"We didn't have days to think about it. We had hours to think about it," Simon Cowell tells PEOPLE of finding Heidi Klum's replacement

By Karen Mizoguchi
June 16, 2020 10:00 PM
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Simon Cowell and the judges went through various ups and downs on Tuesday's episode of America's Got Talent.

Though the panel gave their fair share of rejections to contestants auditioning, among the highlights was Cowell bestowing his Golden Buzzer to the W.A.F.F.L.E. dance crew, whose name stands for We Are Family For Life Entertainment. "With my Golden Buzzer, I absolutely loved the act I've given it to," Cowell, 60, tells PEOPLE, explaining that he chose them after seeing "a combination of talent, who they are, and how much I liked them."

The members from the Bronx — Andrew Saunders, Yushon Stroughn, Joel Leitch, Johnathon Williams, Dashawn Martin, Randy Vargas, Sean Kirkland, Bryan Sibblies, Donovan Demetrius, Tyree Sowell and Damien Morales — are LiteFeet dancers who have known each other for over a decade and have previously performed on The Ellen DeGeneres Show multiple times. "We're from a city where there's no hope, there's no influence. We don't see the right things when we go back home. We never gave up on our hopes and dreams, so we want to give the young people something positive to look to. ... We understand that there's a million dollars at stake right now, we already invest in our community with just as little as our pocket money," they told the judges before Cowell pushed the coveted button.

Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum
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Then, halfway into the two-hour episode, host Terry Crews informed the audience and the at-home viewers that "unfortunately Heidi Klum is a little under the weather." When the episode was filmed in early spring, shortly before the coronavirus pandemic, judge Heidi Klum fell ill on set and was dismissed from production after "experiencing fever and sore throat," she told PEOPLE recently.

As seen in the latest episode, the audition process continued with an empty seat between newcomer Sofia Vergara and veteran judge Howie Mandel. Thankfully, in March, AGT secured Vergara's Modern Family costar Eric Stonestreet as a guest judge and temporary replacement.

"We didn't have days to think about it. We had hours to think about it," Cowell tells PEOPLE about finding someone to fill in for Klum, who ultimately tested negative for the coronavirus.

"Heidi obviously got ill and, for obvious reasons, she had to stay at home. Someone said, 'Well, why don't we hire Eric?' And we said it's a good idea because Sofia and Eric worked together and they have chemistry. He was a real trooper. He stepped in at the last moment," Cowell recalls.

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty; Jon Kopaloff/Getty

Tuesday's episode also showed the beginning of the end for AGT's production as the pandemic had become increasingly dangerous. The live audience was eventually eliminated as the episodes continued to film.

"It was surreal, but interestingly, we developed this really close bond with the contestants during that whole period," Cowell says. "When you don't have an audience, you feel for them because it's much harder to audition without a crowd. So, they're coming on to total silence."

AGT has yet to address when or if production will continue for season 15, but Cowell says broadcasting without a live audience is not ideal. "I wouldn't want to do that again in the future," he says. "The expression, 'The show must go on,' to a point, we did as much as we could. And then after two days, we realized we had to finish."

America's Got Talent airs Tuesdays (8 p.m. ET) on NBC.