“The X Factor” Season 2 open auditions are underway at www.thexfactorusa.com, but right now the general public is more interested in what went down right after Season 1–like the shocking firing of judges Paula Abdul, Nicole Scherzinger, and, long before that, Cheryl Cole, along with the somewhat less shocking firing of host Steve Jones. And looking to the next season, which debuts this fall, viewers are curious about who will replace all these ousted cast members–and if the retooled show will be able to compete with “American Idol” and, perhaps more importantly, “The Voice.”
In a new interview with Reality Rocks, “X Factor” honcho Simon Cowell addresses these tough issues. How did Paula take the news of her pink-slipping? Does he still feel bad about what went down with Cheryl? Is he at all threatened by “Idol” and “The Voice”–and was he really serious about that “super final” idea? Is he surprised (or annoyed) that “Idol” survived, even thrived, without him? He answers all this and more.
And, even more excitingly, he addresses my entirely serious suggestion that “X Factor U.K.” stars Jedward be hired to host the American version of the show next season. Remember, you read about that idea here first!
REALITY ROCKS: So I know you are recasting “The X Factor,” and word is you’re going to have two hosts, not one, next season. Can I make a suggestion for who you should hire?
SIMON COWELL: Sure, go ahead.
REALITY ROCKS: Jedward!
SIMON: [Laughs] Brilliant! You know what, Lyndsey? Stranger things have happened. That is a very, very funny suggestion. I am thinking about it…they are hilarious, those two. What started off as a joke…I mean, my God, the joke’s on us now! These guys are now multimillionaires. That is a very funny suggestion; I will genuinely put that in the pool. And if it happens, I will give you credit.
REALITY ROCKS: Deal! Okay, in all seriousness now, you’re not just replacing the “X Factor” host, but two of the show’s judges. Was there a specific moment during “The X Factor” Season 1 when you thought, “This isn’t working out”? When you realized you’d have to wipe the slate clean?
SIMON: No, I was happy with the show last year. I was kind of thinking this year, as we all were, what the marketplace was going to be like in a year’s time. And what we anticipated was a big competition between us and “American Idol,” plus the chance that “The Voice” may compete with us in the fall. Plus the change in the music scene, which is we predicted that pop music was going to make a big comeback–you’re definitely going see that starting with One Direction, who ironically were on the U.K. “X Factor,” a boy band who could debut at number one on the album charts in a couple weeks’ time. This is just the beginning, so the show was really gearing up to take all of that into account. And the thing with Paula in particular was that the network felt was that it was still too similar to what we had done on “Idol,” and they wanted to separate the shows further. So it’s sad that we’re losing them, but you hope that the changes will overall make the show do better this year, because that’s all we were thinking about.
REALITY ROCKS: You say that the concern with having Paula Abdul on “The X Factor” was it made the show too similar to “Idol.” But wasn’t that the whole idea–that having you two together again on television would play into the nostalgia of fans who missed your old “Idol” era?
SIMON: Well, that was the idea. And I loved being back with Paula again. We had a fantastic time, and I had to speak to her on the night [the firings were] announced. But she was very, very gracious and cool and very grown-up about it. But the network felt quite strongly; they wanted to say that those days of me being associated with “Idol” are over and it’s time to see something brand-new.
REALITY ROCKS: The original plan with “The X Factor USA” was to have two hosts, with Nicole Scherzinger hosting alongside Steve Jones, before Nicole became a judge to replace another old associate of yours, Cheryl Cole, who was let go early on. Do you ever wonder how the show would have panned out if you’d just kept Cheryl as a judge and Nicole as a host?
