Simon Cowell is the best-known Brit in America. He's made £50m shredding the ambitions of Pop Idol hopefuls and makes no apologies. Why should he?By Ariel Leve.
Picture this. Every morning you wake up and have breakfast in bed. You read the tabloids, never the broadsheets, because they're too serious. When you're done with the papers, you get in the bath and watch cartoons. You prefer the old ones like The Flintstones; and if Thunderbirds are on, that's a treat. They're your favourite. You sit in the bath watching puppet shows - no phone calls, no disturbances. This is how you start your day, every day. Then you remember you are not Richie Rich. You are not eight years old, you're 46 with an empire to run. You get out of the bath, exit your Holland Park mansion, kiss your hot girlfriend goodbye and arrive at the office around noon. You spend the rest of the day and into the evening with the one true love of your life: work.
You won't find Simon Cowell listening to Strauss in his Rolls-Royce or on his iPod (he doesn't own one anyway, too "technical"); you won't catch him reading Proust or wearing black tie at the ballet. He'll proudly chomp fish fingers over coq au vin, and watch Star Wars rather than a Bergman film, any day. He prides himself on this and shuns intellectual elitism. He claims that he doesn't understand it. Paradoxically, he has built his career on judgment. He's made himself the transatlantic arbiter of national popular taste and a multimillionaire to boot.
When he arrives at the Cipriani restaurant in London for lunch he is wearing an open-neck white shirt and jeans. Heads turn as he greets the maître d' like an old friend and strides to his favourite table. He knows the way. He is fit, tanned and in his element. Cowell lacks pretence: what you see is what you get - muted self-assurance. "I create the hype, but don't ever believe it," he'll say later of himself.
He sits down and lights up, Kool menthol cigarettes flown in from the US. He's not wearing the "high-waisted trousers" he's been lampooned for. His fashion sense took a beating for a while but he laughed it off. That's what he does - laughs things off, and he laughs a lot. Especially at himself, at other people's misery, and at absurd situations.
His answers to questions are immediate and straightforward. What makes him happy? Success. What drives him? Winning. What worries him? Not much. Oh, wait, scratch that. Failure. He is one of the richest and most successful celebrities in Britain, and now in America. "Knowing what the public wants before they do and giving it to them" is how he describes his talent. Cowell's been called rude, smug, mean and nasty; viewers may dislike him, but they watch him, hooked on the drama of instant fame and, all too often, a trap door back to the bowels of obscurity.
His head is immaculately groomed, inside and out. There are boundaries for everything: emotions are managed, never out of control. He doesn't lose it, ever. "Therapy?" he says, recoiling, as if he's been asked if he's been to prison. "Not in a million billion years."
A few nights earlier, the second season of The X Factor had debuted on ITV and trounced the competition. Nationwide, a phenomenal 75,000 people turned up to audition. "We've become very American here," he says, referring to the super-sized crowd. "The show's kind of a snapshot of this country: funny and sad in parts." He pauses to order a Coca-Cola. He is unapologetic about reality TV and its requisites: instant fame, humiliation, notoriety, obsession. "Our patience has changed in the past few years. Ten years ago, we'd happily queue in a bank to get £50. Now, if you're standing at a cash machine and one person is pressing the receipt button, you actually want to kill them. Everyone wants something now. They want to enter one of my shows and be famous in two months rather than 10 years. The culture of hard work has disappeared."
Cowell, who left boarding school at 16 and worked his way up from the post room at a record label to the best table at the Cipriani, knows the difference between a career and a quick fix. What he's aiming for, past the ratings, is to find talent, sign this talent to his label and build a recording career. But how much of a career can they sustain when they start off with the notion that they should have been famous yesterday? "Film studios and record companies used to be run by very dictatorial people who had no fear of losing their jobs. Now they have to deliver a hit like that," he says with a sharp snap of his fingers. "They're under the same pressure as the artist because the culture's changed so dramatically."
