The world was wowed by a 13-year old’s incredible voice in 2018, when little Courtney Hadwin auditioned in the 13th season of “America’s Got Talent,” singing Otis Redding’s unforgettable “Hard to Handle”, and winning the golden buzzer. A huge part of the surprise factor that made her performance all the more stellar was the fact that she’s a completely different person when off the microphone, to the point of her stage presence seeming like a personality disorder.
Her shy little self walked into the spotlight without any confidence, abashedly looking up at the judges to utter a single ‘Hi’ as Mel B greeted her. The judge welcomed her to the show and asked how she was, to which Courtney said ‘Um, a little bit nervous.’ Fortunately for her, Mel B also had a British accent, which definitely resonated with her, and helped her relax a little bit.
The judge said ‘That’s okay – to be nervous. It’s totally understandable,’ and asked for her name. Courtney presented herself and stated her age, after which she revealed that her favorite subject in school is music. When asked which genre particularly, she gave a nervous chuckle and said ‘I don’t know.’ Mel B naturally continued with ‘You’re very sweet, and I’m guessing you’re gonna be singing for us?’ Courtney uttered an insecure ‘Yeah’ while shifting her weight from foot to foot.
The judge continued trying to make her comfortable, stating ‘Listen, don’t be nervous. I know this is a big stage and there’s lots of people here, but you’re here for a reason, so, go for it and good luck.’ After Courtney’s nervous ‘Thank you’ and a short walk to the depth of the stage, where she took a strange downward posture and stared at the floor, an almost awkward silence washed over the auditorium. Hadwin kept to her strange position for about ten seconds, afflicting the judges with a gaze of uncomfortable confusion.
Everyone’s facial expression changed as soon as the music began, and Courtney started singing, with an ‘Oh my god!’ coming from Mel B’s direction. Tyra Banks fully let her jaw drop from the pocket of the stage next to Courtney’s father, and Mel B couldn’t keep her mouth closed either, staring in disbelief. Simon Cowell gave Howie Mandel a look of positive shock with a big smile on his face, and Heidi Klum exclaimed ‘Oh. My. God.’
Courtney was also dancing lively, with a voice one would expect from a grown woman who is a seasoned singer, with thousands of hours of practice. As her performance ended with a ‘Hey!’ and a drop to her knees, Howie was already standing up and pointing at her, while the other three judges joined him. Her father covered his mouth nervously, and looked around the hall.
‘Bloody hell Courtney,’ said Simon, ‘you were like this shiny little thing when you first came out, and then you sing and you are like a lion. I mean, genuinely incredible.’ Judge Mandel was even more taken aback, saying ‘You are not from this era. You’re from a whole different era.’ Mel B then had to interject a ‘Yes!’
Howie continued with ‘And I’m a huge Janis Joplin fan, and there’s a story, if you’ve ever watched the documentary, Clive Davis, he goes to the Monterey Pop Festival, and he sees this young girl, that nobody has ever seen before, that nobody knows.’ Courtney looked on with anxiety, swaying from side to side.
Mandel said ‘It was the first time Janis Joplin got signed. And that changed her life! Do you know that story?’ Courtney returned a shy ‘Yeah,’ after which he said ‘I’m not Clive Davis. I’m Howie Mandel, and I can’t sign you to a record deal.’ As the judge said that, many were confused for a moment as to what the point of the speech was, but then he continued.
The famous germaphobe then exclaimed ‘The only thing I can do for you, young lady, is give you…’ As Howie spoke these words, he rose from the seat and motioned with his hand towards the golden buzzer, slamming it excitedly. Courtney covered her face in the storm of rectangular golden confetti that rained on her, while the proud father ran over to embrace his now superstar child.
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Hadwin couldn’t contain her tears, and kept wiping her face as Tyra Banks approached her with the words ‘Courtney, you are going straight to the live shows!’ Courtney was still overwhelmed by emotion, saying ‘Thank you so much. Thank you so much.’ Howie was standing next to her, pointing and saying ‘No! Thank you so much!’, and Tyra said ‘You are absolutely amazing. I have never seen anything like that.’ And, just like that, the 13-year old singer secured her place on the world stage.
Courtney’s past and the quarter-finals
Courtney revealed certain details about her past in the interview preceding her next “America’s Got Talent” performance, mentioning how she always stood out from children of a similar age. They apparently didn’t appreciate this difference, and told her to become more akin to them. Of course, peer pressure had an effect, but not to the point of ridding the world of an eternal superstar.
She said ‘I got the feeling that maybe I should change and listen to everybody, but then I remembered that people like Janis Joplin didn’t listen to anybody, and they got what they wanted in the end.’ Hadwin also addressed the obvious fact that her stage personality is the polar opposite to whom she normally is, saying ‘People don’t really expect me to perform the way I do. When I hear music, I come alive. I feel electrified. I just get into the music and start moving.’
The child star commented on her expectations for the upcoming show, stating ‘Tonight I’m just gonna leave it all out on the stage. I’m just gonna, I don’t know, I’m just gonna do it.’ Indeed, her next performance started out very strongly, with strobes of white light illuminating the smoke rising all around her as she sang loudly from the back of her throat.
Numerous yellow lights came on after the start of the song, showing four people around her on the stage – two guitarists, a drummer and a piano player. Hadwin was having the time of her life performing “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” by James Brown, dancing in that unique all-over-the-place style that everyone enjoyed, torqueing her voice in ways even more extreme than during the audition.
