Idol Worship

An interview with Simon Cowell of 'American Idol,' the most hated and loved man on TV

Simon Cowell at the 'America's Got Talent' Press Conference announcing a second season of the hit summer show at NBC Studios on September 25th, 2006 in Burbank, California. Credit: Michael Buckner/Getty

If you were in London the other morning and inside Simon Cowell's bedroom, gazing down upon Cowell's noble but rather blockish head resting on pure-white sheets, cushioned there by four pure-white pillows, you might have noticed a nearly quizzical expression on his face as he departed dreams for the dawn. He could have had many things on his mind. The fifth-season bravado success of his stateside show American Idol, which trashed the 2006 Grammys and the Olympics in the ratings and has drawn more viewers this year — usually 35 million per episode — than ever before, a historic anomaly that television's statisticians are still struggling to comprehend. The current popularity of his pop-opera boy band Il Divo, which he manufactured over several years and whose new album recently landed on the Billboard charts — in the first-place position, of all happy things. Alternatively, perhaps, the anger directed at him for his latest crop of nasty comments on American Idol, from groups that include the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.

***

But no. As he stirs, only one thing is on his mind: whether a British health beverage known as Lemsip would go well with his morning porridge. He put it to himself this way: "When I call down to the housekeeper for breakfast to be brought up, should I ask for a Lemsip as well?"

Having decided he didn't care, he got the Lemsip.

"And that," he tells me several hours later, firmly, "was my first thought of the day."

***

From sea to shining sea, people harbor the suspicion that Simon Cowell, 46, can't be in life as he is on TV, so very peevishly rude not only to the kids singing their wee hearts out on his show but also to his two hapless fellow judges, kindly Paula Abdul (his dating advice for her: "Try not to talk too much") and wishy-washy Randy Jackson ("reliable as an old sheepdog"). Only the show's frosty-haired host, Ryan Seacrest, seems to get off easy, but that may only be because Cowell is too busy trading you're-queer/no-you're-queer jokes with him to get down to business. Nonetheless, it's as if the viewing public thinks Cowell's comments are scripted and it's all an act, including his constantly simmering almost-feud with Abdul, which, this season, crescendoed with Cowell storming off the set in San Francisco and hiring a jet to take him back to L.A. The proximate cause: He'd had enough of Abdul's insults. OK, maybe that was grandstanding, but those who know him best maintain that's just the way he is. "What you see on TV," says Terri Seymour, his girlfriend of three years and a correspondent on Extra, "is what you get, exactly, in real life."

And that very well may be. I'd hung out on the American Idol set several years ago and had seen Abdul in Cowell-induced tears even when the cameras weren't rolling. Plus, there's a long, sordid history to Cowell's verbal high jinks, starting from the age of three when he told his mom, all gussied up for a party, that she reminded him of a poodle. But this time around, in London, I see nothing of the sort. The Cowell I see is many things — among them charming, boorish, polite, concerned, obscene, honest, open and evil, maybe — but rude, not once.

***

His early years were privileged ones: his mother a dancer; his late father a successful real estate man; the family, which also includes one younger brother, three half brothers and one half sister, all living north of London, in blissful ease, on a leafy baronial estate named Abbots Meade. By age five he had almost burned down the house twice; on one of those occasions he lit on fire a Father Christmas costume to prove to his younger brother, Nicholas, that Father Christmas couldn't exist and soon surely wouldn't exist. Four years later, when he was nine, Cowell succumbed to an urge to start smoking and drinking. The cigarettes he filched from ashtrays; the drinks he walked off with during family parties when no one was looking. He consumed his contraband mainly in the ten-acre garden out back, often in an igloo hand-built from a collection of twigs and finished off with a long, dark entrance tunnel designed to intimidate and frighten off nosy elders. The structure lasted until the day Cowell left a lit cigarette behind and "the whole thing went whoosh."

