"I worried a bit, how would I handle it if an act wasn’t very good, what would I say?" Jay Leno tells PEOPLE about his AGT guest appearance
The comedian, 69, served as the last guest judge for season 14 on Tuesday’s Judge Cuts episode and sent breakout opera star Emanne Beasha straight to the live shows.
“Emanne was amazing,” Leno tells PEOPLE. “It’s just fascinating to me to see young performers at this point in their careers who are so excited and just relying on their own raw talent.”
The former late-night host adds, “They haven’t had all the advice and polishing from studios, networks and PR teams. There is no machine behind them. They are just up there doing it with what they have!”
Audiences will remember the 10-year-old girl from North Port, Florida, from her impressive audition with her rendition of “Nessun Dorma,” which earned her a standing ovation.
For his cameo, Leno looked to handpick an act with star quality instead of favoring a comic.
“When I was on The Tonight Show, I always loved giving advice to the young comics, I really liked the mentoring process,” he says. “So when they asked me to do AGT, I thought, ‘Oh that would be fun!’ I worried a bit, how I would handle it if an act wasn’t very good, what would I say?”
However, Leno had the advantage of selecting from a group that was already vetted by judges Simon Cowell, Julianne Hough, Howie Mandel and Gabrielle Union.
“I was in the ‘championship’ series and everybody was so good,” he recalls.
After Emanne’s jaw-dropping opera performance, Leno was taken back by her pure authenticity.
“Just the fact that from a child comes an honesty and a truth, I feel like I’m a witness to something extremely special. At some point in my career, people say, ‘What do you remember most?’ And I remember hitting the Golden Buzzer,” he told her before pushing the Buzzer that unloaded a shower of golden confetti.
“You’re only 10 years old and we are seeing acts come out here and they’re sweating and they’re not performing to par. They’re not stepping it up — and they’re double your age. Then you come out here and you show them how it’s done,” Mandel told the young star.
Cowell also heaped praise on Emanne: “You’re just, like, a normal person. To have a voice like this is not something you can train to get, it genuinely is a gift.”
Last week, Ellie Kemper helped Light Balance Kids move straight to the live shows where they will be competing against this season’s fellow GB winners: singer Sophie Pecora (Brad Paisley‘s choice), dance troupe V.Unbeatable (Dwyane Wade‘s choice), singer Luke Islam (Hough’s choice), Detroit Youth Choir (Terry Crews‘ choice), violinist Tyler Butler-Figueroa (Cowell’s choice), singer Joseph Allen (Mandel’s choice) and singer Kodi Lee (Union‘s choice).
“Since I was very little I always loved to sing. My grandma told me, ‘You’re gonna be an opera singer,’ ” Emanne shared.
America’s Got Talent airs Tuesdays (8 p.m. ET) on NBC.