Capturing the hearts of millions of viewers and making history as the first blind and autistic contestant to receive the coveted golden buzzer on “America’s Got Talent”, Kodi Lee’s inspiring life story turned him into a worldwide sensation in 2019. The Korean-American singer-songwriter, who is also a gifted pianist, dazzled judges with his heartfelt rendition of Leon Russell’s “A Song For You”.
Born with optic nerve hypoplasia, and diagnosed with Addison’s disease at a young age, Kodi is considered a musical savant, or “someone with abilities that would be considered extraordinary even in a person who is not autistic.” Within two weeks of his audition, Kodi had racked up 50 million views on YouTube, and become the talk of the country as he progressed in “Got Talent”.
“America’s Got Talent”
Kodi auditioned for the TV talent show in May 2019, and received a standing ovation from judges Gabrielle Union, Julianne Hough, Howie Mandel and Simon Cowell after his performance, as well as a golden buzzer from Gabrielle which sent him to the program’s live shows. With Kodi already amassing a loyal fanbase within days of the audition airing, NBC and other news outlets began reporting on every detail of his life, thus making him a more relatable figure.
In the quarter-finals, Kodi received yet another standing ovation after his version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water”, and passed to the semi-finals with flying colors. Despite there being plenty of competition at that stage, Kodi was announced as one of the season’s ten finalists, after his rendition of Calum Scott’s “You Are the Reason”.
You did it @Kodileerocks!!!!!!! From the first note you sang, I knew you were something special and that you were here to change the world. I am SO proud of you my #goldenbuzzer. This is just the beginning. #agt pic.twitter.com/rLpq62HOcv
— Gabrielle Union (@itsgabrielleu) September 19, 2019
In the series finale that aired in September 2019, Kodi was the star of the night, as he performed “You Are the Reason” for the second time, alongside special guest Leona Lewis. Kodi was announced as the winner by a landslide at the end of the show, thus becoming the first developmentally disabled person to win “America’s Got Talent”.
As recently as January 2022, Kodi fulfilled one of his lifelong dreams by becoming a Las Vegas headliner in the cast of “America’s Got Talent: Live”. No costs were spared for the star-studded show, a production partnership of Syco Entertainment, The Works Entertainment Company, MGM Resorts International, and Fremantle with a multimillion-dollar budget.
When asked in an interview if he ever imagined that he’d be performing in front of thousands of fans on the Las Vegas Strip, Kodi enthusiastically replied: “Heck, yeah. I have never given up on my dream. I love being able to share my music with the world.” His proud mother Tina, confessed that she never imagined her son would win Got Talent, and that her biggest goal was simply landing an audition for her talented offspring, so that he could show the world his abilities.
Despite his varied interests including tapdancing and technology, Kodi remains a humble person, and loves spending time with his family the most. The pianist is also planning his debut album, which will include both covers and original songs, and has shared that he’d love to work with Alicia Keys and Elton John. Other career highlights since winning Got Talent include performing a duet with the musician H.E.R., and making appearances on the latest seasons of the show.
Other Success Stories
Paradoxically, some of the most successful contestants on “America’s Got Talent” didn’t actually win. The Texas Tenors, a classical crossover group who came in at fourth place in season four, are a good example. Going on to release five studio and three live albums – one of which reached #1 on the Billboard Classical chart – many would argue that they eclipsed Kevin Skinner, despite not walking away with the hefty $1 million prize… And if you’re wondering who Kevin is, that just proves our point.
The Texas Tenors peaked in popularity in 2013, the year they self-produced a PBS special with The Phoenix Symphony, and received three Emmy awards – they’re performing to this day all around the states. Although their last studio album didn’t make any waves on the US music charts, the talented trio have thousands of dedicated fans, and are making a nice living from touring and merchandise.
Jackie Evancho, who lost to Michael Grimm in season five, is another clear-cut case of runners-up outperforming the winners. Becoming the youngest solo artist to go platinum, and the youngest solo artist to debut in the top 10 with her first EP “O Holy Night”, Jackie’s career went from strength to strength, as she gained hundreds of thousands of fans.
Instead of being hit by the sophomore slump on her second project, Jackie remained relevant with “Dream with Me”, the album doing so well that she became the youngest artist to debut in the UK top five. Apart from that, the talented soprano’s critically acclaimed album “Two Hearts” became her seventh consecutive number-one hit on the Billboard Classical chart.
The impressionist and comedian Melissa Villaseñor also shot to fame thanks to her stint in Got Talent, despite having already appeared at Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival a year prior. After losing out to Landau Murphy Jr. in semi-finals, Melissa began doing voicework for “Family Guy”, “Adventure Time”, and other animated series, before landing her big break.
In 2016, the bubbly brunette landed a gig on “Saturday Night Live”, and wowed viewers with her dynamic personality. In fact, her impression of Sarah Silverman went down so well that she became a regular cast member. Despite the odd public controversy, Melissa remains booked and busy, with some of her latest projects including voicework on “Summer Camp Island” and “Q-Force”.
