On Tuesday night, the top 10 graced the stage with their final shot at convincing the country that they have what it takes to be crowned the season 11 winner of America's Got Talent. But while the judges raved about each and every act on screen, the backstage consensus was that Wednesday night's finale (Sept. 14) will come down to two specific acts.
"I think it's going to be Jon [Dorenbos] or Grace [VanderWaal]," Heidi Klum admitted to Billboard on the post-show red carpet. "That's what I feel in my gut."
Simon Cowell is on the same page. "By the feeling in the room, that's what I felt," he added. The notoriously tough judge deemed VanderWaal an instant superstar, but admitted that it was Dorenbos that ultimately won over his heart. "I don't know why, but I got very emotional during the performance. And I don't normally feel that way," he said. "There is something about him and what he said that was so genuine and it's unique. He's going to go a long way."
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Meanwhile, Nick Cannon is slating VanderWaal to "be bigger than Taylor Swift."
"My prediction is she's going to be the biggest star since a Kelly Clarkson and a Carrie Underwood to come out of a talent show," adds Howie Mandel. "People are going to know that name. People are going to follow her. She's got a huge career ahead of her, which is scary for a 12-year-old. That's a lot of pressure!" The AGT veteran, who calls the young singer/songwriter his biggest surprise of the season, also revealed that the phones have been ringing off the hook with industry professionals inquiring about VanderWaal's career plans. "The biggest people in the music business are calling and saying, 'Is she tied up? Would she do something with us? Do you know anything about it? Is this Simon's label?' I've never had that before."
Despite an arsenal of praise, the two alleged front-runners could not have been more humble about their standings. "I have a one-in-10 chance," chirped VanderWaal, with an innocent grin. The mature-beyond-her-years preteen shrugged off the "next big thing" praise and explained that she simply wants the chance to follow her passion. "As long as I can make a living off of anything to do with music, I'm going to be happy," she said, though she eventually did admit that she would be open to "maybe the success level of Taylor Swift." Her future plans, regardless of the show's grand finale, involve continuing to create her "indie pop-ish folk" sound and hopefully one day collaborating with Elle King or Twenty One Pilots.
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Dorenbos, who left the show's entire cast fired up from his motivational magic trick, told Billboard that he considered his Tuesday night performance to be his best non-football-related feat to date "I always wanted to be a rock star," he explained. "I think that would be the greatest job in the world, but I'm an awful singer, I can't dance, and I can't play an instrument. So instead of playing music, I thought this was the time to come in with an acoustic ballad and open up myself and take them on a little journey." He also joked that he's hoping to win both the Super Bowl and America's Got Talent within the next year.
Predictions aside, Mel B sees big things happening for all of the show's finalists. "We all did standing ovations for more or less every single act tonight!" she exclaimed. "Everybody rose for the occasion," added Mandel. "We have never done an episode where we stood for all 10 acts." Other favorites of the judges are 21-year-old Sal Valentinetti, Klum's "golden buzzer"; The Clairvoyants, who shocked Mel B with their ability to transcribe her playful "Wanna Bean" jab at Mandel into a pendant; and Linkin' Bridge, which Cannon has listed in his top three.
But regardless of who America names the official winner, all the AGT finalists are happy with what their stints on the show have offered their careers.
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"I put it all on the table and I wouldn't have done anything differently. I wouldn't have changed anything," said Brian Justin Crum, who captivated the crowd on Tuesday with his own spin on Michael Jackson's Man in the Mirror.
"I think I went out on a great note," said Sofie Dossi, after admitting to whipping her hoop around so fast that she became dizzy for the first time during a performance. The Clairvoyants consider themselves one step closer to achieving their dream of having an hour-long show in Vegas, and Viktor Kee is beyond motivated to continue working. "On Thursday I'm flying to Seattle and I'm performing there in a theater," he explained. "I'm not going to take vacation right now, because I have too much energy and I don't want to waste that. I want to perform."
Valentinetti, who celebrated his 21st birthday on Tuesday, explained that making the final 10 was the best present he could have possibly asked for -- "not just to be on the show, but to know what I want to do for the rest of my life," he revealed. "I'm going to chase this like it's never been chased before, because I feel like I'm exactly where I need to be. Win, lose or draw, I'm America's next big name in entertainment."
The winner of America's Got Talent Season 11 will be announced live on Wednesday night, with the finale starting at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.