.@courtneyhadwin's stayed true to herself throughout this journey. ✊
— America’s Got Talent (@AGT) September 16, 2018
She finished with the crowd and the judges already all on their feet, clapping and cheering for the new rock legend. Simon Cowell rushed over to Howie Mandel and hugged him, evidently to thank him for giving Courtney the golden buzzer.
Heidi sat down, spread her arms and vehemently exclaimed ‘I have not been this excited about a new artist in a very, very long time. You definitely are in a category of your own. I love the way you dance, I love the way you sound, I love you. I think you’re a very, very special young lady.’
Mel B almost aggressively came in with ‘So how old are you?! You’re 14? And people made fun of the way you danced and the way you moved? They said what?’ Courtney timidly admitted ‘People really don’t get me,’ to which Mel B shouted ‘We get you! We get you, and you are incredible. You know what? Screw them, I want tickets to your show tonight, and the next night, and the next night, and the next night. You’re amazing.’
Simon very calmly and proudly said ‘Normally I give people advice what to do next. This is my advice: Don’t listen to a single word I say. Do exactly what you did tonight because that’s what made this so incredible. Howie, an amazing pick, again. You should be starting a record label together. It was outstanding!’
Tyra Banks interjected, saying ‘Howie is over there gloating and smiling and glowing.’ Mandel happily confirmed the statement, saying ‘I am so glowing! You are so amazing that Simon came over and gave me a hug in the middle. There aren’t even words. I just wanna scream. I wanna tell people to vote. Can I scream?’ And with that, he literally screamed at the top of his lungs ecstatically. Tyra asked ‘How are you feeling little pumpkin?’ All the child could utter was ‘Speechless.’
Courtney’s semi-finals and finals
Hadwin began her semi-final performance in episode 1319 heading the customary crew of five, with the aforementioned four musicians supporting her on their instruments. She sang Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” torqueing her voice in the now all-too-famous style that only she has, and dancing in her particularly erratic way.
Simon and Howie both gave Courtney a standing ovation as Tyra Banks approached her and called her cute. ‘I can’t sit down,’ Howie said, ‘I can’t sit down. You were born to be wild. And this was wild, you’re amazing, the buzz is gonna continue. My prediction is you are gonna win “America’s Got Talent” 2018.’
As Mandel finished commenting and stopped waving his hand excitedly, Mel B actually surprised the audience with an unexpected opinion. She said ‘Now there’s no doubt you are, you’re just out there, man, and I love it. I love your dress, and I love the way you sing, the way you belt the notes. For me, I have to be really honest, tonight was a little bit off.’
Courtney gave the judge a worried look as she went on, saying ‘I felt your nerves. I didn’t feel that confidence that you usually have. I don’t know if it’s the pressure of the semi-finals. You did what you did, and I loved it, but I still felt those nerves and I’m not used to that with you.’
It was evident that Mel’s critique had an impact on the child star, seeing as she went all out in the finals, more confident than ever. For her last attempt at the main prize, she chose to perform Tina Turner’s legendary “River Deep, Mountain High” – a song that can definitely pull all of Hadwin’s vocal potential out of her.
As though her performance couldn’t become any more ecstatic, Courtney actually got off the stage and danced all around the judges while singing, getting much closer to the bedazzled audience. Her initials were on the stage as well, in the form of two burning letters.
Howie was quite excited to mention that in his commentary, saying ‘You are on fire! You are amazing, you’re a superstar. I love everything about you. I love your look, I love your style, I love your voice, I love your performance, I think the world is too. We are watching a superstar in the making, right here on “America’s Got Talent.”’
Mel B was sure to build on her previous opinion, stating ‘Well you know last week I wasn’t buying it that much. You do know that. But this week, you killed it!’ She also had to add ‘At one point I thought your legs were gonna snap!’ Heidi and Simon were equally as enchanted by the performance.
Lastly, in the finale of the show Courtney sang “Piece of My Heart” by Janis Joplin, as well as “Could Have Been Me” with The Struts. In spite of the performance being very well received by the audience and the judges, she wasn’t voted into the top five.
Courtney’s life after “America’s Got Talent”
Hadwin may not have scored first place in the show, but she was propelled into stardom nonetheless. She actually performed at the highly coveted Las Vegas live shows with 2018 winner, magician Shin Lim, between the 2nd and 4th November, at the Paris Hotel and Casino.
Courtney must’ve rocked the stage pretty hard, since Arista Records and Syco Entertainment hounded her for an exclusive record deal right after, which she signed in December 2018. Her first album, entitled “The Cover Sessions,” came out on 25 October 2019, featuring several live covers of popular songs, including “Sucker” by the Jonas Brothers, HarryStyles’ “Sign of the Times,” Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved,” and Lil Nas X’s version of “Old Town Road.”
She stated in an interview with Variety magazine that ‘It feels amazing to be joining Syco and I’m super excited and feel so lucky,’ adding ‘I’ve always wanted to work on original songs, and to be able to do that with the support of Syco while staying true to myself and the music I like is a dream come true. I can’t thank them enough for giving me this chance.’
Aside from debuting an album, Hadwin also performed her own song for the
first time in 2019, in “America’s Got Talent: The Champions,” in which she sang “Pretty Little Thing.” The rest of Courtney’s original songs and covers can be found on her YouTube channel, which stands at almost 650,000 subscribers and more than 27 million total views in late 2022.