As soon as Simon Cowell enters the judges’ holding room at the Pasadena Convention Center, he’s being filmed. Two TV cameras, a still camera and three booms follow him to a corner, where a Dunkin’ Donuts banner hangs over a table of coffee and doughnuts. It’s not clear whether Cowell, who’s wearing sunglasses indoors, genuinely wants caffeine or is smartly giving some TV airtime to a sponsor of America’s Got Talent.
Cowell, 56, knows this building well — in 2002, during the first season of American Idol, the show he helped create and, let’s face it, dominated in its prime, the first round of auditions was held here. But America’s Got Talent, he says, “is more fun than Idol. After you’ve heard 10,000 singers, you think, ‘Bring on a dancing dog.’ ”
By 4 p.m., auditions begin. A Swedish woman plays three trumpets at once, which impresses judge Mel B, the former Spice Girl: “I’ve never seen that before.”
“I think there’s a reason for that,” replies Cowell, before adding, “It looks good, but it sounds terrible.” Most of the 2,000 audience members boo him.
In the 12th row, stage left, Cowell’s son, Eric, sits with a nanny and the boy’s mother, Lauren Silverman. Eric is an energetic 2-year-old, with huge coal eyes and plump cheeks. He looks at a TV monitor that shows his dad, then up at a large screen where his dad is about 20 feet tall, then back to the monitor. “He’s so confused,” says Silverman.
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For the last 30 months, American TV has had to survive without Simon Cowell on the air. Though he was the star of American Idol, he never owned a piece of the show, and in 2010, after nine seasons, he left to launch the U.S. version of The X Factor, which he created, judged on and owned. (Idol puttered on without him — ratings began to decline each season, with the current one averaging less than 11 million viewers per episode — and will end after the season finale, which is likely to feature a return by Cowell, on April 7.) But Fox canceled The X Factor soon after its third season ended in December 2013, leaving him in prime-time absentia.
Then in August 2015, One Direction, the boy band that has sold, according to its label, more than 65 million records worldwide under Cowell’s auspices, went on “hiatus.” Three pillars of Cowell’s entertainment empire, which has been estimated at $550 million, are now inactive. So why doesn’t the British demibillionaire seem worried?
“Maybe I should be,” he says with a boisterous laugh two nights later at his home in Beverly Hills. He’s not, though, because Cowell had great belief in his abilities even before he’d had any success. And when Howard Stern quit as an America’s Got Talent judge, saying he “hated every bit” of the show, Cowell saw a chance to enhance the highly rated program, which he owns, by joining as a judge.
“There’s obviously way too many reality shows on TV, and a lot of them won’t last. As with anything, if you don’t listen to the viewers, you’re dead. As soon as our shows go on the air, we’re hit with a barrage of information from social media. You think I’m honest? Christ almighty, are they honest on social media. And I like that. I like to do things that make a lot of noise.”
Cowell’s success is more secure for being diversified: There are 68 different versions of the Got Talent format across the world and 56 X Factors, which gives Syco Entertainment, Cowell’s joint venture with Sony, more than 120 shows in production. America’s Got Talent is still strong, averaging 12.5 million viewers in 2015, according to Nielsen. Syco has several films in development, plus three more music shows. Cowell is plotting a live Las Vegas show that features America’s Got Talent contestants, and Fifth Harmony, the pop girl group he put together from five X Factor U.S. contestants, has a new album due in May on Syco Entertainment/Epic, with songs produced by Max Martin. And of course there’s the lucrative One Direction catalog, also on Syco through Columbia. Don’t cry for Simon. He wouldn’t cry for you.
Cowell helped usher in an era in which executives seemed as interesting as rock stars, partly because rock stars became so dreary. He earned his notoriety by spitting blunt assessments with mustache-twirling panache and the accent of a James Bond villain. Standing resolute against a culture of participation trophies, he wielded a thesaurus’ worth of synonyms for “bad” and “no.” “He was the biggest star to come out of Idol, even compared to Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson,” says Mike Darnell, who helped launch the show when he was running reality TV at Fox, and is now president of Warner Bros. Unscripted and Alternative Television. “Every version of Idol, globally, had to find their Simon.”
