“There are not words to describe the feeling of her singing. We see singers all the time, but this was magic. She is magic,” Mandel says of 11-year-old singer Maddie Baez
Howie Mandel received one of the biggest surprises of his career on America’s Got Talent this week — and now, the young girl behind it is headed straight to the live shows.
Madison “Maddie” Taylor Baez shocked the judges and audience on Tuesday night after being called on from the audience to sing during a commercial break.
To everyone’s surprise, Baez had a powerhouse voice that quickly caught the attention of all four judges, including Simon Cowell, who walked back into the room after hearing her impressive a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
Mandel was particularly moved by the 11-year-old AGT super fan from Yorba Linda, California — who disclosed that she started singing after her dad was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer — and ended up pressing his coveted Golden Buzzer for her.
As the crowd chanted “Golden Buzzer,” Mandel told Baez, “I’m gonna do something. From the audience seats right to the live show! Are you ready? … You’re amazing!”
Following the emotional moment, Mandel spoke to PEOPLE about what prompted him to hit his Golden Buzzer and why he feels this moment will be remembered for years to come.
“My jaw hit the desk. I was surprised, I was entertained, my heart is still gushing from that moment,” he says. “There was something about that sound, that clarity, that strength, that made us turn our heads, and not only made us turn our heads, but just say, ‘Wow.'”
He continues, “Wow is what I felt, wow is what I heard, and wow is what I did. And I wasn’t alone. The whole audience, they all were chanting, ‘Golden buzzer! Golden buzzer!’ They really don’t do that a lot unless they feel it. And I think that America’s going to feel it.”
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Though Mandel, 66, has been a judge on the show for more than a decade, he says this Golden Buzzer moment felt particularly more poignant than his previous ones.
“There are not words to describe the feeling of her singing. We see singers all the time, but this was magic. She is magic,” he notes. “That was, for me, the most surprising, jaw-dropping moment I have ever personally experienced in my history on AGT.”
Speaking to the surprise element of Baez’s audition, Mandel says he had “no idea” that the tween had been placed in the audience by producers — but even the producers didn’t know what was about to occur.
“It is pretty common that people sing in the audience and are really good … [but] a lot of times, [the judges] walk out during the commercial, because we can go to the restroom or go get a snack,” he explains. “I think it was a surprise to the producers that we would, number one, call her up on stage, and then give her a Golden Buzzer.”
“They maybe thought she was good, it would be a nice surprise and it would perk us up … but not to that level,” he continues. “She filled that room when she was standing in the audience. Even before she was on stage, Simon was out having a coffee. He walked in with his coffee cup, going, ‘What is this sound?’ From outside the building, people were just piling into the room to see what this was.”
“I did not see it coming,” Mandel adds. “I was gobsmacked. It’s just amazing, and I’m so proud of her and so proud that that was my Golden Buzzer.”
Baez tells PEOPLE the Golden Buzzer moment felt completely surreal, especially since she has attended multiple tapings of the show and has always volunteered to sing during the breaks — but has never been chosen.
“It really felt like I was living my dream,” she says. “I was filled with excitement. I’ve been watching the show ever since I can remember. It’s always been my lifelong dream and it finally came true.”
“I was kinda freaking out [when Simon walked in] … but I was so thrilled,” she adds.
Baez also says being there with her father and having him join her on stage after winning the coveted Golden Buzzer “meant the world” to her.
“I’m most excited to share my voice with everyone that needs it,” she shares. “My main goal has always been to inspire other kids to follow their dreams so I’m really excited to be able to do that now.”
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As for whether Mandel believes Baez can win the whole thing, the judge says, “I think absolutely, there is a possibility.”
“This year, though, to be totally candid, this is the best group of people, of acts, that I have ever seen … I’ve never been blown away by so many acts in every possible category,” he notes. “I’ve seen magic like I’ve never seen it before, I have seen dancing like I have never seen it before, I’ve heard comedy that is funnier than it has ever been on our show, I’ve seen feats of strength and craziness like I’ve never seen before. I haven’t been this emotionally vested in so many different acts in one season. So yes, Madison could win this whole thing, but she is in a real stiff, stiff, stiff competition.”
One thing Mandel is certain about? “People are going to remember this, and this is going to be — if nothing else — one of the most viral moments [of the show]. And they live on. Billions of people watch these videos, and get to know you and love you, and launch careers.”
“She’s an adorable little 11-year-old girl who has the pipes of somebody triple her age, who has a very relatable, wonderful story and much more than a million dollars worth of talent,” he adds. “But she’s got a good chance at the million too!”
America’s Got Talent airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.