For America’s Got Talent contestants, nothing’s quite as electrifying as a golden buzzer.
In its ninth season, the show introduced a new concept: Each judge would be able to press a “golden buzzer” once per season. The buzzer was originally intended as a tiebreaker, but from the 10th season onward, it’s been used to send a contestant on to the live show rounds—regardless of the other judges’ opinions.
Needless to say, contestants need to be extraordinary in order to earn a golden buzzer. Here’s a look at a few of the most stunning golden buzzers of all time (and what happened next).
The Contestant: Kodi Lee
The America’s Got Talent judges love a good underdog story, and so does the audience. There’s something amazing about seeing someone overcome setbacks to succeed, and few contestants have overcome as much as 22-year-old Kodi Lee.
Tonight was so amazing on #AGT Sharing my talent with the world are moments I will never forget. “You Are the Reason” I love what I do and thank you for spreading love with me. Your support makes us stronger together as we change the world! Thank you and I love you all! Luv, Kodi pic.twitter.com/M5CM1ZgQ5b
— Kodi Lee (@Kodileerocks) September 4, 2019
Kodi is blind and has autism. He’s loved music his entire life.
“Through music and performing, he was able to withstand living in this world, because when you’re autistic it’s really hard to do what everybody else does,” Kodi’s mom, Tina Lee, told the judges prior to his performance. “It actually has saved his life, playing music.”
With some help, Kodi made his way behind the piano, and…well, you simply need to see it.
Kodi reportedly has perfect pitch, and through his performance, he showed incredible vocal range and captivating piano skills. The judges were impressed.
“What just happened there was extraordinary,” judge Simon Cowell said. “…I’m going to remember this moment for the rest of my life.”
Kodi’s excellent take on songwriter Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” also touched host Gabrielle Union, inspiring her to hit her first-ever golden buzzer.
“I’m a new judge this season, and I’m also a new mom this year,” Union said, directly addressing Tina. “It’s the toughest job I’ve ever had and the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. You just want to give your kids the moon, the stars, and the rainbows, tonight, I’m gonna give you something special.”
So, did Kodi expect to get a golden buzzer?
“Oh my gosh, heck yeah,” he told Entertainment Tonight.
What happened next: We’ll find out soon. Kodi will be in the quarterfinal rounds, and given his incredible debut, we’d say he has a decent shot of winning the entire show. Even if he misses out on the top prize, he’s certainly made a name for himself.
Sadly, some fans doubted the authenticity of Kodi’s disabilities, noting the extreme difference between his onstage interview and his actual performance. However, he’s maintained a YouTube channel for years, and he’s certainly not faking anything.
“There’s this other part of him, it is like two people,” Tina said. “You put him on stage and all of a sudden, it’s like the flip of a hat, and he has no disabilities on stage.”
“I’ve been watching him perform for quite a while, but that day on stage, the sound as he started to sing, it was like the best sound I have ever heard come out of his mouth,” she said. “Like, I was shocked. I literally could not stop crying. It’s almost like he knew that was the place to like, give it all.”
The Contestant: Mandy Harvey
Like Kodi, Mandy Harvey had a difficult path to the America’s Got Talent stage. When she was 18, she contracted Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder. She lost her hearing—a devastating blow, as she was planning on becoming a music teacher.
— Mandy Harvey (@mandyharvey) September 23, 2018
Five years later, she started performing again, and she decided to audition for the reality show’s 12th season.
“My goal on the show was to encourage others,” she told Parade. “I wanted to show that even if you fail, you have the ability to pick yourself up off the floor and try again. I wanted to show a different side of what a disability looks like to highlight all the invisible ones.”
She certainly succeeded. After her perfect performance, Harvey received a golden buzzer from Simon Cowell.
“I’ve done this a long time,” the notoriously grumpy judge said. “That was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen and heard. …Honestly, I never think I’m going to be surprised or amazed by people, and then you turn up. Just the fact that you are you, but it was your voice, your tone. The song was beautiful.”
What happened next: Harvey took fourth place in the competition, and she’s currently a successful touring artist. She also published a memoir, Sensing the Rhythm: Finding My Voice in a World Without Sound.
Not everyone was happy about Harvey’s success. She told the BBC that she received threats from people in the deaf community.
— America's Got Talent (@AGT) May 23, 2018
“I got a lot of backlash from certain people in that community because I was promoting oralism,” she said.
In the deaf community, oralism refers to using speech and lip-reading instead of sign language.
“I really wanted to change the idea of what is possible and to show that ‘deaf can,’ and what better place to do that than on national television?” she explained. “If it hacks off a couple of people, well it’s encouraging a heck of a lot more, so they can just get over it.”
The Contestant: Makayla Phillips
At 15, Makayla Phillips is one of the younger contestants to receive a golden buzzer. She didn’t tell a remarkable story of her trials against adversity; she simply sang her heart out, performing Demi Lovato’s “Warrior” to a stunned crowd. The judges approved—especially Heidi Klum, who immediately sent Makayla to the quarterfinals.
“I did not expect it at all,” Makayla told Talent Recap. “Not even a little bit. Not even the producers expected it. No one expected it. So many emotions were going through my head at once, it was insane.”
“I think I just found the winner,” Klum said shortly after hitting the buzzer.
