TV News & Reviews

‘America’s Got Talent’ winner Grace VanderWaal, 12, has Lenexa roots

Grace VanderWaal wowed the “America’s Got Talent” judges on Wednesday with “Clay,” a song she wrote about bullying.
Grace VanderWaal wowed the “America’s Got Talent” judges on Wednesday with “Clay,” a song she wrote about bullying. NBC

It’s not a big surprise that Lenexa native Grace VanderWaal was crowned winner during this week’s “America’s Got Talent” finale. The 12-year-old singer and ukulele player became a favorite of the judges and the crowd during her first appearance on the NBC show in June, when she belted out her original song, “I Don’t Know My Name.”

“You are the next Taylor Swift,” difficult-to-impress judge Simon Cowell declared at the time. Grace, who was born in the Kansas City area and now lives in Suffern, N.Y., writes her own songs and croons with a voice mature beyond her years.

During the final round this week, she performed “Clay,” a song about responding to bullies.

“Your silly words, I won’t live inside your world. ’Cause your punches and your names, all your jokes and stupid games, they don’t work,” she sang. “No, they don’t hurt. Watch them just go right through me, because they mean nothing to me. Try to change my shape, but, baby, I’m not clay. Sorry, not today.”

Grace was born in 2004 to David and Tina VanderWaal, who lived in Lenexa. They were members of the St. Paul’s United Methodist Church before moving away when Grace was 2 years old.

Grace began making up songs when she was 3, learned to play the piano at 4 and took up the saxophone at 10, according to NBC. She also plays in her school concert and marching bands.

It was only a year ago that Grace bought a ukulele, using birthday money, and she taught herself to play through YouTube videos. It took her just a couple of weeks.

Grace then hit the open-mic scene in New York and New Jersey, and a local musician began teaching her music theory in April.

“The most amazing thing about Grace is that you haven’t heard anybody who sounds like her,” judge Howie Mandel said, according to People. “You haven’t heard any lyrics from somebody that is like her.”

When asked by Parade whether there is any artist whose career she wanted to emulate, the answer was easy for Grace: Taylor Swift, who also learned to play a string instrument as a preteen and wrote her own songs at a young age.

“That would be amazing, but really, honestly, as long as I can get a living off of anything in music, I am going to be happy,” Grace said.

On Wednesday night, Grace became the first female and first child act to win the show since its first season, when Bianca Ryan was crowned winner.

Grace won a $1 million prize and will headline Las Vegas shows at the end of October.

“This has been the greatest night of my life,” Grace tweeted after being crowned winner.

She told People that she plans to use some of her winnings on a tricked-out treehouse: “Imagine in the winter when you’re playing in the snow, you go up there and make some hot cocoa in your socks and zip line over. Oh my God, idea — what if I had two small treehouses for me and my sister? And then we can have sleepovers and then I’d zip line to hers!”

But most of the money is going to charity.

The Star’s Aaron Randle contributed to this report.