Simon Cowell: ‘I’ve got good attention. I can spot a lightbulb out at 100m’

Simon Cowell plays the bad guy on TV. His show ‘The X Factor’ is but one plank in his fortune of £300m

Man who oozes The X Factor: he jointly owns Syco with Sony. Simco, its operating subsidiary, made a profit of £37.4 million on revenues of £59.9 million last year. Photograph: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

Man who oozes The X Factor: he jointly owns Syco with Sony. Simco, its operating subsidiary, made a profit of £37.4 million on revenues of £59.9 million last year. Photograph: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images


A slight breeze ripples the decorative line of flames at the rear of the garden in Simon Cowell’s $34 million mansion in Beverly Hills. 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 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.

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 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.

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 30s 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.

Public humiliation

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 become stars. He had waited a long time for 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 100m. 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 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 55, he is taking stock. Syco Entertainment, the company he and Green set up in 2010 to harness his ventures, is nearing the end of its 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. 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.

World domination

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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 £37.4 million on revenues of £59.9 million 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 $1.3 billion in revenues since 2004 and its television formats have earned $374 million in the past five years, according to the company. Cowell’s wealth is estimated at £300 million by the Sunday Times.

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 considering the next step.

‘Weird’ business

While he still handles the acts that come through X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, on which 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 $70 or $80 million on a show, it’s got to be a really good idea. We won’t have them every month and neither will the competition.” – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)