America's Got Talent Winner Mat Franco: I'm No Longer Embarrassed to Say I'm a Magician
09/18/2014 AT 08:45 PM EDT
Mat Franco made America's Got Talent history Wednesday night as the first magician to win the NBC variety competition.
"I couldn't help but just be shocked and honored," the Johnston, Rhode Island, native tells PEOPLE. "It's great to be an inspiration to people. … The underlying message is following your passion. Whatever it is you like to do, do it: Dreams can come true."
Making it big in the biz has been a dream of Franco's since he was 4, when he started to teach himself card tricks. The season 9 winner used to record the pros on TV and watch them back in slow-motion, often with his grandma, Eleanor, who was one of his biggest cheerleaders during his AGT journey.
"She ran up on stage at the end of the show at the finale and told me how proud she was," he says, adding that his family has "supported this whole crazy dream of mine since before I can remember."
One thing he does remember is often being embarrassed to tell people he was a magician – especially girls.
"It has a certain connotation to it, so you wouldn't necessarily want to bring it up," says Franco, 26. "Maybe that can change. Now that magic has won the biggest talent show in the world, maybe that'll give magic a little credit."
Before wowing the judges, the struggling magician made his way through the college circuit, performing at campuses across the country to make ends meet. Now, Franco loves stepping into the spotlight on a bigger platform.
"It's night and day if you consider the college campus dining hall versus Radio City Music Hall," he says of the overnight switch in venues.
"There was this moment when we were rehearsing for the first live show, and I look up, and all these [production] people who are the best in their field are all coming together to help me," Franco says. "It was emotional for me having a team like that. I felt like David Copperfield for a second. It was pretty wild."
Next, Franco will hit up Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas to headline the America's Got Talent Live at The AXIS show with fellow top acts from season 9 on Sept. 26 and 27.