America's Got Unexpected Thrills

"America's Got Talent" 2008 winner, Neal E. Boyd
By Melissa Castellanos

"America's Got Talent" is kicking off its third season with an array of unexpected and pleasant surprises.

Judges Piers Morgan, Sharon Osbourne and David Hasselhoff already are learning that what they see is not necessarily what they get.

But not all the surprises are for the judges; contestants will get some, too.

A year after his big win on last summer's show, Neal E. Boyd said he still is being surprised.

Boyd, an insurance salesman/opera singer from Sikeston, Mo., just released his debut album, "My American Dream." It was produced with a 150-piece orchestra accompanied by Simon Franglen, best known for his work with Celine Dion ("Titantic's" "My Heart Will Go On").

During his weeks of competing on last summer's show, Boyd, who said he auditioned on a whim, insisted that he kept advice from friends and family in the back of his mind: "You are not a business man who sings, you are a singer who's in business."

Boyd told that he is embarking on a 10-city U.S. tour with "Britain's Got Talent" first-ever winner Paul Potts.

"I get to wake up every morning with a smile on my face, so happy to be alive and grateful to the people of America for giving me the opportunity to just live my dream," he said. "And it's going to happen this year again on the show! And a million dollars! If you grow up poor - this is rags to riches!"

While on stage, Boyd said he discovered the audience's encouragement calmed his nerves.

"It was like the audience was saying 'We're with you,'" he explained. "And in my case it really felt like they wanted me to win. It felt awesome."

Although Boyd got a rush from performing live, he acknowledged that it came with the pressure of having to live up to your last performance.

"The toughest is always Piers. Sharon - you didn't want to disappoint her," Boyd explained. "There was one week in particular when I went on stage and sang 'All By Myself' and I could just tell she didn't know what to make of it until I hit the middle of the song. It was like night and day and that was my intention and she got it later."

Boyd said he also can relate to the intense media scrutiny experienced by "Britain's Got Talent" singing sensation, Susan Boyle.

"You are already under a great deal of pressure, but when you are reminded daily with e-mails and articles and your face is in magazines everywhere and you haven't even got (the chance) to sing your second song...

"When you are singing to millions of people, they're expecting you to be world-class. It takes a very special kind of person to deal with that type of pressure."

Growing up, Boyd was surrounded by pop and country music until he heard "Nessun Dorma" at age 13 and became captivated by opera. His idols became Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo.

But it took some schoolboy mischief for Boyd to embrace his full potential.

"I got threatened with detention, if I didn't join the choir," he said.

Boyd later went on to win the Music Teachers National Association Vocal Collegiate Championship in 2000, which led to his solo debut at New York City's Carnegie Hall in March 2001.

"I think that that was my first real pressure-filled moment," he said. "When you're on television, it's a lot like Carnegie Hall. You have to live up to the place. Carnegie Hall is like the Met (Metropolitan Opera), you want to be worthy of that place and that's the same thing with the show."

Recognizing your worth is a lesson that many contestants on "America's Got Talent" will have to learn.

"You have been kicked your whole life and you were told that you were good at certain things, but that you weren't good enough, so you have to live up to that," he said. "And I think that goes on for every single contestant on the show."

"America's Got Talent" airs Tuesdays/Wednesdays at 9/8 central on NBC.