. Like anyone else, she has her bad days too. But if her "X Factor" performance is any indicator -- and her mother, Alisa, claims it is -- the teenager puts most adults to shame when it comes to her outlook on life.
It was clear from my interview with the young woman that she's truly extraordinary, possessing wisdom, knowledge and experience that exceeds other kids her age. Perhaps it's her struggles that have given her this insight -- an ability to discern good character in others, while also refining her own outlook based on the barriers she's so boldly overcome.
"There's days where I've struggled with [it], but it never takes me long to get over it," explained Rion. "You don't need to sit in your own filth for long because then you get depressed."
Truer words never spoken. And she should know, as Rion has been forced to confront some scenarios that others her age have never even dreamed of.
While she has continued to bravely overcome the limitations associated with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, it isn't always easy, particularly when it comes to some of the "simple" tasks that we all take for granted.
"I needed extra help with my locker and carrying textbooks," she said.
Her mother also noted that simple tasks like opening the blinds pose a problem for the teen. But not all challenges are physical.
Rion regularly encounters other kids her age who have questions about her hands. What happened? Were you born with that? What's wrong with you?
Those are just some of the questions that the singer has fielded over the years. She told TheBlaze that people have even told her that she looks weird -- something that certainly stings. But Rion, who is now in 8th grade, takes the questions and curiosities in stride.
"You've just got to shake it off," she said, noting that she lets people know, "I'm cool -- I'm just like you."
Rion's Stunning Character and Wisdom
When one considers what most 13-year-olds are saying and doing, Rion's different. She's not only wise, but she has an inherent ability to understand not only her circumstances, but the gravity of the challenges that come along with them.
"You have to be accepting of yourself, which is a difficult thing, especially when you're 13 and a girl," she said, leaving me in a bit of awe.
Sure, adults know that it's difficult to be a young girl, especially in today's society. But for a teen to realize it the way an adult looking back at her childhood would is certainly uncommon.
"It says in the Bible that we're created in Jesus' image -- and I am," Rion added.
Perhaps her most moving comment, though, came as she explained her overall outlook on life. Some might say she's making lemonade out of lemons, but somehow her views constitute much more than that comparison can ever convey.
"Well, I mean it's just like everyday -- you take it one grain of sand at a time. You have to learn how to deal with it, because its something you are and can't change and accept from bottom of heart and love wholeheartedly," she told TheBlaze, going on to say that she hopes she can inspire the hopeless and downtrodden.
"You've just got to know that there are other people in this world that might be discouraged like I was at other times in my life -- that you can inspire them to get up and go to school and make them feel like they matter," added the singer.
The "X Factor" Experience
None of this positivity should surprise anyone who watched "The X Factor" or who viewed the viral clip that has been making its rounds. As soon as she hit the stage, Rion shocked the judges -- singers Demi Lovato, Kelly Rowland and Paulina Rubio and oft-times harsh critic Simon Cowell -- and let the world know exactly who she is.
From sharing her struggles to her love for music, the pint-sized singer held little back.
"I have arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, which is basically a whole bunch of words to describe something simple," she told the judges.
"Ever since I was little I would just sort of find a way to get to a microphone," Rion added in an interview with producers. "I would put it in between my knees, and try to get it into my foot, and put it in my mouth."
Despite appearing entirely comfortable on the stage in front of Cowell, I asked her how she was feeling and what was really going through her head as she walked out onto the stage.
"I was really nervous. I don't think you could be human if you weren't nervous there," said Rion. "When I went on I was like, 'I've got to prove myself. They have the time in their hands and I can't control what they say. ... I've got to put my best foot forward, because that's all I could do."
She added that the experience was entirely surreal and that she was "freaking out." But once it came time to sing, the teen said that the words came to her and the nerves subsided. After all, she was in her element. So she belted out the notes and left an impression so notable that it forced even Cowell to his feet.
Watch the performance, below:
Perhaps some of the ease that Rion felt once she began singing was rooted in the fact that she went in with a balanced mindset. While she wanted more than anything to be chosen to compete, the singer also said that she was well aware that this was a television show and that being selected or rejected was going to be dependent on a variety of factors.