One time, while on a bus, he pointed a toy gun at the driver and told him to keep the bus moving, which the driver did for 10 terrorized miles. Cowell had been joking, of course, but how was the driver to know?

At their wits' end, his parents sent him away to boarding school. He dropped out two years later, at sixteen, shortly after distinguishing his academic career with a four-month suspension for drinking.

A bit later, he landed a mailroom job in the publishing division of EMI Records.

***

Cowell's current office, located up five flights inside the Sony BMG building on Fulham High Street, in London, is austere. The only personal touches I can see are a number of award plaques on one wall, a small framed picture of him with his girlfriend, another of him and his mom.

Pulling close to his meticulously organized desk, Cowell removes a cigarette from a pack of Kools and lights up, in violation of company policy. "What are they going to do, fire me?" he says. "Ha!" I tell him I recently quit, whereupon he picks up his Kools and offers me one. The only thing he says about this offer is, "I'm looking after you."

Cigarette refused, we begin with a few preliminaries.

Me: Were you ever humiliated as a child?
Cowell: Nothing in particular stands out.
Me: Have any recurring nightmares?
Cowell: No.
Me: Any recurring dreams at all?
Cowell: No.
Me: Were you ever caught masturbating by your mother or father?
Cowell: No!
Me: Your two longest relationships have been with Terri and a woman named Sinitta?
Cowell: Look, there've been a lot of quick ones in between.
Me: How long was the shortest?
Cowell: A day? An hour? A minute?
Me: Is "monogamy" in your vocabulary?
Cowell: I don't know.
Me: How do you show affection?
Cowell: I don't really know. In a way, I think the more sort of cold you are, the more they try. I find displays of emotion and affection a little awkward and embarrassing.
Me: Kissing in public?
Cowell: Oh, God, no. No, no, no, no.
Me: Have you ever told a girl you love her?
Cowell: Probably when I was around 17. I lost my virginity to her. Actually, I can't remember telling her. But I'm sure I did.
Me: So when you sign off on the phone with Terri, how does that go? "Bye"?
Cowell: Yeah.
Me: No "Love you"?
Cowell: I can't remember, to be honest with you. Probably not. This tastes very good, by the way.
Me: I'll have one.
Cowell: I'm happy. I'm happy.

And so there we sit with our cigarettes. Already I know this about Cowell: When he wants to, he can clip his sentences to the nub and still keep a charmingly humorous twinkle in his voice. Also: Fairly intrusive questions don't throw him, and it may be impossible to pry secrets of a Freudian nature out of him, should they exist. Also: His girlfriend, perhaps, is more to be pitied than envied. Finally: He could well be a very, very bad man and not even know it. I think this while exhaling smoke and wondering what's behind some of the things he says and does.

***

While delivering mail at Emi, the 17-year-old Cowell began pestering one higher-up after another for a better job. He drove his bosses crazy until he got his way. Eventually, he joined forces with a friend at EMI to start an in-house label called Fanfare. Suddenly, he was a bona fide record producer — albeit one without an artist to produce. One night, however, out at a club in Mayfair, he was introduced to a smoking-hot disco-and-dance singer named Sinitta. Sinitta wanted to make a record, Cowell wanted to make Sinitta, and both got their way: In 1988, on the Fanfare label, Cowell's new girlfriend released a record called So Macho, which turned into a million-copy-selling hit and earned Cowell a $1.5 million bundle. Alas, in 1989, he sold his company and, in a financial snafu, lost everything he had, including his house and his fancy Porsche 911 Cabriolet. He went back to Abbots Meade to live with his folks and contemplate his future.

