Once revered as the meanest man on television, Cowell still resembles the American Idol judge we loved to hate — he remains hopelessly devoted to black T-shirts and exposed chest hair — but there's a certain softness to him now. The man who once told an Idol contestant that she sounded like "Dolly Parton on helium" told a man that man that his act, which mostly revolved around lip-syncing pot holders, was "brilliant."
See images of Cowell through the years:
Simon Cowell through the years
America's Got Talent premiere: Grade Simon Cowell's debut — plus: who got the first golden buzzer of Season 11?
Simon Cowell during Record of the Year 2001 at Hard Rock Cafe in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Fred Duval/FilmMagic)
The Brit Awards 2002', Earls Court, London, Britain - 20 Feb 2002, Zoe Ball With Simon Cowell (Photo by Brian Rasic/Getty Images)
(Left to right) FOX's American Idol judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson pse peaceably at the FOX 2002 SummerTCA Tour at the Huntington Ritz Carlton Hotel in Pasadena, CA on Monday, July 22, 2002. Photo credit: Kevin Winter/ImageDirect
Simon Cowell with a Wilson's leather bag during The 2002 Teen Choice Awards - Backstage Creations Talent Retreat - Day 1 at Universal Amphitheatre in Universal City, California, United States. (Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage)
Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson at 'The Teen Choice Awards 2002' at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, Ca. Sunday, August 4, 2002. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images/FOX.
Simon Cowell during Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, and Christina Christian of American Idol Leave MTV's TRL - August 18, 2002 at Times Square in New York City, New York, United States. ***Exclusive*** (Photo by James Devaney/WireImage)
Randy Jackson & Simon Cowell during 'American Idol' Season 1 Finale - Results Show - Press Room at Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, California, United States. (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage)
Paris Hilton and Simon Cowell during Scary Movie 3 Los Angeles Premiere - After Party at The W Hotel in Westwood, California, United States. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
Simon Cowell during Simon Cowell Signs Copies of His New Book, 'I Don't Mean To Be Rude But...' at Barnes And Noble, Rockefeller Center in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Debra L Rothenberg/FilmMagic)
BURBANK, CA - JANUARY 19: 'American Idols' judge Simon Cowell (left) appears on 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno' on January 19, 2004 at the NBC Studios, in Burbank, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Matt Rogers and Simon Cowell during 'American Idol' Season 3 - Top 12 Finalists Party - Inside at Pearl in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by SGranitz/WireImage)
Simon Cowell during 102.7 KIIS-FM's 'Wango Tango On-Air' Concert 2004 at Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, United States. (Photo by J. Shearer/WireImage)
Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul (Photo by Ray Mickshaw/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD - APRIL 20: Television host Ryan Seacrest poses with American Idol judges (L-R) Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson, after receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on April 20, 2005 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Simon Fuller, creator of 'American Idol', Carrie Underwood, winner of 'American Idol' Season 4 and Simon Cowell (Photo by Ray Mickshaw/WireImage)
'American Idol' judge Simon Cowell and Terri Seymour (Photo by SGranitz/WireImage)
Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul (Photo by Denise Truscello/WireImage)
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 3313 -- Pictured: (l-r) 'American Idol' judge Randy Jackson, host Ryan Seacrest and judge Simon Cowell during an interview on February 19, 2007 (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Air Date 1/21/08 -- Episode 3480 -- Pictured: Television personality Simon Cowell during an interview on January 21, 2008 (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 22: Executive producer and TV personality Simon Cowell displays his Founders award in the press room during the 38th International Emmy Awards at the New York Hilton and Towers on November 22, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by George Napolitano/FilmMagic)
LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 09: (L-R) Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Harry Styles, Zane Malik and Niall Horan of 'One Direction' together with Simon Cowell (c) attend a photocall during the X Factor press conference at the Connaught Hotel on December 9, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 4000 -- Pictured: (l-r) TV personality Simon Cowell during an interview with host Jay Leno on March 2, 2011 (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Simon Cowell attends 'The X Factor' auditions at Bank United Center on June 14, 2011 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Vallery Jean/FilmMagic)
