Since its premiere on NBC in 2006, America’s Got Talent has seen its share of cast changes.
But the current judges — comic Howie Mandel, now marking his eighth season; singer-actress Mel B and supermodel Heidi Klum, who both joined in 2013; and series creator–executive producer Simon Cowell, who came on board last year — have proved to be a winning combination.
The 11th season, in which teen singer Grace VanderWaal won the $1 million prize, became the most viewed in five years. And AGT remains the number-one summer show, with a season average of 13.5 million viewers.
The chemistry these four share is no act.
In separate interviews, the judges say that they feel like a family. In fact, their families come to the tapings, and Klum’s and Mel B’s children hang out together. Both Mandel and Klum went to see Mel B perform recently on Broadway.
“We stick together,” Klum says. “We support each other. That’s what is great about the four of us.”
And in season 12, which began May 30 — with Tyra Banks replacing Nick Cannon, the host since 2009 — they will continue their search for the next rising star, be it a singer, comedian, juggler, magician or acrobat. No matter the skill, contestants are continually challenged to wow the judges, Klum observes. “They see that the bar is always set very high. They’re like, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this, but even better.’”
Though he’s caused contestants to burst into tears on American Idol, The X Factor and now AGT, Cowell is really a bit of a joker.
Consider the time he gave fellow judges Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel and Mel B a particularly chewy piece of candy during a commercial break so they couldn’t talk once they returned to the live show. “We were laughing so much,” says Cowell, who has also been a judge on Britain’s Got Talent for a decade.
“Sometimes I give them stupid words to say, which they have to include in [their critique]. It’s completely inappropriate to what we’re judging, but they have to say the word. That’s what makes it fun.”
Cowell is actually a softie, especially when it comes to the animal acts and making sure the four-legged performers are treated kindly. “There was one person who I didn’t think was looking after the animals properly,” he says. “We had words afterwards. You have to do that.”
When he joined the judging panel last season, “I was like the new boy,” he notes. “They’d been working together for years.” But he quickly felt right at home.
Cowell believes being honest — sometimes brutally so — is better than lying to contestants. “I think it’s kinder to say, ‘Honestly, this is not going to work. Thanks for trying, but do something else.’ On the other hand, when you see someone who has a lot of potential, then our job is to try and make them better, and for them to use the show to change their lives.”
What comes to mind when he thinks of Howie Mandel? “For me, he’s the heart and soul of the show.”
The in-your-face attitude, bawdy humor and saucy language that were Mel B’s hallmarks as the boisterous Scary Spice of the Spice Girls are back on display on AGT. But she’s hardly alone in speaking her mind. “The dynamic of the panel is great,” she says. “We are all very opinionated. We don’t all agree, which I think is great. We nag each other on and off camera. It just works.”
Cowell is an old friend — they were both judges on the U.K. version of The X Factor. “I have known him for years and years,” she says, “so it’s like being back with an old buddy. The four of us have a really fun time.”
The judges have figured out how to critique contestants — especially youngsters — if they are less than talented. “We usually help that person out, unless they are just completely delusional, which I find kind of hysterical.”
Earlier this year, Mel B wrapped an eight-week stint on Broadway as Roxie Hart in Chicago. But she generally shies away from participating in contestants’ acts, for fear she could detract from their goals — “especially if it doesn’t go as planned.” But she enjoyed working with Mat Franco, the young magician who won the ninth season.
“He did a really good trick with my phone,” she enthuses. “That was really impressive.”
What comes to mind when she thinks of Heidi Klum? “She’s a businesswoman, a model and really, really sweet. We just get along.”
In her four seasons as an AGT judge, the supermodel-producer has seen exceptional performers — and others that, well, defy logic.
“There was this woman on roller skates, and at the same time she was making orange juice in her bra,” recalls Klum, who is also the Emmy-winning cohost of Lifetime’s Project Runway.
Still, she notes, “you have to give everyone their fair shot, you know? I’m not as harsh as Simon. I try to choose my words wisely so they can keep their head up high when they go back to their regular life.”
Klum knows what it takes to win. At 19 she prevailed in Model ’92, a competition in her native Germany that went on for months. “Every week they would present three girls, and you had to win the week, the month and then the year. If I would have not entered the competition, I would still be in Germany.”
So, she understands the pressure — and, perhaps, terror — AGT contestants feel on stage, knowing that more than 12 million people are watching. “But if this is the field you want to be in, you have to be able to overcome that — it’s show biz.”
Klum loves the magicians who’ve appeared on the show, especially season 10’s Regurgitator, aka Stevie Starr, who swallows items such as keys, rings and even blades and then regurgitates them. “It’s the most incredible thing I’ve seen in my life,” she says. “I’m obsessed with the guy.”
What comes to mind when she thinks of Mel B? “She doesn’t think too much about what she says — it just comes right out. She’s always honest, and i love that.”
On the NBC medical series St. Elsewhere, he showed his dramatic side. On the animated children’s series Bobby’s World, he embraced his inner child. And on the NBC game show Deal or No Deal, he proved his hosting prowess, earning an Emmy nomination to boot.
But Mandel’s current gig as a judge on AGT holds a special place in his heart. “I never loved anything more,” he says. “Every day I feel like it’s just a dream, and I’m going to wake up. I am obsessed with entertainment and have been from the time I was a kid. I am fascinated with perorming.”
His enthusiasm and childlike wonder have helped make AGT a hit.
“I show up and see a show from the best seats in the house. It doesn’t even seem like a job to me. I don’t have to be witty — just be Howie and be honest.” And have fun with Mel B, who sits next to him on the dais.
“I get very passionate sometimes. And when I speak, I use my hands a lot — I pick up papers in front of me. And she knows that she’s doodled inappropriate drawings on those papers. I have stop-frames I could show you of horrible pictures!”
What comes to mind when he thinks of Simon Cowell? “He’s one of the funniest and smartest people I’ve ever met. I love hearing what he has to say.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2017