Picture of Cheryl Cole
SIMON: You know what, I’ve got absolutely no idea. I can’t even speculate on what it would have been like, how it would have been different. I mean, it’s still sad now that it ended up the way it did with Cheryl. But I’ve produced shows for long enough that you’ve just got to have broad shoulders when you make decisions like that. And if you made the wrong decision, you take the blame for it. I don’t know if it was the right decision or the wrong decision [to fire Cheryl], but I was part of that decision and I was sad for her. But you know what? Cheryl is a tough cookie, and she looks back on the time she spent within the U.K. show as an important time in her life. She’s now moved on, she’s still a star and always will be, and we’re all going to move on.
REALITY ROCKS: You’ve been accused of, or portrayed as, being some sort of backstabber, for firing “loyal friends” like Paula and Cheryl. How do you respond to that?
SIMON: There are people who are going to feel that way. I would counter that by saying that [Paula and Cheryl] worked with us on shows for a long time, I’ve supported them, and everyone’s made a lot of money out of it! [Chuckles] So look at it in the real world: That is show business. I don’t make these decisions on my own. Of course, you can fight for people, but you don’t always win the battle. I had to really, really push to get Paula on the show on the first year and I’m glad she did it, as I think it’s been good for her. She’s going to go on now to other things, so it’s slightly unfair for people to say that about me. Because on the back of what we’ve done for these people, they have massive opportunities ahead of them.
REALITY ROCKS: There are a lot of rumored judge replacements out there. What qualities are you looking for in the new judges you eventually hire?
SIMON: Well, initially it has to be someone who wants to be on the show and isn’t doing it just for a paycheck, because that doesn’t work. They really, really have to be committed to actually finding a star, and when they find one, committed to working with them on a weekly basis, because that’s what were paying [the judges] for. And they have to know that the public are going be interested in seeing a different side of them that they’ve never seen before–which I find the most interesting thing, when you put a pop star on a panel, and you’ve really only seen them in interviews before and it’s been slightly one-dimensional. I try to make the decisions based on who the public is interested in hearing from, and then, can they do their job? And like I said, people who aren’t just doing it to get paid a lot of money.
REALITY ROCKS: One issue I have with the judges on “The X Factor” is their favoritism–their unwillingness to vote off one of their own team members for the good of the show, even if their team member was clearly not as good in a sing-off. I think you need a tough judge who has the guts to do that.
SIMON: One-hundred percent! I’ve done that, and I would do it again. But you know, it’s like what you were talking to me about before, about people saying I’m disloyal: God, when you do that on the show, you get it in the neck! Big time! But I would say that to all the judges, and I would definitely do it. If I didn’t think someone should be there and someone else is better, 100 percent, I would kick off my own act.
REALITY ROCKS: That makes sense–it’s your show, and your record label, so obviously you want the best person to win.
SIMON: Well, yeah, that’s the whole idea about making the show, you know. The right person should win.
REALITY ROCKS: Much ado has been made about the fact that “Idol’s” ratings are in decline this year. Do you think that bodes well for “The X Factor”–as in, maybe people are tiring of “Idol” and want to move on to a new show–or does it bode badly, because it might mean people are coming down with singing-competition fatigue in general?
SIMON: I think with any of these shows, it’s been going on for a long time. If you had said to me 11 years ago that “Idol” would still be number one most weeks, I’d go, “Yeah, right.” Most shows don’t last that long, so I still think they’ve done fine. In terms of “The X Factor,” we replaced “Idol” in the U.K., and every year the U.K. show went on, it got better and it just got bigger and bigger and bigger. And I do believe–otherwise I wouldn’t bother doing it–that that’s what is going to happen with the U.S. show over the years. You make better shows, you get more interesting contestants. So I’m feeling more confident this year than I was last year, because last year we were going into the unknown, and I didn’t know if anyone would accept a new singing contest. But the people who watched it really liked the show, and with the shows I think we’re going to make, you’ll definitely see a better show. There are some changes which our competitors don’t know about yet, which is going to make us look different to them as well.
