Reality Dish Exclusive Interview: Simon Cowell of American Idol

A few weeks back, infamous American Idol judge Simon Cowell took part in a conference call interview with select members of the media including myself. American Idol will return for its 8th season on Tuesday, January 13 and will continue to air on both Tuesday nights and Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. Eastern time for most weeks. Here are the highlights of the interview…

So Idol has had a fourth judge before; Angie Martinez didn’t quite work out. I was wondering: what’s the dynamic this time and what does make it work this time?

Simon Cowell: Well look, first of all, Eric, I have no idea whether this is going to work or not. I haven’t seen the show back yet. It’s only when I watch the show back whether we actually know if this has been a good idea or a bad idea.

The thing I do support is at least trying new things. Sometimes it works and as you said before, sometimes it doesn’t work. That’s the delicious thrill of making reality television – you genuinely don’t know.

What’s your take on the other changes, like bringing back the wild card and focusing less on the train wreck auditions?

SC: I think the wild card is a good idea. I wasn’t crazy about the process we went through the last couple of years where we were given a small group of contestants who you actually got bored with once you hit about show five of the live shows. This way this is a bit more jeopardy and hopefully a bit more fun in the middle stages.

Now, you’ve said already that you think a guy will win, and America hasn’t narrowed it down yet. Is that because the male talent pool is so overwhelming or do you have someone specific in mind?

SC: Not specific. When you do the Hollywood week, which we did about a month ago, you get to see all the contestants for a second time. My memory of that was that the guys overall – maybe five or six of them – were just stronger and they stood out more than the girls. I’ve said this in the past: I’ve been wrong. Somebody like a Kelly Clarkson can emerge in the middle stages, which you’re not expecting. Still, anything can happen.

Overall, how was the crop this year versus last year? Are there any good Texans in the mix, because there were no auditions in Texas?

SC: Well, you’re asking the wrong person because I normally can’t remember where they’re from. Paula will give you the lowdown on where exactly everybody’s from.

I think, look: My feeling, having done the Hollywood round, was we have an interesting bunch. Where I think we got a little bit stuck last year, it was kind of like battle of the blondes and they all looked the same. I couldn’t differentiate one from the other. This year there seems to be more personality. They’re definitely standing up for themselves more, which I like. They’re different from the people we’ve had before. I’m actually happy and I’m optimistic about this year. I could be wrong, Jean.

What do you think about the Emmy’s adding a category for reality show judges – do you think it’s overdue, do you like the idea?

SC: I didn’t know. Well, the answer is it’s a good thing, providing I win, and it’s a bad thing if I lose.

Do you think reality judges do enough work?

SC: I wouldn’t hold my breath on winning.

Which of Kara’s qualities as a judge struck you immediately?

SC: Well, she has experience. She’s written hit songs. She has an opinion, which is very, very important. She talks a lot.

Given that Kara has worked with Idol contestants in the past, either writing songs or singing backup, do you think that helps or hinders her as a judge, having that previous experience with former Idol contestants?

SC: That’s a good question. I haven’t even thought about that. I’d think it’s probably a good thing. At least she knows what the end process is and what you have to do to turn somebody into a recording artist. She’s obviously not snobby about this kind of music, which some people can be, with this kind of process. At least she’s not going to look down on the process, which is a good thing.

Okay, so you mentioned earlier that part of the problem with the format in recent years was that you guys and audiences were getting bored with the contestants after too many weeks in the pre-top 12 days. What is your role in the early selection process of preventing that from occurring, and what did you do this year to make sure that you weren’t going to get bored with these people?

SC: Well, we tried to be as broad and as open minded as possible so that we don’t end up with 12 people from the Stepford Wives. I think it’s important that we have all types of singers, all types of people because I have to say, I think personality is as important as talent on a show like this. I think it’s important for the show. What you hope you end up with is somebody like Fantasia, who’s not only extremely talented, she’s an incredible person, has a great vibe and makes the show interesting. We tried, where we can with what we had, just to get a more interesting group of people.

There’s been a lot of publicity, not only surrounding the premier of the new season, but also the recent tragedy involving a former contestant. Simon, what is your reaction to Paula’s claims that Idol producers let her alleged stalker audition for the show knowing that Paula was terrified of her?