— Kodi Lee (@Kodileerocks) August 22, 2018
What happened next: Well, Klum hadn’t actually found the winner, but Makayla did fairly well, making it to the 13th season’s semifinals.
As she’s still quite young, Makayla probably won’t be touring anytime soon, but she’s certainly talented enough to pursue a career in music.
She maintains an active YouTube channel where she posts covers of other artists’ songs.
The Contestants: Zurcaroh
Here’s a little-known fact: You don’t actually need to be American to compete on America’s Got Talent. Hey, names can be deceiving.
The Austrian acrobatic group Zurcaroh first appeared on France’s Got Talent in 2017, receiving a golden buzzer, and in 2018, they decided to try their luck on the U.S. version of the show.
“This is the biggest stage in the world where I can share our skills and talent,” group leader Peterson da Cruz Hora told the America’s Got Talent cameras.
Zurcaroh received a standing ovation—along with the first golden buzzer of the 13th season.
“I’m, like, freaking out right now,” Tyra Banks said. “This is so crazy that you know what I have to do.”
The supermodel then ran out of the room screaming about dolphins while refusing to vote. Just kidding—she gave Zurcaroh her golden buzzer.
— Tyra Banks (@tyrabanks) May 30, 2018
For what it’s worth, Cowell agreed with Banks’ decision, and fans certainly didn’t complain. Many of the Zurcaroh dancers broke into tears onstage.
“I told my group that it could change our life with this performance,” da Cruz Hora said afterward. “I think it just did.”
What happened next: Zurcaroh earned a second-place finish behind magician Shin Lim.
Unsurprisingly, Zurcaroh is still performing. Per their website, they currently have 48 active athletes ranging from 7 to 40 years old.
— America's Got Talent (@AGT) September 21, 2018
“We have requests from all over the world, but we have to fit it with our day jobs and school schedules,” da Cruz Hora told Forbes when asked about the group’s future.
The group recently produced its first short film, The Refuge, which you can watch here. While Zurcaroh is currently performing in Europe, they’ll likely head back to the States sometime soon; we’d bet money that they’ll headline their own show in Las Vegas at some point in the future.
The Contestants: Voices of Hope
Does a children’s choir really deserve to make the final rounds of America’s Got Talent?
If they’re as good as Voices of Hope, then yes. The group consists of 70 kids aged 5 to 17, and they consistently wowed audiences throughout the 13th season with immaculate harmonies and perfect song selection.
— Voices of Hope Children’s Choir (@VoicesOfHopeCC) June 20, 2018
The group’s director is Sarah Grandpre, whom the kids call “Miss Sarah.”
“If you had told me when I was 21 that my biggest passion project was going to be directing a children’s choir, I would have been so surprised,” she told USA Today.
Grandpre intended to pursue a solo singing career, but after a string of rejections, she says she found her calling in Voices of Hope. The group passed through the early rounds of America’s Got Talent, but Cowell told them to tighten their vocals. They listened—and guest judge Ken Jeong gave them the season’s final golden buzzer.
“I don’t even know what to feel,” Grandpre said after receiving the news that Voices of Hope was headed to the final rounds. “I’m so proud of these kids. I’m really happy.”
What happened next: Cowell championed Voices of Hope in the semifinal round, standing next to them on stage and asking America to “please put these guys [and] these girls into the finals.”
Unfortunately, the kids didn’t quite attract enough votes to get through to the final round. Voices of Hope has plans to keep performing, although they don’t have any upcoming performances currently listed on their website.
Still, the group has reason to celebrate. The program is entirely tuition free and open to children of all economic and social backgrounds, and its stated mission is to “change the world one song at a time.” Based on their performances on America’s Got Talent, they’re on the right track.
The Contestant: Joseph Allen
Most singers choose established songs for their America’s Got Talent auditions, but this season, 21-year-old Joseph Allen decided on a different approach: He wrote a song for the judges.
That might sound like pandering, but Allen’s earnest lyrics helped endear him to the crowd:
“Take a shot or you’ll never know/Your heart will tell you when it’s time to move/Ask yourself what you got to lose/When it storms, when it rains it falls on all of us the same/But after today the world’s gonna know my name.”
His performance showed off his powerful voice and excellent rapping skills, but his hopeful lyrics resonated with judge Howie Mandel.
In fact, Allen’s song compelled Mandel to climb on the judge’s table and stomp on the golden buzzer. It was a little over the top, but hey, that’s showbiz.
“From the moment you walked out, your smile is electric,” Mandel said. “…People at home are talking about this moment, people in this room are talking about this moment.”
What happened next: We’re not sure yet, but Joseph Allen certainly has plenty of competition in the 2019 season of America’s Got Talent, including the aforementioned Kodi Lee.
That’s part of the problem with reality contests—it’s difficult to see so many talented performers miss out on the prize. Still, we wouldn’t be surprised if Allen launched a successful career on the America’s Got Talent stage. He’s certainly dedicated to making a career out of music, and given his confidence and positivity, he’s got a great shot.
“When I told my dad I was gonna be on America’s Got Talent, my dad cried,” Allen said prior to his performance. “He’s always known that I’ve had this thing of just, like, saying something and then accomplishing it.”
“I see myself being someone who can make a major impact in the world,” he told the judges. “I just want to see how much of a footprint I can leave on Earth before I leave.”