Isn't he sanctioning the expectation of instant fame and telling them how high and where they should jump? "Look, if I was to take one of these people who made the top 10 of American Idol and said, 'It's in your best interest to leave the show, do some small clubs, get some experience and come back in four years,' they'd look at me like I was mad."
He points out that he still finds talent outside of reality TV - acts like Il Divo, who have sold 4.3m records and are No 1 in 13 countries. Still, it's not clear. Does Cowell feel he is reflecting the madness or exploiting it? "I'm not sure. Maybe a bit of both. It's looking at reality through a keyhole. Why sanitise it? I like to see the good, the fantastic and the terrible." He doesn't feel responsible for the fame epidemic but takes the position of commentator; they're out there - why not hold a magnifying glass up to the situation?
He has become more famous than the talent. Now he can pick up the phone, call Oprah Winfrey and launch Il Divo on her show. Two weeks later, their album charts at No 4. What he cares about is not the power to say no to someone, but the power to make people say yes to him. More than the cars, the houses, the private jets (he won't deny he enjoys those things) is the quest for access. To be able to get through any door he chooses. "I don't want to be patronised. I want the ability to make things happen, to walk in to a studio head's office and be taken seriously."
But he's mentioned being taken seriously and that's interesting. Because pop culture, his speciality, doesn't carry much gravitas. "Given the choice of producing Panorama or owning Wheel of Fortune, you know what I'd take," he laughs. "My definition of credibility is public acceptance. Record sales. Ratings. If I was asked, 'Would you rather have a show seen by 3m people and considered a masterpiece, or a show seen by 30m people with people saying it's horrible reality TV?', I'll take the ratings, thank you."
In America, Cowell has replaced Princess Diana as the Brit with mass appeal. He's not quite as adored, but Americans are intrigued by him. He has reconfigured what the average American thinks of as being British: polite, eccentric, a little bit cruel, and with fabulous teeth. In a country where everything is super-sized, Cowell's audience in the US with American Idol is equal to more than half of the UK's population. Without Cowell, it would be just another flat talent show. What he brings to the programme is authenticity; he doesn't sugar the pill or pander to the American diet of bland. He speaks his mind, even if it hurts. "It's easy to be an asshole on TV. But after a while, people could see I wasn't trying to be rude. I was actually truthful in what I was saying. As long as you're saying what people are thinking, you're no longer an idiot." For instance: "That was one of my favourite songs . . . Not any more;" "If your lifeguard duties were as good as your singing, a lot of people would be drowning;" "If you were the only person who entered this competition, you still wouldn't win."
The insults are unscripted and he really does get frustrated with his fellow judges if they vote through someone undeserving. He appears to have a conscience, albeit one that works well on reality TV. But his comments are often brutal and tactless. When he tells a 17-year-old she's too fat to be a pop star, his defence is that she signed up to be judged. Is it callous or in her best interests to dash false hopes of stardom? Probably both. It's compelling, but tragic too. Either way, he knows if he insults someone they'll be backed up by an audience, and his role is a necessary evil. So much so, each talent show now must have a "Simon". Part of his approach makes professional sense too. These are people who want to become famous, and to survive in the business the rejection they'll encounter is harsher than Cowell's quips. His attitude is: if you can't take this, forget it. But there's also a fact that it doesn't benefit him to advertise: in real life he treats people far more gently than he does on TV.
"I'm not a snob: I'm not ashamed of liking popular things. And I find most of the criticism - 'Oh, you're killing music, you're ruining these people's dreams' - ridiculous. Yeah, you could look at it that way but all we're saying to a bunch of people who aren't very good is, 'Look, you're not very good.'"
The waiter arrives and Cowell knows what he wants: tomato soup and lasagne bolognese. He ponders how long he can continue on the shows. "When the audience gets bored I'll know it's time to stop. When I watch the show and get up to make a cup of tea halfway through, I'll think, okay, we've had a good run, let's call it a day."