SC: Well look, first of all, I want to say one thing, Brooke, because we’re talking about a tragedy here. I really don’t like referring to this person as a “stalker” because I don’t think that we can talk like that about somebody, so let’s refer to her as what I did, which was a fan. What happened was awful.

My regret in all of this is that we didn’t know how troubled this person was. If I could have gone back in time and known what she was going through, I wish that we could have spent time trying to help her, but we genuinely didn’t know. I want to say this: The process on how we select on American Idol is they’re open auditions. We don’t research people. It’s everyone turns up because they want to be on the show. I would assume everyone who auditions for American Idol knows, also, what it’s like to audition, i.e. if you’re not very good, you’re going to get criticized. Often, if I have the time, we will go and talk to the contestants beforehand, before they even audition, and say to them beforehand, “Look – welcome to American Idol. If any of you don’t like criticism, please don’t come into the audition room,” and nobody’s ever left.

On behalf of the producers, I want to say this: These guys have the utmost integrity as human beings. We wouldn’t work for them if they were the kind of people who would deliberately do something like that. We’ve taken them on their word that they didn’t know that this person was as troubled as she was. We have had fans come into the show before. Talking about the producers in the way that they’ve been portrayed is unfair. It was their decision two years ago to do Idol Gives Back, which raised $120 million for people. These aren’t bad people. All they want to do is make a successful show.

I spoke to them after the incident. They were absolutely horrified. I can’t point fingers at them and say that they knew everything about this person, because I genuinely don’t think that was the case.

Ken … told us the other day that the two female judges were ganging up on you and that you were miserable about it, you didn’t like it, but he said it was good for the show.

SC: Well, what guy would like that? Come on. You know? You have two girls ganging up on you. One is hard enough; two is unbearable. They’ve both got personalities, they’re both very forceful and you have a … At least I’ve got Randy by my side, so it’s not that bad.

What you think of the chart success of the two David’s? Have you been pleased to see how they’ve done and do you feel like both of them have bright careers in the future?

SC: Yes. I have been happy. These aren’t easy times in the record business at the moment. The whole point of American Idol is that you’re giving talented people an opportunity, whereas under normal circumstances you probably wouldn’t get a break or a recording deal. When you see these guys selling records, it makes the whole process worthwhile.

You know, with all these contestants, whether you’re talking about Kelly or Fantasia or Carrie Underwood, they all depend on the material they record. They record great material – fantastic. Bad material – they’re in the same boat as everybody else: It doesn’t work. I think they’re both smart. I think they both know what direction they want to go in. I’m optimistic.

Can you please comment on Idol Gives Back – if it will happen this season, what we can expect and the importance of it?

SC: Well, there won’t be an Idol Gives Back this year. From my perspective, the reason we haven’t done it is this: First of all, with what’s happening in the world and America having problems along with the rest of the world, I don’t think it feels right to be turning to people who have problems with mortgages, etc, this year, to start donating money to charities when they have enough problems at home.

The second issue is that looking at Idol Gives Back in the future I think that we are going to have to up the balance on how much money is going to American charities. I think it’s important that we give more. Now, this is my own personal perspective; I’m not talking on behalf of the network. If we do decide to do that, then I think it’s very important that we get the right organizations in advance and make sure that the money’s going to the right places.

I mean, we will be doing this again, but as I said, it just didn’t feel appropriate this year.

Simon, there’s been some suggestion that actually, when people are hurting the most they are more inclined to give back. Is there any thought of revamping the show this year, because I think Ken … also talked about how much it stretched the team. Is there maybe a different way to do it within Idol, do you think?

SC: Well, yes. Look, what I said previously, I personally feel uncomfortable asking people, when things are tight, to be doing this sort of thing. If I felt, or we all felt, that it was the right thing to do, then I guess we could put on an additional team, but if we don’t, as I said before, I’m almost certain that it will come back. I hope that more money will go to charities in the United States because it’s an American show. We’ve met some of the people we’ve helped out. I have to tell you, it did make a massive difference, so I’m very, very enthusiastic about doing this again.

