In January, Toledo native Branden Wilbarger took to the stage in Los Angeles at a popular live music event named “School Night.” The 31-year-old performer had already been making a name for himself out west with his raucous live music performances. Well, Wilbarger wasn’t the name he was making— BONAVEGA was. The provocative, high-energy persona Wilbarger had cultivated was gaining traction as a popular act in the L.A. music scene.
On that night, though, a new opportunity came calling for Wilbarger after his appearance at School Night. “I was lucky enough to get in there and play a show. And the next day, a talent scout from America’s Got Talent hit me up and was like, ‘Hey, would you be interested in being on the show?'”
Taking the national stage
On June 2, BONAVEGA made his national television debut in the second episode of AGT’s 15th season. With his trademark flame-colored makeup and wild hair, Wilbarger had already made an impression before he began. He whipped off his robe to reveal a sparkling outfit that Tina Turner would love, performed an original number, and stood on the judges’ desk to thrust his pelvis in judge Simon Cowell’s face. The crowd went wild, and Wilbarger was unanimously sent through to the next round.
“I think the biggest surprise is the extremely positive response from everybody I’ve come in contact with so far,” Wilbarger said. “I’ve just been getting nothing but positive responses, even from fans online, from the judges, everybody.”
A star is born
In some ways, BONAVEGA was inspired by the restrictions of being Branden Wilbarger. Born in Toledo, Branden had performed music all his life, but always felt constricted— like he couldn’t take his performances in directions he wanted to.
“I was kind of restricted on some of the music I liked to play. So I think that repression helped me become the kind of more flamboyant, outrageous version of myself now,” Wilbarger said.
Once he moved to Los Angeles seven years ago, that freedom of expression began to manifest as he began performing at L.A. open mic nights. Slowly but surely, an onstage persona was being formed, taking cues from a lot of influences.
“I’ve always had a fondness for, obviously, glam rock, that era of music,” Wilbarger said. “Even just like musical theater and, funnily enough, even like WWF, professional wrestling. I’ve always kinda said my music, or my performance is like Rodgers and Hammerstein meets WWF, you know?
“Ultimately, when I flip over into BONAVEGA mode, I know that people have come to see a performance and a show. And I really like to keep that fantasy alive, when I go onstage as BONAVEGA.”
Win or lose
Of course, it’s been a unique year for AGT even before Wilbarger and his wild character took to the stage. Plenty of new arrangements and precautions have been taken to protect performers and staff against COVID-19, and everyone is being tested regularly.
“It’s been like a smaller crew than I think it would normally be, but it’s still a very well-oiled machine. They figured out a way to do it and keep everyone safe.”
Win or lose, the AGT experience has been incredibly positive, Wilbarger said. His visibility has shot through the roof. With the grand prize being a Las Vegas show, having a chance to bring BONAVEGA and his music to Sin City seems like a match made in heaven.
“The shows I was performing around L.A. before America’s Got Talent, they were kind of a low-key rock opera. We always had a theatrical element to our performances. And it was really starting to kind of catch a little wave here in Los Angeles, people were really digging it.”
“That’s the most fun to me, putting on a full-blown performance. So I think, win or lose AGT, we’re gonna keep rolling with that.”
Brandon Wilbarger aka BONAVEGA will perform live on America’s Got Talent on Tuesday, August 18 at 8pm on NBC.