Interview: Simon Cowell
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It is 8pm in Beverly Hills and the sun has gone down over Santa Monica Boulevard. A slight breeze ripples the decorative line of flames at the rear of the garden in Simon Cowell’s $34m mansion. The marble floors shine as brightly as in a television studio, and each piece of furniture and ornament is flawlessly aligned and polished. Cowell sits on the terrace with a packet of Kool menthol cigarettes and a tumbler of vodka and soda, filled with crushed ice, recalling the moment that changed his life.
He was 40 and had just made another career blunder, rejecting an invitation to become a judge on Popstars, the first television programme based on a competition to find singing talent. His fellow music executives looked down upon him as a novelty merchant with laughable taste. In desperation, he had scrambled to rectify his mistake by helping launch a rival ITV show called Pop Idol, on which he was a judge, along with the producer Pete Waterman.
“Pete was on the list to be Mr Nasty because I’d worked with Pete for years and he was a dick in real life, so I thought he’d be a dick on television. But he turned into a complete softie during the auditions, crying all the time, and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘These acts are horrible.’ I thought it was more funny than anything else – I was amused. It was just something that happened.”
Perhaps it is true that Cowell merely stumbled into becoming Sarcastic Simon, the judge who humiliated bad contestants while thrilling and shocking the audience at home. More likely, knowing the power of television and the value of a personality, he seized the chance to lend his own twist to the act of “Nasty Nigel” Lythgoe, the rude judge of Popstars. Whichever it was, his instinct 13 years ago turned him from the clown of the old industry into the ringmaster of a new one.
The previous night in Los Angeles, he had gone to the Rose Bowl to hear a concert by One Direction, the English-Irish boy band that he put together four years ago on The X Factor. (He launched X Factor in 2004, displacing Pop Idol on UK television.) Cowell smiles as he describes the pandemonium caused by 80,000 fans at one of their three nights of performances.
“A mile before we got there, they’d closed the roads off and we were allowed through the police barricades. That’s when I felt the effect that five people have had on California from a show we made in the UK. Having a cigarette with the boys a few minutes before they went on was emotional, it was a good feeling . . . [That kind of success] isn’t going to happen every year but it might just happen again. That’s what it’s about – you go in there thinking, ‘I hope it does.’”
On television, Cowell is brusque and intimidating, castigating his contestants for every slip or weakness. He is far gentler in the flesh, almost feline, padding around his LA house in his customary V-neck T-shirt and high-waisted trousers so softly that he hardly makes a noise. He has the immaculate manners of his 88-year-old mother Julie, a former dancer – offering refreshments, politely asking my opinion on various matters, and constantly using my name.
He recalls growing up in Borehamwood, near Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, and peeking over the fence at parties thrown by his parents’ film producer neighbour. “I remember vividly – I’ve spoken about this before, John – looking over the garden wall, where they had these lavish parties with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, all the big names. I remember thinking, ‘Christ, that’s quite a party. I’d like to be there.’”
There is still something of that child in Cowell, openly delighted to have won a golden ticket to Hollywood’s dream factory. His wealth ensures that he is extremely well cared for. Elsewhere in his mansion this evening are: a security guard, his head of public relations, two personal assistants, a chef and his housekeeper, who brings him a bowl of spaghetti bolognese, with grilled salmon for me. He could order anything but prefers comfort food (“I’m a bit of a creature of habit.”).
Cowell’s blend of arrested development and obsessive compulsion might have taken him nowhere and it very nearly did. Sweet Revenge, Tom Bower’s insightful biography, narrates his string of failures in the business before the revolution of Pop Idol. He lacked the cool of other A&R (“artists and repertoire”) executives, and was best known in his thirties for oddities such as a musical spin-off from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers series.
By the time Pop Idol was launched, he had achieved greater success, initially by persuading two actors, Robson Green and Jerome Flynn, to record a song from a television series. “The rest of the industry was obsessed with radio being the route to hits but all Simon talked about was television,” says Sonny Takhar, who now runs Cowell’s music label. Even after signing the highly successful boy band Westlife in 1998, he struggled for respect.
“I was perceived as the lowest of the low,” he recalls, “There was one meeting with my boss and the rest of the A&R team, and she’d forecast a very bad quarter. I presented two of my ideas, which I thought were pretty good. She was at a flip chart and she said, ‘Right, this is the figure I’m putting for those,’ and wrote a gigantic zero in front of everyone. It was probably the worst I have ever felt.”
Yet when Pop Idol went on the air in 2001 – followed a year later by the explosive launch of American Idol on the Fox network, with Cowell reprising his act as nasty judge – both network television and the music business were on the cusp of change. The wave of reality shows led by Big Brother and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? was remaking broadcast television and the music industry was succumbing to the digital revolution.
