For British opera 'idol' Paul Potts, it all started with a coin toss.

VANCOUVER, CANADA -- Paul Potts -- the British cellphone salesman turned singing sensation and YouTube phenom after dazzling skeptical judges with the operatic aria "Nessun Dorma" on "Britain's Got Talent" -- steps onstage at the Vancouver Centre for Performing Arts with a slight limp. "I'll be Mr. Hobble-Potts today," he says, a hesitant smile indenting his dumpling face.

Must have something to do with the surgeries, one thinks. In 2003, Potts suffered a burst appendix, and during treatment doctors discovered a benign tumor on his adrenal gland. Or maybe it's a leftover from the accident: Though both the appendix and the tumor were successfully removed, just two weeks after he returned to work following a yearlong recovery, a car knocked Potts off his bicycle, resulting in a complicated collarbone fracture that sidelined him for an additional nine months.

No, at his Vancouver performance with the Three Graces diva trio, Potts, 37, is a tuxedoed Quasimodo because of a nerve problem in his ankle that is radiating pain up his leg despite a chiropractic adjustment during his previous tour stop, Edmonton.

And it doesn't help that he's got a throat-parching cold, or that the tour bus on which he tried to sleep through the night was temporarily halted by a blizzard in the Canadian Rockies.

In case one hadn't figured it out, Potts is the first to acknowledge he's "quite accident-prone," examples of which he uses to endearing effect in his self-deprecating onstage banter. "My wife says, 'Don't ever tell Paul to break a leg,' " he jokes. His stature is also fair game. He cracks that he once missed picking up his "tall skinny latte" at Starbucks because when the barista announced a "tall skinny," it "didn't sound like me at all."

Although the resemblance is coincidental, Potts looks a little like the teddy bears that are for sale in the lobby, wearing T-shirts with Potts' name and likeness. For the British leg of the tour, he confirms, the bears wore tiny dinner jackets and bow ties.

The British press has described his humble manner as "blokishness," and this bloke has clearly seen enough hard times not to take his audience for granted. He limps forward to toss red roses into the crowd with stubby hands, fingers all the same length, literally appearing all thumbs.

"If people don't like what you do and stop buying it, then you don't get to do it. I've spent long enough in a retail career to know how that principle works," he says. "I think everybody's entitled to thanks."

Happy accident

The series of events that set Potts on the exhausting six-month global tour that will bring him to the Wiltern for a sold-out show Wednesday night is also the result of an accident, this time a happy one.

"I was doing some work at home, and I'd come across the 'Britain's Got Talent' website by accident -- it was a pop-up and I meant to close it, but I maximized it," he says in a backstage interview. "Then I filled out the application form and got to the bottom, where I could either submit or cancel it. I couldn't decide whether I was too old or if I had enough talent.

"And so, in the end, I literally got a 10-pence piece out of my pocket and flipped it -- I decided if it landed on heads I'd go for it, and if it landed on tails, I wouldn't. And it landed on heads, thankfully. It was like letting fate take a hand."

At the time his almost-two-year battle with health problems began, Potts had been devoting all his spare time and savings to music. Born just outside Bristol, England, in 1970, to bus driver Roland and supermarket cashier Yvonne, Potts spent his childhood and teen years singing in school and church choirs -- provoking ire from the local bullies -- and developed a love of opera in his teens. As an adult, he performed leading operatic roles with amateur companies.

In 1999, he won about $16,000 on the British quiz show "My Kind of Music" -- enough to help pay for vocal lessons in Italy, during which he got to perform in front of Luciano Pavarotti, the late tenor perhaps more associated than any other with the thrilling "Nessun Dorma" aria from Puccini's "Turandot."

But with Potts and wife Julie-Anne, an insurance supervisor he met via an online chat room, struggling to pay bills accumulated during his long recuperation, he had given up his performing dreams. Still, the lucky coin toss was enough to persuade him to travel from his Port Talbot home in South Wales to Cardiff last March for the "Britain's Got Talent" competition.

Meeting Simon Cowell

His shy announcement that he had come "to sing opera," made as he stood awkwardly in a suit he had bought for 35 British pounds (about $70), caused easily unimpressed judge Simon Cowell to roll his eyes.

"I remember getting to the edge of the stage at Cardiff a year ago, and I seriously considered walking out onstage, waving to Simon Cowell and walking off again. I didn't know what the hell I was doing there," Potts says. "It was a big risk, and I've never been much of a risk-taker. I just think it's easier to think that you might have gotten something than to know that you didn't."

By the end of Potts' "Nessun Dorma," however, Cowell was no longer rolling his eyes, fellow judge Amanda Holden had dissolved into theatrical tears and the audience was on its feet. And since June, when the competition aired on TV, the man whom the tabloids quickly nicknamed "Pavapotti" has been interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, performed for the queen of England and won fans on both sides of the pond.

In fact, Cowell has became more than a fan -- he was involved with Potts' CD, "One Chance," which has sold more than 2 million copies, and is even planning a film on Potts' life with Paramount. And there's another Cowell connection: The singer reportedly had his teeth repaired by Cowell's private dentist.

Says Potts of Cowell: "He's really quite nice. I've always admired him because he's always 150% honest, and I think in the end it's better to have somebody tell you something that you don't want to hear and have it be an honest opinion, rather than thinking that and telling you something else."

The critics

Despite the adoration of the public and many reviewers, a few critics have dismissed Potts and his emotional mixture of pop, Broadway and opera's greatest hits (his program includes Andrea Bocelli's signature "Time to Say Goodbye," the theme from "Love Story" and R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" sung in Italian). Adam Sweeting of the Daily Telegraph dismissed his success as "the latest phenomenon of Classitainment." Wrote Jaime J. Weinman on the website: "Paul Potts, the tenor and former cellphone salesman, is not an opera singer; he just plays one on TV."

This sort of thing doesn't bother Potts one iota. "I think everybody is entitled to their opinions, it would be a very dull world if we all thought the same thing," he observes evenly. "I don't compare myself with anybody. I'm just me.

"I've always been determined not to change who I am because of what I do. There's a part of the poem 'If,' by Rudyard Kipling: "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same. . . . ' You can't allow life to change you, to let it make you something you're not. Life is too short to pretend."


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