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE - 'Jimmy Kimmel Live' airs every weeknight, (12:00 - 1:06 a.m., ET), following 'Nightline,' featuring a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 20 included Simon Cowell ('The X Factor') Ron Artest and Peta Murgatroyd ('Dancing with the Stars' cast off) and musical guest Gavin DeGraw. (Photo by Carin Baer/Disney XD via Getty Images)SIMON COWELL, JIMMY KIMMEL
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 19: Simon Cowell and Melanie Amaro attends 'The X Factor' press conference at CBS Television City on December 19, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 11: Alesha Dixon, Simon Cowell and Amanda Holden attend the press launch for the new series of 'Britain's Got Talent' at ICA on April 11, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 04: Simon Cowell arrives at 'The X Factor' finalists party held at SLS Hotel on November 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic)
MIAMI BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Simon Cowell and Eric Cowell are sighted on the beach in Miami Florida. on February 24, 2014 in Miami Beach, Florida. (Photo by Dave Lee/GC Images)
MIAMI, FL - MARCH 03: Simon Cowell is seen as he gets on a Vespa for a scooter ride on March 03, 2014 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Radcliffe/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 26: Lauren Silverman and Simon Cowell attend the press night of 'I Can't Sing! The X Factor Musical' at London Palladium on March 26, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)
LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 24: Simon Cowell with his Outstanding Contribution to Entertainment award and Lauren Silverman during the Elle Style Awards 2015 at Sky Garden @ The Walkie Talkie Tower on February 24, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 21: Simon Cowell arrives at The X Factor Auditions at Wembley on July 21, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by SAV/GC Images)
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And, frankly, I wouldn't have had it any other way. Even in its most absurd moments, AGT has always felt like a safe space, making this softer Cowell the perfect replacement for Howard Stern. Had I been present for Cowell's meager backstage welcome party — I get that Dunkin Donuts is the show's sponsor, but who drinks orange juice out of a coffee cup?! — I would have gladly raised a (styrofoam) glass.
Now that we've gotten the pleasantries out of the way, let's relive some of the season premiere's most discuss-able auditions:
* Nathan Bockstahler, a 6-year-old comedian who already knows what he would do with the prize money: "Instead of 1 million dollars, I would like 1 million LEGOs." He's probably not going to win — guys, he's six — but he made for an entertaining first act. (Also, I doubt he gave the producers permission to use Justin Bieber's "Baby" as his entrance music. Rude!)
* Jose Fuentes, 58, danced with his dog Carrie; as he explained, his late wife never wanted to dance with him, so he got the next best thing. It was cute, but not quite Nathan-level cute, which explains why Fuentes earned the first "no" of the night from Heidi Klum. (To be fair, though, it took Klum a minute before she even realized: "Oh, that's why the dog is wearing a dress!")
* The Clairvoyants, a team of psych-ish lovers who were able to tell the shade of Klum's lipstick, the expiration date on Howie Mandel's eyedrops and the provider of an audience member's cell phone without looking at any of them. Cowell accused them of being witches, while Mel. B called the duo's powers "alien-like." (Personally, I'm not ready to rule them out as real-life X-Men.)
* Linkin' Bridge, a Kentucky-based musical quartet provided the Susan Boyle moment of the night, eliciting stunned expressions from all four judges with their harmonious performance of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." It's a good thing Cowell liked the song, because the group's tears of joy were heart-wrenching enough; I don't even want to think about what would have happened if they got a "no."
* The Spice Gurlz, an all-drag Spice Girls lip sync cover band, received the first rejection of the season. Though Cowell and Mel B gave the group a "yes," their efforts weren't enough to combat Klum and Mandel's "no"s. (Nor should they have been. Even RuPaul would have told those boys to "sashay away.")
* Hara, a visual artist/magician from a small village in Japan, put on a pretty impressive performance. It was a lot like what Beyoncé did at the 2011 Billboard Music Awards... with magic! So, really, what's not to love?
* Tape Man, a personal favorite of mine for reasons I'll work out in therapy, did a lot of weird stuff — including a duet of "Endless Love, " sung by potholders — and I loved every damn minute of it. "It was simple, but clever," Cowell remarked. "Unique, funny, brilliant." (Could Tape Man be Season 11's dark horse?)
* Laura Bretan, a 13-year-old opera singer, is gunning to be the next Jackie Evancho. And with those pipes, she stands a pretty good shot! Is it any wonder Mel B gave her the first Golden Buzzer of the season?
Time to weigh in: Which season premiere act was your favorite? Did the right person get Mel B's Golden Buzzer? And do you agree that Cowell is a perfect fit? Grade his debut below, then drop a comment with all of your thoughts below.