That moment required a compendium of skills and Cowell, with his middle-of-the-road taste and love of visual display, possessed them all. He did not need to dumb down, or learn how to understand the ordinary people who would now become stars. He had waited a long time for precisely this world, in which he could become the A&R man, pop producer, television personality, television producer and band manager, in one. He could control everything.
“I’ve got a really, really good attention to detail,” Cowell replies, when I ask him to judge his own talent. “Even when I’m on a show, I know what’s going on, and if it’s going wrong what we have to do to try to fix it. I’m minutely involved in every part, literally down to the colour of the floor. I can spot a lightbulb out at 100 metres. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, it’s just that I’m always aware of my surroundings. I like it to look a certain way, to sound a certain way.”
“My phone rings at 2am and a voice says: ‘How are you?’” says Sir Philip Green, the retail tycoon who helps Cowell to run his business. “I am not joking, 2am is early. He will go at it all night, he is such a perfectionist. He tortures himself, watching the show, then rewatching it, reworking, reworking. He calls to get a sense of what I think. That’s the part nobody sees – how hard and intense he is about the detail. He wants it to be right. He wants it to be great.”
Now, having turned 55 this week and at last – after a series of tabloid-friendly relationships with women – having his first child (a son) with his girlfriend Lauren Silverman, he is taking stock. Next week, he collects an award as Personality of the Year at the Mipcom television festival in Cannes. Syco Entertainment, the company he and Green set up in 2010 to harness his ventures, is nearing the end of its initial five-year deal with Sony Music Entertainment. The future is open.
In many ways, Cowell’s business is going extremely well. He is responsible for 350 million record sales in his career and remains firmly at the top of the cut-throat reality television market. The UK tabloids are full of X Factor stories, often about his tussles with Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, the Girls Aloud singer discovered on Popstars, who is an X Factor judge. Earlier in the day, Cowell has been filming the “Judges’ Houses” episode of the UK X Factor in LA.
Cowell’s two big formats – The X Factor and the Got Talent show, made with his television production partner Fremantle Media – have been sold around the world. There are local versions of The X Factor in 51 territories and Got Talent in a record-breaking 67 – most recently Iceland, Kazakhstan and Moldova. America’s Got Talent airs in 200 countries and an average of 12 million people have watched the 2014 series in the US. Although he is not a judge on that programme, he profits from all these shows.
“He finds the talent, he crafts it, he picks the songs, he handles the image. If you look at the revenues and number one hits that Syco has created, Simon should be considered the biggest music act in the world,” says Karren Brady, the vice-chairman of West Ham United football club and Conservative peer (and television sidekick of Alan Sugar on the BBC series The Apprentice) whom Green brought to Syco as a non-executive director and adviser.
Syco is jointly owned by Cowell and Sony, with Green holding a 20 per cent share of Cowell’s stake. Simco, its operating subsidiary, made a profit of £37.4m on revenues of £59.9m last year. It has very high margins because it employs only 40 people and licenses its formats to others. Syco’s artists, including the acts discovered on television, have generated $1.3bn in revenues since 2004 and its TV formats have earned $374m in the past five years, according to the company. Cowell’s wealth is estimated at £300m by The Sunday Times.
The only blot on this landscape is the setback Cowell has suffered in the US. Although he has his Beverly Hills home, and his share in the format of America’s Got Talent, he is no longer on screen. Fox cancelled The X Factor in the US this year when Cowell left after three seasons, having failed to beat American Idol. The strongest competitor is NBC’s The Voice, produced by John de Mol, the Dutch TV mogul.
The US X Factor stumbled at launch, despite Cowell’s confident boast that it would get 20 million viewers (it fell to 6 million by the third series). Its cancellation was both a business defeat and a personal one. Cowell had stepped down as a judge on American Idol in 2010 amid a bitter legal wrangle with Simon Fuller, the British producer, over the format rights. X Factor was his chance to show who was boss.
“I stupidly said at the beginning, ‘We’re going to get 20 million people.’ I didn’t realise the market had changed so quickly and we got 12. So I felt from the outset that we’d failed and so did everybody else. I should have thought, ‘Actually, 12 is fantastic’, and kept my mouth shut. I think, on both sides, it was a mistake to throw the towel in. I felt I’d rather be doing a show where we’re wanted [in the UK] than pushing something uphill.”
Yet on this warm night in Los Angeles, Cowell is not ready to give up on the world’s biggest television market and settle for celebrity elsewhere. He still hopes to return X Factor to the US. “I think it will come back again,” he adds.
