Connie Gillies was enjoying a career as a kindergarten teacher on New York’s Long Island when she learned that her 3-year-old son’s pancreas didn’t create insulin. She dropped her career so she could spend full time caring for the boy.
Jackson needed four shots a day. At 6 a.m., it was a shot in the right thigh, then at noon a shot in the left thigh. At 3 p.m. it was a shot in the left arm, then again in the right arm, at 6 p.m.
Connie couldn’t find anyone who would give her son the shots, so she quit her job to take care of him.
“She put her entire life on hold for me,” Gillies, now 19, told Noozhawk. “Even the smallest victory I have is because of her.”
One big victory could be on its way.
Gillies is not permitted to say whether he made the cut and is headed for the Hollywood round because his fate is to be revealed on the show. But there’s certainly a lot of buzz around the former San Marcos High School student and singer-songwriter, as he looks to perform on one of the biggest stages in the world.
His appearance on American Idol is just the latest chapter in an unpredictable life that has seen him overcome a series of health scares and other challenges to emerge as a one of Santa Barbara’s rising young stars.
Long before Gillies could think about performing on national television, he was a child growing up on Long Island. He had speech problems as a toddler, and while most kids learn to talk by age 2, Gillies didn’t say his first words until he was 3. He did learn some sign language, however.
Since his mother was a teacher, she worked with him to overcome his speech challenges. Gillies’ parents, Connie and Bill Cocciolone (the son has since taken his mother’s maiden name), divorced when he was a pre-teen, and Connie had learned how to manage his type 1 diabetes.
They moved to Florida when he was 13, and while most of the problems related to the diabetes were behind them, a new challenge arose. Gillies developed a huge abscess on his forehead. It took several doctors to determine the cause — even after they surgically removed the growth from his head.
Eventually, he learned he had hidradenitis suppurativa, a rare and chronic skin condition that typically develops where skin rubs against skin, such as in the armpits and other sensitive areas.
Connie, however, had been through so much already that she was ready to take this on, as well. They learned that there is really no medication or easy treatment for the condition, which has no cure.
Gillies has learned to manage the condition through a disciplined diet of organic meats and vegetables and no gluten. He doesn’t drink or do drugs. He can’t even take pain medication such as Advil without risking a flare-up.
Through all of his health challenges, however, Gillies always found a way to seek the stage. He was frequently the lead actor in musical theater productions. He followed the lead of his older brother, Taylor, who was also an actor. And music runs in the blood. Connie can play piano by ear.
At home, he grew up up listening to rock legends such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. His father is sort of a musical history savant, knowing the details of concert performances and albums like the back of his hand.
While Gillies always knew that he could sing, he only learned guitar at the age of 13. He and his mother and stepdad, Jeff Miller, moved to Santa Barbara when he was 14 and he enrolled at San Marcos High. He appeared in the school’s “Royals Got Talent” show, and although he didn’t win, it was the first time he performed with his guitar on stage.
As a sophomore in 2016, Gillies entered Santa Barbara’s Teen Star contest — and won it. He brought down the house with his rendition of “Nessun dorma,” from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot, to win the competition.
Gillies has developed a higher profile in Santa Barbara in recent years. He performed at the 2018 One805 #KickAshBash to benefit first responders and victims and survivors of the Thomas Fire and the deadly Montecito flash flooding and debris flows.
Whether it was musical theater, singing or strumming his guitar, Gillies says he is most comfortable when he is performing.
“The really great moments are when you don’t have to think about it,” he said, “when you are relying on your soul, not your brain.”
Gillies is hopeful he can win American Idol, too. His audition was taped several weeks ago. Even though he is veteran performer now, standing in front of Goleta native Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie was nerve-racking.
“That one I got nervous for,” he admitted.
No matter what happens, Gillies appears to be on the road to a successful music career.
“If you have good songs, you’ll be fine,” he said. “If you have good content, people will follow. I am grateful for the opportunity to play music.”
Gillies recently released a self-financed single and video called “Miss Me, Too,” filmed partially on Farren Road west of Goleta. It’s a song that he described as about “quiet, melancholy defeat.”
As for his mom, she’s looking forward to the journey with her son — and proud of how far he’s come.
“He’s one of the bravest people I know,” she said. “He’s so strong. We’re really lucky to live with him. He works so hard.”