Understated, moi? Simon Cowell admits to being 'a bit odd'
TOM Bower's biography of the most influential figure in celebrity culture digs up some startling details about his intimate life.
This isn’t an ideal time for a book about Simon Cowell to be titled Sweet Revenge. Britain’s Got Talent is getting fewer viewers than The Voice. Autumn’s series of the British X Factor – which Cowell oversaw as executive producer, even though he didn’t appear on screen – got fewer viewers than Strictly Come Dancing. The debut series of the American X Factor, also last autumn, got fewer viewers than the show Cowell quit to launch it, American Idol. Who, at the moment, is getting “sweet revenge”? It feels a little bit as though it might be Cowell’s critics and rivals.
Even so, Cowell remains probably the most influential figure in celebrity culture. He didn’t invent the modern TV talent show, but he did make it what it is – which, depending on your point of view, is either gripping, funny and addictive, or cruel, cynical and crass. He earns around £45million a year. The figure may disgust some people, but not as much as it disgusts Cowell. He believes he should be earning a lot more. He doesn’t want merely to be on television. He wants to rule it – as an executive, a mogul, a man who not only stars in shows but owns the rights to them.
Cowell grew up in a big house in Elstree, Hertfordshire. He was sent to a private boys’ school but hated it – he was always in trouble for answering back – and left with only three O-levels. He wanted to work in the music business. Luckily his father was a director at EMI, so that was no problem. But though the opportunity came easily, success didn’t. A lot of his acts were hopeless. By 33 he was broke and had to move back in with his parents.
An intriguing theme of this book is how poor Cowell’s commercial judgment can be. As a record executive he turned down both Boyzone and Take That (he thought Gary Barlow was “too fat”. Twenty years later he hired Barlow to replace him as a judge on The X Factor). He thought Britney Spears would never make it because her name was too silly. He also rejected a job as a judge on the original pop talent show, Popstars, because “I can’t see how it’ll work”.
But Cowell is good at learning from his mistakes – and others’ successes. He saw Nigel Lythgoe and Pete Waterman become stars as “nasty” judges, so he became one too, and did it better.
Another theme is Cowell’s sexuality. Though he’s 52 he has never married. The author says he’s seen no evidence that Cowell has ever so much as kissed a man, but this is unlikely to stop people assuming he’s gay, simply because he fits so many gay stereotypes. His voice is a camp whine; he’s bitchy; he’s obsessed with his looks; he’s fanatically fussy about décor… He is a homophobe’s idea of a homosexual.
Yet if the book is to be believed Cowell has had flings with a lot of women, including Dannii Minogue, his former X Factor co-star. Indeed his taste in women – lapdancers, topless models with breasts like footballs – is almost parodically heterosexual. The impression you’re left with, though, is that he isn’t really sexual at all – that his only true lust is for money and status, and that the reason he likes to be mobbed by busty babes is that it shows he’s top dog. Unlike most men he remains close to his ex-girlfriends, but in a flatly unromantic way – their chief job, it seems, is to listen as he recounts his latest ambitions, fears, complaints. These women are loyal, as well they might be. After dumping one of them he gave her an $8million house.
Cowell has millions of fans – girls scream at him the way they normally do only for singers 35 years his junior – but it’s uncertain they’ll be interested in the long passages of the book that focus on their hero as a businessman, and his battles with the business rivals on whom he wishes to gain “revenge” for being richer than he is.
The fun is in the strange little details of his life. Every few pages the reader is confronted by a sentence of exquisite weirdness. “A half-deaf woman had visited weekly to cover Cowell with oil, wrap him in cellophane and squeeze him into a tube.” Or, “Between beers, Cowell revealed his negotiations with a Swiss company to freeze and store his body for £100,000, in the expectation that scientists will one day invent reanimation.” Or, “Cowell gradually filled the wardrobes with 50 pairs of identical trousers.”
Cowell cheerfully admits being “a bit odd”. It is perhaps his only recorded use of understatement.
Sweet Revenge: The Intimate Life of Simon Cowell by Tom Bower (Faber, £18.99)