Cowell is cheerful and smooth except for his knuckles, which are dry and cracked from push-ups. He does not seem the least bit impressed with himself. When a fellow diner asks for an autograph for his wife, Cowell obliges. But he's unsure how to address the note - the wife is a princess in an Arab country. Smiles all around. He gets invited to stay at their palace. "When people recognise you and they want to say hello, you owe them the courtesy of saying hello back. You can't say, I want to be on a popular TV show, and be anonymous." But popularity has its drawbacks. "In the first series of American Idol, a few guys who'd been rejected came back with their friends and they had baseball bats, but that's rare." Another time he went to a party "feeling a bit full of myself". "A very, very cute girl made eye contact with me, walked up and whispered into my ear, 'You must have a very small dick.'" He laughs with gusto. "I thought it was fantastic. There is no response to that."
It's easy to see why women are attracted to Cowell. He's flirtatious and sexual in the way that confident men are: noncommittal and lacking desperation. He once said: "You can look like Godzilla, but if you're on TV women are going to like you." But dating Cowell has got to be tough. You'd have to know the rules, and stick to them. "I'll tell you, I can't bear being asked questions. I don't like it. Particularly late at night. It drives me crazy. You're just falling asleep and you hear, 'Oh, you didn't tell me about the meeting.' What? What about it?"
Is this about withholding attention rather than giving answers? Cowell stops, rethinks, then gives me the "you must be a nightmare girlfriend" look. "Terri will tell you," he says, referring to his partner of three years, Terri Seymour. "I'll actually say to her, 'Look, I'm not being rude, but beyond 11 o'clock at night I don't want you to ask any questions at all, not even 'What time is it?' No questions." What's his problem with questions? "You have to answer them and think about it. Sometimes I like to be quiet. I genuinely do." I suspect what he means is, when it comes to defining or discussing a relationship, the eight-year-old in him plugs his ears. Cowell also reveals that he has no interest in having children. Or, as he laughingly puts it, "I've never had the need to have another me."
Unconditional love Cowell reserves for animals. The only glimpse of raw emotion and despair in his voice comes when discussing cruelty to dogs. On holiday in Barbados last year he handed a cheque for £10,000 to an island animal refuge, but I learnt that not from Cowell, but from a fellow tourist. The more personal the line of questioning and specifics about his relationship with Terri, the more he veers off the subject. Does he talk about marriage with Terri, for example? "She knows my views." This suggests she accepts the deal. He is a generous boyfriend with gifts and time, but press him for emotional depth and the curtain comes down. Time passes; it's fun. Lunch was meant to be an hour and has turned into three. He lights up another Kool and orders a pot of tea. Talk has turned to celebrities who have admitted they don't read. Victoria Beckham is on the list for saying she never finishes a book, and Cowell admires her for confessing it. "It's better than lying. Why lie about it? When I met her in LA and we were talking about her music career I said, 'Victoria, you're not the best singer in the world - you know that. You have what most people want: you're rich, you're famous, you're married to one of the best-looking guys in the world, so do something you're good at that you enjoy." And that is? "I think she's got a very good eye for fashion and she did help to make David Beckham. I genuinely believe that." Suddenly he looks sympathetic. "She's an easy target. I'd have less respect for her if she pretended. That's something I can't bear - people who go out of their way to be pleasant but deep down aren't very nice. You can spot them a mile off."
Cowell puts a high premium on being true to himself. "I just don't think people need to be ashamed of enjoying popular things. For instance, I'd happily go into the most expensive French restaurant in the world with friends and order a plate of chips. I'm sure the waiter would despise me, but I'd rather be happy eating my bowl of chips than pretend to enjoy a boiled pigeon with lobster sauce."
On New Year's Eve, at the Sandy Lane hotel in Barbados, he hated the prescribed menu and ordered baked beans on toast from room service before going down to "a monstrous dinner". So why go? "For the fun. But I don't eat the food."
