After more than two decades working his way up — behind the scenes — in the music industry, Simon Cowell sits center stage.
Cowell’s withering putdowns of the overconfident and undertalented — first on Britain’s “Pop Idol,” then on “American Idol,” which began its fourth season Jan. 18 — have made him a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic.
They have also made him very rich. He’s worth a reported $85 million, thanks partly to a deal that lets him sign “Pop Idol” winners to his own record label. (“Idol” creator Simon Fuller handles their management and merchandising).
Cowell’s success is built on a highly telegenic personality, plus a bluntness that has attracted and appalled millions of viewers and seen him nicknamed “Mr. Nasty” by the press.
“You sang like a ventriloquist’s dummy,” he told one hapless musical hopeful. To another: “My advice would be if you want to pursue a career in the music business, don’t.”
Cowell, 45, says he’s simply being honest.
“My job is to try and say what I think the audience are thinking at home,” Cowell told The Associated Press. “What I’ve said from day one on ‘American Idol’ is, it doesn’t matter how many people turn up, only two are going to be any good. So why give everybody else false hope, because it’s such a tough business.”
Cowell should know. He has fought his share of battles in a career that — as Cowell’s biography on the “American Idol” Web site puts it — “shaped what we consider to be modern pop music today.”
Born in Brighton on England’s south coast, Cowell dropped out of school at 16 and got his first music industry job in the mailroom at EMI. Later he worked as an executive with the BMG label, signing the briefly famous Curiosity Killed the Cat as well as the boy bands Westlife and Five — acts that are little-known in the United States but scored multiple No. 1 singles in Britain and Europe.
Cowell showed a knack for working the kitschy, cartoony end of the pop spectrum, overseeing hit singles for a pair of TV actors called Robson and Jerome and for the Teletubbies.
He says that populist touch has served him well.
“Part of the reason the music business has had problems are the so-called experts not giving the public what they want,” Cowell said. “The public doesn’t always want perfection. There’s something else — it’s the Barry Manilow syndrome, the Clay Aiken syndrome.”
Cowell has little patience with critics who say “Idol” winners are disposable creations manipulated by svengalis like himself and Fuller. He says the success of Aiken, the geeky 2003 runner-up, from “American Idol,” exemplifies the show’s unpredictable appeal.
“Clay Aiken has been and probably will be the biggest-selling ‘Idol’ artist ever — and he didn’t fit the mold. He just so happened to be what the public wanted.”
Even Simon makes mistakesThere have been misses as well as hits in Cowell’s career.
He famously failed to sign the Spice Girls, and didn’t spot the potential in Take That, Britain’s biggest boy band of the 1990s.
Cowell did not immediately see the allure of talent-show TV, either, turning down the chance to appear on “Popstars,” a British forerunner to “Pop Idol,” because, as he told an audience at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in August, “I did not think we should be showing the manufacturing process of a group on TV.”
He has since changed his mind, but still insists: “I wasn’t particularly interested in being on television. I never really went into this — unlike a lot of people who judge these shows — to be a personality per se.”
A personality, however, is what he has become.
In Britain, Cowell is fodder for the tabloids, who note his penchant for high-waisted trousers and exhort him to marry long-term — and reportedly long-suffering — girlfriend Terri Seymour.
The Internet is home to a clutch of Cowell fan sites, as well as one that allows you to punch him. He has received one of pop culture’s highest accolades — appearing as himself on an episode of “The Simpsons.”
Cowell signed a three-year deal with “American Idol” in 2003 and has set up his own TV production company. His latest venture is “X Factor,” a star-search show in Britain on which he acts as fellow judge and sparring partner to Sharon Osbourne. (Cowell is being sued by Fuller, who considers the show an “Idol” copycat).
Cowell says he’s reluctant to plan far into the future.
“What I’ve always done in my job is to be reactive,” he said. “When I saw ‘Popstars,’ it was quite obvious there was a better show to be made, which was ’Pop Idol.’ I was thinking of it then as to what was right for my record label, because all the artists were going to be signed to my label. It was a marketing decision.”
He hopes his celebrity will help drive future TV projects, but says: “I don’t think I’ll be on the shows. I’d rather be in the background.”
As for “American Idol,” he says: “Some people say yes, of course it’s got a finite life and all good things have to come to an end. There’s another argument that says maybe this is the musical Super Bowl. Maybe it could run for 20 years.”