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Simon Cowell Talks Old Dogs and New Tricks in ‘X Factor’ Q&A

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

The countdown to the U.S. launch of Simon Cowell's new Fox show "The X Factor"--which starts airing September 21 but will have its Hollywood red carpet premiere on September 14--continued this week with a press tele-conference with Simon himself, and as usual, the man was good for a soundbite. Whether likening fellow judge Paula Abdul to an "old dog back from the rescue pound," inviting Randy Jackson to dog-bark from the front row at future "X Factor" tapings, or describing judge Nicole Scherzinger's multiple personalities, he didn't hold back when fielding reporters' questions.

And don't expect him to hold back when the show hits the airwaves later this month, either. Here's just a taste of what's come as he discusses meltdowns, taking on "Idol" and "The Voice," possibly plying audiences with liquor, ex-Idols auditioning for the show, the mysterious disappearance of Cheryl Cole, and whether there's an American version of Jedward out there. 

QUESTION: What is it like being with Paula Abdul again?

SIMON: What was interesting is that Paula can be a bit wacky at times, but Nicole [Scherzinger] wasn't that far behind--in a fantastically self-centered way which she wasn't aware of, which I found really amusing. There was a part of auditions where every city we went to--and again, she wasn't aware of this--she changed her accent. When she was in New York she has this kind of Brooklyn thing going on, and then when she went to Dallas she became this Southern belle. She changes with every city you go into. And with Paula, the great thing about working with her is within about five minutes of filming, she's not aware that the cameras are on anymore, and she'll fight with you over something--sometimes over something important, often not. And that's what I like about her. She is prepared to argue. So it's like getting an old dog back from the rescue pound. You know, it's kind of grateful to see you, and the relationship is back intact.

Q: Now that you have Paula back, are you interested in bringing Randy Jackson in for an "American Idol" reunion?

SIMON: Well, I miss Randy, because he really is a good friend. Maybe we'll just get him a front-row seat every week, and he can just do his dog-barking thing. Seriously though, I really do miss him. But he's happy on "Idol," and I think L.A. [Reid], who we brought in, has been genuinely a revelation, because he's been one of the most competitive people I've ever worked with in my life. So it was different challenge for me. I'm going to miss Randy as a person, but you know, we hang out all the time. I'm probably going to meet up with him this week for dinner. So it's all good.

Q: Can you tease us with some of the standout contestants--has anyone really impressed you?

SIMON: We have promo'd a few. We've held back a lot for the first show, in terms of what I'd call different type of contestants to what you've seen before. Very, very different back stories--the kind of stories I don't think other shows would put on, but we are. I think you'll enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed making it. It's quite edgy, it's very raw, it's real life--but it's a talent show, so the ones we thought were talented, we put on the show. But they are different to what you've seen before.

Q: What do you think will make the American public connect with this show?

SIMON: I think it goes back to the point about the back stories. How interesting are the contestants? Can you be bothered to invest time in them? Are they good? Is it different from what you've heard before? I was very aware of that when we made the show, because of the obvious comparisons to other shows out there. And I always said to people, "I think when you watch the show, you're going to understand that there's more than a subtle difference between the two." So it's a combination that it's got to be raw, you've got to allow viewers to see things they haven't seen before, you've got to like or hate the contestants, and they've got to be brilliant every week! And if you don't have any of that, people will switch off. I would switch off if it didn't have that.

Q: How important are the back stories to the show?

SIMON: Personally, I think they're crucial. When we meet the contestants the first time in the audition, we have no background information on them at all. I don't want to know. And if they're interesting to me when I'm asking them questions, then I think they're going to be interesting to people who watch the show. Normally when I ask them, "What's the most interesting thing that's happened to you in your life?" and then they start droning on about singing at the age of 3 or 4, I'm honestly not interested. I expect all of them to say that they've always wanted to be a singer; that's obvious. I really am interested in their back stories. If they got divorced, why did they get divorced? If they're married, are they happy being married? If they've left college, how do their parents feel about them leaving college to pursue a music career? Obviously, number one on the list is talent, but number two is you've really, really got to be an interesting person and have a great back story.

Q: Will "The X Factor" encourage contestants to do radical reworkings of songs like Adam Lambert's "Ring Of Fire" or Kris Allen's "Heartless"?

SIMON: A hundred percent! We want as many unique versions as possible. Otherwise, it just turns into a karaoke competition. About three weeks into the show, you're going to start hearing contestants way outside of their comfort zones, hearing versions of songs you haven't heard before. Part of the reason we're doing this is you don't want it to be a bad soundalike, and secondly, we're going to sell downloads on iTunes, and that's part of the test of the contestants within the show: Who can come up with the most unique version of the song? Otherwise the show is boring.

Q: Some former "American Idol" contestants have auditioned for "The X Factor." Would you consider having them or other ex-reality contestants on the show?

SIMON: I'm glad you asked that, because I think it comes back to the point of having as few rules as possible. That was that the whole idea of the show in the first place. We did expect some people who we've seen before on "Idol" to come along, so I didn't really have a problem with that. None of them did particularly well! But it was quite nice to hear them a second time.

Q: What is the most important thing you learned on "Idol" that you're now applying to "The X Factor"?

SIMON: Well, you've got to say what you think, basically. Otherwise, anyone could do this job. Everyone's got an opinion...but not many people are prepared to actually say, "I think what other people are thinking at home." And I genuinely don't have a problem with that. And the more time I spent in America, the best compliment you can have is when people come up to you and say, "You do say what I'm thinking." So I felt comfortable doing that when I moved from "Idol" onto "The X Factor." It doesn't always make you comfortable when you watch it back, but it definitely makes the show more honest, I think.

Q: How is doing the American version of "The X Factor" different from doing the U.K. version?