***

Me: What's the most difficult emotion for you to express to another person?
Cowell: Baby talk, that ghastly sort of baby talk boyfriends and girlfriends do.
Me: Does Terri have a pet name for you?
Cowell: She does, actually. She's started to call me Pumpkin. What am I supposed to call her in return? Bubbles?
Me: If you were to lie about something personal, what would you lie about?
Cowell: I lie about whatever is appropriate at the time.
Me: You don't have a problem with lying?
Cowell: No! If it gets me out of trouble or makes a situation easier. Absolutely! And it's a fairly continuous thing, I would say.
Me: Can I have a cigarette?
Cowell: Here. Good.
Me: Why is it good?
Cowell: Oh, I don't know. It amuses me.

The way he says this, with grace notes of liltingly mellifluous Anthony Hopkins-like smoothness, is unnerving and seductive. He takes you in like that, before you know it.

Actually, has any British import in recent history rooted any deeper into the national psyche than Cowell? His words and manners have been debated constantly for the past five years: Is he a good thing or a bad thing? He is bad, one side says, because he says mean, hurtful things and sets a bad example for young people who would otherwise turn out A-OK. He is good, the other side says, because he alone is not afraid to tell today's young people — spoiled-rotten brats, presumably, with a self-righteous sense of entitlement instilled by namby-pamby parents — that their achievements suck, that their dreams suck, that maybe they should get different dreams altogether, and while they're at it, how about shedding a few pounds and wearing clothes that don't suggest massive gender confusion?

The way things are going, we may never be rid of Cowell and his truths. Earlier this year — after settling a lawsuit brought by British Idol creator Simon Fuller, who claimed that Cowell's new top-rated series on British TV, The X Factor, was basically just an Idol rip-off — Fox signed him to five more American Idol seasons. This came after weeks of negotiations that were widely reported as hardball but that Cowell describes "as gentlemanly as these negotiations can be," after which his paycheck rose from a reported $8 million annually to some number Cowell can't bring himself to reveal. The figure must be astronomical, though, because other networks have offered Cowell in excess of $25 million a year to leave Idol and thereby wreck its future prospects, after a 2005 season in which the show earned Fox more than $900 million in revenue and led commentators to say things like "American Idol is the most powerful show in TV history. . . . No other program has come close."

"American Idol is like a juggernaut," Cowell says. "It demolishes everything in its path, and our competitors go, 'What do we do to get it off the market?' Their hatred of the show is such that they would do anything."

***

Me: What do you want more than anything else in the world?
Cowell: Money. As much money as I can get my hands on. It's as simple as that.
Me: I read that you're worth something like $90 million. Not enough?
Cowell: No.
Me: If you could perform one miracle, what would that miracle be?
Cowell: That's tricky. Do I suit others or do I suit myself? If I'm being honest with you, it'd probably be to have 1 billion pounds put in my bank account, and then I'd ask the bank statement to magically appear on my desk so I could stare at it from all angles.
Me: Do you think you're shallow?
Cowell: Yes, I do.
Me: Have girls ever tried to deepen you?
Cowell: Every girl will try to deepen you. But to say I'm attracted to someone because of her personality would be a lie. When you're looking at a girl across the bar, you're not thinking, "She's got a great personality." You're thinking, "She's got great tits!" That is the attraction. Personality comes later.
Me: Ever been to a shrink?
Cowell: No, but I've been advised to go many times by friends. But there's nothing I need to change in my life. I don't see the need.

***

After dealing with the fanfare-related bankruptcy, Cowell returned to the music business as an A&R executive at Arista Records. In the early Nineties, Arista's premier acts were highbrow artists like Lisa Stansfield and Whitney Houston. Cowell wasn't interested. Instead, he made a number of records inspired, if you will, by some of the day's most popular costumed TV quasi-personalities, namely Teletubbies, Power Rangers and WWF wrestlers. This kind of tie-in approach had never before been attempted, but Cowell — who grew up pickling himself in shows like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie — thought it could work, though he would first have to surmount a good deal of internal company resistance.

"I remember when I went to my immediate boss and told her that we were going to sign the WWF wrestlers," Cowell says, chuckling. "She just paled and said, 'Who on earth is going to buy records from wrestlers?' She honestly thought I was just a freak. It was the sort of company I loathed. Very snobby. Very elitist. But my attitude was simple: I don't care what we're selling, as long as we're selling records. And those records went on to sell millions."

