Grace VanderWaal. Remember that name. When the season debut of NBC’s America’s Got Talent aired Tuesday night, nobody was prepared for the revelatory performance put on by the 12-year-old singer-songwriter. A native New Yorker, VanderWaal took the stage with a sweet and modest demeanor—explaining how she’d never performed in front of a crowd before.
Then it happened.
Without a hint of hesitation, she plunged into an original song she wrote titled “I Don’t Know My Name,” playing along with her ukulele. And from the moment she opened her mouth, both the crowd and the judges were left in awe. Her presence was honest and heartfelt, but it was her poetic voice, aching with feeling, that was truly astonishing. VanderWaal was Regina Spektor and Marcus Mumford in the guise of a young girl with bangs; a strumming, crooning tour de force.
The song ended with a standing ovation, followed by immediate praise from judge Howie Mandel—who called her “a miracle” before hitting the elusive “golden buzzer” that sends her straight to the live show. As gold confetti rained down on the stage, VanderWaal shed tears of disbelief. Her family soon rushed the stage, embracing their diminutive dynamo.
The video clip of VanderWaal’s jaw-dropping performance has fast become a viral sensation, garnering over 60 million views collectively. Fans and celebrities have taken to their social media acounts to share their love and admiration for the young performer.
VanderWaal took some time from basking in the afterglow of her one shining moment to chat with The Daily Beast. Expecting a reserved 12-year-old lost in the chaos of newfound stardom, I was instead met with a cool and collected music professional.
She greeted me and thanked me kindly for taking the time for the interview before explaining where she came up with that song. “I originally came up with the song after going through all these different phases and paths in my life,” said VanderWaal. “I had realized that I now know that this (music) is something that I want my life to be.”
Yes, VanderWaal had no idea how good she was. Her mother signed her up to perform on America’s Got Talent and it was indeed her very first time singing in public—let alone a sold-out theater audience packed with cameras broadcasting to millions of people worldwide. When asked about what was going through her head during all of this, she called it a dream that she was preparing to wake up from. “At that moment, I literally had every intention of waking up from some coma in a hospital and asking the nurse, ‘Where is Howie Mandel?’ to only have them tell me, ‘Who is Howie Mandel?’”
During the episode, the typically snarky Simon Cowell, made famous from his ball-busting work on reality competition series’ like American Idol and The X Factor, said, “Grace, you know what I predict for you? I think you are the next Taylor Swift.” High praise coming from the man who discovered One Direction.
With all the popularity and praise, I asked how she felt knowing Taylor Swift is following her on Twitter now. She was quick to shout over the phone, “Is it the verified Taylor Swift? Oh my gosh, I didn’t even know that. My mom and sister are checking my Twitter right now and are going crazy.”
Even though Cowell compared her to Swift, VanderWaal’s true inspiration, she said, comes from artists like Jason Mraz and Twenty One Pilots. “A family friend was staying with us once and had brought over a ukulele. I just loved the way she played it,” she recalled. “I saved up the money from my 11th birthday and went out and bought one for myself. My sister had introduced me to Twenty One Pilots and I saw the lead singer (Tyler Joseph) playing the ukulele, so I just had to learn it.”
VanderWaal’s talents aren’t limited to the ukulele, however: “I now have five ukuleles, a piano, and a saxophone.”
The success of her performance can, in part, be attributed to the sincerity she emanates. Fans the world over connected with the honesty and vulnerability that she displayed onstage. When asked what musicians inspired this, and she replied, “Not so much the sound but as a person, I would say Katy Perry inspires me because you can always see that she’s being true to herself. She focuses on her music and even turns down big producers,” said VanderWaal. “Her whole career and music is about her being herself. I want to be more like that.”
Fame can be a bitch, of course. But VanderWaal comes off as remarkably self-aware for a girl her age, waxing philosophical about the trappings of celebrity.
“At first it was a little hectic online and it was all just too much. But after having a chance to look at it all, I’m realizing how cool it is and I love it so much,” she said. “In my real life, it gets a little confusing though because now people who were once rude to me are suddenly acting like my best friends. You just don’t know who genuinely wants to be your friend or be friends with ‘The Grace VanderWaal.’ You never really think about it until it actually happens. So for now, I’ll just stick with the people I know.”
Good call, VanderWaal.