American Idol and America's Got Talent may be the most recognizable talent shows to the Oprah Show audience, but talent searches all across the globe are taking viewers by storm. "It's a big world out there, and it's full of talent," Oprah says.
From Russia to Malta to Afghanistan, TV talent shows are catapulting relative unknowns into bona fide stardom—Oprah Show producers counted more than 600 shows in 104 nations! "I just love it when somebody's dream gets to come true," Oprah says. "That is happening every single week."
Simon Cowell, perhaps the world's most famous talent scout, is both feared and revered for his uncompromising honesty on shows like American Idol and Britain's Got Talent. Simon says the popularity of talent shows is a positive development. "The great thing about it is when you start seeing it in places like China and Afghanistan. It's democracy," he says. "It gives the underdog a shot, and I think it's brilliant. ... The fact that we're allowing the public to make the decisions most of the time is a really good thing."
When Simon spots real talents, he says he can tell right away that they've got something special. "It's like they come into the audition room in color, and everyone else is in black-and-white," he says. "They're in a different league, and you just pray that they're going to retain it through the rest of the competition."
Leona Lewis and Carrie Underwood are two superstars Simon says he knew would hit it big the moment he met them. "It's more than a voice; you've got to have 'it,'" he says. "It's rare, and I'm glad that it's rare, because these people should be like diamonds."
Simon's brutal honesty made him famous, but he says he never plans his comments for contestants ahead of time. "The best way of approaching it is to be in the moment," he says. "Then, hopefully you will be saying what people at home are going to be thinking."
One phenomenon Simon did not expect was Susan Boyle, the 47-year-old Britain's Got Talent contestant whose voice has taken the world by storm. Simon says he was in a bad mood and anxious to get the show's auditions over with on the day he met Susan. "This lady came up, and I'm kind of thinking, 'This will take five seconds, and I can go have a cup of tea,'" he says. Once he heard her sing, Simon says he immediately knew he'd made a mistake. "[I thought], 'I'm going to look really stupid in a few weeks' time.'"
Since that first audition, Susan's performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" has gotten more than 100 million hits on YouTube. "There was something Susan said before she came out on stage...'I'm going to rock this audience,'" he says. "She knew we were going to have that reaction, and just to see that look of satisfaction on her face midway through—it was one of my favorite moments."
Susan, the youngest of nine, says she started singing when she was 12 years old. Music, she says, helped her cope with a learning disability. "I was kind of a slow learner at school, so getting something like singing was a good way of hiding behind that and so boosting my confidence."
Susan says her biggest supporter was her mom, who died in 2007. "After that, there was a wee period where I didn't sing," she says.
To help cope with the loss, Susan says she auditioned for Britain's Got Talent. "I am very slowly getting over it," she says. "One of the reasons I applied for the TV show was to try to see if I could perform in front of an audience."
It was the performance of Susan's life—and everything changed overnight. Paparazzi now camp outside of the home she's lived in for 48 years, and her mailbox is filling up with fan mail—with a few letters for her cat, Pebbles, mixed in.
Susan says she's embracing every moment of her newfound fame. "It's like a dream come true," she says.
Despite constant public scrutiny over her appearance, Susan says she hasn't had a makeover. "It depends what you mean by a makeover," she says. "I said to my best friend, I said, 'How's about you do my makeup?' I mean, that's hardly a makeover."
Though she cut and colored her hair, Susan says it wasn't part of a dramatic transformation plan. "I did a bit, but that was just to tidy myself up like any other female would have done," she says.
No matter what, Simon says the competition is all about Susan and her voice. "You've got practically the whole world behind you now," he says. "So I want to say congratulations and wish you the best of luck."
They may be classically trained, but Escala is not your average string quartet. Members Victoria, Izzy, Chantal and Tasya met in 2005 while playing in the backup band for English pop group McFly.
When the tour ended, the women decided to stick together. After playing weddings and parties, the group changed their tune and debuted their energetic new show in the Britain's Got Talent auditions.
Though they didn't win, Simon offered the girls a $2 million recording contract and the chance to perform around the world. "They're different," Simon says. "It's talent, and I love seeing that."
Now, they're making their international debut on The Oprah Show, performing "Live and Let Die." "We're just four great friends who just want to have fun together, and we've had the amazing opportunity to create an album that we absolutely love," Chantal says.
It's the talent show that has more viewers than the Super Bowl and Oscars® combined. The Eurovision Song Contest is an annual, three-day event in which Europe's fastest-rising stars compete to become the next international music sensation. In its 50 years, the show has given artists like ABBA, Julio Iglesias, Riverdance and Celine Dion their big breaks.
This May, contestants from 42 European countries will meet in Moscow to battle it out. One of the most buzzworthy acts is Germany's Alex Swings, Oscar Sings—a producer/singer duo with a mesmerizing act, complete with backup dancers.
Before they head off to Eurovision rehearsals, they perform "Miss Kiss Bang Bang" via satellite from Hamburg, Germany. Producer Alex Christensen says winning the competition would mean the world to them. "This would be the biggest moment in our life," he says.
Growing up in Chengdu, China, Jane Zhang set her sights on becoming a singer. After her father passed away, the 15-year-old took a job singing at a local pub to help support her mother, and quickly developed her own local fan base.
In 2005, Jane was one of 120,000 hopefuls who auditioned for a new talent show, Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girl. After singing Mariah Carey's "Hero," she was instantly chosen to compete for the title of the next Super Voice Girl.
Four hundred million viewers tuned in to see who would take home the title, and although Jane didn't win the competition, she became the show's breakout star. With 15 number one hit singles, Jane's been named China's Best Female Artist three years in a row. She's making her American television singing debut on TheOprah Show!
Less than a year ago, Suleman Mirza and Madhu Singh were just men with dreams of dancing professionally. After meeting at a talent show, the two decided to team up. Although their styles differed—Suleman loved Michael Jackson, while Madhu's taste was for Bollywood—the dancers combined their creativity and had little trouble coming up with a concept for their group, Signature. "It's about having East and West come together, because we can," Madhu says.
Despite Simon's initial skepticism, Signature wowed the Britain's Got Talent audience with their moves. They're performing their "signature" dance for the Oprah Show audience.
Rumors have been wildly circulating that Simon will not be returning to American Idol next season, but Oprah says she doesn't believe it. "The truth is that I did sign a contract for a period of time, which meant last year was my last year," Simon says. "I'd agreed at the end of that time period, that was it." Still, Simon says he enjoys working in the United States and that he's keeping the door open.
Simon says initially doubted American Idol would last even two weeks. "If someone had said to me nine [seasons] ago we were going to have this conversation now, I'd say it would never happen in a million years.," he says.
As for this season's finale, the world's toughest critic puts his money on contestant Adam Lambert. "I think he's got that 'it,' and I think he's fearless," Simon says. "I think he's unique, and he's got swagger."