Johnny Manuel took the internet by storm this week with his show-stopping audition for The Voice Australia. Not only did the big-voiced singer’s take on Diana Ross’ classic “Home” earn him a four-chair turn, it made Manuel a viral star — for not exactly the first time in his long road to musical success.
While Manuel will be competing as part of Guy Sebastian’s team on the Aussie reality show (much to the chagrin of a blocked Kelly Rowland), many new fans of the Flint, Mich., native may not realize he got his big break on another reality show much closer to home, following a short-lived career as a child star.
Below, Billboard rounded up five things you need to know about The Voice Australia hopeful.
1. He got his start in the recording industry as a child star in the ’90s and early 2000s.
At the age of 14, Manuel signed his first record deal. Adopting the stage name Lil’ Johnny, the singer found a mentor in Jermaine Dupri, who produced four tracks on the burgeoning star’s debut album, I Got You. The LP was released July 10, 2001, when Manuel was just 16 years old, but doesn’t appear to be available on any streaming platforms. However, the swaggering music video for the title track and lead single still exists, thanks to YouTube.
2. He toured with Dupri’s other protege, Lil’ Bow Wow.
In the spring and summer of 2001, Manuel — then Lil’ Johnny — served as one of the opening acts for Lil’ Bow Wow’s first-ever headlining tour alongside Lil’ Zane and B2K. The 25-date North American jaunt introduced the child star to audiences from Los Angeles to New York City, including three consecutive nights in Bow Wow’s hometown of Atlanta.
“I didn’t think I would enjoy riding on the bus, but I do,” the then-16-year-old told MTV News at the time about his first touring experience. “I love being in the bunk and closing the blinds and going to sleep. Plus, me and my dancers play PlayStation 2 and watch movies and stuff. I like road tripping.”
3. He appeared on America’s Got Talent in 2017.
During his audition for season 12 of America’s Got Talent, Manuel electrified the judges — and crowd — with a soaring rendition of Whitney Houston’s iconic 1993 single “I Who Have Nothing.” The young R&B singer’s vocals were so impressive that it led host Tyra Banks to declare “Whitney hears you honey” from the wings mid-performance, and that was even before he nailed the song’s triumphant key change.
Manuel also opened up about his past disappointments in the music industry. “I mean, as a kid, I thought that I was going to take off and see the stars, and obviously it didn’t happen that way,” he told judge Simon Cowell after introducing himself. “I hope what can happen is that I’m finally able to be who I am and present my music to the world.”
4. He earned a coveted Golden Buzzer from Seal.
For AGT‘s Judges Cuts round, Manuel referenced Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway as two of his primary inspirations before knocking a cover of the former’s iconic 1981 ballad “Lately” out of the park, earning a Golden Buzzer from guest judge Seal. He would eventually go all the way to the season’s semi-finals, where he delivered emotive original song “Blind Faith” before being eliminated ahead of the finals.
5. He competed for Bulgaria during Eurovision 2018
Following Manuel’s experience on America’s Got Talent, he was personally recruited by songwriter Borislav Milanov to represent Bulgaria during Eurovision 2018 as part of pop vocal group Equinox. “I think the message Bulgaria is sending to the world with having two American artists is just one of inclusiveness,” he said in an interview during the competition. “Bulgarians have shown me great hospitality since I’ve been here. It’s a really uniting place, so it feels good, it feels like love.”
Performing the Milanov-penned ballad “Bones,” Manuel and the rest of Equinox eventually placed 14th in the finals for the annual international song contest. (Milanov, however, took home the Eurovision composer award for the track.)