To publicly reward Cowell for these efforts, the press dubbed him "The Antichrist of the Music Business."

Shortly thereafter, he moved on to RCA. For his first release there he fell back on his old strategy, issuing another Power Rangers record. "We sold a million," Cowell says. "RCA loved it." Another success came with the cheesy Irish boy band Westlife, which went on to sell 45 million records. At RCA, he made only one real misstep: When he had the opportunity, he was unable to sign the Spice Girls. Also, he turned down an offer to host a new soon-to-be-a-sensation British TV show called Popstars. And yet, typically for Cowell, it all worked out for the best: While watching that show it occurred to him that he might be able to do it one better. In his version, the audience would get to determine the winner by popular vote. He teamed up with well-known British manager Simon Fuller and together they created just such a program, calling it Pop Idol. When it debuted, in 2001, it was an immediate hit, as was Cowell's ill-tempered mouth, which subsequently allowed him to trade in his Antichrist nickname for a new one: He was now known as Mr. Nasty. And, in Britain at least, he was a star.

***

Cowell's preference is to always start his days the same way. The alarm in his cell phone goes off and he hits the snooze button twice, which gives him an extra 20 minutes of slumber. Finally, he calls his housekeeper and says, "I'm awake. "After a bit, she arrives with breakfast in bed — porridge, papaya, some lime to squeeze on the papaya, a six-fruit smoothie and a glass of Lemsip, sometimes — as well as four tabloid newspapers: The Sun, The Mirror, The Star and The Daily Mail. He eats, reads and watches TV, suffusing his brainpan with pop culture. Meanwhile, his housekeeper runs his bath, always at the same exact temperature. When the bath is full and the room empty, Cowell gets out of bed, performs 100 push-ups, strips off his T-shirt and pajama bottoms and eases into the tub, where he lathers himself up with Trumper lime-scented shower gel. Afterward, he slips into one of 20 pairs of identical Armani boot-cut jeans, into one of the tight black Armani T-shirts for which he is famous and into one of about 30 pairs of toad-stabber Berluti boots, in either brown or black. He spritzes himself with Trumper lime-scented cologne. He leaves the house. Everywhere he goes he carries a little vial of pills, in case he feels a migraine coming on. He doesn't answer his phone or make calls until he is in his car, driving to the office. He is stern about this. Once at the office, he smokes his first Kool of the day. A moment later, he coughs a few times.

"I've always got a cough," he says.

Some of my other recent and ponderable findings are that Cowell gets his teeth whitened. He often doesn't wear underwear with his jeans. He believes "Mack the Knife" is the best song ever written. Of average height himself, he sometimes wishes he was taller: "Standing around in a bar with people who are six foot three just makes you feel . . . insignificant."

He was, at least at one time, the complete womanizer, according to a London taxi driver I met. "I used to work with Simon in his EMI days," this driver told me. "I liked him. He came up to me once asking for this girl's name. He said, 'I'm going to shag her.' And he did. A few years ago I ran into another girl who used to work with us. I said, 'Did you?' She said, 'I did.' A lot of people seem to think that Simon is gay. I can tell you he is not."

Cowell once said, "I'm just glad I'm not 25 and doing [Idol], because I'd be a complete fucking monster. Not to say I'm not one now. But I could have been worse."

In early 2002, Cowell arrived in the U.S. to try to sell a version of Pop Idol there. He met with all the networks, all of which turned him down flat. As luck had it, however, Elizabeth Murdoch, who is the daughter of Fox-owning media magnate Rupert Murdoch, was a huge Pop Idol fan, and she began pushing her dad to buy the show. American Idol debuted in June 2002 and was an instant hit, as was Cowell's mouth, and from that derived all that has ensued: sobbing contestants, the apoplectic fits of Abdul, Jackson's "dawg" talk and the like.

