TV Talent Show Contestants Who Died Tragically

Each decade seems to have its definitive and extremely popular television format. In the '70s, it was variety shows, in the '80s, it was family sitcoms, and in the 2000s and beyond, it's been televised talent shows. There's just something irresistible and overwhelmingly exciting about seeing an unknown, undiscovered, gifted, and trained individual get in front of a panel of judges (and some TV cameras and stage lights) and sing their hearts out like they were already pop, rock, or Broadway legends.

Programs like "American Idol," "The Voice," and "America's Got Talent" coronate new stars with regularity, while also sending a number of worthy runners-up into the spotlight. And like any other celebrity of any other stripe, it's difficult to fathom their deaths — they're so preternaturally talented, so larger than life, but, sadly, they're mere mortals like everyone else. Here are some people who shined brightly on a TV talent show to the delight of millions, and whose deaths may have flown under your radar.

Beverly McClellan

As one of the first breakout talents in the first season of "The Voice" in 2011, folky, bluesy, rock n' roll singer Beverly McClellan helped make the show a hit. According to People, her passionate performance of Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart" in her audition earned the interest of judges Adam Levine and Christina Aguilera; she opted to join the latter's team and made it all the way to the final four of the competition. After "The Voice," McClellan scored a couple of minor hits with "Lovesick" and "The Thrill is Gone."

According to a GoFundMe medical costs fundraising page (via USA Today), doctors diagnosed McClellan with stage 3 endometrial cancer in March 2018. The disease metastasized, spreading to her colon, bladder, and intestines. While hospitalized for treatment, McClellan died on October 31, 2018, according to a post from her wife on Facebook (via Deadline). McClellan was 49.

Janice Freeman

Janice Freeman was a formidable competitor and talented singer, evident from her debut performance on "The Voice" in 2017. According to NBC News, Freeman got two judges to turn around to extend an offer to join their team — Miley Cyrus and Jennifer Hudson were both wowed by her stirring cover of Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive" as her blind audition piece. Freeman went with Cyrus, and she proved adept at a number of styles, performing songs by Etta James (via Rolling Stone), Brandi Carlile, and Collective Soul (via Rare). She made it all the way to the top 11 before elimination.

Freeman discussed her health history during her time on "The Voice," which included a cervical cancer diagnosis in 2012 (via NBC) and living with the chronic condition lupus. According to a tweet from her family on her account, Freeman was rushed to a hospital after collapsing at home. Following severe pneumonia and a blood clot that had lodged in her heart, Freeman died at the age of 33 in 2019.

Christina Grimmie

Already a YouTube star as a teenager thanks to her powerfully sung covers of Miley Cyrus songs, according to Billboard, Christina Grimmie made one of the most auspicious debuts in the history of "The Voice." She auditioned with Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball," earning a chair "turnaround" from all four of the show's celebrity panelists, who all wanted Grimmie on their team. The singer ultimately finished in third place but still became one of the most successful acts to emerge from "The Voice," scoring hit singles, landing a recording contract, and winning iHeartRadio's Rising Star competition.

According to The Orlando Sentinel, Grimmie played a concert in Orlando on June 10, 2016, and during a meet-and-greet after-show, a man (Kevin Loibl, a fan fixated on Grimmie who claimed to co-workers to know her and insisted that he'd one day marry the singer) approached and fired a gun at her. Grimmie's brother jumped atop Loibl, who broke free and shot and killed himself. Hours later, Grimmie died from injuries suffered in the attack. She was 22.

Jay Jay Phillips

Unlike most other TV talent shows, "America's Got Talent" opens its stage and star-making machinery to more than just belters and divas. In Season 4, per the New York Post, the series welcomed Jay Jay Phillips, who represented a throwback to the late '80s in both presentation and talent — with towering and teased out hair and flamboyant costumes, he played glam-metal on a keyboard draped around his neck. Despite his infectious charisma and undeniable musicianship, Phillips was quickly eliminated from contention, but returned to "America's Got Talent" eight years later, where he didn't make it past the quarterfinals.

Outside of his solo stints on "America's Got Talent," Phillips played with the band Mettal Maffia. On November 30, 2021, the group's Instagram account broke the news that Phillips had died. "It is with great sadness we inform you all of the loss of our bandmate/brother/and friend," the statement read. "It still doesn't feel real." Phillips' friend, Seph Lawless, told TheWrap that five days prior, the musician's girlfriend discovered him unresponsive and that he died in his sleep at home following a COVID-19 diagnosis. Phillips was 30.