Last but certainly not least, the violinist Lindsey Stirling got off to a brilliant start in season five with her electrifying performances – but things turned sour when Piers Morgan cruelly told her she wasn’t good enough to incorporate dance into her performances, and Sharon Osborne said: “What you’re doing is not enough to fill a theater in Vegas.”
Ignoring the critique and staying true to her eccentric and somewhat unmarketable art form, Lindsey went on to become one of YouTube’s most popular young musicians, with eleven million subscribers and over two billion views. Blending classical musical and hip-hop to achieve amazing results, the Californian recently co-headlined a successful tour with the one and only Evanescence.
Where Are They Now?
It goes without saying that the less successful Got Talent acts who never reached their full potential also deserve their own mention. Despite winning the first season at the tender age of 11, with her powerful renditions of Broadway hits, Bianca Ryan’s career stalled in 2007, as she chose to focus on her education. Sadly, from 2010 to 2014, the Philadelphia native’s health issues also impacted her professional trajectory and she could only release one original single, and a cover of John Legend’s “All of Me”.
After undergoing various surgeries, Bianca came back with a bang in May 2017 to premiere her new single “One Day”. Sadly, the buzz surrounding her career had more than died down, and the music scene was full of fresh, young faces to occupy her spot. From being hailed by Simon Cowell as one of the best singers the judges had ever heard, to fading into obscurity, Bianca was forced to become a YouTube musician to make ends meet, and sporadically releases music to this day.
Neal E. Boyd became yet another inspirational story, after overcoming his bleak upbringing in conditions of poverty, earning a degree in music, and entering the third season of Got Talent to stun the judges and public with his version of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma”. Having developed a passion for opera music, thanks to the Three Tenors and other groups, Neal was a fan favorite from the beginning, and was hailed as a hero after taking home the $1 million prize.
Neal was also a generous soul who donated to charitable causes, and created a legacy at Southeast Missouri State University, his alma mater. Celebrating his experience at the university and with the aim of supporting future students, he created the Neal E. Boyd Endowed Scholarship in Performing Arts, which is awarded annually to a student in financial need who meets a GPA requirement and other targets.
Tragically, Neal never became a mainstream musical act, because he died of complications stemming from liver disease. In a statement, Got Talent said: “We are very saddened to hear that one of our AGT family members has passed away. Our hearts are with Neal’s loved ones during this difficult time.”
— Muscadine Bloodline (@MuscadineBLine) August 30, 2017
As for Kevin Skinner, who we mentioned earlier, the season four winner is perhaps one of Got Talent’s most tragic stories of unrealized potential. A humble chicken skinner born in the Dublin community of Graves County, Kentucky, Kevin began playing the guitar aged 12, and learned how to sing and compose music from his musician father, Joe.
With his ruggedly handsome appearance and lively personality, Kevin enamored fans with his performance of Garth Brooks’ “If Tomorrow Never Comes”, with three judges voting ‘yes’ and sending him directly to the Vegas Round. Despite not performing in said round, Kevin’s audition was good enough for the judges to send him to the quarter-finals, where he sang Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” while playing the guitar.
In the semi-finals, Kevin’s rendition of Brenda Lee’s “Always On My Mind” was good enough to earn a standing ovation from Piers. The famously picky judge boldly claimed that Kevin was able to move an audience in a way that he’d never seen before on the show, and added that the Kentucky native was one of his favorites to win.
Despite missing the odd note in his next performance, Piers called Kevin a diamond in the rough, and Sharon compared him to Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger – other musicians who didn’t need a perfect voice to become successful. Once again, Kevin received a standing ovation, and received enough votes in the finale to be placed in the Top 5.
Upon receiving the seven-figure prize, which was put into an annuity to be paid out over 40 years, Kevin headlined a show in Las Vegas, performed in “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show”, and began working on his eagerly awaited debut album. His debut CD, “Long Ride”, was released on Saint Patrick’s Day 2010, with the album coming six months later.
Shockingly, the album failed to chart despite Kevin’s best efforts. After releasing an equally unsuccessful follow-up, “Kevin Skinner: Live and Unplugged”, in 2011, the musician gave up on his dreams and went back to his day job – he’s shown no interest in performing or reviving his career since.
An honorable mention goes to Grace VanderWaal, one of the only winners to break the Got Talent ‘curse’ and keep her name in the media spotlight. The singer-songwriter and actress, whose Golden Buzzer audition has the second-highest number of views in AGT history, became the youngest performer to win since Bianca at just 12 years old. The vivacious adolescent began her musical career on YouTube, and performing at local open mic nights, making sure to stand out from other contestants by singing her original material.
Just three months after winning season eleven of AGT, Grace released her first EP – “Perfectly Imperfect”, via Columbia Records. Less than a year later, she delighted fans with her first full-length album entitled “Just the Beginning”, and by then had already showcased her stage presence with performances at Madison Square Garden, the opening and closing of the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games, and various benefit concerts.
Some accolades Grace has earned through sheer hard work include the Radio Disney Music Award for Best New Artist, a Teen Choice Award, and a coveted spot in Billboard magazine’s 21 Under 21 list of young music stars with promise. The New York native has also signed with IMG models, and starred in the Disney+ adaptation of Jerry Spinelli’s “Stargirl”; she currently boasts over four million Instagram followers.