Since the show’s debut in 2006, “America’s Got Talent” has showcased all kinds of talent and has, in turn, created many new celebrities. Each undiscovered contestant appears before a panel of celebrity judges who decide which acts will continue in the competition and which ones will go home. With the help of audience votes, one act goes home with $1 million and headlines a show in a Las Vegas tour. Although several reality competition winners like those of “American Idol” seem to drop off of the face of the Earth, the winners of “America’s Got Talent” have consistently built successful careers. Among the most famous winners are Grace VanderWaal, Darci Lynne, Shin Lim and Kodi Lee. Let’s look at four of the most successful acts and where their careers have taken them.
In 2016, the winner of “America’s Got Talent” was Grace VanderWaal. The 12-year-old singer and ukulele player became the first female to win the show since Bianca Ryan in Season 1. The humble little girl from Kansas captured the hearts of America with her original songs and masterful ukulele playing. Even the callous, criticizing Simon Cowell couldn’t resist showering the star with praise, calling her “the next Taylor Swift” after her first audition. Cowell intended to use his golden buzzer on her, but Howie Mandell beat him to it.
VanderWaal used her miracle “America’s Got Talent” victory to continue her singing career. In December of 2016, she signed a deal with Columbia Records and released her debut EP, called “Perfectly Imperfect,” featuring songs that she sang while competing on the show. The young star’s interest in the ukulele is said to have boosted the instrument’s popularity, so much so that she profited from her own line of Fender ukuleles. VanderWaal didn’t stop there. In 2017, she released her first full album, titled “Just the Beginning,” and went on to win a Radio Disney Music Award, Teen Choice Award and an MTV Europe Music Award. With her new material and newfound fame, she toured with Imagine Dragons and Florence and the Machine before headlining two tours herself.
Recently, VanderWaal starred in the musical drama “Stargirl” on Disney+. A sequel to this movie, “Hollywood Stargirl,” is currently in production and VanderWaal is planning on reprising her role. In the meantime, one of the show’s most successful stars is modeling for the Marc Jacobs fashion line.
Against all odds, another 12-year-old singer won “America’s Got Talent” in Season 12 and her name was painted on every marquee in Las Vegas: Darci Lynne Farmer. She began her televised ventriloquist performances on “The Little Big Shots” with Steve Harvey. A year later, she was being doused in gold confetti on the Pasadena Civic Auditorium stage after Mel B pressed her golden buzzer. The young ventriloquist made it to the finale and performed with guest star Terry Fator, the champion of Season 2. Farmer and her puppets received the highest number of votes in the show’s history, contributing to her 2017 victory.
Much like VanderWaal with the ukulele, Farmer is credited with bringing ventriloquism back into American culture. Instantly after winning the competition, Farmer took her act on the road with her Darci Lynne & Friends Live Tour. She sold out shows on the weekends while attempting to keep up with her seventh-grade homework. The multitalented star shared the stage with Fergie for New Year’s Eve 2017 at Caesar’s Palace. In 2019, she returned to the “America’s Got Talent” stage for “The Champions,” where she finished in second place overall. Since then, she has been a guest on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” “The Kelly Clarkson Show” and “The Today Show.”
Little Darci Lynne Farmer isn’t so little anymore. Now at 17 years old, she is embarking on her tour “My Lips Are Sealed (Except When They’re Not),” starting in August 2022. Although her puppets will continue to be a part of her act, Farmer seems to have shifted her focus toward her career as a singer and actress. She is currently working for Nickelodeon on two of their television series, “Side Hustle” and “Unfiltered.”
3. Shin Lim
In the Season 13 finale in 2018, the marvelous magician Shin Lim took home the million-dollar prize with his close-up magic acts. Despite his struggles with carpal tunnel syndrome and injuries to his thumb tendons, Lim was determined to charm the judges and viewers alike with his incredible sleight of hand tricks. Simon Cowell, who admitted to being “bored of card trick magicians” earlier that day, retracted his response and was fully enthralled with Lim’s act. It was hardly a surprise when he won “America’s Got Talent.”
Since being on the show, Lim has built a huge fan base for himself. Directly after finishing Season 13, Shin Lim competed on the first season of “America’s Got Talent: The Champions.” Thanks to his superfans, he was crowned the first place champion ahead of Darci Lynne. He has reappeared on the “America’s Got Talent” stage several times since his consecutive wins as a guest performer but has spent most of his time touring with his card tricks.
Shin Lim has performed on Broadway with The Illusionists for the “Magic of the Holidays” show in 2018, scored a residency at the Terry Fator theater and performs his “LIMitless” show at the Mirage with his “America’s Got Talent” co-star Colin Cloud. When he’s not busy touring, he’s teaching his wife his tricks and sharing their work on Instagram. Lim’s fans are hoping that a husband-wife duo show is in the mix for the future.
4. Kodi Lee
Arguably the best act to come out of “America’s Got Talent” is the singer and pianist Kodi Lee. The Season 14 winner was born both blind and autistic, but his obstacles have never stopped him from pursuing his musical dreams. His moving audition with Leon Russell’s “A Song For You” had everyone in the audience standing on their feet with teary eyes full of awe. Simon Cowell remarked that he would “remember this moment for the rest of [his] life” and Gabrielle Union was convinced to push her golden buzzer, sending Lee straight to the quarterfinals. Even though a handful of highly talented performers came from this season, they all knew they could never top Lee.
Straight off of “America’s Got Talent,” Simon Cowell signed Lee to his record label Syco Music. From his headlining tour in Las Vegas, Lee performed locally at restaurants and wineries. Lee is adored so much that he was asked to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City not once but twice. He also gave a virtual performance of the national anthem for a New York Knicks game last year. To spread awareness for his optic nerve hypoplasia, Lee recently performed in support of Siskin Children’s Institute in Tennessee. “We want our children that we serve to see him and know that anything’s possible,” CEO Derek Bullard shared with Chattanooga’s Local 3 News.
What else is there to look forward to in Kodi Lee’s future? He’s been keeping his fans up to date with his YouTube channel, where he documents himself trying new things and covering his favorite songs. He’s also been dipping his toes into the dancing scene, performing tap and a few choreographed numbers from TikTok.
The two most recent winners of “America’s Got Talent” — Brandon Leake and Dustin Tavella — definitely deserved their victories, but they have proven that building a fan base off of emotional background stories does more to enhance one’s chances of winning competition shows. Leake, the spoken word poet, told amazing stories about racial injustices, which earned him his triumph in Season 15. His poems about his daughter and his relationship with his parents tugged at viewers’ heartstrings, but they started to notice the trends he was leaning on. Similarly, Tavella — the storytelling magician from Season 16 — centered most of his performances on his wife and their two adopted sons. Those who didn’t consider themselves fans of these two performers credit their sentimental narratives for their victory and ignored the talent at the center of the act.
Due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the winners from the recent seasons are at a disadvantage. They haven’t had much of a chance to perform in public like the others mentioned in the article. Thankfully, Simon Cowell plans to launch a new “America’s Got Talent” residency in Las Vegas, giving a handful of winners from the show a chance to perform again. Season 17 of “America’s Got Talent” is just around the corner, likely premiering this summer. Fans of past winners will get the chance to see their old acts appear as guests on the show as well as get acquainted with new performers.