Cowell admits he is very competitive. "I know exactly the people who are praying for my downfall on a nightly basis. In a way it drives me on even more."
In 2001, Cowell came up with the idea for Pop Idol with his fellow pop svengali Simon Fuller. They made a pact to work together and have known each other for 15 years. There is a pending copyright infringement at stake, and he tells me that until they go to court he can't talk about who did what with Pop Idol. "Once we go to court I'm happy to tell everyone what happened, but things may get sorted out before then. His company says that we have ripped off Pop Idol with The X Factor. And I'm saying we didn't."
He seems more inconvenienced than angry that he has to clear up the public perception he's stolen something. "These things happen all the time," he says, wearily. "He has an opinion; I have an opinion. The only thing I have to clear up is when someone says I ripped off something - then it's a personal issue. I can say to you categorically, and I can take a lie-detector test, that I didn't rip off anybody. I have to clear that up." How is it possible to have no animosity towards someone who calls you a thief? "I'd sit down with Simon and we could talk about everything other than the court case." Has he done that? "Lots of times."
This could be perceived as forgiving or cold. Or in Cowell's case, both. Even though they are suing each other, they're friends? Doesn't it make him sad, angry, resentful? "I can be incredibly detached," he says. "I can put it all down to business. Literally business."
On Sundays, Cowell has brunch with his mum, Julie, who lives near Brighton. His father, Eric, who made his money in property, died seven years ago. "I used to call them the chipmunks, those two. Because from the second they opened their eyes they would talk. It made me laugh because I would wake up and I'd hear them talking."
Cowell was born on October 7, 1959, and raised in Elstree, near the film studios. There were half-siblings from his father's first marriage, and his full brother, Nicholas, who is 17 months younger than him. He says he viewed the schooling process as something he had to get through and that he was "bored out of his mind". "I wasn't academically bright, and never bothered to study."
From the back seat of his Rolls-Royce, en route to his Chelsea office, he talks to me about the start of his career. One of his first jobs was a three-month stint as a runner on a film set at Elstree studios. When that ended he was given a choice: he could work in the post room of a record label, or be a runner on a Stanley Kubrick film. He chose the label. He was very ambitious, and viewed the post room as a stepping stone. He worked his way up the ladder, then at 30 it all fell apart.
In 1980s London he was living on credit, beyond his means, with the flashy Porsche and the status house, but he couldn't afford them and the existence was "fake". Bankrupt, he moved back home. For most people this would be a humiliating experience, but for Cowell it was humbling. He dismisses the embarrassment because it was, he says, one of the most exciting periods of his life. He was starting again. "I was shedding all the rubbish, the burdens of car payments, the house, all of it. I've always known it's the getting there that is more fun than the being there."
There is not much that is troubled or damaged about Cowell, and for the most part he "just gets on with it". But there must have been something along the way: depression, doubt, broken heart, something? "I was about 32, working for a division of BMG run by someone I didn't get on with. The company was full of the type of people in the music business I despise. Cynical and snobby. I ended up in this space - physically and mentally - where everyone became the enemy. I was hard done by. The records weren't selling the way I wanted, I had a small team around me who would have agreed with basically anything I said, and it got to a point where I walked out and went to see the chairman of the company. I told him, 'I can't bear this environment any longer and I'm going to leave.'"
He did not leave but was put in charge of a different division at BMG. "A man named Mike McCormack sat with me and said, 'Let me give you a piece of advice. You are the musical equivalent of Gary Lineker. What you do is stand by the goal. When the right thing comes along, nod it in the back of the net. Something's going to come along.' "He trusted me, and it helped to clear my mind. Then you realise that the reason things had gone badly before wasn't the people I was working with: it was my fault. I just wasn't getting it together. I stopped blaming everyone else."