These days, Cowell is passionate about only one non-business-related thing: his cars. He owns seven of them: two Range Rovers, two Rolls-Royces, a Jaguar, a Porsche and a Ferrari Spider 430. "Why not?" he says, not unreasonably. He also owns a $14 million home in West London and recently plunked down $20 million for a mansion in L.A., where he plans to live half the year with Seymour. His first outside-Idol project in the U.S. was the CBS dating show Cupids, in 2003, which tanked miserably. ("I didn't hire the right people. I remember getting the first episode and going, 'What the hell is this?"') In the works now are eleven TV projects, including America's Got Talent, premiering in June on NBC ("It'll be open to everyone: singers, jugglers, magicians, dog acts"); American Inventor, which debuted on ABC in mid-March (nutty inventors vie to get their nutty inventions made); Duets, debuting on Fox this summer (celebrities who can't sing partner with pros who can sing). And, in general, a happier and less troubled man than Cowell you could not hope to find, though there have been moments.

A year ago, for instance, the British papers were full of news about his relationship with Seymour. They said' she was upset that Cowell maintained such close friendships with his ex-girlfriends, specifically Sinitta and one other, Jackie St. Clair, who is a former Miss Nude U.K. They said Cowell was tiring of Seymour's paranoia and jealousy and had offered her $1.9 million to vanish from his life, an offer she declined. They said Seymour was threatening to kill herself, or at least starve herself into a near-death state. And so on, in the usual ugly, modern way.

***

The last time I see Cowell, he's once again sitting behind his great big desk and puffing on a Kool. I tell him I broke down today and bummed a cigarette on the street.

Me: I hope you're happy.
Cowell: I am happy. I'm actually willing to give you a packet. I'm going to leave it right here. It's up to you. It's entirely up to you.
Me: Terri once said, "We never discuss things like marriage, because Simon is like a child and can't discuss serious things." Why?
Cowell plugs his ears with his fingers and starts blowing loud noises though his lips.
Cowell: "La-la-la . . ." That's what I do. Certain conversations become uncomfortable, so you block them out. I think what I do is quite funny, I mean, I just don't want to have a serious conversation. That's all.
Me: And those reports in the British tabloids about Terri threatening to starve herself and you wanting to pay her to leave?
Cowell: Rubbish. Absolute rubbish.
Me: So, she has no problem with Sinitta and Jackie St. Clair hanging around?
Cowell: Not really. They are my closest friends. And I've always been upfront about my old girlfriends. And if you're up-front . . .
Me: Don't you do anything furtively? You seem to be gleefully aboveboard about everything. Except you lie all the time.
Cowell: Well, I don't think I'm alone there, am I? But there's nothing I'm particularly ashamed of. I actually think I'm quite dull. When people ask me to say something interesting. I have to go, "I haven't got anything." Everything is fairly straightforward.

I take a cigarette, look at Cowell and light up.

***

That night, I get Seymour on the phone.

"I don't know why he can't talk about certain things, but he's always been like that," she says. "I knew him for 15 years before we started dating, so it's no surprise to me."

"And he actually sticks his fingers in his ears to block you out?"

"He does, like a naughty child. But he knows when things need to be discussed."

"Have you ever told him you love him?"

"Of course."

"Has he ever told you he loves you?"

"He has. Yes. He wouldn't admit it because his younger brother, Nick, would never let him hear the end of it. They're like a couple of children. They are like kids."

And that, I think, is perhaps the only explanation for Cowell's behavior, his apparent rudeness on the show, his apparent inability to commit to a girl, his apparent willingness to lure a former addict back into addiction, his apparent total honesty, his apparent total enthusiasm for lying. In some ways he is still back in the garden at Abbots Meade, crouched inside the twig igloo, smoking stolen cigarettes, drinking stolen drinks and getting ready to hijack a bus.