The name “Kechi” (pronounced Ketchee) may not be new to some people, as she finished 6th overall on the popular show, America’s Got Talent, in 2017. Which contestant was she? She was the one with the voice of an angel that had burn scars all over her face and body, which was evidence of her strength and her earlier life. She even got a “Golden Buzzer” from Simon Cowell when she returned for America’s Got Talent: The Champions in 2019. Clearly, many people saw past the scars.
Kechi Okwuchi, originally from Nigeria and now settled in Pearland, TX with her family, was one of two survivors of the ill-fated Sosoliso flight 1145 on December 10, 2005, that was packed by passengers from her private school, Loyola Jesuit College in Nigeria, going home for Christmas break.
A total of 107 lives were lost, including 60 of Okwuchi’s classmates.
Kechi had third-degree burns on over 65% of her body, and doctors in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she was first taken, gave her a 30% chance of survival from her injuries. She was eventually moved to Shriner’s Burn Hospital in Houston, Texas for more intensive care, as it became clear that she was not going to give up.
She explained her mindset at the time.
“There's no way of knowing [what the future holds]. I just knew that I wanted to keep moving forward, but I didn't know what that was going to look like. But you can't let not knowing stop you from actually taking a step forward. You just have to trust that wherever your feet land, it's going to be something good or an experience that you're supposed to have. It’s kind of like having that outlook even before you start something,” she said.
Being a faithful Christian, she knew to use her faith for whatever was to come.
“I think all my steps in my life have led me to exactly where I am right now. I don't think anything's a mistake,” Kechi said. “I think that circumstances happen; life happens. But God also still happens, even in the midst of those circumstances. And when there are hard times, and the difficult times that are unplanned, He can still end up bringing you back to exactly where you're supposed to be anyway, but maybe by a different route.
“It’s also not allowing the trauma to be everything about you, but rather allowing it to be something that propels you forward. But it can end up being a part of your purpose and what you end up doing for other people in your life. So, I want to show people that this is what I do now, but this is how it began, essentially. And in that way, I want to show the relatability of my story in that we all go through trauma, and I want people to see that they might learn something from how I dealt with mine,” she said, sharing some lessons that she has learned.
Kechi has had over 100 surgeries to make sure that her skin is able to still protect her body; however, these days, any new surgeries would be for aesthetic purposes only. She explained how she feels about her appearance and what her response would be if all of her scars could be taken away.
“I’d have no problem [having a surgery that would erase my scars] because I know that if it doesn't work, I'm not going to be upset. There was a time in my life when I was kind of weary of doing new stuff, especially with my face, just because I had gotten to a point where I was fully accepting of how [my whole self] wasn't defined by how I looked. I overcame that a long time ago. I've always been very realistic about what can and can't happen. And I've just been very sure to be okay with whatever the outcome is,” Kechi said.
In 2015, Kechi competed for and won the honor to speak to her classmates at St. Thomas University, while also graduating with economics and marketing degrees. She also gave a presentation entitled “Girls- know thyself,” at TedxEuston in London, which features leaders and idea-makers in Africa.
She gives credit to her parents, her sister, her extended family, and her close friends for being unconditionally supportive of her all throughout her recovery and beyond.
“I definitely had a lot of support. My family and friends’ reactions to my scars were what really helped to solidify my own image in my mind,” Kechi explained. “I didn't think it was a big deal at the time, and people around me that mattered didn't think it was a big deal either. My family - my mom and dad specifically, were huge supporters of mine. And then my extended family, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents, and my sister are a big part of my support system. They’ve been there throughout this process and have been the foundation of my optimistic approach to life after the plane crash. These are the people that made me understand that nothing was more important than me just being okay, getting better, and being healthy. That freed me a lot and allowed me to just kind of continue to be myself. I did not have the pressure to be somebody else.”
This year, Kechi has added “author” to her dossier, with her new book, More Than My Scars, which is available wherever books are sold.
She explained her inspiration for writing the book.
“Well, I think the main thing that inspired me was this need to share my story in a relatable way. I want people to see the process of me becoming the person that they've seen on [television and] social media, and I want them to see everything that went into building this person here. And the purpose of that is to show them the nitty-gritty of the process, and what it takes to come out of something difficult, to come out of trauma, and still move forward. I just can’t imagine being defined by the way I look,” she said.