For the next eight years he had a good run. He was doing well. Then he launched a group called Girl Thing, on the back of the Spice Girls. He laughs. "There was always something in the pit of my stomach telling me it wasn't right, but you go along with it, hype everybody up. I spent a lot of money on the group. Everyone was expecting it be No 1 and it got to No 8. A disaster. I've spent a lot of BMG's money on this and now we have a problem. I went into the office and we had a very outspoken chairman at the time, and I'm dreading the call when he's got the news. I'm just waiting to be called up. So the call comes and I hear, 'All I will say to you, Simon, is this is the best thing that will ever happen in your career.' And he put the phone down."
Cowell's face twists into mock confusion. "What? It took me two hours, then I went upstairs, knocked on his door and said, 'My ego is out of control, isn't it?' He said, 'Yes, Simon.' He could have destroyed me, he could have said, 'You f***ing idiot, you've blown all this money, you're not as good as you think you are.' It's one of those important things you learn in your life, which is, your ego can start believing it is only you and you don't recognise the people around you."
A short while later, we arrive at his offices in Chelsea. Outside his room is a lifesize cardboard cartoon cutout of Cowell from when he appeared on The Simpsons - the ultimate pop-culture accolade. Syco - Cowell's company - has three parts: Syco Music; Syco TV, which has seven productions on the go, including The X Factor; and Syco Film, which is developing several projects, one of which is a feature film about a boy band. Cowell himself is the creative powerhouse, but here in the offices it's fraternal. He relents when I insist on sitting in on a meeting and introduces me, playfully, as "pushy". Then he winks. Cowell winks a lot. It's an emotionally remote man's way of giving approval and showing affection.
Cowell's colleagues are not afraid to contradict him. He has a low-key manner at the office and is keen to get input from those around him. When asked what his flaws are, he refers me to those who know him best. "Simon's big flaw is something you'd never guess!" booms Pete Waterman, the record producer who has known him for 30 years. "He's indecisive. He changes his mind. He's got a phenomenal gut instinct but he's never learnt to trust it."
Perhaps this is true, but no matter what, Cowell always comes out on top, to the tune of a £50m fortune to date, according to The Sunday Times Rich List.
On a sunny Wednesday morning I'm invited to his house in Holland Park. Decorated in monochrome greys, beige and black, it is sleek, modern and minimalist. There are few personal touches apart from the framed snapshots that show Cowell and Terri on holiday. There is a Picasso drawing on the wall which he found on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. "Saw it. Liked it. Bought it." There is an office similar to the one at Sony, and the bookshelves have a mix of Ken Follett, Clinton's autobiography, and Hip Hotels guides. He's lived in this house for about three years. It used to belong to the French ambassador. "I literally walked in the front door and said, 'I'll buy the house.' It was instant. I didn't even look upstairs. I just felt it."
We move out to sit on the porch for tea overlooking an austere garden with a fountain and trimmed hedges. Where are the personal touches? What is his favourite thing? He can't answer. Pressed to define his most personal touch he says, without irony: uncluttered. The lack of personal touch is his personal touch? "It's a house. I like it but if I had to move tomorrow - bye-bye, house."
He admits that while he invites people over for work meetings, he never entertains at home socially. I ask him, if he had a dinner party, which six people would he invite, dead or alive? "Frank Sinatra, Bill Clinton . . ." He pauses. "Natalie Wood, to look at . . . then I'd phone up Frank and say, 'You invite the other three.'"
Cowell laughs, sips some tea, pops a biscuit in his mouth and answers the phone. It is now noon, the peaceful morning ritual is over and another day of looking for the next big idea is about to begin. Before he goes, one last question: what makes him laugh? He hesitates for half a second. "Other people's misfortunes. Or being in serious meetings. Whatever is the inappropriate thing to do makes me laugh. When the worst thing you can do is laugh, that's what makes me laugh." He grins, like a mischievous eight-year-old.