When one of the newest contestants on “The Voice” went to school in Flandreau, he remembers being a bit timid and didn’t talk to many people.
Choir was Jej Vinson’s favorite class because he has loved to sing since he was a child.
The 23-year-old Filipino singer has become confident enough on stage to get all four celebrities on “The Voice” to turn their chairs around, offer him high praise and send him to the next round of competition.
“It was obviously so crazy,” he said of the moment that he sang Drake’s “Passionfruit,” and chose Kelly Clarkson as his coach for the next phase. Those next shows, called the battle round, will air at the end of this month on Mondays and Tuesdays at 7 p.m. on NBC.
The show features vocalists from across the country who compete for a chance to win a recording contract.
The show is early in the selection process. Coaches Clarkson, Adam Levine, Blake Shelton and John Legend, listen with their backs to the performer. If any or all of the recording artists like what they hear, they push a button and their chair turns toward the stage. Once a chair is turned the singer is automatically selected to move to the next phase of the competition-the battle rounds.
As far as his experiences so far, Jej says, “Everything combined was so overwhelming in the best possible way. It (his audition) was the longest 1 minute, 15 seconds of my life,” he said. “I wasn’t really paying attention to the chairs turning. I was just focusing on the music and trying to shake my nerves away when I was singing.”
Jej, who was 15 and a sophomore in 2011 when he moved to Flandreau, has started working with Clarkson but can’t reveal how the next part of the show plays out. His work on “The Voice” started in October, with blind auditions taped in November.
On the show, Shelton predicted that Jej may win, urging him to join his team.
“I think everybody here is probably a little bit nervous talking to you right now. We all feel like we’re all looking at the winner of ‘The Voice’ this season. I do. I think that,” Shelton said.
When Jej picked Clarkson as his coach, she said, “I can win this show with you!”
Jej, whose birth name is John Erick Joshua Millanes, said he looks forward to his time with Clarkson. “I’m really, really excited to get to know her more as a coach. She seems really genuine,” he said. “I think I’m going to be growing so much as an artist under her direction.”
Jej was born in Davao, Philippines, to parents Elmer and Jinky Millanes. His mother was a nurse and his parents were part of a choir called Advent Cappelle, which went to California to give concerts.
The group decided they would like to go to Texas to sing but didn’t have the money for the trip and connected with a Filipino friend who had moved to Flandreau, said JoAnn Lind, who was the administrator of Riverview Manor at the time. She and her mother Louella Janklow had helped several families legally immigrate to Flandreau to work as nurses and in other jobs at the nursing home. Eventually, she helped the Millanes, too.
When local people decided to raise the $2,000 needed to bring the group to Flandreau, Helen Johns gave the first donation.
Although she doesn’t specifically remember that gesture all these years later, she said she has always appreciated the friendship of the Filipino people in town.
“I just love them. They’re so kind and so gentle and take such good care of our people at the nursing home,” she said. “It’s hard work. They are very exceptional as far as taking care of these senior people. They are just such a kind group of people.”
The Filipinos were able to buy bus tickets to Flandreau, where they based their tours out of, singing locally, at Mount Rushmore on July 4 and in several states.
Eventually, the Millanes, along with their children, John and Alyzza, were able to come to America through Lind’s immigration work in Flandreau. Lind, who is retired and continues to help immigrants, remembers the two Millanes children, who sang at the nursing home and gave a little program before the family moved.
“They’ve got beautiful voices,” she said and agrees that she will be rooting for Jej on the show.
The young people also sang with Advent Cappelle, where their mother was a soprano and their father a tenor.
Jej and his sister, who is now a nurse in Nebraska, got jobs as dishwashers and made beds at the local nursing home.
“I made a lot of connections in that working place,” he said. “Working with the residents was a lot of fun.”
He remembers singing weekly for them. Jej is glad that his first home in America was in Flandreau because he found it to be a friendly, welcoming community with other Filipino families living here.
“I’m just really thankful for JoAnn Lind for taking our family there. Without her help, I wouldn’t be here doing this competition,” he said. “Flandreau is one of the friendliest communities I’ve ever lived in.”
Today, there are 78 Filipinos living in Flandreau, with eight still in Advent Cappelle.
Leonabelle Berdida of Flandreau directs the choir, which Jej and his family sang in starting in their home country in 1997. Jej and his sister were among the first Advent Cappelle Kids group, and he sang a solo in church when he was 5, so small he couldn’t see over the railing.
We had to put him on top of a chair so he would be seen when he was singing,” Berdida said.
Singing is popular in the Philipines because it doesn’t cost money like instruments do, she said. Children would play while their parents rehearsed and would learn the songs just from hearing them.
“Filipinos are very musical. It’s part of the relaxation for everyone,” she said. Karaoke is popular at parties.
Berdida is watching The Voice and knows that the young man who has music in his heart can do well. He sang with the group here from 2011-2015 even though he attended school in town for only one semester.
“I know he’s very talented,” she said. “I really believe in him. I am praying that he can do this. It has been his dream.”
When Jej was 18, he joined an a cappella group in Los Angeles, and he knew music was his calling. His parents moved to California to support him, and he studied music at the University of Southern California, where he started and directed an a cappella group. He has one semester of college left.
Singing helped him grow confident in front of a crowd, he said.
Flandreau isn’t the only place where fans are cheering Jej on. He’s become popular on social media and on YouTube, for example, hitting more than 1 million views in 24 hours.
“I’ve been freaking out for the past day and a half,” he said shortly after the show. “My Instagram is blowing up.”
Jej, with his musical talent, is trending in popularity with millions interested in his performance.
“I’m so grateful for all the love and support that I’ve been getting,” he said.