Center stage
Staff Sgt. Darren McGraw sings during the finals of Operation Rising Star 2012. He took second place in this year's competition. McGraw, who participated in Operation Rising Star twice at Fort Campbell, Ky., and twice in Germany, will report to Fort Bragg, N.C., in January.

SAN ANTONIO -- Georgia Army National Guard Spc. Constance Mack, representing Presidio of Monterey, Calif., won the 2012 Operation Rising Star military singing contest Dec. 15 at Fort Sam Houston Theatre.

"For me to win this is very humbling because I was not expecting it whatsoever," said Mack, 26, a native of St. Petersburg, Fla., who considers Stone Mountain, Ga., home. "Now I can wake up in the morning and start singing any song any way I want. The fact that I can wake up and start singing lets me know that singing is a part of me."

Staff Sgt. Darren McGraw, representing the U.S. Army Garrison in Grafenwoehr, Germany, finished runner-up in the weeklong competition that began with 12 semifinalists selected from 34 military installations around the world. McGraw, who participated in Operation Rising Star twice at Fort Campbell, Ky., and twice in Germany, will report to Fort Bragg, N.C., in January.

"I think they got it right," McGraw said of the judges' decisions combined with more than 121,000 online votes from viewers. "We were the top 12 in this competition for a reason. I'm not saying that I'm better than anybody here or that this person had more support or anything. I think the way it was supposed to happen, it happened."

The shows were televised by the Pentagon Channel and available for viewing on the Internet at www.OpRisingStar.com.

"This is a steppingstone," said McGraw, 31, a native of Pensacola, Fla. "Last week, you could have been singing in a karaoke bar, and now we're all over the Internet. I couldn't ask for more exposure. This is what I wanted to do. I wanted to share my gift with the world and be known for it. Operation Rising Star has allowed me to do that, so I'm overjoyed."

Mack relied on her training from DeKalb School of the Arts in Atlanta and Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tenn., where she majored in music, to dazzle Operation Rising Star judges and fans with her vocal versatility.

Her song selections included "Still I Rise" by Yolanda Adams, "Natural Woman" by Aretha Franklin, "Love on Top" by Beyonce, Stevie Wonder's "All I Do," Shirley Bassey's "I Who Have Nothing," capped by Jackson Browne's "The Pretender," which was requested by her first sergeant, Daniel Yunghans, at Presidio of Monterey.

Along the way, she stunned everyone with a stirring rendition of "Nessun Dorma," Giacomo Pucini's Italian aria made famous by Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Boccelli.

"There is a strong sense of comfort in that type of music for me to perform," said Mack, noting that she received mostly operatic and classical vocal training from Dr. Angela Holder at Carson-Newman. "I waited until after the voting was in so that I could do that part. I still had to remain true to what my heart wanted. I can give the audience a pop song -- I don't even really listen to pop -- or whatever song they want. I can give them that, but I kind of wanted to be a little selfish on that one song and just do what I wanted to do. That was just me."

The strategy worked. On a stage where no one expected to hear such a sound, Mack nearly brought the house down with "Nessun Dorma."

"Pavarotti's 1984 version stole the cake, and ever since people have been trying to sing it like him," Mack said. "It's been featured on a few of these type shows, like "America's Got Talent," and I think it was on "Britain's Got Talent." Mack also got lucky when she found the song listed on the site from which ORS competitors were allowed to select karaoke songs.

"Nessun dorma" translated in English means "None Shall Sleep," which defined the feeling of contestants in the five-shows-in-eight-days event sponsored by the U.S. Army Installation Management Command and its G9 of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs, which include Army Entertainment.

"Honestly, I stayed up one night and just listened to every song on there," Mack said. "Actually, I had to do it over the span of three nights. It's really hard to choose a perfect seven. … It was a marathon, but I'm glad I pulled it through."

Mack was surprised to reach the final round of elimination because she came to San Antonio totally unprepared to rally a group of online voters in California or back home in Georgia.

"I didn't expect to win, at all," she said. "I was just here to sing, not necessarily to compete. I was here because I sang and I got chosen to be top 12, by chance. I got here with all these wonderful artists and the first day that we did our performance everyone was on the same playing field and it was all fun and we were having a great time.

"The next day, voting lines opened and everybody just went crazy with the voting -- calling up their people and contacting their marketing crews: 'Hey, back home, I need you to start voting right now.' And I didn't have any of that. I didn't prepare myself for that, I guess. I didn't know how this monster was even working to begin with. I was sitting on a sofa just watching them on their iPods, iPhones and iPads, contacting everybody they knew. And I was just like, 'Well, number one, my phone is not that smart. I'm not getting good reception, so I can't really contact anybody. So maybe these guys are going to win it after all, and it will be awesome if they do.'

"I wasn't expecting to win it all; wasn't expecting anything to even progress because I hadn't been putting myself out there. That's one thing I don't completely understand how to do."

After the first round of elimination, Mack had a sudden realization.

"After the first night of those who had to say goodbye to the contest, I was like, 'Hmm, this is kind of real now. Here I am, and these artists are still side-by-side, and I'm still in their midst, which means I have no time to sleep.' I think it clicked to me when (vocal coach and judge) Debra Byrd said: 'You have a mission. You have a mission.' The mission to me was just to sing my song, not necessarily to win. I did that. And I hoped I made people proud. The whole time I was just thinking of my company back on Presidio."

Mack is part of the Company A, 229th Military Intelligence Battalion at Presidio of Monterey, where she is a two-time local Operation Rising Star winner studying Chinese at the Defense Language Institute.

Mack had a complete understanding of where she wanted to go from San Antonio.

"I've drawn up this really succinct plan of life for the next five years," she said. "After DLI and I'm MOS-qualified, I want to begin grad school so that I can become a principal, and at the same time be ROTC at the college of my choice so that I can become an officer.

"I want everything at the same time, but I really have to look at what is most important to me. I love the hearts of little children, and I love their hearts and their minds -- I want to see them grow and for me to be a principal. For some reason, even though God has given me music as a gift, it is within me, I was born with it and I am aware of that and I thank him for it -- even though music is there and present, for some reason the desire to be a principal is stronger. I don't understand it either. If there was a way I could be a Chinese-speaking officer-principal-singer, fine, I would do it all. But until I figure it out, which I will, I've got to take it one step at a time."

That's exactly how she topped a field of 12 semifinalists in the 2012 Operation Rising Star Live Finals Week at the home of Army Entertainment.

"This woke me up to say that things are still possible," Mack said. "Say I was growing up and I wanted a music career in life and I joined the military. If I joined the military wishing to become this star, then I could pretty much hang up my dreams to become a singer or being able to perform because I'm supposed to be doing pushups, I'm supposed to be in the field, I'm supposed to be eating an MRE, not this.

"But being here definitely woke me up to what the Army has to offer. I didn't even realize that they had this option. It's really a blessing to know that I can mix both together and do both together -- still serve the country, still serve God, still serve the public and whoever else wants to put in the tape and listen to it. It's nice to be able to do it all at once. I'm figuring it out. I'm on my way."

Page last updated Thu December 27th, 2012 at 00:00