Paula, on Barbara Walters’ radio show last week, made some pretty harsh criticisms of you, claiming that you are often whispering in her ear and trying to trip her up on live TV right before she is about to speak or give comments. It was pretty pointed and pretty harsh criticism, I thought. I’m wondering how you react to that.

SC: Well, guilty. I’ve done it from day one. I mean, that’s part of the relationship I’ve had with Paula. I’ve looked upon it, by the way, in a fun way. I mean, it was never done with any maliciousness. She’s never really had an issue with me about it. If I’ve thought I’ve gone too far, I’ve apologized. You know, we’ve been really, I think, good friends through the process. I thought she took most of this with a sense of humor. If she’d really said to me, “I don’t want you ever to do it again,” I wouldn’t do it.

I don’t think her remarks were as barbed as they may have appeared. That’s always been our relationship. We’ve always had fun with each other. By the way, it’s not just Paula – I do it to all the judges I work with on all the shows all over the world.

You mentioned that after this many years that contestants should be well aware of the criticism they may face when they step in front of the judges. That’s certainly valid, coming up on season eight, but I wonder, given what happened with Paula’s fan, are you considering in any way tempering your remarks?

SC: You know, I’ve thought long and hard about this. I think the answer to the question is that we will continue in the way that we’ve always done, which is in the main, we’ve tried to have a sense of humor over the whole process. The show is not an inherently mean show. It is an American dream show. The whole purpose of the show is to find somebody – it could be a cocktail waitress like Kelly Clarkson – who through the process becomes a star. I’ve always thought it was important to show people at home that when bad singers come in and they’re not very good, that it’s time to give up that type of dream and take a normal job. I think that the people at home, it’s been helpful, showing people the process. If you’re not very good, don’t waste your time – years – trying to do something that you’re not very good at doing.

You know, as I said, when something like this happens, it does make you take a step back. As I said to somebody earlier on, you assume that everyone who enters American Idol kind of knows the score, that if you’re not great, you’re going to get some criticism. A lot of people have had criticism in the past, but they come back year after year after year and always seem quite happy to meet us afterwards. We’ve known some of these contestants for seven or eight years now.

If you could give us an idea of some of the mentors, the celebrity mentors we might be seeing this season. You’ve had so many on in the past. Is there anyone that you would really like to get that you haven’t managed to persuade to come on the show yet?

SC: Well, we try every year to get Paul McCartney on. For whatever reason, he won’t come on. People in the past, when you get someone like Lionel Richie or Quentin Tarantino, who are just brilliant fun, those are the kinds of people you would like to come back on the show. I know Quentin wasn’t a mentor, but he was a terrific guest judge.

We just recently had Beyonce on the British version of this show, who was absolutely incredible. We had Mariah Carey on. We had Britney on, which was a riot – I loved it. So you want those kinds of assets. I like people with personalities.

We had heard that you were going to make the call in the event of a tie. Have you been called to do that a lot, and what’s been the reaction from the other judges?

SC: I love it. They hate it.

What about Randy in particular? I mean, how does he feel about you making these calls, and have there been a lot that you’ve had to do or is more of a seldom kind of a thing?

SC: There’s been a few, and there’s been a few arguments along the way, particularly from the girls when they can’t get their own way. There was one particular girl – you’ll see her on the show – who came in in a bikini. I mean, the second she walked in it was a “Yes” from us guys and a categorical “No” from the girls. Luckily, I had the casting vote and you’ll see her again.

You know, controversy has always surrounded this show. Is it good? Do you get bored of it? Do you relish when either magazines or news outlets harp on something more than another?

SC: You know, Mike, you and I have known each other a long time and you know the team pretty well. I mean, they are incredibly hard working. As I said before, they’re decent people. I have to separate this controversy compared to different controversies because you’re talking about a human tragedy. It hits us like an express train. So I don’t like, obviously, that kind of controversy connected to the show because it upset me a lot.

You know, I also have to respect the fact that with the media, they have been incredible supporters of us and the show from day one. They have every right to question us. All we can do is respond with the truth in return.

