A Raleigh couple won big — really big — on Tuesday night's episode of the Fox game show "Beat Shazam."
Ryan Walton and Donna Natosi used their musical acumen to beat out two other couples and then the Shazam song-identifying app to win the show's grand prize: $1 million.
"Beat Shazam" is hosted by actor Jamie Foxx and has teams competing in a timed "Name That Tune"-style contest. Tuesday night's episode had "couples" making up the teams: married couples, dating couples and, yes, even divorced couples. Ryan and Donna fall into that last category.
But Ryan and Donna, both avid music fans, didn't let a little matrimonial acrimony get in the way of having an absolute blast and making a little bank. We talked to them before the show aired to learn more about their story.
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Chapel of Love
Donna and Ryan met through an online dating site in 2012, and their profiles were so compatible that Ryan, who grew up in Raleigh, initially thought his friends had created a fake profile to “catfish” him.
“We lived around the corner from each other,” said Donna, who grew up in Allentown, Pa., but has lived in Raleigh since 2007. “We even shopped at the same Food Lion.”
When the music-loving couple were ready to get married — and the plans for their big Raleigh wedding started getting too complicated — they did exactly what you would think they'd do: They flew to Vegas and were married by Elvis ("Not the actual Elvis," Ryan points out). Family and friends flew out for the big day. Donna wore a black pin-up-style dress she bought on Etsy, and they sewed leopard print lapels onto Ryan’s suit. Donna's uncle came up from Arizona and gave her away, dressed as Alice Cooper.
“I spent a car payment on my hair and makeup,” Donna said. “It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. It was a really fun wedding, and everybody had a great time."
The marriage lasted about a year and a half, and, like most divorces, the end “wasn’t pleasant,” Donna said. We'll leave it at that.
But Donna was close to Ryan’s son, now 9. She wanted things to be friendly so she could stay in his life.
“He is really the catalyst for all of this,” she said. “I’ve been in his life since he was one and a half. I had a bond with him that I wasn’t willing to give up, so Ryan and I get along real well — but that’s because of him.”
"Beat Shazam" is in its second season, but it took only one episode to hook Ryan and plant the seeds of his dream to get on that stage.
“I’ve watched 'Beat Shazam' since its inception,” Ryan said. “I watched it religiously. I think I watched each episode at least three times. From the day I saw it on Hulu, I was like, I am seriously destined to be on this show. I have studied my whole life for this kind of thing."
When Ryan, who is now remarried, decided to apply, he suggested Donna also apply.
"That’s a huge part of our relationship — music and trivia and seeing who can ‘name that tune’ the fastest," he said.
Donna said her knack for naming songs also makes the "Beat Shazam" experience feel something like destiny.
"For me, it was like, this is some useless talent I’ve had all my life," she said "We could be sitting in a restaurant and if I hear the music in the PA system, I’m naming that tune whether you like it or not. We could be midconversation and I’d say 'Donna Summer.'"
The part of Donna's application that said she'd bring her ex-husband on the show is what caught producers' eyes.
And paycheck aside, they're both glad they did it.
“It brought us closer together as friends,” Donna said. “It reminded us of why we got along in the first place.”
At one time, Donna said, Ryan’s son was with them and asked whether they were best friends. “I kinda gave Ryan a look and said, 'No, we’re friends, but we’re not best friends.’”
She works hard for the money
Ryan and Donna taped the show in December. "Beat Shazam" throws songs across all decades and genres at its contestants, so Ryan knew they had to study. Ryan's expertise is blues, R&B and oldies. Donna excels with songs from the '80s on. Their weakness was Top 40, so Ryan focused on that. "I listened to a lot of Cardi B," he said. "A lot of Cardi B."
They competed against Daisy and Rahmael from New Jersey and Ryan and Michael from Colorado.
For the show, Foxx signals his daughter Corinne, the DJ, to play a snippet of a song, and each couple hits the correct button from a multiple choice list to name it. The couple with the fastest correct answer gets the points.
Early in the show, Ryan and Donna incorrectly identified the name of Billy Idol's "White Wedding." Right after that, they nailed Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together."
“A song about a wedding, we can’t get that one, but a song about a breakup, we got that one,” Donna joked later.
Speed is the key to the show, and Donna was lightning fast. "Donna is not playing around," Foxx said after she smoked the competition by getting four in a row. In one case — naming the song "Truly Madly Deeply" — Donna beat out her opponent by four hundredths of a second: 1.34 seconds to 1.38.
Once the humans were out of the way, Donna and Ryan had to play against the machine.
Here’s what the path to $1 million looks like:
“Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis
“It Wasn’t Me” by Shaggy
“Cherry Pie” by Warrant
"Wide Open Spaces” by Dixie Chicks
“Rockin’ Robin” by Michael Jackson
“Soak Up the Sun” by Sheryl Crow
Ryan clocked in quick on the Elvis tune (very fitting), and Donna named the last five songs — and the song titles have to be exact. The million dollars was theirs.
If I had a million dollars
Like any good divorced couple, they split the prize money 50-50.
As Donna mentioned on the show, to some laughter, she has some debt from their divorce that she needs to pay off. But after that, she told us later, she wants to help her mother, Joann, who was in the “Beat Shazam” audience.
“I’m looking into buying my mom a diner down here," Donna said. "My mother lives in Pennsylvania and she’s been a waitress for 30-some years and she’s 66, so she’s on her feet, and I don’t want her to have to do that the rest of her life. … There’s no authentic Northeastern diners down here — it just doesn’t exist — so I think it’ll do well.”
Ryan said on the show, which taped in December, that he had a baby on the way. She’s here now, so Ryan will be putting money away for college for both of his kids.
But he has an additional plan for some of the money now.
"Since the show, my mom has passed, she passed back in February, so that’s left a lot on my dad’s plate," Ryan said. "I’m gonna be taking care of him to make sure he’s good. It’s gonna go to college for my kids and providing a good life for my dad.”
Time of my Life
Donna and Ryan were still giddy talking about the show nearly seven months after it taped.
"It was seriously one of the most incredible experiences," Ryan said. "This will be something I can tell my grandkids about. I want to say for anybody maybe not wanting to apply for that show you love, just do it, just go for it.”
Donna agreed, adding that the value of the experience goes beyond the monetary prize.
"We’ve been talking back and forth about it since it happened," Donna said. "It was just really cool to use that as a way of getting our families together. My mom has come down to visit since and has gone over to see his wife (Nicole) and the new baby. … It’s really helped for a solid friendship, which I think is great for everyone involved.”