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Video: Simon Cowell biography reveals intimate details

TODAY books
updated 4/24/2012 8:04:25 AM ET 2012-04-24T12:04:25

In "Sweet Revenge,' investigative journalist Tom Bower goes behind the scenes and into the private realm of Simon Cowell to reveal his motivations. Here's an excerpt.


Marvin Gaye’s “Ain't No Mountain High Enough” was blaring across the dark Mediterranean. Simon Cowell pulled on his Kool cigarette. “Today was an eye-opener,” he said, gritting and swigging a freezing Sapporo beer. “I’m disappointed.”

At 2:30 A.M. on August 5, 2011, Cowell had returned to Slipstream, his 193-foot chartered yacht, from Bâoli, a brash restaurant in Cannes’s harbor. “I hate this place,” Cowell had told his friends. “Getting in was trouble. I expected an elbow in my eye.” Offensive doormen had temporarily blocked his entrance after failing to recognize their famous guest.

After eating only a single course, Cowell unexpectedly rose and declared, “Let’s go.” His exit was delayed by a dozen tourists asking for a photograph. As usual, Cowell politely obliged—some would say his politeness was manipulation, but he believed in being pleasant to everyone—and then strode past the restaurant’s bouncers, across the quay, and stepped onto Take Five, a new VanDutch speedboat, his summer toy. Taking control from the ship hand, he sharply levered the throttle. Speed was an easy cure to his stress. Zooming across the flat sea at 45 mph, he steered into the darkness beyond the harbor walls. The exhilaration provoked a smile and he swung back toward his gleaming pleasure craft, a haven of privacy from the mobs.

Sitting on Slipstream’s spacious aft deck, Cowell glanced at the latest text messages from Los Angeles. “Not good,” he announced. Casting aside the nearly full bottle—“Another cold one,” he ordered—he took a swig and headed for his suite. In Los Angeles, everyone was still awake. He needed a postmortem. He anticipated making telephone calls until daybreak.

Seven hours earlier, Cowell had been linked by satellite from the yacht’s lounge to Los Angeles, where two hundred fifty television critics had gathered for the industry’s showcase of the autumn season. “This is the Big One,” Cowell had told Fox TV’s executives. After thirty years in the music business, Cowell was gambling his fate on The X Factor’s successful launch in America.

“I only play to win,” he volunteered. Repeatedly, he had reedited a glitzy twelve-minute promotion tape highlighting the X Factor auditions recently held in Pasadena, California. His pursuit of the tape’s editors in Los Angeles was a foretaste of the pressure he put on himself and others to produce flawless programs. “They’ll get it in the neck,” he promised. Perfectionism and unpredictability were his trademark.

“We all love this tape and this is going to be a great launch,” he enthused about the mixture of tantrums, tears, and seductive singing to be shown to the journalists.

Ballantine Boks

In Pasadena, he had picked Stacy Francis, a forty-two-year-old single mother, as the competition’s probable winner. “She’ll be bigger than Susan Boyle,” he privately predicted. And if not Stacy, his next favorite was Rachel Crow, a frizzy-haired thirteen-year-old from a remote farm in Colorado. “Both backstories are special,” he said with daunting self-confidence, adding to his friends on the yacht, “I’ll be worried if the audience doesn’t get to thirty million plus.” His ambitious target for The X Factor, he predicted, would humble American Idol’s 2011 average of twenty-three million viewers.

Attacking Idol was not a publicity stunt. Ridiculing the program that made him famous in America had become an all-consuming passion. To keep him happy, Fox had just broadcast a controversial promotional teaser for The X Factor in the middle of the All-Star baseball game. The commercial featured Cowell waking from a nightmare in which he was still working on American Idol. The promise was that The X Factor would push the “bland” Idol aside. Many viewers were baffled, but not more than Idol’s producers. Their program, after all, was also broadcast by Fox. Fevered critics spoke about cannibalism and self-destruction as they witnessed the calculated gamble taken by Fox executives to stage The X Factor.

With glee, Fox’s rivals had watched the recent turmoil about the judge Cheryl Cole’s acrimonious departure from the U.S. X Factor and intensified their plots to usurp Cowell’s supremacy. Fractured relationships always undermined self-confidence and the promo tape during the baseball game had just flopped. “I felt zero when I saw it,” admitted Cowell two months later. “It was too clever and aimed at women when the audience was all male.” Three months after that, he would describe his strategy as “a blunder.” That afternoon’s satellite presentation from the yacht to journalists in Los Angeles was a premonition of things to come.