Simon, going back to when you were talking about how you wanted this to be as broad as possible, the pool, it seems like you’ve really done that in recent years. In early years it was pretty narrowly pop and now, there’s success of country and harder rockers in recent years. Have you been surprised by how successful Idol people have done in country and by some of the harder rockers?

SC: Well, I think the rock thing, particularly Chris Daughtry, he did make a huge difference because a lot of the guys who came on the show, they were kind of fake. They were coming in saying, “I stand for rock-and-roll,” and I’m going, “No, you don’t, because you’re on American Idol, therefore you’re conforming.” Someone like Chris, he brought a different type of edge to the show and was incredibly successful.

You know, I did this show in the first place because I’ve always been a big fan of American singing talent. You have to hope and assume with a show as big as ours that through the process we do that we are going to find stars. I’m not really that surprised. What I do like is the fact that we’re open minded enough to now encourage all different types of artists, which is a good thing for the show.

The talk about the wild card coming back, you mentioned personality and getting bored with some of the singers who were pretty good but might have kind of bland personalities. How much do you deal with having personality? How important is it in picking somebody to go through? If somebody is a fair singer with a great personality, would you have them go through?

SC: Well, I said this earlier on: I think it’s absolutely vital that we’re finding people who are all around entertainers. Some of the biggest stars in the world should be able to be entertaining entertainers. There were just too many people, I felt, last year in particular, who just weren’t saying what they were thinking. I’ve always prided myself on this show that it’s a two-way battle. We can criticize them and they have absolutely every right to criticize me in return. I’ve never ever been afraid to show that on the audition shows, the middle shows and certainly on the live shows. Hopefully this year it might be the year of the contestant fights back a little bit more because I think we need that.

It’s a little more of a regional question, so I apologize, but I was told that all four judges were extremely pleased with the talent they heard in Salt Lake City, which is the first time that the city was hosting the auditions. I was wondering if that was true – your thoughts about the talent that you heard in Utah?

SC: You know what? I absolutely loved it there. I loved the city, I loved the air and most importantly, I absolutely loved the people. We literally got all types there. It was exactly what this show is all about. It was great fun. I was really impressed with some of the people who came through. We even had an … and I liked him.

When did you find out that Kara was joining the cast? Were there any meetings that went on or did you show up for work one day and it was like, “Hey, you have a new cast member.”

SC: To be honest with you, I’d never spoken to this girl in my life and I didn’t know much about her. There had been talk for some time about adding a fourth judge because the British show I do – The X Factor – has had four judges for some time and it did help the format. We weren’t given the choice; it was simply, “This person is joining us. This is her history and we think she’s going to be good.” I kept an open mind, and that was really it.

There was a lot of talk last year about some of the … who were on the show. People talked about Carly and Michael and Kristy as people who had quite a bit of experience in music already. Are there any of those kinds of people this year who we might already know from past years or who have already been in the music business?

SC: I’m trying to remember as you’re asking me the question. I don’t think as many as last year. I’m not really too clear on that. Really, I prefer if they’re kind of new people and they haven’t had that kind of experience. It does seem a little bit fairer. Having said that, I think the Irish girl last year in particular, she was a great singer, so I think it was right to put her on the show.

Vince already sort of got the question, but you almost sounded surprised that you enjoyed yourself so much in Utah. Were you expecting something different?

SC: I thought it’d be a bit more … to be honest with you. I’d only heard about the place; I’d never been there before. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was really, really good fun and it was one of my favorite cities.

A number of idol’s this year were nominated for Grammy’s – Jennifer Hudson, Carrie, Fantasia. I was wondering your thoughts on that. Obviously, you must be proud.

SC: You know what? I absolutely love it when that happens – (a) because they deserve it and (b) I was referring to this earlier on: There’s so much snobbery in the music business about what we do on these shows and I know how upset they all get, so I think it’s fantastic.

In the past you have said that adding a fourth person to the panel has destroyed the chemistry. Do you want to revise that statement?

SC: Well, good question. I have been very, very happy with this panel for years because we did have a unique chemistry. Like I said right at the top of this conversation, I genuinely don’t know until I watch the show, or until you guys watch the show, whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I’m in two minds about this because part of me goes a bit, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and the other part of me goes, “Well, it has worked in the U.K.” So we’ll have to wait and see.

