Six years ago on The X Factor USA Season 2, a lovable lady named Panda Ross captured America’s hearts — and seemingly the heart of her longtime crush, judge Simon Cowell — with her big personality and big voice. “You sound like a legend!” Cowell told Ross after she fearlessly serenaded him with an eyebrow-raisingly lusty “Bring It on Home to Me.” But oddly, Ross was not seen or heard again that season — much to the disappointment of her “Panda Fandas.” A year later, she tried out for The X Factor USA again, but that time, her footage didn’t even air at all. However, this time may be the charm for the 48-year-old gospel/R&B belter. Ross just auditioned for The X Factor U.K., and after receiving four yeses, she has a feeling that her vintage style may be more popular across the pond.
“It was my first time to England, and it was amazing. The food was gross; I can’t get used to their food, because they don’t cook with a lot of flavoring, and I’m used to our greasy, saucy American food,” Ross laughingly tells Yahoo Entertainment in an exclusive interview. “But I will say this: Over there, doesn’t matter your culture, your age, and none of that. They just love music. They like women my age! In America — I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true — if you’re past 25, you’re washed up, unless you’re Beyoncé. They’re just not into old-school, old folk singers. That’s not what America’s into. I’ve come to find out that the people overseas are just more accepting of older people. They don’t even look at age. They don’t really look at color. They just like music. I think I got a good chance over there, as long as I keep on doing what I’m doing.”
Ross says that when she was approached by the show this year, she initially turned down an invitation to audition because she had “ a lot going on” in her life — namely her husband’s battle with lung cancer. But she says the producers were “really persistent,” and it was her husband who encouraged her to go for it. “He said, ‘Hey, this is what you’ve been fighting for and wanting. This has been your destiny since 2012. You need to go for it, and you need to give it your all.’ So, I went for it.” Sadly, Ross’s husband passed away shortly after her audition.
— Panda Ross (@RealPandaRoss) September 23, 2018
When Ross returned to The X Factor, much had changed in her life since her time on the short-lived American version of the TV talent show. Along with getting married, she’d lost more than 60 pounds through gastric bypass surgery. So, when she showed up in England, her old “boo” Cowell didn’t even recognize her at first. “When I came out, I don’t think he knew it was Panda,” she chuckles. “They asked my name, and he kind of had his head down. I said, ‘Panda,’ and he looked up and I was like, ‘Hey Simon, it’s me, your ex-baby mama! He said, ‘Panda!? Oh my God, come here!’” He made me come down off the stage, and we literally stood there talking to each other for three or four minutes. Then he turned around and told the whole crowd, ‘This here is a very special woman, and you guys are in for a treat.’”
Still, Cowell, despite his preexisting fondness for Ross, wasn’t going to give her special treatment. So, when he disapproved of her original (unaired) audition song choice, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (he thought it was “too easy” for her), he interrupted her during the fourth verse and sent her backstage to work on a second option, Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman.” Ross says she was “devastated.”
“I am probably the only black woman I know that has never been a huge fan of Aretha Franklin’s music!” Ross reveals. “It’s only because her voice is so different from mine, so unique and high. I always knew that I could never reach those ranges, so I just never got into her music. I don’t even attempt to sing it.” Incredibly, Ross didn’t know the song beyond the chorus, but since she didn’t know Cowell’s other suggestion — “Never Enough,” from The Greatest Showman — at all, she went with “Natural Woman,” rehearsed it for a half hour … and “killed it. When I got through, the whole stadium was on their feet roaring.”
“What you just did with the song particularly at the end was pure magic,” Cowell told Ross. “We go back a few years, but I’ve always wanted you to have this moment. I will never forget that, Panda.”
— Panda Ross (@RealPandaRoss) September 22, 2018
Ross’s post-audition joy was brief, however, once her husband took a turn for the worse and his cancer advanced to Stage 4, and she seriously considered dropping out of the competition, even though producers and her own husband kept urging her to stay. “I wasn’t trying to hear nobody. I was just trying to get back to the States and take care of my husband,” she says. “The main producer/director, he called me. He’s also a believer in Christ, and he said, ‘Panda, one of the reasons that you’re here is because I’ve been following you since 2012. And you never got what you deserved when you were in the U.S. This is your time and this is your season, and you need to go for it. I can’t guarantee they’re going to pick you, because everything is left to the judges, but I feel like you really need to stay, and you need to give it your all.’”
Undeterred, Ross flew back to Dallas to be at her dying husband’s bedside, but in her final moments with him, he encouraged her to continue chasing her X Factor dream. “He pushed me every step of the way with this, down to his last minute,” she recalls. “The night before he died, I was holding his hand. He couldn’t talk anymore. I said, ‘I’m supposed to go to L.A. [to shoot the next stage of the show] come Sunday, and if you still want me to do this, I need you to squeeze my hand.’ And he squeezed my hand. He wanted me to do it.”
Ross confesses that she’s “actually not OK,” but she takes solace from “loving the Lord Jesus Christ and having a man who as well felt the same way I did. I know he’s in a better place now.” She says, “I didn’t take [his death] well. When it happened, anxiety and depression kicked in right away. I literally could not get out of my bed. I couldn’t do anything.” When Ross eventually went back to the show, she “just lost it” when she heard some contestants singing Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” the song to which she walked down the aisle at her wedding three years ago. But she stresses, “I’m determined to finish what I started.”
And Ross believes that her husband will be watching her and the United Kingdom will be rooting for her, as she takes musical chances and embraces her new British audience. While she can’t reveal show far she has made it on the show so far, she has big plans. “I’m doing George Michael’s ‘Freedom,’ and that’s way out of my genre. I cannot even begin to sing it!” she says. “But I’m trying different things. I’m listening to the U.K. people, and I’m hearing stuff that they are listening to. I’ve always said that I wanted to be someone who was all things to all people, and if I want to connect with these people, I need to sing music that they like. I think once they fall in love with that part of me, then even if I sing something that I’m more comfortable with, something ‘more American,’ by then I will have won the crowd over.”
The X Factor U.K. airs in the U.S. on AXS TV Sunday nights.
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