5 Things to Know About the Singing San Quentin Prison Nurse on ‘America’s Got Talent,’ Dee Dee Simon

“You know, it’s always been a door,” said Dee Dee Simon before performing on America’s Got Talent on Tuesday, June 11. “I get to this door, and I never get to go through it because of something,” added the Oakland, California native, who has worked as a nurse at San Quentin State Prison for 20 years. “So my big dream is to make that door, walk through it, and take care of my family.”

Within moments of singing her first note, Simon immediately made fans of the AGT judges. Mid-way into her powerful performance of Jennifer Holliday’s 1982 hit “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” which was later made famous again by former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson in 2006 in the film adaptation, judge Howie Mandel already standing mid-way through her powerful performance. By the end, all four judges and the audience gave Simon a standing ovation.

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“There’s nothing more frustrating than when you have talent and you just can’t be heard,” judge Simon Cowell told Simon after her performance. “And I promise you tomorrow things are just gonna be better. I think you’re going to inspire a lot of other people.” He added “You picked one of the hardest songs in the world, and you absolutely nailed it. You did amazing.”

Here are five things to know about the barefoot-singing Simon, who blew away all of the AGT judges with her performance.

[RELATED: Watch Prison Nurse Dee Dee Simon Take Off Her Shoes and Bring Simon Cowell Near Tears on ‘America’s Got Talent’ With an ‘American Idol’ Alum’s Hit]

1. She Sang the Same Jennifer Holiday Song to Win ‘Amateur Night at the Apollo’

Before coming to America’s Got Talent, in 2023 Simon performed the same Jennifer Holliday hit on Amateur Night at the Apollo, and was crowned the Amateur Night Grand Finale winner and won the $20,000 prize.

Competing against dozens of other vocalists, dancers, instrumentalists, comedians, spoken-word artists, and other performers, Simon won the Amateur Night competition, which helped jump-start the careers of artists like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, the Jackson 5, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, Lauryn Hill, H.E.R., Machine Gun Kelly, and more.

“The first time I hit the Apollo stage, I walked through the hallways, saw all the greats and I was like ‘I’m really going to be on this stage,'” said Simon. “This is history and I felt like I was supposed to be here. This is the most amazing feeling in the world.”

2. She Started Singing at Age 4

Simon started singing before she was 5 years old. “I started singing when I was 4,” said Simon in a 2016 interview. “I didn’t know that I was singing. Other people told me I was singing.”

She then joined the Young People’s Singing Group but said she honed her skills by singing in the Baptist church and would go home and practice singing into her hairbrush before getting her first solo appearance at the Oakland Museum.

“After I got my first solo at the Oakland Museum and sang ‘[Take My Hand] Precious Lord,’ it was over for me,” said Simon. “That’s what I wanted to do.”

[RELATED: 5 Things to Know About the Journey-Singing Janitor on ‘America’s Got Talent’]

3. She Had a Hit Single in 1998

By the late 1990s, Simon was performing by her real name, Danesha Starr, and released the hit single “As Long As I Live, ” which went to No. 27 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart. The song also featured R&B singer Rome, known for his 1997 hit  “I Belong to You.”

Following the release of “As Long As I Live,” Interscope merged with Geffen and A&M Records, which impacted Starr’s career, and she left the music industry shortly after.

4. She’s Written a Novel and Two Plays

Along with singing, Simon is also a novelist. She wrote and published the 2014 book When a Man Loves a WomanA Love Mystery, which follows the story of a man named Elroy who must learn to navigate the negative ends of love. 

Simon also wrote, directed, and produced two hit plays, Misery Loves Company in 2017 and the one-woman act play Coretta: the One-Woman Stage Play, about the life of Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife Coretta Scott King, from 2108.

5. She Released Two Albums

After taking a break from music and returning as Dee Dee Simon, she started releasing singles, including “For All of My Life” in 2015, “Let’s Celebrate” from 2016, “Upgrade” and “Walk That Dog” in 2019, and more throughout the 2020s. She has also released two albums, including her 2020 debut Ahh Hell Queen Dee, and a self-titled follow-up in 2022, including the single “We Gonna Party.”

Photos: Greg Gayne/NBC

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