Last week in Los Angeles, the four judges of the new FOX singing competition show The X-Factor (premiering tonight at 8/7 Central) – Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, L.A. Reid and Nicole Scherzinger – gathered at the famed Hollywood Arclight theater to host a premiere for Cowell's new show. A red carpet event for a TV show is rare, but it underscores the incredible expectations for the show, based on the British one of the same name that Cowell also produces.
For Cowell, though, the event was as much a chance to finally stop answering the same question. "We’d been asked the question over and over again, 'How is the show different from Idol,'" Cowell tells Rolling Stone. "I kept saying, 'You’ve got to see the show. It feels different, it feels more modern, it looks bigger, but most importantly it’s just got a different voice to Idol.' "
The show, which offers some jaw-dropping vocal performances in its two-day premiere tonight and tomorrow on FOX, definitely has its own vibe, from the live audition process to the mentoring the four judges will do. And Cowell has words for those who compare the mentoring role to The Voice. "On this show we get to mentor the contestants properly. I know The Voice did it, but we were doing this seven years ago – and I stress the word properly," he says.
Cowell promises he and his fellow judges will be active in the live performances. "We’re going to be judged as much as the contestants. And if it goes wrong it’s my fault and if it goes right you take part of the credit. But it’s a very, very different experience being on this show compared to Idol – where, truth is, I could’ve just been an actor," he says.
Certainly Cowell has lost none of his trademark bravado as he embarks on this new project. "Without sounding conceited I was, and still am, one of the most successful A&R guys in the world. Ever since I started a record label and a TV company I’ve never, ever put myself in position where people are making decisions for me and that’s where I kind of got to with Idol," he says. "I would turn up for rehearsals and my sole job that afternoon was, 'I like you, I don’t like you, I like the song, I don’t like the song and I don’t like your hair.'"
He cites his role with Kelly Clarkson – he commissioned her first single and got involved with the album – as an example of what could've been. "Then it all just stopped and I’d wondered why I made the effort there," he says.
What have been the auditions for the new show that stood out the most? 'The ones that surprise you the most are always the ones that you remember," he says. "A few times some of the older singers came out and I was skeptical, then you hear something you just weren’t expecting and kind of wonder, 'Why have you been hiding this for 30 years when you’ve got talent like this?' And all of them pretty much have the same answer, that somebody in their lives had stopped them. But those are always the best feelings," he says. "And sometimes, with some of the teenagers, they walk out and you say, 'Oh god, this is gonna be awful, this is gonna sound like shit.' And then they sing something you seriously don’t expect and I love those moments. You live for those moments."