Simon: Why I love being on my own
Beyond the bravado, gym-honed arms and string of ex-girlfriends, Simon Cowell is shy when it comes to his TV failures and getting older, writes Celia Walden
On a table inside Simon Cowell's padded bunker in the bowels of Fountain Studios sits a plate of the largest carrots I have ever seen. Their leaves are impossibly lush, their 10in, meticulously peeled roots are Beatrix Potter perfect.
"I don't like those carrot batons, do you?" says the music mogul, appearing in a cloud of menthol cigarette smoke. "They're a bit like crab sticks – you're never quite sure what's in them."
The London-born 53-year-old is in his trademark blue jeans and T-shirt, his hair – shorn closer than usual at the sides – is greying a little at the temples, but that smile is as ice-white and frequent as ever.
Cowell has had a good year. Britain's Got Talent kicked off with its largest viewing figures last month (the season premier peaked with 13 million in the UK); the format has now been reproduced in 56 territories; and the 10th anniversary series of The X Factor is about to start filming.
"Last year, doing BGT felt like sitting in a room with a blindfold on," he laments. "I didn't have a clue whether people were fed-up with what we were doing. This season the mixture is so weird that it works: we've got everything from dancing nuns to opera singers."
Cowell seems to view his empire like a professional athlete views his achievements. All the wins in the world can't make up for that one loss. When a show of his fails to meet expectations (his new series, Food Glorious Food, premiered to disappointing viewing figures in February), Cowell feels like he's "been kicked in the teeth".
"You've failed," he shrugs. "If people don't watch, you've done something wrong. And that's not OK. So if the viewing figures fall off a cliff, it's time to go." Is that what he's really worried about? "Yes," he agrees evenly. "I'm not ready to go yet." Even after all his success? "Look: if I played Monopoly with you, I would be really p***ed off if you won. It would take me about a day to recover."
I've known Cowell for years, and the funny thing about this preening braggart with the gym-honed forearms reclining, emperor-like, on a suede armchair in front of me, is that, in reality, he's a little shy.
He plays up to his World's Vainest Man title with his unapologetic love of Botox, vitamin injections and cosmetic dentistry, and delights global audiences with his Paxman-like air of superiority and testosterone-fuelled banter. But off-screen, he favours nights in over red-carpet nights out; in conversation, he's more of a listener than a dominator.
One wonders whether, now that he's single again (he called off his engagement to make-up artist Mezhgan Hussainy last year), Cowell gets lonely in his Citizen Kane-like Beverly Hills mansion.
"Actually, being on my own is the best thing in the world. It's like breathing in oxygen – I can really switch off then." He keeps vampiric hours, going to bed at 2am or 3am, rising late and "working out for an hour or so to a movie".
Bring up women – over the years Cowell's perplexing love life has become a constant source of entertainment to the media – and he laughs. "I'm fine as I am. I think that when you get into a rut, it gets boring."
By "rut" does he mean "relationship"? "Look," he smiles, enjoying himself, "when no matter how big your house is, you are going to end up on the same sofa, in the same bed or in the same room as a person, you are going to get bored. It's a boring routine."
So marriage as an institution is boring? "Well, the way most people live it, yes. Have a carrot, darling – and dip it in the sauce."
In an industry of acrimonious splits and tabloid tell-alls, one has to admire the way Cowell conducts his personal business. Not one of his ex-girlfriends – singer Sinitta, television presenter Terri Seymour, model Jackie Sinclair or Hussainy – has ever said a bad word about the star, and he remains on eerily good terms with all of them.
Has anyone ever broken his heart? "No." Has he ever been in love? "I have a different kind of love," he sighs. "The love I have for my ex-girlfriends will always be there, so I think that's true love. People confuse ego, lust, insecurity with true love. But for me, whether it's Jackie, Mezhgan, Sinitta or Terri, they will be in my life for ever. I genuinely love them."
How does he know that women genuinely love him – that the stardom, the handbags and the parting-gift LA mansions aren't part of the appeal? "I know. I don't have the Mick Hucknall effect. I'm aware that I can get girls because I'm on TV, and I don't believe I'm God's gift to women, but I think you know when it's genuine."
Does he not long to be bowled over one day? "Well it worries me because I've seen it destroy people. And I couldn't think of anything worse than being in an unhappy marriage." So he sees himself going through his life as a serial monogamist? "It has crossed my mind, yes," he grins.
Given the size of his business empire, Syco, and his brutal schedule, Cowell looks remarkably healthy and is in better shape than I've ever seen him. He's lost a stone since the start of the year ("You know what the secret to weight loss is? Don't eat much"), and has had all his suits taken in.
Crucially, he says, he's learnt how to manage stress. "I think of stress as the creator of cancer and heart attacks, like a tiny little ball you feed. I believe that one of the reasons I've never got ill is that I'm not stressed." He concedes, however, that had he become famous as a young man, "I would not be alive today."
Mortality, retirement, endings – these are unsavoury notions to Cowell. He is devoted to his 88-year-old mother, Julie, and when his father Eric, an EMI executive, died of a heart attack in 1999 at the age of 81, he was devastated. "I'd always had this feeling that nobody I knew would die. Then, when it happened, I thought 'Christ – this really does happen and I hate it'." He used to worry about getting older but these days he sees "all the advantages that come with it".
He explains: "You don't get so insecure or competitive. And if you can grow old gracefully, you're fit and healthy and not bad looking." He draws the line at dyeing his hair ("I don't know what it is about that but I think it kind of looks ridiculous"), but sees other forms of cosmetic help as acceptable.
He's not so sanguine about retirement. "I'd rather drop dead doing my job. The idea of getting up in the morning to play golf makes me want to jump off a bridge."
Ask where he thinks he'll be in 10 years and he grimaces. "Alive," he says finally. "Let's start with that, shall we?"
Name: Simon Cowell
Born: October 7, 1959 Family: Unmarried and has no children
Education: He left school at 16 with a handful of O-levels
Career: Progressed from the post room at EMI Music Publishing to become talent scout. Following his departure from EMI, he founded a couple of record labels, one of which folded and forced him to move back to his parents' home. He joined BMG Records, where he achieved considerable success. His television career began in 2001 when he joined forces with Simon Fuller to produce Pop Idol, the first of many talent shows