X Factor is like nothing you’ve seen before,” Cowell began. “We’re throwing everything in to win—to make the best TV show in the world.” The X Factor, he declared unambiguously, would be better than American Idol. “We’re looking for contestants with star quality who we can turn into stars.” The X Factor had not been launched, he answered one journalist, “to win the silver medal,” and there was an unprecedented five-million-dollar prize. “I want to show that the process is honest—warts and all,” he declared, aiming to silence the repeated accusations about behind-the-scenes manipulation and deception. The journalists were not told that he was broadcasting from the Mediterranean. As he spoke, Cowell cursed the three-second delay of his voice. “Are you the PR puppet meister?” asked a woman. “No,” he replied. “It’s not our intention to be mean. That’s just within us.”

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Paula Abdul, the star singer and dancer, sitting in the Los Angeles studio, described her reaction after being invited by Cowell to become an X Factor judge. “I felt harrowed and elated and I cried for days after,” she said. For Abdul, who had left American Idol after its eighth season, it was the end of three years in the wilderness. “Well, I give everyone a third chance,” cut in Cowell smugly. The voice of Nicole Scherzinger, Cheryl Cole’s replacement, followed, but her words were incomprehensible down a deteriorating sound feed. “Nicole’s selfish,” Cowell chimed in, reflecting his suspicion that the former Pussycat Doll was focused solely on self-glorification. He also happened to take pleasure in expressing blunt truths.

“We’ve got a problem,” rattled the TV technician’s voice across the yacht’s plush interior. The sound had been cut. Next, the screen went black. Technology was sabotaging the master of control. “That’s it,” announced the production manager on the yacht. To Cowell’s disgust, this same production manager, despite being responsible for the wreck of the presentation, now asked for a photograph of the two together. But, always gracious, he smoothly agreed, fulfilled the chore, and then hurried to his private suite. “The feed was bad, the production was bad and we had no leadership,” Cowell said, lambasting his producers in Los Angeles. The happy spell on the pristine yacht had been broken. Doubtless, all would be forgotten after a good night’s sleep, but new problems were certain to arise the following day, because every day brought problems.

Cowell had arrived at the Côte d’Azur on a private jet from Los Angeles after stopping in New York to collect his favorite holiday companions. Three couples were invited to care for his needs and join the fun.

One guest was his best friend, Paul McKenna, the hypnotist and self-improvement guru, who was accompanied by Sam, an attractive Englishwoman. The others were Andrew Silverman, a New York property developer and the owner of a casino in Panama, with his wife, Lauren, and Kelly Bergantz, who is employed by Cowell as an executive producer on The X Factor, with her boyfriend, a hedge-fund manager. All the women were glamorous, high-octane players willing to pander to Cowell’s innocent whims. They were joined by Sinitta, a former girlfriend, whose song “So Macho” was Cowell’s first hit, in 1986. To widespread bewilderment, including that of Julie Cowell, his eighty-six-year-old mother, Cowell’s former girlfriends remained his closest friends, united by their jealousy toward one another while competing for his attention.

The notable absentee from the party was Mezhgan Hussainy, Cowell’s Afghani fiancée. To his mother’s relief, he had quietly canceled his wedding to the makeup artist. “I’m shattered by the way she behaves,” Julie Cowell had told her son after an incident when Hussainy had stormed from the dining room in his Los Angeles house and slammed the bedroom door. Although Hussainy had worked with Cowell in the studio, she had not understood the stresses in his life. She was unsympathetic, both Julie and Simon agreed, to his love of uncertainty, change, and his “relentless, relentless, relentless” competitiveness.

“We came to the conclusion that I’m a hopeless boyfriend and I don’t blame her,” he said, gazing across the Mediterranean. There would have to be compensation, he had agreed. “When you make a promise to someone you have to support her.” To minimize any dam- age, he was reluctantly considering the gift of his eight-million-dollar hilltop home in Beverly Hills. For the moment, their separation remained unpublicized. Although he had found another woman who would board the yacht later, Cowell was mindful that any paparazzi photograph would embarrass the proud Hussainy. To frustrate the intruding cameras along the Riviera, he would party—and sleep—alone until he reached Sardinia.

The breakup did not surprise Paul McKenna, who at forty-seven was another unmarried Los Angeles personality. “We’ve got commitment phobia,” McKenna concluded about his and Cowell’s common resistance to permanent relationships and children. Loving dogs and the “people business”—or, more pertinently, “people deconstruction”—was their common interest. Another was just having fun.

