Simon Cowell Cries Remembering Late ‘America’s Got Talent’ Contestant

Simon Cowell

Heavy/Getty Simon Cowell

As a judge on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” Simon Cowell has proven time and time again that he has softened considerably since the years he spent harshly critiquing singers on “American Idol,” from 2002 to 2010.

Though he is still brutally honest at times with contestants who bore or irritate him, Cowell has said that becoming a father has opened his heart, so much so that he’s not only apologized to some of the biggest stars to come out of “Idol,” but he’s also been so touched by certain performances or contestants on “AGT” that his voice has cracked or he’s had to dab his eyes at times. But his latest TV appearance had him so moved, he was at a loss for words.

During the Season 18 premiere of “AGT” on May 30, 2023, Cowell got especially emotional, crying openly in front of the live audience and his fellow celebrity judges — Howie Mandel, Sofia Vergara, and Heidi Klum — and had to ask for a moment to collect himself. Cowell, 63, was deeply touched when the Mzansi Youth Choir from Johannesburg, South Africa, sang a song originally written and performed by Season 16 contestant Jane Marczewski, known as Nightbirde, who died of breast cancer in early 2022.

“You have no idea how much that would have meant to her,” he told one of the singers on stage, after tearfully recalling the legacy that Nightbirde desperately wanted to leave long after she was gone.

Mzansi Youth Choir Sings ‘It’s OK’ in Tribute to Nightbirde

Mzansi Youth Choir, Nightbirde

Heavy/NBC“AGT” contestants Mzansi Youth Choir, Nightbirde

Nightbirde earned a Golden Buzzer when she sang her original song, “It’s OK,” for the judges, a special honor that allows contestants to jump straight to the live competitions. During her audition, which aired in June 2021, she explained that she’d been battling cancer —  which had spread to her lungs, spine, and liver — and that she hoped the song served as an inspiration to never give up hope.

“It’s important that everyone knows I’m so much more than the bad things that happened to me,” she told the judges before singing for them and receiving a standing ovation from all four. The video of her audition has been viewed over 55 million times.

Weeks later, in early August, Nightbirde had to drop out of the “AGT” competition, explaining that her “fight with cancer is demanding all of my energy and attention,” according to Deadline. She continued to inspire many on social media and in her music for the next several months, until her family announced on Instagram that the singer had died on February 19, 2022, at the age of 31.

In the wake of her death, Cowell wrote on Instagram, “She was an extraordinary person, so brave, so talented. She made a huge impact on AGT and the world, her courage was incredible and her determination to fight this terrible illness was remarkable.”

After the Mzansi Youth Choir performed an upbeat version of “It’s OK,” Cowell asked them what made them choose that song and learned that Nightbirde had actually heard their version of it before she died.

One of the young women in the choir explained, “When we heard Nightbirde singing this song on this stage, we were very inspired and touched by her story, that we decided to record the song. To our surprise, she responded so beautifully. This song has been such a pillar of strength for us as a choir through difficult times. We just want to continue her legacy and that’s why we chose this song.”

“This brought back so many memories for me, gosh, whoa,” Cowell said as the crowd cheered. At he sat in silence looking down at the table, Vergara put her hand on his shoulder.

“This is hard, give me one second,” he said, and then continued, “I know how much this would’ve –” but then got choked up again and rubbed his eye, with tears on his face when he looked back up at the choir.

“Would’ve meant to her,” he eventually said, completing his sentence, as Vergara reached out again to rub his back. “It would. Right till the end she was so passionate about sharing her music and this has gone all over the world and you’ve come back here with the most amazing tribute. It was just breathtaking. Honestly.”

As many members of the choir stood with tears in their eyes, the judges noticed the crowd had started chanting, “Golden Buzzer! Golden Buzzer!” Cowell then turned to his fellow judges and asked if they wanted to let the audience become, in essence, the fifth judge and grant the choir the Golden Buzzer for the first time in the show’s history. They all agreed, and put their hands together on behalf of the crowd to push the button and send the youth choir straight to the live shows, which NBC says will begin August 22.

Simon Cowell Says Fatherhood Inspired Him to Treat People Differently, Including Past ‘Idol’ Contestants

Original American Idol cast

GettyOriginal “American Idol” cast Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest

Once known for his harsh, and some would say cruel, assessments of contestants on “American Idol,” Cowell’s had a change of heart since welcoming son Eric, born in February 2014, with his fiancée Lauren Silverman.

“If Eric hadn’t come along, God knows what would have happened,” Cowell told The Sun in October 2022, admitting that he was so “obsessed with beating the competition, I took it to a ridiculous level and I would get really down about that stuff, to the point I was depressed.”

“I’m a very different man to the one I was ten years ago, thank God,” Cowell continued. “After I lost my mum and my dad, you kind of think you’re never going to feel that love again — that’s it. Then you have kids, and, though I never thought I would feel that way, it’s beyond your love for your parents,” he said. “It almost hurts how much you love them. Then you start thinking, ‘When he grows up, what’s his dad going to have done?’ I think about that a lot.”

In 2016, Cowell also told People that becoming a dad changed how he speaks to contestants.

“There’s no question when you actually have a kid, it does make you feel different because you understand how you would feel if it was your son up there,” he said.

In light of that, Cowell has publicly acknowledged to some of the most popular alumni of “American Idol” that he now realizes he was overly critical at times.

When first-ever “Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in September, Cowell recalled that she tried to avoid him throughout the season.

“I didn’t want you getting in my head — you mess with all those people,” she admitted, and he replied, “It’s taken her 20 years to get that out, my God. It’s like a therapy session.”

That same month, Cowell was “Idol” alumni Jennifer Hudson’s first guest on her daily talk show, marking the first time they’d spoken since she placed seventh in 2004. She played clips of his critiques of her, including him saying there were better singers than her in the competition, slamming her outfits, and saying that she needed to learn “to control your voice because it is a bit all over the place.”

Though Hudson was voted off of “Idol,” she went on to become one of only 17 EGOT winners in the world, per Rolling Stone, meaning that she has since won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award.

After watching the clips backstage, Cowell walked onto her talk show set carrying a giant bouquet and said, “I’m very emotional right now. I feel terrible. I feel so bad.”

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Bonnie Guerra
Bonnie Guerra
3 months ago

Watching Simon for many many years I immediately saw the change in him after Night indie. I know he was touched deeply. She was a good friend of my neices. I thought maybe it brought him closer to God. But to see how she touched those young people all the way from Africa. I looked up and said “way to go Jane” you and your testimony and song will continue on forever.

Bonnie Guerra
Bonnie Guerra
3 months ago
Reply to  Bonnie Guerra