Twelve-year-old Grace VanderWaal captured hearts nationwide after her America’s Got Talent debut aired Tuesday night. The sixth grader from Suffern, New York, had auditioned for the show back in March with an original song she performed on her ukulele. She received a standing ovation from the room and rave reviews from the judges; one of them, Howie Mandel, even pushed the “golden buzzer” in response to her performance, allowing the singer-songwriter to advance straight to the America’s Got Talent live show, where she will compete for viewer votes.
“[The reaction] is very great but it gets kind of confusing,” VanderWaal told Rolling Stone over the phone the day after her episode aired. She returned to class following the commotion the night before. “I used to sit alone at lunch with only Caroline, and now all these people are coming. I don’t know if they genuinely want to be my friend or they want to be the girl from America’s Got Talent‘s friend.”
She felt the reaction immediately the night prior when the show aired, witnessing her social media blow up as well as texts and calls from people she knew. “I was just like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is what [being] a famous person is like!'” Even after her March audition, she couldn’t make it through a dinner at P.F. Chang’s with her family that night without audience members finding her to take her photo.
While her voice and musicianship were also lauded, it was the quality of VanderWaal’s emotional, catchy, quirky tune “I Don’t Know My Name” that made her America’s Got Talent appearance unforgettable and prompted judge Simon Cowell to declare that she’s “the next Taylor Swift.” “Hopefully one day I will be as successful as her,” she says with a laugh.
The 12-year-old, who plays the alto saxophone and piano as well as the ukulele, has been writing her own songs for a while with hopes to perform them during the America’s Got Talent live show when it launches in August. “I’m more confident to show my songs,” she reflects of the show’s immediate effect on her. VanderWaal had originally been encouraged to try out for the show by her mother, who signed Grace up without telling her. “This entire experience has been such a confidence booster,” VanderWaal says, “and now I’m posting on YouTube.”
As for the pre-teen’s song inspirations, she recalls that “I Don’t Know My Name” came to her while she was doing her homework. “It’s about how I’ve gone through so many different phase and styles and friendships, and it’s about how now I think that this who I want to be and this is what I want my life path to be.”
Guiding that life path for VanderWaal is Katy Perry, one of her biggest influences as a performer and writer. “She’s always stayed the same,” she explains of Perry’s appeal. “In her movie she said that she turned down some producers just to be herself and that could’ve been putting her entire career in jeopardy, but she still did it. I think that’s a good thing to remember.”