Why the knives are out for Cowell in America
Caitriona Palmer on how a group of US pop stars want to derail the career of Britain's crankiest celeb
S imon Cowell is the Brit that most Americans love to hate. In a country obsessed with self promotion and naked ambition, Cowell is the epitome of the American dream. A dedicated workaholic and entrepreneur, his shows -- American Idol and America's Got Talent in the US, and Britain's Got Talent and The X Factor in the UK -- are the most watched programmes on television.
His personal fortune exceeds $252m. He has a drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend, a taste for luxury cars and lives in an opulent Beverly Hills mansion that used to belong to J-Lo. But Cowell's infamous mean streak has not endeared him to the American public. In a society that prizes forthrightness, the man known as 'Mr Nasty' has taken the art of speaking one's mind to the ultimate extreme.
Wielding God-like power on the set of American Idol, Cowell has had the ability to make or break the career of a trembling would-be pop star -- with the raise of a single bushy eyebrow. "My advice would be if you want to pursue a career in the music business, don't," he once told a contestant on American Idol in his buttery English accent. "If your lifeguard duties were as good as your singing, a lot of people would be drowning," he later mocked another.
But now, the man reviled in America as 'Angry Simon' is about to get his comeuppance.
As Cowell prepares to launch the much anticipated American version of The X Factor on the Fox network, a group of US media moguls have decided that enough is enough and plan to steal his thunder by launching a rival talent show of their own.
The new show, The Voice, which is being rushed into production to appear on NBC next month, is designed to lure viewers from American Idol and to pre-empt the launch of The X Factor in the autumn.
Featuring high-profile judges that include pop star Christina Aguilera, hip-hop star Cee-Lo Green, Maroon Five front man Adam Levine and country star Blake Shelton, the show is designed to promote a kinder approach to contestants and as an antidote to the nastiness of a Simon Cowell show.
"It's less about being judgmental and more about helping the singers out," said Adam Levine. Speaking to New York Magazine this week Cowell said that all was fair in the television wars, and that he was not in the least bit intimidated by the competition. "You can't stop somebody from doing this. If they want to do it, good luck to them. Every time I hear something like this, I put the phone down and I try harder," he said.
"I've been in this situation in England. We've had so much competition; everyone's tried to have a pop at us. Our shows have remained popular because they are good shows, but they also rely on one thing and one thing only: the contestants," Cowell added.
Banking on the love-hate relationship that he stirs up with the American public, Cowell predicted that The X Factor would outshine The Voice in terms of one valuable asset -- Mr Crankypants himself. "One thing's for sure: The X Factor is going to attract a lot more contestants than The Voice. There's no doubt about that. So we've got a slight advantage to begin with," he said.
Cowell has also teased the public by throwing out the names of some heavy hitting celebrities, who far outshine those of The Voice, that may join him on the panel: aging rockers Mick Jagger and Elton John, Cheryl Cole, Katy Perry, Jessica Simpson and foul-mouthed Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher.
This past week Cowell confirmed that mother-to-be pop diva Mariah Carey was no longer in the running for a place on the judge's panel: "I can rule out Mariah. She was literally going to be like eight months pregnant and that wasn't going to work," he said.
If this week's auditions for The X Factor are anything to go by, Cowell is already leaving his detractors and The Voice rivals far behind.
Last Monday over 18,000 people lined up -- some holding signs that read "Pick Me Simon!" -- at a car park in Los Angeles, desperate for a chance to parade their talents in front of Cowell. Those waiting in the rain were hoping to eventually walk away with a $5m record deal, the largest guaranteed prize in US history. The Voice, in comparison, offers a modest $100,000 and a recording contract with Universal Music.
Already a massive hit in the UK, The X Factor had a record 21 million viewers for its 2010 finale. The show is currently shown in 17 countries across the world -- from Morocco to Spain to Australia -- and Cowell has even joked that he may one day take it to North Korea.
"If the US show has some of the same qualities as we've done in the UK it could do really, really well. But I've learned never to take anything for granted," he said.
That caution comes from Cowell's earlier life when the music label he founded in his twenties crashed and burned in 1989, causing him to declare bankruptcy and move in with his parents. Cowell's star began to rise again after he became a consultant for Sony BMG and signed bizarre acts such as the Irish puppets Zig and Zag. In 2001 he became a judge on Pop Idol and became an overnight sensation.
Despite his massive personal wealth and his love of fancy cars, the man who made a star out of Susan Boyle has remained surprisingly down to earth. He is devoted to his 86-year-old mother and professes a fondness for fish-fingers and Angel Delight dessert. And although arrogant on-air, Cowell admits that he is nervous about the US launch of The X Factor and says that with a $5m prize it is finally time for him to put his "money where his mouth is".
But when it comes to beating his rivals at The Voice, Cowell already seems to have the winning formula. As both an executive producer and judge on The X Factor, Cowell has reportedly struck a deal with Fox that would ultimately pay him $50m a season if the show becomes a hit. In 2008, Rolling Stone magazine asked Cowell what he wanted most in the world. "Money," he said. "As much money as I can get my hands on."