Kechi has a wide following on social media. Some of the comments involve asking her out or zealously complimenting her on her beauty.
“I do not have a boyfriend. I am single - single Pringle! I'm open to [dating], but I'm just not actively searching. It's not a part of my life where I feel any kind of pressure. So, I'm just living and trying to focus on making money, essentially to keep my family financially stable enough for all of us. That's really the thing at the forefront of my mind. I want my family to have financial security. I also want a clear career goal or career path. I'm certainly not going to be searching for [a boyfriend]. So, whenever God is ready to bring him into my life, I'm here. I don't take it [the “sex symbol” comments] seriously because people do that all the time on social media,” she said.
Kechi seemed to have gone from a regular citizen to a star overnight, which came with obligations to stay relevant on social media platforms, as well as promoting herself, which didn’t come naturally.
“I think the most dramatic change [in my everyday life] happened after America's Got Talent for sure. The traveling and the speaking engagements, meeting different people all over the world, giving speeches, and singing in different places were new elements in my life,” Kechi said.
“On social media, I post for friends and family, but I also post to the people that are following me for a reason. They don't demand it, because if you don't provide it, they’ll just follow someone else. It's that simple. So as long as this is something that I want to do in my life, and it requires visibility, then I'm just going to have to keep doing it. Advertising is no longer the generic traditional style that we were so used to growing up. It's become so decentralized. You’re not working with big companies alone, but with many platforms. That’s life now.”
She has had an up-and-down relationship with publicizing herself and the image/brand that she has created.
“It's definitely hard to stay true to yourself. You become more and more afraid of not being perfect and not putting out this perfectly curated image of yourself, as I feel like that's what gets people to like you,” Kechi explained. “You feel like you need to always just maintain this specific kind of image because that's what got you there in the first place. So, it gets to feeling manufactured.”
Regardless of her successes, Kechi says she still encounters people that pity her.
“It's happened to me quite a few times, especially when I go back home to Nigeria. And for me, it's one of the things that I really don't like. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It kind of shows me what you really feel about me, my appearance, and how you think I should view myself.
“It's belittling to me because you might think you're being empathetic, and you're expressing sympathy for me, because you think it’s so sad that this happened to me, which, to be fair, is true. But you’re just indirectly exposing how negatively you think when you look at me. It definitely seems that if you see me as someone that deserves pity, you believe I should pity myself too. This may certainly not be the intention, but it is certainly how it comes across, and considering that I am far past the place where I pity myself based on appearance, it’s an unpleasant feeling,” she said.
So, what’s next for Kechi Okwuchi?
“I pray that one day, I'll be able to have a live concert where I sing my own songs to an audience as the headliner. I would love for that to happen. I want to have a Christian contemporary album someday, and I want to continue writing. I love writing," Kechi said.
“The memoir is something that I had to do and bring out first because that's my story. And it's important. But I like writing general fiction. I feel like I'm pretty good at it. So, I would love the chance to explore fictional writing just to see if anything happens from there.
“I just want whatever [God] wants, because I know it's always going to be best for me. So, for me, I feel like these might be things I was supposed to do anyway. I'll never know. But I am happy that I can say that these things I'm doing now, whether it's music or writing or speaking, are things I have always loved to do. When I was a kid, I just never knew that I would be able to do them in the capacity that I'm doing them in now,” said Kechi.
According to her publisher’s press release, Kechi is also, “A national patient ambassador for Shriners Children's Texas in Galveston in 2017. She has since been active in events organized by the WE Movement, a global youth empowerment organization, speaking and singing to thousands of students at WE Day events all over the country, the most notable being WE Day UN, which took place in New York in September 2019. As a bullying prevention advocate, she has teamed up with the organization Be Strong Global, as well as Instagram and Teen Vogue, to speak out against bullying. She hopes to use her story and her musical talents to ignite hope.”
Kechi’s book, “More Than My Scars,” is available wherever books are sold. She has also dropped an album called “Kechi,” which is available on Spotify and Apple Music. Her mother, Ijeoma, also wrote a book in 2014 called, “Refined for Rebirth,” chronicling her journey from right after the crash to the point where Kechi was recovering.
To learn more about Kechi, visit her website at https://www.kechiofficial.com