“I want to be happy, have good people around me,” agreed Cowell. “I want to be free and I don’t want to be bored.” After McKenna disappeared into his cabin, Cowell reflected on his unwillingness to marry: “I’m attracted to crazy women. I encourage crazy behavior and I make them crazy. I’m attracted to certain personalities who are difficult to control, so there are tantrums, tears, and fights, which is all part of the drama. My life is really odd. Every girl wants to be number one, and is very territorial. I like the fight because otherwise I’d have a dull group of girlfriends.”

To his most intimate friends on the yacht, Cowell was not only a world-famous icon but a most generous friend and also, occasionally, an insecure, lonely man whose greatest comfort was lying on a couch between Lauren Silverman and Kelly Bergantz watching a film and grazing on simple food suitable for kids in a nursery.

The fifty-one-year-old’s career had reached a crossroads. Chartering Slipstream for one month at a cost of two million pounds reflected his new tastes. During his first twenty years in the music business, Cowell had been regarded as an amusing sideshow, renowned for surviving endless humiliations, before eventually emerging as a successful producer. Only in the spring of 2001, after moving hesitantly out of the record industry’s shadows to become a television personality, did he finally achieve his ambition: to become the godfather of celebrity culture.

Six months earlier, in winter 2011, he had felt exhausted and on the verge of giving up. “Then I got my mojo back and decided to crack on,” he said, taking a cigarette, which was lit by a member of the crew. Describing himself as a rebel, and keen to define the vitality of his own era, he spoke energetically about his search for immortality.

Celebrity and shameless vanity have become Cowell’s vehicles of subversion. On the yacht, he flaunted his self-love and his personal admiration of those who were equally self-indulgent. Between beers, he revealed his negotiations with a Swiss company to freeze and store his corpse for one hundred thousand pounds in the expectation that science will invent rejuvenation. “I trust them,” he said. In the meantime, he spared no expense to prolong his life and looks. Stubbing out his cigarette, he headed for sleep at four A.M.

“The best tomato sauce in the world on a pizza was Pizzaland’s in Windsor,” Cowell declared soon after emerging for the first time the following day at three o’clock in the afternoon. McKenna nodded. “I wonder if Geoff can make it for us,” continued Cowell, summoning the yacht’s chef. Cowell expected the yacht’s crew of fourteen to satisfy his every whim. Geoff agreed to make some calls. Twenty minutes later he returned. Pizzaland, Geoff reported, was defunct, but he had tracked down the franchise’s owner in Abu Dhabi. “He’s giving nothing away but that’s no problem.” On the basis that the charterer’s request had to be satisfied, Geoff emerged forty minutes later with a fresh pizza inside a box decorated with Pizzaland’s colored motif copied from the Internet. “Brilliant,” said Cowell, handing the shriveled pie to McKenna. “Now, our favorite meal,” he announced as three hostesses brought Cumberland sausages, mashed potatoes, and Daddies, a strongly flavored sauce. “PG Tips with a dash of cardamom,” requested Cowell as his favorite brand of tea. Scones with cream and cucumber sandwiches on sliced white bread were being piled onto the table.

He and McKenna discussed the latest gossip—a competition the previous night between two billionaires’ sons at a St. Tropez nightclub over how many bottles of champagne they could order. An Indonesian had won with twenty-two magnums, costing $1.2 million (£800,000). “I hate that,” said Cowell, who dislikes vulgarity and whose annual income was rising toward $70 million (£45 million). He turned the conversation to what he called “my life balance”— pumping himself with vitamins to cancel the damage caused by nicotine. Twice every year, Dr. Jean-Louis Sebagh, a French doctor in London, injects Cowell with Botox. “This is better than vitamins,” the doctor had advised. “To me, Botox is no more unusual than toothpaste,” Cowell said to his friends, who shared his obsession. “It simply works. You do it twice a year. Who cares, and it balances my smoking and drinking.”

Cowell travels everywhere with at least two large suitcases filled with potions—eye drops, face creams, bath salts, milk lotions, and “wash-and-go” shampoo. Regularly he visits Harrods to buy the latest products. Women in his entourage always know his bathroom contains the best selection of cosmetics, which they are welcome to borrow. “I am definitely vain,” Cowell admitted, “but to be honest with you I can’t think of one person on TV who isn’t.” No one is al- lowed to spot him with “bed head,” and when he awakes he equally dislikes seeing his girlfriends before they are properly groomed. Appearances are critical and he likes to see women with their face “done.”