Rion did admit that, of the judges, Cowell had her the most nervous.
"I was so like, 'Okay Simon, I've seen you be kind of mean to people and I've seen you be awesome and really nice,'" she said.
In the end, though, music's most cranky critic ended up being visibly moved by Rion's story and her vocal abilities, calling the young girl "literally extraordinary."
"He saw past my hands," Rion told TheBlaze.
The other judges, too, offered up accolades and words of inspiration. Lovato said that she was impressed and could not believe the struggles that the young girl had faced. Rion noted that Rowland also called her "pretty awesome" and told her to buckle up for the bumpy ride. And those are only a few of the positive comments.
Rion's Singing History
While the Jacksonville, Fla., native is obviously looking to win, she's hoping that just her initial "X Factor" appearance will offer enough exposure so she can share her story with the masses. If that's one of the goals, consider it a success: Her audition clip has been viewed by more than six million people on YouTube and the teen is making a splash in her hometown too.
"When I went to youth group the other night they were just swarming me," she said. "It was really exciting and they actually bought a television [so that the youth group can watch]."
Those close to Rion certainly aren't surprised by her success. She has won local singing contests in the past and regularly performs. The teen told TheBlaze that, while she started singing in the car, it wasn't until she was seven that she began taking performing a bit more seriously.
Rion would head out with her family to karaoke destinations where she'd belt out tunes just for the fun of it.
"You know how everyone takes their kid to tee-ball -- that would be my thing, my sport," she said of karaoke singing.
Considering this history and her vocal ability, when the teen learned that the "X Factor" was heading to Charleston, S.C., Rion put together a portfolio with all of the audition paperwork and begged her mom to take her. Naturally, Alisa complied and, well, the rest is history.
Her Mother's Response
Throughout Rion's interview with TheBlaze, the 13-year-old described her mother, Alisa, as profoundly supportive. And in speaking with the proud parent about her daughter's success, we learned even more about Rion.
Alisa, who was visibly emotional as she watched her daughter perform on the "X Factor" stage, called the experience "surreal" and, to a degree, scary.
"It's sort of like sending your kid off to kindergarten," she said. "It was her moment. There as nothing I could do to save her."
In the end, though, any fears were dispelled by the encouraging result -- amazing support and kindness from each of the judges and a shot at winning the entire show when the competition phase of "The X Factor" heats up.
While Alisa had always known her daughter was "extraordinary," hearing the same from experts in the music business was a touching corroboration.
"It was amazing, to hear confirmation like that [from] people in this world who were so huge," the glowing mother told TheBlaze. "I have been preaching that to her since she was born."
While I had learned quite a bit about the struggles that Rion has faced, I was interested in understanding more about how her mother has been able to get past some of her daughter's very life-altering barriers. As it turns out, Alisa's Christian faith has been the driving force.
"For me faith is everything, God is everything. It's the only reason I feel like I've been somewhat of a good mother," she said (she also has a four-year-old named Colton). "Faith is everything ... to realize that you have a bigger purpose, that its all part of his plan."
Alisa said that up until recently her big goal for Rion was getting her daughter to attend the middle school dance and ensuring that she wouldn't be sitting alone in a corner. Now, in contrast, the 13-year-old will be on a national stage, sharing her God-given gifts with millions. What was so recently just a dream has now become a reality -- one that the mother so excitedly awaits.
Of course, with fame and notoriety come some issues that parents like Alisa must consider. She said that the Paige family is taking various steps to ensure that they don't encounter the common pitfalls that come with notoriety and success.
"Communication is always huge in the family ... [and I'm] sticking to my faith even more, making sure I'm with [Rion] and setting people up for accountability for my husband and I to make sure we do stay grounded," she said.
Alisa said that she had a hunch her daughter would be selected to compete, so she was emotionally prepared. Despite Rion's challenges, the proud mother said that it isn't uncommon for fascinating and amazing things to happen in the teen's life.
"Things happen to her that don't happen to normal people," said Alisa.
So it seems. It will be fascinating to see just how far Rion's spunk, positivity and vocal chops take her in the coming weeks -- and beyond.
TheBlaze's Jon Seidl contributed to this report.
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