As Cowell sees it, it’s not only his music shows that have sputtered on TV, but everyone else’s, too. “Here’s why I’m not depressed: Our only competition now is one show. Everything else is gone.”
That lone show — Cowell’s nemesis, the show that haunts his dreams and laughs at his torment — is The Voice, which debuted a few months before X Factor U.S. and outlived it, recently standing as the 10th top-rated show of the 2014-2015 TV season.
“As much as I sulked about it — I still do, actually — you have to understand why it worked,” says Cowell. “The Voice feels very modern. I’ve never been a fan of artists judging artists, but the panel works so well. They have perfect chemistry, as we did on Idol when it started.”
Does Cowell watch The Voice? “No. I get irritated if I watch it. It’s like going ’round to someone else’s house and swimming in their pool. I’d rather swim in mine.”
As he says this, we’re sitting about 50 feet from the lap pool of his six-bedroom mansion, which Cowell bought years ago for $8 million. It’s decorated with the calm, modern elegance of an island spa. Everything is cream or beige — there’s not a pattern or stripe in sight. He has four other houses — in London, the south of Spain, Dubai and St. Tropez — as well as a car collection that even the most acquisitive rapper would envy.
Cowell is wearing what appear to be silk sweatpants, sitting next to a small bell he uses to ring staff. He’s slightly more gray than years ago, especially in his semi-beard, but he looks almost as young, thanks to a tan and his public fondness for Botox. His housekeeper Violet brings out a few trays of snacks; Cowell repeatedly offers drinks and food.
He’s not just a gracious host, he’s an old-fashioned British gentleman. “His TV persona, the guy who could cut you with his words — the Simon I know is the exact opposite,” says Epic Records president Antonio “L.A.” Reid, who was a judge on X Factor U.S. and partners with Cowell on Fifth Harmony. “In my career, I’ve never met anyone so charming. He speaks in catchphrases, like a song that’s full of choruses. ‘Speaking in hooks,’ I call it.”Although it’s often reported that Cowell’s dad was a music executive, that’s not true — Eric Cowell ran the property division of EMI, which also had a record label. His mom, Julie, helped Simon get his first music job, in the EMI mailroom, and his early successes as a music executive ended abruptly — by age 30, he was broke and living with his parents.
“I’m only interested in making money,” he declared when I interviewed him in 2006. “That’s the only criterion.” Cowell used the wide angle of TV exposure to sell records, showing an understanding of verticality before the buzzword existed. After his first career stumble, he signed Robson & Jerome, a pair of actors who had sung the ’50s classic “Unchained Melody” (Cowell’s favorite song) on a British TV show but had no interest in making a record. He called them repeatedly, “harassing, harassing, harassing and eventually landing it,” he says.
Soon, he had cornered the market in shamelessness and had a niche in novelty records: He signed the Power Rangers, Teletubbies and professional wrestlers. Within industry circles, he was viewed as “a laughingstock,” he has admitted. “But I couldn’t have cared less. I was learning the business.” Even his biggest groups had fleeting success, though he also signed Westlife, an Irish boy band whose tally of 14 U.K. No. 1 hits is surpassed only by Elvis Presley and The Beatles.
Cowell’s friend Simon Fuller, manager of the Spice Girls, created Pop Idol in the United Kingdom, a TV singing competition that began in 2001 and on which Cowell served as the most withering of four judges. Their stateside pitch for American Idol was rejected by ABC, NBC, CBS, The WB and UPN, and when it debuted on Fox in 2002 as a summer replacement series, ratings were meager. But by the time season one ended with Kelly Clarkson’s victory, Idol had an audience of 50 million and Cowell was the biggest primetime villain since J.R. Ewing.