Skilyr Hicks

Tremendously gifted and boasting a high-level stage presence, Skilyr Hicks auditioned for Season 8 of "America's Got Talent" at age 14. She sang and played guitar, performing an original, gut-wrenching piece about the death of her estranged father, which she wrote herself, according to USA Today. Demonstrably moved, judges moved Hicks along to the next round (via Billboard), where she sang another self-penned song, "Second Chance." Hicks didn't advance any further on "America's Got Talent," but she made headlines after her time on the show for personal and criminal issues, arrested on domestic violence charges in 2017 (via WRDW) and underage drinking in 2018 (per Fox News).

On December 7, 2021, according to TMZ, Hicks was discovered lifeless and unresponsive in the home of a friend, unnamed in reports. Chief Deputy Chad Brooks of the Pickens County Sheriff's Office told TMZ that authorities believe Hicks likely died of a drug overdose, as her body was discovered on a bathroom floor with narcotics and paraphernalia nearby. Hicks was 23.

Neal E. Boyd

Unlike the pop-centric "American Idol," judges and audiences for "America's Got Talent" can expect a wider range of vocal talent. Take, for example, Neal E. Boyd, the winner of the competition series' third season in 2008 (via Variety) on the strength of his impressive, resonant, classical and operatic-style singing. In the wake of his victory (and $1 million prize windfall) Boyd released "My American Dream" in 2009, which reached #3 on Billboard's classical chart and included the singer's take on classic arias, patriotic songs, and show tunes. Boyd performed "God Bless the USA" at the 2012 Republican National Convention and later unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the Missouri state congress.

According to CNN, Boyd died at his mother's home in Sikeston, Missouri, on June 10, 2018. Per a Facebook fundraising request posted a few weeks earlier, Boyd was in a physical therapy program to help him recover from a serious May 2017 car accident that nearly ended his life (according to Fox2Now). Per a coroner's office report, Boyd died from a combination of liver problems, kidney failure, and heart failure. He was 42.

Brandon Rogers

When he decided to audition for the 2017 season of "America's Got Talent," 29-year-old Brandon Rogers had a successful day job going — he was a doctor, finishing up his residency in family practice at Riverside Brentwood Medical Center in Newport News, Virginia, according to the Daily Press. But he still didn't want to completely shut the door on pursuing his other love, singing, and gave that televised singing competition a try. Dr. Rogers earned raves (and a standing ovation) from all four judges, per TalentRecap, for his audition piece, Stevie Wonder's "Ribbon in the Sky." Simon Cowell said he had a "stunning voice," and Heidi Klum commented on his "control and passion." 

He easily earned a pass to continue in the competition, but Rogers wouldn't get the chance to see it through. After his audition, but before he could return to "America's Got Talent" to tape any more episodes, Rogers resumed his studies and medical work in Virginia, and in the early morning hours of June 10, 2017, he was riding as a passenger in a car when the driver fell asleep at the wheel and struck a tree. Rogers died the next day from internal injuries suffered in the accident. He was 29.

Nikki McKibbin

Even in the original season of "American Idol," which quietly debuted as a Fox summer replacement series in 2002, some contestants bristled against the pop and adult contemporary styles the show heavily pursued. Nicki McKibbin was the first successful non-pop singer in "American Idol," winning a large contingent of voters with her rock-meets-soul-oriented covers of rock songs made famous by legendary female artists, like "Piece of My Heart," "Black Velvet," and "Edge of Seventeen," according to the New York Times. Visually striking for her loud fashions and brightly dyed hair, McKibbin almost won the whole thing, finishing in third place, behind Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini. After parting ways with Sony Music over creative differences (per Variety), McKibbin released her debut record "Unleashed" on indie label Chenoa Music in 2007.

According to an October 31, 2020 Facebook post by McKibbin's husband, Craig Sadler, the singer suffered a brain aneurysm. Doctors saw zero chance of recovery, but they kept McKibbin on life support machines so as to prepare her organs for donation, per the pop star's documented wishes. Three days later, McKibbin was taken off life support and she died soon thereafter. McKibbin was 42.

Leah LaBelle

Seattle singer Leah Vladowski successfully auditioned for the third season of "American Idol" in 2004, and she quickly advanced through the early rounds with her smooth and soulful covers of Whitney Houston, Al Green, and The Supremes songs, ultimately landing as a finalist in the top 12. That's as far as Vladowski, rebranded as Leah LaBelle, could get, eliminated after receiving the least number of votes after singing The Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On." According to Billboard, LaBelle signed to So So Def Recordings and recorded and released several EPs, samplers, and singles, including a self-titled collection in 2012 with production from Jermaien Dupri and Pharrell Williams.