SIMON: I would say the [live in-studio] American audiences are more vocal; when they like someone, they let you know, and they certainly let you know when they disagree with you! There were a few occasions when we had to--otherwise I think I might have gotten seriously injured--bring back some contestants we'd said no to, because the audience wanted them through. We did say to [the audience], "You're sort of like the fifth judge here." So it was fun, and everywhere we went the crowds were good--better in the evenings, because you could feel a lot of them were drunk. They were louder, and I liked that. I might actually do that for the live shows--just make everybody drink. I'd do it!

Q: Will the American version of this show have any funny contestants like the U.K.'s Jedward and Wagner?

SIMON: For the people who don't know who Wagner is, or Jedward, they were what I consider kind of joke contestants who got through to the finals of "The X Factor" in the U.K because one particular judge liked them. It comes down to the individual judges' decisions, because in the latter stages of this show, you make decisions about who's going to be in the final depending on which category you've been given, and already there have been one or two questionable decisions by a couple of the judges. But that's down to them.

Q: How does the mentoring process on "The X Factor" differ from the mentoring on "The Voice"?

SIMON: Well, they didn't do it as well as us, if I'm being honest with you. You will genuinely see the difference, I think, on this show. I kind of expected ["The Voice"] to do something like that, but that's the nature of the game when you make reality shows. But it is a necessary part of the format, that you really do mentor these contestants. It's not just what you do during the show. Anyone can mentor. The point is, can you mentor someone through the show and actually create a star? So you're going to have to judge "X Factor" on what we do, compared to what they did on "The Voice." I mean, talking to you this week, an artist that I mentored on "The X Factor" last year in the U.K.--they didn't win, they came third, but they're going to have the biggest-selling single this year and the biggest-selling album. They're a band called One Direction. So that's what I call proper mentoring, where you're preparing someone for the real world.

Q: Sometimes the winning contestant on a show isn't the most successful. Sometimes the runner-up is more successful afterwards. Why do you think that is?

SIMON: Well, I think you can attribute that to the mentoring process. It was a huge reason why in the U.K. I left "[Pop] Idol" and started "X Factor." I used to get frustrated that we as people who work in the music business weren't allowed to do anything with the contestants on a week-by-week basis, and they would make these awful decisions. I do think if you've got the right artist and they've got the right person working with them, you can start to demonstrate on the show each week the kind of record you'd be releasing after you've hopefully won the competition. That's why I think some of these contestants [from other shows] haven't done well, because they win because of popularity, not because of having a unique talent they've demonstrated on a weekly week-by-week basis. That's why you have to update the process. You have to do something different, and you've got to take risks.

Q: In what ways will "The X Factor" be risky and unpredictable?

SIMON: Gosh, it's just the fact, I suppose, that when you make a reality show, good things happen and bad things happen. I think one of the things we showed in that eight-minute promo was me sort of having a childish meltdown because I hated what everyone was doing on a particular day. We do actually show the process, that it's not always happy sunny days when you make these shows, that things go wrong, bad things happen backstage, people have major tantrums--including the judges and the contestants. You've got to show all that. You've got to show the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Q: What was this meltdown?

SIMON: It was during one of the Boot Camp shows. We had about a hundred contestants left, and they had an overnight challenge with a list of songs to do just literally on piano or guitar, to do a stripped-down version. And for some reason a lot of drum programmers were brought in that night, and they all started coming up with weird, what they thought were creative versions of songs. They sounded absolutely dreadful, and were getting worse and worse and worse. Everybody sounded rubbish, and we had a live audience in and they knew it was rubbish. It was just one of those very, very uncomfortable days. And the whole [tantrum] was filmed, and the producers thought it would be amusing to include it in the show. When I watched it back, although I thought it was a bit embarrassing, I thought, "Oh yeah, why not keep it in the show?"

Q: Were you crying?

SIMON: [laughs] Crying? No! But there was a lot of crying the following day; I remember thinking, "It's kind of 11/3, Paula/Nicole, on the crying stakes. Paula was quite a long way behind Nicole, amazingly.

Q: What are some of the challenges you had to overcome in bringing the show to America?

SIMON: I think the first challenge was, if I'm being honest with you, I think the network would have been happier if we'd all stayed on "Idol" for the rest of our lives, and there wouldn't be another show. The problem with that was, the show was becoming more and more popular around the world, and inevitably someone would have come around and done something really, really close to the show. Once we explained this to Fox, they accepted the fact that's going to have to go on the air. They didn't have to be dragged screaming to it in the end, but you know, these are expensive shows to produce. But because we had a couple of good last years in the U.K., I think it speeded the process up. And then they got really into it. And then, of course, the other challenges are trying to make your mind up who should be judging it, hosting it...lots of things went wrong along the way. You just have to deal with it.

Q: Ousted judge Cheryl Cole was actually shown briefly in the "X Factor" trailer. How are you going to handle that on the show? Is she going to be edited out completely? Is it going to be addressed at all?

SIMON: She's in episode one. She's in the first hour. In terms of how we address it, I think we just tell it as it was: She was on the show, and then she got replaced by Nicole. So on the first half of the show next week, it's Cheryl, and then in the second half it's Nicole.

Q: Do you really think this show can produce a megastar, like a Lady Gaga or a Justin Bieber?

SIMON: A hundred percent yes. What I've seen with the show over the last couple of years in the U.K. is the kind of artist we've attracted. The artists coming through are not just competing, they are murdering the opposition in the U.K. at the moment. We hope to do the same thing with the show here. That was always the sole reason for making the show here: Can you find a different kind of artist--who doesn't just work within a competition show, because we're always going to have a winner--but actually can compete with the big artists out there around the world? That's what you hope is going to happen, and I will die trying till the end to do that.

[photo courtesy of Fox]

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