Simon Cowell leaned on his microphone at "The X Factor" judges' table and sighed in frustration. He finally said, "I'm going to send home Rion, I'm afraid, sweetheart," and the TV audience erupted.
Onstage, Rion Paige, 13 years old at the time, nodded matter-of-factly, her blond curls bouncing. After a few words of farewell to the show's host, Rion walked off the stage and knew immediately what she had to do. Cry on her mom's shoulder? Take to social media to say her fifth-place finish in season three of the show was unfair? After all, Cowell – arguably the most famous talent show judge in America – had compared her to Carrie Underwood at her X Factor audition. Or should she just give up her dreams altogether?
None of the above. Rion simply asked her mom to grab a copy of her favorite devotional from her dressing room. She then handed it to her X Factor coach, singer Demi Lovato, and that's when Rion immediately felt peace about the entire situation.
"Sure, it's crushing [not winning], because you give it 120 percent, but I knew my fate didn't rest in X Factor's hands," Rion says. "My fate is in the Almighty's [hands]."
Wait, you mean it's OK when your dreams get rerouted in front of millions? It's more important to tell others about Jesus? Rion responds with a resounding yes!
"The X Factor experience really challenged my faith," the now 17-year-old says from her home in Nashville. "But I realized what His will for me was: I was constantly brought to my knees in prayer. And that's a good thing!"
Faith in the hard times
Born with a condition called arthrogryposis multiplex congenita (AMC), Rion's wrists are frozen in place, and her right eye is almost completely blind. That means she has to find unusual ways to do almost everything, like hold a microphone, carry schoolbooks, even drive. Yet find a way she does, as she excitedly describes finally finding a "regular" car she can drive.
"In other words," she laughs, "I'm a normal, functioning human being just like anyone else."
Despite her perpetually perfect hair, megawatt smile and astonishing collection of go-with-everything cowgirl boots, Rion has shed plenty of tears in her lifetime. Besides the challenges with her hands and eye, Rion spent most of her childhood without her biological father, who struggles with addiction. Her parents divorced around the time she hit the teen years, and she admits to having "a really rocky relationship" with her dad both before and after she made her move from Florida to Tennessee.
"The men in my church have really stepped up to fill that [father-daughter] void," she says. "It's been really special."
Another person who has been really special: her stepdad, whom Rion says has "provided so much redemption" in her life.
"#happyfathersday to the best Step-Dad out there!" she tweeted on Father's Day last year. "You always make my days bright and shiny. Thankful to be loved by ya."
That attitude is possible, Rion says, because she was loved first by her heavenly Father. She grew up in church and asked Jesus Christ to be her Savior when she was about 8. It's that relationship in her life that now drives everything else.
"My faith is my everything, the reason that I breathe," she says. "Every decision is based on His faithfulness."
An easy-yet-hard decision Rion made in the last few years was whether to move from her hometown, Jacksonville, Florida, to the neon lights of Nashville, country music's home base. Besides leaving her home-school community (Rion still home-schools in Nashville), the most difficult part was leaving her Jacksonville church.
"I had a community there," she explains. "I had people who discipled me, and they knew me fully."
Thankfully there's FaceTime, Facebook and airplanes to help keep Rion connected. She still touches base with her Jacksonville mentors every week.
Living in Nashville had been Rion's ultimate goal ever since she was 9. "I didn't know how I was going to convince my mom to let me move [to Nashville] – she always joked about getting me a '615' phone number so I could pretend I'm from there," she laughs. No more need to pretend!
Rion now keeps busy with other goals, like writing songs and preparing for a radio tour. She released a single called "Freight Train," and when she's not performing, she's usually songwriting – her favorite activity since early childhood – either alone or with co-writers.
"The best part about Nashville is being understood in a different light, because a lot of people do what I do," she says. "I love being able to connect with people who love what I love – it's so special. When I find believers, sitting in a room with them, writing a song with them, it makes it so worth the struggles of moving here!"
And which believer in Christ would she choose to write and perform with? Easy: Hollyn. Rion doesn't see her as a cookie cutter artist. "She is willing to be herself in front of everyone, and it's really special to see a young woman claim Jesus, whether in music or whatever the Lord has gifted her in," Rion explains.
The same could be said about Rion, but she's quick to point out that her life isn't all sweet and easy.
"In my 'exciting' life, there's definitely been times of quiet and lost hope and wrestling with my faith,” she confesses. "I just have to say, 'Lord, I've seen Your hand at work and I trust You.' " And when she does that, Rion is at peace knowing He will put her in a season, time and place that will grow her. She even encourages other girls to trust that the Lord will make them into the young women they're supposed to be.
With that said, Rion admits that certain growing places are harder than others, like when you just want to fit in but your hands and eye look different from everyone else's. Since her X Factor fame, however, Rion has become an informal celebrity spokeswoman for AMC, meeting kids around the country with the same condition and educating those who are unfamiliar with it. Earlier this year, Rion enjoyed participating in AMC Awareness Day by helping illuminate a pedestrian bridge in Nashville with blue lights (the color of AMC awareness).
"I would love America to know that AMC is difficult and makes me think outside the box every day, yet it's already spoken so much louder than my voice or my singing," Rion says. "You are not defined by what people say you are or who you're going to be – you're defined by the Lord. [He] has created you and equipped you with everything you need to advance His kingdom; AMC is just a byproduct of what He's given me."
'So much bigger than me'
Rion has goals like any other teenager – well, almost any other teen. She wants to go to college, learn how to manage her free-spirited locks, get married and have kids, and hopefully adopt a child who has AMC, too. Oh, and she wants to meet and sing with Carrie Underwood, the famous country-music artist to whom Cowell first compared Rion when he explained on "The X Factor," "This is the easiest yes I have ever given anyone in my life."
The truth is, Underwood did invite Rion to sing with her, at EverBank Field, the football stadium that seats 82,000 fans where Rion's hometown Jacksonville Jaguars play. But Rion politely declined Underwood's invitation.
"There was a high school student who passed away in Logan, Ohio, and I had promised to sing at a benefit for her family," Rion explains. "It was the same night as Carrie's concert. I had to tell Carrie no – because my word is who I am."
So instead of singing in front of tens of thousands with one of country music's biggest stars, Rion sang solo at a small community theater. But the theater was sold out, and dozens of kids with AMC showed up to hear their role model sing.
"In my 17 years of living, I have never truly fit in," Rion says. "But I know that this is all so much bigger than me, the way that I look and how people perceive me and the choices I make."
Rion is confident that following Christ helps to provide all the insight she needs. She accepts that she may be on the radio someday – and she may not. Either way, Rion is content because she believes that trusting the Lord and staying in His presence is where she most wants to be.
This article first appeared in the February 2018 issue of Brio magazine. This bimonthly Focus on the Family publication for teen girls includes 76 pages filled with inspiring profiles, cultural insights, health and beauty tips, faith-filled features and fun DIY projects. Subscribe today at www.BrioMagazine.com.
Crystal Kupper is a grad student, military wife, marathon runner and mom to four small children.