LOS ANGELES — Card magician Shin Lim wowed the "America's Got Talent" judges and viewers on his way to the Season 13 quarterfinals, but judge Simon Cowell told him he'd have to do more to have any chance of winning the NBC talent competition.
Lim, 26, listened, learned and now leaves as the champion, the recipient of a $1 million prize, a headliner slot in a November "AGT" finalists show in Las Vegas and a triumphant lift into the air by the runner-up, dance group Zurcaroh.
"After the quarterfinals, he told me I needed to get away from the (card) table, to move away from being small and get bigger," Lim told USA TODAY moments after his victory at Hollywood's Dolby Theatre on Wednesday. "That kind of stayed in my brain. And I'm thinking, 'I've got to try something bigger if I'm going to do well on this show.'"
Lim, who was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, lives in Boston and has Canadian and American citizenship, impressed voters and judges in Tuesday's performance finale by moving away from the card table with a dazzling performance that included music, fire and a big helping of his personality.
"He got what I was saying, which was if you want to go to that next level, you've got to make it bigger. You've got to show your personality, you've got to be a showman," Cowell said after the show, which featured performances by KISS, Placido Domingo and Bebe Rexha. "He took it all on board and when he came out last night, I did say to him afterward, 'I think you could win after that.'"
Cowell, in his heart, was pulling for singer and fifth-place finisher Michael Ketterer, a pediatric nurse and father of six (including five adopted from foster care) who became a huge fan favorite.
"I was pulling for him. I'm not going to lie," said Cowell, who was especially impressed with Ketterer's performance Wednesday of "The Courage to Love," a song written for him by country superstar Garth Brooks.
"When he sang the Garth Brooks song tonight, it was one of those magic moments where the song connected, he connected, his voice was better, you could feel it in the crowd," said Cowell, who plans to work with Ketterer on his music career. "And I'm like, 'Wow! If he'd done that last night, this may have been a whole different story.' But we're going to work with him, for sure."
Cowell said his jaw dropped when he saw Ketterer pitted against English teen rocker Courtney Hadwin, who many had considered the favorite, for the last spot in the top five. But he pointed out that many non-winners go onto big careers, including Jennifer Hudson on "American Idol," where Cowell judged, and One Direction on Cowell's "The X Factor."
"I felt the same way when One Direction didn't win (in 2010). (When) they came in third, I felt I was being punched in the stomach," he said. "And then good things happen."
Judge Howie Mandel, who thought Hadwin would win and still thinks "she's going to be a superstar," said this is the first season he didn't correctly predict the champ.
"I'm totally surprised. I was wrong and I didn't guess it and I loved it," he said after the show. "I think America did the best job it's ever done as far as weeding out who deserved to be in the Top 10. All 10 of them rose to the occasion."
Moving forward professionally, Lim, who was accompanied after the show by his fiancee, Casey Thomas, said he will continue to follow Cowell's advice and expand his act, even adding magic tricks that don't include cards.
With his "AGT"-winning Tuesday trick, "I learned so much going away from the table. It's harder because it's something I'm uncomfortable with. So, I really feel like I now have the confidence to build on it," he said. The finale performance "was my way of growing as a magician, and I think I'm going to follow that path of getting bigger and having a full show."