Within a few seconds of Grace Vanderwaal stepping on the America’s Got Talent stage, the nation fell in love with the 12-year-old singer. From the original song she performed at her initial audition to her charming disposition, it was clear very early on that Vanderwaal was going far.
On Wednesday, the musical phenom was announced as the winner of season 11 of the reality competition show, clinching the million dollar prize and a headlining show in Las Vegas. And most of her friends at school didn’t even know she sang!
Find out more about the talented young entertainer below.
1. She taught herself how to play the ukulele from YouTube videos – and she also plays the saxophone!
After seeing a video of Tyler Joseph from Twenty One Pilots covering Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” on the uke, Vanderwaal was inspired to learn how to play the instrument.
“I saved up the money from my 11th birthday and went out and bought one for myself,” she told the Daily Beast. “My sister had introduced me to Twenty One Pilots and I saw the lead singer playing the ukulele, so I just had to learn it.”
According to NBC, the singer-songwriter taught herself how to play her new instrument of choice by watching YouTube videos. It wasn’t long before she was performing for her family, then at open mic nights in New York and New Jersey.
And her musical talents aren’t limited to the uke. “I now have five ukuleles, a piano and a saxophone,” she revealed to the DailyBeast.
2. Vanderwaal revealed her friends were unaware of her singing abilities.
Well, they didn’t know … until her audition went viral!
During her first AGT performance, Simon Cowell asked the Suffern, New York, native if her peers at school were fans of her musical talents. Vanderwaal shocked the judges when she replied, “Most of my friends don’t really know I sing.”
Cowell confirmed, “So they don’t know you’re here.”
“No,” Vanderwaal said with a laugh.
The middle school talent show just got more interesting.
3. Her real plan was to be on American Idol.
The show that launched Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood to stardom was actually Vanderwaal’s singing competition of choice. However, her young age prevented her from auditioning before the show’s final season.
“It’s always been a dream to audition for American Idol, but you have to be 15 or older. And, as you may know, this [was] the last season,” she shared with Teen Vogue. “And so we always say that when I was 15, I was going to audition for American Idol, and then one day my mom just called me downstairs and she had her laptop out and was like, ‘I signed you up for America’s Got Talent.’ Just like that. And then the next weekend I auditioned.”
Vanderwaal still had to face Cowell, a former American Idol judge. In fact, he told PEOPLE that last night’s win was reminiscent of when Clarkson earned the first ever American Idol title.
“That moment at the end, it reminded me of the Kelly Clarkson moment. You know, when they said, ‘And the winner is Kelly Clarkson,’ ” Cowell told PEOPLE. “I kind of had that same feeling again when they read her name out, and I saw her reaction and she was literally in pieces. I like that though.”
4. She’s been compared to Taylor Swift, but she’s more of a Katy Perry fan.
Cowell may have called her the “next Taylor Swift,” but Vanderwaal’s musical inspirations range beyond the “Bad Blood” singer. In fact, she’s a big fan of Swift’s friend-turned-rival.
“Not so much the sound but as a person, I would say Katy Perry inspires me because you can always see that she’s being true to herself. She focuses on her music and even turns down big producers,” Vanderwaal told Teen Vogue. “Her whole career and music is about her being herself. I want to be more like that.”
“I would love to meet and just sing a song with,” Vanderwaal says of the “I’m Yours” singer. “I really like his music and singing his songs.”
5. She already knows where some of her prize money is going.
While most 12-year-olds are negotiating allowances, Vanderwaal’s bank account just got a nice boost. And she knows exactly how she wants to spend a portion of her million dollar prize.
“Charity, probably a music charity,” Vanderwaal tells PEOPLE before adding, “But also I want to go on Treehouse Masters and I want to get a treehouse.”