On Sept. 16, Celina Graves’ journey on “America’s Got Talent” came to an end when she didn’t earn enough votes to reach the final round of the NBC television series last month.

But there’s one thing the 31-year-old Escondido singer wants people to know about being eliminated from the show just before the $1 million prize round. As one of the top 15 finalists from more than 80,000 people who tried out for the show this season, she still feels like a winner.

“A lot of people keep saying to me ‘sorry you didn’t make it to the final’ instead of congratulations,” Graves said in an interview this past week. “I’m telling people don’t feel sorry for me. I’m very content and happy with the outcome. I know that this is just the beginning and I thank everyone for the support.”

Graves is already working on an extended-play album of original songs that she wrote with her wife, Erica Graves, and her father, Ed Graves. And when the pandemic subsides, she also plans a global concert tour, because her fan base has expanded to India, Africa, Indonesia and Central America.

She was also recruited on Sept. 25 by the San Diego Padres to sing the national anthem in a pre-recorded video for a Major League Baseball playoff game sometime in October. Not only does Graves love singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it will also be a full-circle moment for her family because her dad once sang the national anthem at a Padres game many years ago.

A portrait of musician Celina Graves at her home in Escondido

A portrait of musician Celina Graves on an upstairs balcony of the apartment builsing in Escondido where she lives with her wife, Erica, and their dog, Hope.

(Charlie Neuman/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Graves was working security at a North County casino before she landed an on-screen audition with AGT earlier this year. Being a professional singer has been her dream since her teens, but for many years she struggled with anxiety and a lack of confidence. And every time she got close to signing a record contract or getting picked to compete on TV singing competition like “American Idol” in the past, she always hit the same wall with promoters and publicists. They loved her singing but not her image.

As Graves told the AGT judges in her emotional pre-taped audition that aired June 9, she grew up dressing in her brother’s clothes, was mistreated by other girls and feared by business owners for her seemingly tough exterior. But in that episode, lead judge Simon Cowell told Graves she looks great and she should never let a stylist change her.

In the months that followed, Graves built an international following on her Instagram page, including many teens and young adults struggling with issues of bullying, self-esteem and sexual identity. She has frequently held live chats on Instagram to offer these youth advice and support, which she said has been one of most fulfilling parts of her newfound fame.

“It means everything to me because growing up I never felt that from anyone other than my family,” she said. “To know that I’ve reached so many people across the world by being who I am makes me feel complete. It makes me want to inspire others to do the same and not worry about what people say about them, because you can be anything you want to be and reach hearts that you never thought you could reach.”

Celina Graves of Escondido on "America's Got Talent"

Celina Graves of Escondido auditions for the judges in her first appearance on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” on June 9.

(Courtesy photo)

Graves grew up in a musical family in Mira Mesa. Her grandfather was a singer and a Baptist preacher. Her father has performed for decades with the bands NRG and Fattburger and with artists including Marva Hines, Michael Bolton, Celine Dion and The Commodores.

Ed Graves said Celina showed an affinity for music as a baby and was singing into a karaoke microphone by age 3. In her mid-teens she started singing more seriously but bullying at school gave her severe stage fright. For a long time, she would only sing at home or in the car with her dad. After he recorded her singing to prove to her she had true talent, she created an Instagram page (instagram.com/celinagravesofficial) that she has used ever since as a marketing tool to book gigs singing at parties, weddings and other events.

Last fall, she was working full time in security at Valley View Casino in Valley Center and training for a career in law enforcement when a talent scout from AGT saw her Instagram videos and encouraged her to try out for the show. At her filmed audition in early March, with her father and wife seated in the front row of a packed L.A. theater, she drew a standing ovation from all four judges and the audience.

Judges voted her through to quarter-finals, and on Sept. 2, the voting public pushed her forward to the semifinal round. In the semi-finals on Sept. 15, Graves performed one of her favorite songs, “Jealous” by Labrinth, on the rooftop of a building on the Universal Studios Hollywood backlot. After the show, she watched the video of her performance over and over and said felt she’d given the best performance she could.

Escondido singer Celina Graves performs Sept. 1 on NBC's "America's Got Talent."

Escondido singer Celina Graves performs London Grammar’s “Strong” on the Sept. 1 episode of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” Her performance moved her through the competition to the semifinals round.

(Courtesy of Chris Haston/NBC)

“I wouldn’t take anything back,” she said. “I am hard on myself and I critique myself and we’re all our own worst critics. But listening to it back, I felt like I did the best that I could have done.”

On the results show Sept. 16, Graves was called up for elimination aside singer Cristina Rae, who was voted into the finale while Graves was not.

“I immediately smiled because you want to see people you connect with go through,” Graves said. “I was happy for her and I clapped for her and walked offstage with a smile on my face because I had made it that far.”

Graves recently returned to L.A. to watch the live broadcast of the season finale and results show. Spoken word artist Brandon Leake won the $1 million prize. Graves went back to work on Friday at the casino. She said it has been funny since she began appearing on TV. Many places she goes, including work, people recognize her and want to pose with her for selfies.

Last weekend she launched a new website, therealcelinag.com, which she will use to promote her music and upcoming concerts. Because of the pandemic, she isn’t able to go on tour, but said her goal one year from now is to be making music full-time and performing live in front of fans around the world.

Recently a family member in New York sent her $20,000 to help launch the next phase of her career and she has launched a new crowd-funding campaign online to fuel the next stage of her career. The first step will be finishing her album, which will have a mix of original R&B, club songs and slow ballads.

The songwriting process is a family affair. Erica writes poems and lyrics that Celina sets to a melody. Then her father, Ed, finishes the songs by writing the music. Her favorite track is a song called “Changing Ways,” about changing bad habits to make the person you love happy. Graves said having her father along for the journey on AGT and now a part of producing her first album has made them closer than ever.

“It’s just been such a crazy roller-coaster ride for my whole family. He’s really happy,” she said. “This is one of the things he wanted in his life, so for him to watch me and live his dream through me makes me feel whole.”

Portrait of singer and musician Celina Graves with her wife, Erica, and their dog, Hope, at their apartment in Escondido.

Portrait of singer and musician Celina Graves with her wife, Erica, and their dog, Hope, at their apartment in Escondido.

(Charlie Neuman/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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