Around 2:30 a.m. on January 31, 2018, according to WNEP, LaBelle was riding in the passenger seat of a Range Rover driven by her husband, retired NBA player Rasual Butler, when he lost control of the vehicle. It ran through parking meters and a wall at a high speed, as much as three times above the speed limit (per NBC Los Angeles) before coming to a stop. Los Angeles Police pronounced Butler and LaBelle dead at the scene. The singer was 31.

Rickey Smith

According to USA Today, Rickey Smith compared his velvety vocals to that of R&B star Brian McKnight, which he backed up by making it into the final, top 12 round of Season Two of "American Idol" in 2003 by singing McKnight's "One Last Cry." After advancing with performances of songs by Earth, Wind & Fire and Lionel Richie, he ultimately finished in eighth place, according to Variety, behind the likes of Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken. Following his elimination, Smith remained in Los Angeles for a couple of years and nearly recorded an album, but when it didn't pan out, he returned to his hometown of Oklahoma City.

In the early morning hours of May 6, 2016, according to Variety, Smith was driving eastbound on I-240 outside Oklahoma City. His vehicle was struck at a high speed by Gerardo Cerda, Jr., driving a pickup truck in the wrong direction. Smith was pronounced dead on the scene, suffering multiple blunt force impact injuries, per the Oklahoma Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Smith was 36.

Joanne Borgella

Joanne Borgella wasn't just an aspiring pop and R&B singer — she had a knack for parlaying her talents and abilities into doing well on TV reality shows that would help her advance her career. In 2005 (via Vulture), she won the first season of the televised plus-size beauty pageant and modeling contest "Mo'Nique's Fat Chance," and according to E! News, Borgella signed with Wilhelmina Models. There, she was the face of high profile campaigns for Torrid, Ashley Stewart, and Kohls (via Borgella sang, too, and she made it to the top 24 of "American Idol" in its seventh season in 2008. She performed Dionne Warwick's "I Say a Little Prayer," but was subsequently eliminated.

According to ABC News, Borgella was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in 2013, which spread to her chest. She underwent multiple radiation treatments, one as late as fall 2014, but they didn't effectively stop the disease. Per a Facebook post from Borgella's family, the singer died on October 18, 2014. She was 32.

Michael Johns

Born and raised in Perth, Australia, Michael Johns aspired to be a professional tennis player before he discovered music at age 15 and decided to be a singer, according to Billboard. After moving to the United States, he played solo gigs and joined a band, then under his real name, Michael Lee. He signed with Maverick Records, which didn't release his album until after he made it to "American Idol" for its seventh season in 2008. At the time of his audition, he was 29, the oldest a contestant could be under the show's bylaws. Johns finished in eighth place, and thereafter resumed his recording career.

Billboard broke the news that Johns died in Orange County, California, on August 1, 2014. Reports initially claimed that a blood clot in the singer's ankle, caused by a leg injury, led to his death. The official report from the Orange County Coroner's Office cited the cause of death as dilated cardiomyopathy, of which the fatal symptoms are improper blood flow and an enlarged heart. Johns was 35.

Thomas Wells

Country music singer Thomas Wells made the rounds of TV's talent show circuit in the 2010s, according to Today, competing on "America's Got Talent," "The Voice," "The Winner Is," and, most prominently, the American version of Simon Cowell's group-leaning sing-off "The X Factor." Successfully auditioning in Dallas in 2011, he made it moderately far in the competition, all the way to the "bootcamp" round before his elimination, according to TalentRecap.

After his many musical TV appearances, according to Entertainment Weekly, Wells moved to Oklahoma and got a job working on the line at a tire manufacturing facility. In November 2021, according to TMZ, Wells became caught in a conveyor belt-style machine, and he sustained severe injuries. He was sent to a hospital in Idabel, Oklahoma, before being airlifted to a larger facility in Tyler, Texas, in an attempt to save his life. Ultimately, though, he couldn't survive his injuries. Wells was 46.

Freddie Combs

In addition to singing, Freddie Combs was a minister, and in 2012, he auditioned for the second season of Fox's "The X Factor" by singing an inspirational, secular hymn: Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings," which he dedicated to his wife, Kay Combs. His tremendous performance moved the studio audience to a standing ovation, per Access, and judges Simon Cowell and L.A. Reid offered their support to help Combs in his pursuits, although he didn't make it much further than the next round of competition.

At the time that he competed on "The X Factor," Combs was coming off a dramatic weight loss program (per TMZ), having shed nearly 400 pounds, as documented on the TLC reality show "Ton of Love." He still lived with health issues, and he performed with the use of a wheelchair, according to Deadline. On September 10, 2021, Combs died in a Florida hospital after suffering kidney failure. He was 49.