You mentioned Britney being on your other show before. She was on your other show, she’s in the midst of a comeback, she has a new album to promote. What are the chances she might appear on Idol this season either as a mentor or at least as a performer?

SC: Well, she would be literally first on the list as far as I’m concerned in any capacity. I would love to see her mentor the contestants. If she doesn’t want to do that and she wants to come on the show to perform, I would welcome her anytime. The buzz we had on our show when she came on was extraordinary. Even with all the stuff that’s gone on with her over the past two years, there was more excitement and interest in her than I’ve seen in anyone in years. So she would be very, very welcome.

In the initial audition round, was there a city that really stuck out as being overwhelming with talent? Conversely, was there a city that was maybe a little bit of a train wreck?

SC: We didn’t have a Seattle this year, which I remember a couple of years ago wasn’t one of the greater cities we’d ever been to. I would say it was pretty much spread. I think all cities represented themselves pretty well. I said earlier on that I enjoyed Salt Lake. Louisville was good. There wasn’t a standout good or a standout bad, I don’t think.

The show is such an event every year when it comes back on the air. When you started with it here in the U.S., what were your expectations? Has it met or surpassed any of the wildest expectations you could have for this show?

SC: Well, let’s put it this way: When I first did American Idol, the one thing I made sure I had was a return ticket because I genuinely thought we’d have been off the air in about three or four weeks and I’d be making a very hasty return back to the U.K. Luckily, things turned out much better. I mean, it’s gone way, way beyond our expectations. I love the fact that at this time of the year everyone’s looking forward to the audition rounds, everyone’s looking forward to the season returning. I think where FOX has been smart compared to other shows is that they haven’t been greedy with it. They haven’t put it on twice a year. That would have killed the process.

We will continue to do this show as long as we’re welcomed by the audience and they seem to still like it. We’re still enthusiastic about doing it. It’s been the best eight years of my life. It’s been fantastic.

Simon, one of the things I’ve wondered about over the years is since you’ve stressed again and again that it’s an individual singing competition, why do you have them sing in groups in Hollywood?

SC: By the way, I do ask myself that question when I see it sometimes. Partly it’s because we have a certain amount of days and a finite amount of time to actually go through the entire process and we have nearly 200 people. So by putting them in groups, it speeds up the process a little bit.

Secondly, it starts to really show their true personalities because if somebody’s in trouble, you’ll always see it within the group process, and it helps me make the selection process. Thirdly, it’s difficult for them. They always find it hard, and I think that’s probably a good test at that stage in the competition.

You just said that you would continue to do the show as long as America wants to watch it, but I remember talking to you last year and you said that you were done after three seasons – eight, nine and ten. Are you changing your decision or do you think it’ll be done by ten?

SC: It could still continue without me. I’ve always believed that. This show is successful all over the world and I’m only on American Idol. I’ll make a decision next year as to what I do as an onscreen judge because there is a big, big schedule now and I do two other shows, so it’s been hard. I think that this show could continue for another 10, 20 years, to be honest with you.

Do you remember that audition specifically, I know it’s quite a while ago now, and do you remember Paula Abdul seeming nervous or telling people that she was nervous and didn’t want her to try out?

SC: No, I don’t remember, to be honest with you. I mean, I don’t know how many people we’ve seen over the years, but you can imagine that if it’s the eight season, we’ve seen a lot of people. When I saw the clips back on the news I remembered it. I don’t remember anything specific on the day, but you have to remember, in these situations, first of all there are a minimum of seven security guards in the room. You don’t see them, but they’re everywhere. Secondly, you can stop the audition anytime you want, and we’ve done this before. All you have to say is, “Stop filming. We need to work with the producers,” and you can stop the process. Obviously, that didn’t happen. I can only remember it from what I saw when I saw the clips back.

Check out American Idol on Tuesday and Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. ET/PT on FOX. Stay tuned to Inside Pulse for another exclusive interview with the newest judge, Kara DioGuardi, later this week.