Alum Reads—and Boggles—Minds on ‘America’s Got Talent,’ Winning Spot in Semifinals
Mentalist Max Major ’05 wowed the "America's Got Talent" judges during two virtual performances to advance to the live shows.
Editor’s note: This story was updated after Wednesday’s episode.
During quarantine, millions have used video conferencing for classes, webinars and meetings. Max Major ’05 used it to read Simon Cowell’s mind.
The mentalist left the famously cranky judge and his “America’s Got Talent” peers Heidi Klum, Sofía Vergara and Howie Mandel with eyes wide and jaws dropped as he improbably predicted their thoughts and responses, winning a slot in the popular competition show’s quarterfinals. After performing twice virtually due to COVID-19, he took the stage in person Tuesday night during a physically distanced live episode and won a spot to move on to the semifinals.
“I never in a million years thought the way I’d meet the judges would be over video chat,” Major said. “I’m sitting in a Zoom waiting room, and all of a sudden the screen flips on, and there are the judges sitting in their living rooms. Simon’s making small talk with me, and I thought, ‘This is so crazy.’”
A native of Woodbine, Md., Major started performing magic at around 12 years old, getting his “big break” as the headliner at his neighbor’s daughter’s birthday party when he was 14. His focus started shifting more toward mentalism, which he calls “magic of the mind,” a few years later, when his dad successfully quit smoking after visiting a hypnotherapist.
“To me, this was a real-life superpower,” Major said. “It got me really interested in the mind, the way it works, the way that we make decisions.”
But instead of diving straight into a full-time mentalist career right out of high school, he attended UMD’s Robert H. Smith School of Business to learn how to market himself more effectively. Countless hours spent in the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship helped him build his business model, initially focused on appearances at conferences and other corporate events.
Since then, Major has performed more than 2,000 live shows for clients like Facebook, Google and Microsoft. His acts require a combination of reading people, including their body language, and influencing their decisions through psychology, subliminal messages, even hypnosis.
He moved to Las Vegas just under a year ago to pursue his own show, but when the pandemic abruptly shuttered the Strip, “America’s Got Talent” presented “an opportunity to perform on the biggest stage,” Major said.
This season of the popular TV series started as usual with in-person auditions, but pared back production as COVID necessitated stay-at-home orders, first by nixing the live audience and then by going completely virtual. Major performed in that online-only round, initially impressing the judges by correctly predicting what card Vergara would pick through the screen. During the Judge Cuts, his last chance to make the quarterfinals, Major asked Cowell a series of personal questions, covering topics like his most vivid childhood memory. Then, from an envelope that had been visible during the entire act, Major pulled out a piece of paper on which he’d seemingly impossibly written each of Cowell’s answers head of time.
“Just to be clear, this was not planned,” Cowell said on the show. “And I have to say this, because this is one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen.”
During Tuesday night’s live episode filmed at Universal Studios—with masks required backstage and judges physically distanced—control of Major’s fate shifted from those judges to the voting viewers nationwide. This time, Major addressed Mandel, as well as an audience connected via video conference, asking them to think of an image and draw that image on a notepad that only they could see. Major then pulled his own doodle of a smiling sun from an envelope, and a stunned Mandel revealed that he had drawn the same thing. The camera then turned to the virtual viewers, who also displayed a sea of suns.
While Major doesn’t consider himself a magician—“I work with people instead of props,” he said—he normally doesn’t reveal his secrets. But he explained that in his intro video on Tuesday's episode, he had walked past several suns, sending subliminal messages to the audience.
Now, Major moves on to the next round. While the grand prize of $1 million and a headlining role in a Vegas show is the ultimate goal, he’s grateful to even be at this stage (no pun intended).
“Just to continue to pursue my dream, AGT will accelerate things, absolutely,” he said. “I’ve got to raise the bar—that’s the promise that I’ve made at the end of each performance. Each time, show them something they’ve never seen before.”
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