“Do you?” I ask, surprised. Surely the Darwinian structure of US television, with so many shows being launched and ditched each season, means it is impossible to resuscitate?
Cowell already has his pitch for the US networks. “The thing about X Factor is you know what you’re getting,” he says. “If we said, ‘There’s a low base of five to six million’, we might build on that but it won’t be less, compared to a new drama that might only be a million. There’s a reason it produces so many stars, unlike the other shows. It doesn’t rely on gimmicks: a spinning chair, or a wall going up and down. I genuinely do believe it’s the best format.”
It is 10 days later at Syco’s head office in Kensington, west London. At the weekend, The Sun has carried the splash headline “The Axe Fixer” about the previous Friday’s X Factor. The story tells how the show’s producers had stepped in to force Cheryl Fernandez-Versini not to eject a contestant called Chloe-Jasmine Whichello. “Simon had intervened when Chloe was axed, telling Cheryl: ‘You made a mistake, babe,’” according to The Sun.
“No, I didn’t force her!” Cowell protests when I put the allegation to him, with the gurgling laugh he often emits when discussing a show business event, as if tickled by its absurdity. “I think it’s interesting for the viewers to see that the judges cannot make their minds up. It was very raw last night. We were under pressure and I liked that. The [viewing] numbers were really good.”
Cowell is smoking a Kool on one of the sofas in the meeting room outside his office. On the wall in front of him is a huge portrait of himself, depicting his grinning face in coloured paper dots, like a pointillist painting. “I didn’t realise it was going to be so big but I bought it off the artist. It took her ages to do it,” he says. “I thought, ‘Well, nobody else is going to buy it, so I will.’”
Four assistants sit in a row outside his office, by posters of Syco’s shows and a cardboard figure of Cowell on The Simpsons cartoon show on Fox. Syco is one of the music labels in Sony Music’s office, on a side street by the offices of the Daily Mail (Ben Todd, a former Daily Mail journalist, is his London public relations executive). It is amazing how much tabloid coverage The X Factor provokes, I remark. “Yes, I think we both need each other, right?” Cowell says.
Syco was founded to consolidate S Records, Cowell’s former joint venture with Sony, and his television formats. The business was fast outpacing his ability to manage it and he consulted an old friend. “I called Philip [Green] and said, ‘Look, I’m in a bit of a muddle, can you give me some advice?’ In true Philip fashion, he phoned a few people and came back to me 24 hours later and said, ‘Right, this is what you’re worth and this is what you should be doing.’”
At the time, they made what Cowell calls “a handshake agreement” that Green would gain a stake in the business in return for restructuring it and providing advice. That finally took place this summer, with Cowell putting his half-share in Syco into a holding company called Millforth that is divided 80-20 between them. One reason for making it formal is that Syco’s initial five-year deal with Sony expires next year and they are mulling the next step.
In the past, there was talk of making Syco fully independent, and even floating it, but those ambitions are on hold for now. “I guess in some capacity we’ll continue [with Sony] in music,” he says. “They’ve been an amazing partner, I couldn’t ask for more . . . In television, we’ve worked in more of a vacuum because there isn’t really a part of Sony that can deal with all we’re doing.”
“I think Sony is a great match for Simon and he is a peculiarly loyal person,” Doug Morris, chief executive of Sony Music, tells me later. “I want all of Simon here. We have a very successful television production company and I am interested in continuing our relationship. But I like him very much and I would not want him to stay if it was not the right place for him.”
Cowell’s ambition is counterbalanced by a deep-seated need for continuity and having familiar faces around. His past battles left their mark. “The music business is quite weird and working with people who want you to fail because you are doing something they don’t like is just so odd,” he says, as if bemused. “You’ve got to believe people want the best for you and will look out for you.”
Two chief executives have come and gone at Syco, perhaps finding it difficult to cope with Cowell’s dominant presence. But his stalwarts, including Takhar, head of Syco Records, Nigel Hall, who runs the television operations, and Sorraya Sequeira, his finance and operations director, have worked with him for a long time and talk about him with affection, tinged with humour.
“Simon knows what a family in Manchester who are sitting down to watch telly on Saturday night at the end of a hard week will feel when they watch the show,” says Hall. “I’ve often wondered how he does it. Simon’s lived a very privileged life. You look at photos of him as a child and he wasn’t on a donkey at Clacton, he was skiing in Gstaad.”
Cowell’s father Eric was not wealthy but had a good income, becoming the head of property for EMI, The Beatles’ label. “It was a very cool British company so he was proud to work for them. There was something special about it then,” Cowell recalls. The son was privately educated but flunked his exams and did not go to university, relying on his father to get him into the music business.