He went on TV not for fame or ego, he says, but only to find young singers he could sign to his company. Of the six Idol acts who’ve sold the most albums — Underwood, Clarkson, Chris Daughtry, Clay Aiken, Fantasia Barrino and Ruben Studdard — all came from the show’s first five seasons. So Cowell went deeper into his Svengali bag of tricks: In 2010, he joined together five rejected X Factor candidates to form One Direction and signed the group to Syco; it is the only band whose first four albums all debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
In March 2015, Zayn Malik left One Direction, announcing, “I want to make music that I think is cool shit” — pretty much the antithesis of Cowell’s interests. To accommodate Malik, Cowell assigned the contract to RCA Records, which, like Syco, is part of Sony. “Zayn is still signed to our company,” says Cowell with a shrug. “But the boys hadn’t bought into the fact that he was leaving, so out of respect for them, it wasn’t the right thing to put him on Syco. What’s good for Zayn is good for us, good for the show and good for the brand.”
Soon after, Cowell began hearing rumors that the others wanted a break. “Whenever I was with them, we talked about it, and I couldn’t argue with them. They had achieved so much in a short period of time, and I didn’t want them to get jaded. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to trust people more, particularly artists. They’ll decide when they want to come back together.”
There’s no news, only rumors, about 1D solo albums, but Cowell doesn’t deny that Harry Styles already is making plans. “He’ll work out what kind of record he wants to make because he’s got great taste — which is always a help. All the writers and producers want to work with him, understandably, but he probably won’t rush into it.”
If pop history is any lesson, 1D’s hiatus is way more likely a softly rolled-out breakup than a limited vacation. “I don’t know if it’s a hiatus or a breakup, to be honest,” says Cowell. “In a weird way, I don’t want to know. I don’t think they’ve had enough time to experience what it’s like not being in the group to really answer that.”
“Simon was completely understanding when we told him we wanted to go on a break. Not once did he put any pressure on us,” says 1D’s Louis Tomlinson. “Most people would’ve tried to give us at least a nudge. But he didn’t. That’s a real reflection of his character. Once you get to know him, he’s lovely and kind.” Tomlinson, who became a father in January when his ex-girlfriend Briana Jungwirth gave birth, adds, “Simon is one of the first people I told about my son, Freddie. You can trust him.”
Cowell, only half-joking, says One Direction was “a nightmare” to work with at first. “They were like five puppies — really excited, loads of opinions, always wanted to hang out.”
“I’m sure we were a nightmare,” admits Tomlinson with a laugh. “We were at the height of our immaturity, always running around and being mischievous. There were so many meetings where Simon had to snap us to attention, but he was very patient.”
“Helloooo!” he bellows. Cowell’s son Eric enters the living room, trailed by Silverman, a dark-haired New Yorker who until a few years back was the wife of Cowell’s close friend, real estate developer Andrew Silverman.
Eric waddles straight to Cowell’s chair, and Simon lifts the kid onto his lap.
Silverman: “Daddy’s working, OK? Come on, baby. I’m going to give you a nice bath upstairs.”
But Eric won’t budge.
Cowell: “Who’s got cute big ears? Who’s got a little tummy? Go on, darling.”
Cowell may not be the villain he plays on TV, but it’s still a shock to hear him doing baby talk.
For six months after Eric was born, “I kept saying to Lauren, ‘I don’t think he likes me,’ ” recalls Cowell. “I wasn’t getting a reaction. Then one day, it clicked.”
When Idol shows were live, Cowell was on TV for only 90 minutes a week, which is a pretty good hourly wage (he reportedly earned $36 million for one season on Idol). But sitting through the America’s Got Talent auditions, which are slow, full of delays and often ludicrous, it’s hard to see why Cowell does it.
“I must like to torture myself,” he says with a laugh. “Look, it’s not easy; I’m not going to lie to you. I get genuinely miserable. On Idol, especially the last few seasons, you’d finish the year and think, ‘I wasted nine months of my life.’ The worst are the in-betweens, where you’ve got to sit through someone singing John Legend or ‘At Last’ again. Then you get those moments where you find somebody incredible, and you don’t care that you had to torture yourself. The good times way outdo the bad times. And even the really bad times, like William Hung, made me laugh.”
Cowell is willing to endure the parade of dogs who sing opera and other wretched acts because he believes he’ll find a new Clarkson or have the chance to assemble another One Direction. “Look, if the last 16 years ended with a woman playing three trumpets,” he says, “I don’t think you and I would be sitting here having this conversation.”