Always willing to try a new idea to prolong his youthful appearance, until recently he had a half-deaf woman visit weekly to cover him with oil, wrap him in cellophane, and squeeze him into a tube with the promise that the paralyzing discomfort and itching were guaranteed to detoxify and oxidize him. After he tired of her loud, monosyllabic pitches for a new TV show, he fired her and seized on another passing recommendation: the HB Health antiaging clinic on Beauchamp Place, in Knightsbridge, London. A friend’s half-sentence description was sufficient to prompt Cowell to commission one hour’s treatment in a “bubble,” the whole treatment costing five thousand pounds that promised to detox, help weight loss, and prolong life. Three men carried the contraption to his bedroom on the first floor of his London house. “I hated it,” Cowell exclaimed, complaining that the German applying the treatment had spent the entire hour promoting his ideas for new TV shows, and the captive patient had been forced to listen.

The ultimate treatment was introduced to Cowell by the Australian actress and singer Dannii Minogue, a fellow X Factor judge, in 2008. An attractive British general practitioner who advertises her speciality as “the integration of traditional and complementary medicine,” recommended that Cowell have blood tests four times a year, “the full blood work” every six months during his health checks at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, and injections once a week of magnesium, all the B vitamins, and pure vitamin C. Whenever he lives in America, Cowell receives the same mixture by a thirty-minute intravenous drip on Saturday afternoons in his bedroom. On her recommendation, he takes a saucer of pills daily, travels with bottles of supplements, and daily drinks two smoothies—one red and one green—made from expensive rare fruits.

Plates of untouched food were cleared and the group started to play Balderdash, described on the box as “the bluffing game, the game you can win without knowing anything.” Next, Cowell and McKenna checked Facebook. One year earlier, both had invented characters and made a bet as to who would have the fewest friends after six months. Cowell’s character was Derek Bates, whose password was “hairyballs69.” Clicking on, he discovered no “friends.” McKenna’s invention, Jeremy Pipkin, had one friend, another person invented by McKenna. Both were genuinely disappointed by the failure of their ruse.

Immersed over the next four weeks in his billionaire’s splendor, Cowell and his friends sailed across the Mediterranean from St. Tropez, searching for fun. First to Portofino and next to Sardinia to enjoy Flavio Briatore’s Billionaire Club, one of the Mediterranean’s best sanctuaries for the rich and famous to meet and mix with beautiful people.

Cowell’s entrance with his friends provoked a frisson among the diners and dancers. Good looking, rich, famous, and, above all, unmarried, he was a potential catch for glamorous hunters. And most important, he was a willing target for a particular type. He certainly wasn’t looking for intellect or strong characters. Just uncomplicated, uninhibited, sometimes trashy girls. Classy vulgarity excites him despite his fastidious concern about personal hygiene. In his quest for transitory enjoyment, those defects are tolerated. His search is rarely in vain. Quite literally, women throw themselves in his path. One- night stands are ideal for a man resistant to commitment, even when they occasionally end with theft or, worse, by girls whose motives are initially disguised. The stop in the Billionaire Club, however, had no such dramatic outcome.

After two days, Slipstream headed to Capri. Philip Green, the billionaire retailer, a close friend and advisor, was racing on his yacht from Turkey, and at the same time, Natalie Imbruglia, an exciting, sexy Australian singer and songwriter, was waiting for Cowell to pick her up at a hotel. The sassy entertainer, who had starred as a judge on Australia’s X Factor, came on board, it seemed to Cowell, intent on “hooking up with Cowell after an earlier fling.” For his part, Cowell also hoped to forge a relationship. His female friends were puzzled. “Natalie’s not very interesting,” whispered one. Cowell’s charisma and fame, she knew, often suppressed the women he dated, not least because he rarely chased self-confident women who could resist the attractions of celebrity. Imbruglia, Cowell thought, was among the few who could spark something real. Instead, unsure about her host’s fleeting intentions and his unwillingness to offer a relationship, she decided after four days to disembark.

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“It didn’t go anywhere,” Lauren Silverman concluded.

“Just a K & C,” agreed another, meaning “a kiss and a cuddle.”

“I wanted another fling and she didn’t,” Cowell laughed. Rejection was irrelevant. He felt remarkably liberated.

“I don’t care,” he announced at dinner soon after. “This year I’ve cut out the darkness. I’ve cut out all the people I’ve hated.”

Lauren Silverman understood. For too long, Cowell had been shackled to his former partner turned rival and the owner of the American Idol format, Simon Fuller, and, as Cowell put it, his “Moonies.”

“All day, every day,” Cowell recounted about his years on American Idol, “they’d be watching me. Watching and watching. And then tapping and tapping, all day long, sending Moonie reports back to Fuller. It was disgusting.” Lauren Silverman, his closest confidant, nodded sympathetically.