REALITY ROCKS: Be honest, did you think “Idol” would crumble without you? And that all of “Idol’s” viewers would migrate over to “The X Factor” once you left? There was a time when I totally predicted that myself…
SIMON: No, because I had a long relationship with Fox and we really got on well, and I spoke to them about this because they wanted me to stay. And I said, “I can look you in the eye and say I genuinely think ‘Idol’ is going do fine without me; it’ll be a different show, but the advantage is the show will still do well and now you’ll have a brand-new show in the fall, where you didn’t have one at all before. So this is win-win for you guys.” Looking at the history of what happened in the U.K., I did believe, and I still do believe, that over time, “The X Factor” will do better than “American Idol”–otherwise I wouldn’t have left it. There’s no way I would’ve left “American Idol” if I thought we were always going to be second to everyone else. It’s just not in my nature. I work tirelessly until I get to that point, and then work even harder when I do. You have to have that belief, in other words.
REALITY ROCKS: One thing I think sets “The X Factor” apart from “Idol” is it is less whitewashed. In recent seasons, R&B and African-American contestants have been shockingly under-represented on “Idol”; this year, there are only three black contestants, who sing R&B, in the entire top 24. But R&B and hip-hop were well-represented on “The X Factor” last year.
SIMON: Well, to be honest, we never really go into it going, “We’re going to end up with this percentage.” We base it purely on talent. And Astro, for instance, was there because we just thought he was super-talented. No other show had put something like him on, but thought we could make him look great on the show, which we did. But I go into it this year with a completely open mind. I mean, I was always accused by some of the people at “Idol” that I hate country music. I don’t listen to it, but when Carrie Underwood came onto the show, I was the first person to say, from the get-go, that this girl was going to sell more records than any of the previous contestants. Because I do know stars. I could care less if she was singing country or pop; she was a star. So I’m open to all genres of music, but it will always be based on, can you sell records? That’s the only criteria, and you never know what mix you are going to end up with. I like to think we’re about as open-minded as you can possibly get.
REALITY ROCKS: Speaking of being open-minded, I was surprised that you tweeted that you’d be open to doing a “super final” between the winners of “The X Factor,” “The Voice,” and “American Idol.” It seemed to fly in the face of your opinion about “World Idol” years ago, which you said you didn’t like because it turned winners into losers.
SIMON: Well, first of all, the “World Idol” show was terrible. I mean, it was just a horrible show, it just looked awful. Secondly, none of the contestants had really signed up for that, and I don’t think everyone was particularly happy to be put in that situation. And of course, it was the same brand; it was all “Idol.” What I thought was interesting [with the “super final” idea] was that since everyone was already really competitive, “Idol” and “The Voice” and of course “X Factor,” I thought it would be a really interesting challenge to see if they would be up to backing their talent against our talent. And I think the audience would love it. I was thinking that it’s just another level of competition, which could actually help all the shows, because there’s more exposure. But it was probably the most negative reaction to an idea that I’ve ever had! But interestingly, not from the networks. The networks, I think, are probably more pro my idea. And then you have to talk to the guys who actually own the formats, which I haven’t yet, to see if they’d be interested or not. And then, you might see a change of heart.
REALITY ROCKS: So if the current champs–Melanie Amaro, Scotty McCreery, and Javier Colon–competed against each other, who do you think would win?
SIMON: I would put my money on either Melanie or Scotty. I mean, they’re both brilliant. But like I said, because they didn’t sign up for that, I don’t think that would be fair. I think it would be more fun this year because we don’t know who the winner is of “Idol” or “The Voice” or “X Factor.” If all the contestants bought into it now and they liked the idea, then it would be exciting. But all I was trying to do was add another element to what was going on there, make things a bit more exciting and competitive. Because interestingly, I love the fact that “The Voice” has come out and done well.
REALITY ROCKS: Really?
SIMON: Yeah, I really do! Because I think it’s made us more excited about the fact that we’ve got to work even harder than before. And that you can’t be complacent. So I have a lot of respect for what “The Voice” has done, and I know the producer of that show–he’s a really, really nice guy–and we take everything in good spirit.