He gained something else from his father – decisiveness. “My mum is like me, she loves the way everything looks and I inherited her love of show business. My dad was sort of more black and white. In that respect, I don’t bullshit myself – when something’s bad I know it’s bad and I’ll hold my hand up.”
While he still handles the acts that come through X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, on which the singer Susan Boyle was discovered, much of Cowell’s energy goes into developing new television formats. “Luckily, it’s hard,” he says. “If it was easy, everybody would do it. When you’re asking a network to make a commitment of $70m or $80m on a show, it’s got to be a really good idea. We won’t have them every month and neither will the competition.”
What’s so hard about it? I ask. Surely, someone just has to think of the basic concept – a music contest or a variety show?
“Beginning, middle and end,” he says crisply. “I like to be able to walk through every five or 10 minutes of the hour, so I know exactly what’s going to happen. The arc of X Factor looks simple on paper but there’s quite a structure over the 16 weeks, going from the smaller rooms to the arenas, to the boot camp, to home visits, to live shows. That’s a lot of content.”
He cites Syco’s recent ITV show, Red or Black? “I thought it was fantastic. A gigantic roulette wheel, bigger than this area where we’re sitting, and someone was going to make a £1m bet, red or black. I thought: ‘I love this, this is absolutely great.’ When we started to make it, we realised it was boring up to that point. By the time you reached the end, you were exhausted. We didn’t think it through.”
For this reason, as well as his natural compulsiveness, Cowell studies every moment of every show he makes for clues on how to improve it, or how to address its weaknesses. He is often up all night, watching recordings for every detail, and Syco is unusual in editing and re-editing its shows until shortly before they are broadcast – the shots for Saturday’s X Factor arrive on a Tuesday, and are worked upon intensively to refine the product.
The executives around him insist that Syco has an open culture in which any employee can suggest an idea, or challenge those of the boss. Even Cowell accepts the latter is a stretch. “There are times when I say something and they probably nod to my face and five minutes later are saying, ‘He’s lost the plot’, but I think we have a healthy system where everyone has a voice.”
“Simon is hugely talented and I’ve never met anyone who believes in himself more than he does,” says one executive at a rival music company. “But his biggest strength is also his biggest weakness. He manages to convince everyone he’s right, whether or not he is. He’s never found a right-hand guy at Sony who he’ll listen to and can execute his best ideas.”
Cowell spends less time in LA now, staying for only seven or eight weeks this year. “When I’m flying in, when we’re landing and I see the lights of LA, I get a good feeling. Then, after two or three weeks, I’m happy to go back to London again. I was talking to Lauren, my girlfriend, about this the other day. She said, ‘Where do you think we’ll be next year?’ I said, ‘I haven’t got a bloody clue.’”
For a time, hypersensitive to mood and the ebb and flow of his fortunes, he did not enjoy it, he confesses as we sit on the terrace in Beverly Hills. “I was here in April and I didn’t feel too great about things. I just felt everyone was running around in circles. For whatever reason, there’s a different energy here now. A lot of exciting things are happening.”
He cites new investment in digital media, from Netflix’s original shows such as House of Cards to the growth of the Daily Mail’s online news site Mail Online. “I think it’s a great example, John, of where they’ve just gone for it. They’re bloody quick, to the point where a British website is influencing the America media. It’s interesting, it’s controversial.”
Our conversation turns to the end of X Factor in the US. “I think if they’d stuck with it and I’d had a bit more confidence, I would have turned that show around in a couple of years. I would have just kept on banging away, banging away. You get one lucky year with casting, you get a One Direction, and the whole thing turns on its head.”
Does he miss being a television star in the US? “Luckily, I was dragged kicking and screaming on to TV in the first place. I’m not going to deny that I’ve liked it. I mean, I’ve had a great time. There are definitely more pluses than minuses to it, and there is quite a buzz when people recognise you. But if I’m being honest, it’s more of a buzz being part of One Direction than being on television.”
Why? I ask. Because you created them? “I always say to my staff, when we sit in creative meetings, beating ourselves up, ‘One good idea a year can pay for the next 10.’ I was at the Rose Bowl, looking down at the crowd that was watching my group. I felt like I’d really used my brain, rather than being a dickhead on an American TV show.”
It is a nice idea, that the impresario of reality TV and modern pop music has come so far and achieved such fame that management means more to him than image. Those close to Cowell take it with a pinch of salt. “He lives it, he breathes it, he’s in it, he’s on it. The business is a passion for him, it is genuine fun,” says Hall. “Although he does have a little saying. When you’re editing [shots of Cowell on X Factor], remember two words: happy and handsome.”
John Gapper is the FT’s chief business commentator
Photographs: Charlie Gray; WireImage; Getty; Rex; Alessio Botticelli