Even while on vacation, Cowell spent no less than six hours on the telephone to London, New York, and Los Angeles daily. In between calls, he spent hours watching DVDs of The X Factor and the programs based on the Britain’s Got Talent format, which are broad- cast in more than forty countries. By any reckoning Cowell ranks as unrivaled among the world’s TV and music producers. His priority during August was The X Factor’s launch in America on September 21. Each episode would cost a record three million dollars to produce, but in return, advertisers were agreeing to pay Fox four hundred thousand dollars for a thirty-second spot on the basis of guaranteed audiences. His focus was to reach the stratosphere as America’s most powerful TV star, a quest that was electrified by events on July 20.

In the Houses of Parliament in London, Rupert and James Murdoch had just been humiliated by politicians investigating their employees’ illegal hacking of celebrities’ telephone messages. Sensing weakness, Simon Fuller, Cowell’s bitterest enemy, chose that day to commence a lawsuit in the Los Angeles Superior Court against Fox Broadcasting, which is part of the Murdochs’ News Corporation. Carefully choreographed publicity ensured that Fuller’s lawsuit produced headlines from Los Angeles to London. The former owner of American Idol was suing his partner. Fuller’s declaration of war against Fox and also indirectly against Cowell, his erstwhile partner, demonstrated the British producer’s bid to reassert his influence over the music industry.

Greed, ego, and money are what make Hollywood tick, and causing conflict can often bring rich rewards. On Slipstream, Cowell spotted Fuller’s only weakness. “My fame is driving him crazy,” he said, smiling. For ten years, Fuller had waged legal and psychological warfare to confirm his supremacy over Cowell. He had successfully extracted Cowell’s meek acquiescence that American Idol had been Fuller’s sole and exclusive creation. For ten years, Cowell had gone along with what he believed to be a lie, and now Fuller wanted to extract more blood. He wanted a credit on The X Factor as “executive producer” although he had not participated in any aspect of the program. “No one asks for a credit on a failure,” John Ferriter, a Hollywood agent, reassured Cowell, reporting on Fuller’s anguish. “Desperate publicity seeking,” was Cowell’s judgment.

There was no coincidence that the same issue of Variety, Hollywood’s bible, reporting Fuller’s demand to be given an executive producer credit, was dominated by twelve pages of congratulations to Jamie King, the choreographer who had teamed up with Fuller to find talented musicians for a new show to be called Q’Viva! The Chosen, described as “a search across the Americas for Latino artistry.” So far Fuller had not found a major American network to finance his prospective show, instantly stymied by the announcement that its stars, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, were divorcing. In a city where a lawsuit is used as a negotiator’s tool and both sides in a dispute can be seen eating amicably in the same restaurant, Fuller’s blast was nevertheless regarded as exceptional. “We won’t pay and we won’t negotiate,” Cowell was told by Fox executives. Fuller, he said, smiling, had shot himself in the foot. Their ten-year feud was coming to a climax. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous response to the question “Which Simon do you love more?” was, “My money is on Simon.”

Cowell hoped the equivocation would soon be over. His revenge would be complete.

With little effort, Cowell’s mask concealed any hint of violent emotions. Despite endless media scrutiny, his critics’ attempts to penetrate his defenses and expose the reality of his passion and jealousy, or the existence of self-doubt and decadence, had proven fruitless. Fearing exposure, Cowell presented himself as the antithesis of debauchery: a man who never pronounced on morality and seemingly never committed a moral wrong. To some, he inhabited an identity but resisted being defined by it.

High-minded critics have dismissed Cowell’s world of mindless pleasure as middle-class philistinism. Such debunkers have portrayed his pedestrian disregard of human complexity as proof of a man who is neither moral nor immoral, just superbly sterile. Yet behind the mask, his confidants listen to confessions of torment, not least about his public image.

Like all subversives, he is terrified of others adopting his own armory against him. Troubled by the hatred he has generated, he has grasped that his own fortune rests on resisting the same humiliation as he had heaped on others. For years, he suffered mockery and for the past eleven years has sought revenge against those sneerers. “This is the make-or-break year,” he admitted on Slipstream. By Christmas, he would know whether he had scaled new heights or been universally lampooned.

At the end of the trip he had also decided against freezing his corpse after all. A chance conversation during the voyage had revealed that the Swiss “clinic,” after receiving the corpse of a basket- ball player, had cut off and frozen only the head. “Imagine,” said Cowell laughing uncontrollably, “what all my ex-girlfriends would do if they just looked at my dead head? No way!”

Copyright © 2012 Tom Bower. From the book "Sweet Revemge," published by Ballantine Books. Reprinted with permission.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive


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