Roaring around Beverly Hills on the back of a threewheeler at 60mph, clinging on to Simon Cowell, bonded an unlikely relationship. “Your go now,” he smiled, after our 15-minute dash around Los Angeles’s multi-millionaires’ suburb. “No thanks,” I gasped, as I swung my jelly legs off the bike. The prospect of driving the TV superstar across the hills was just too hazardous.
“Come into the house for a drink,” he suggested while his security officer squeezed the motorbike, a new present from actress and TV producer Jada Pinkett Smith, into the garage between his Bugatti and convertible Bentley.
The “house” is a $34 million bachelor’s palace, just one of Cowell’s three stunning homes in the area. For a man whose failure until his late 30s earned him humiliation and derision by friends and rivals, Cowell’s new wealth – he earns about $70 million a year and is worth around $700 million – is the reward for becoming a TV icon in Britain and America and simultaneously a dominant arbiter of pop music.
Understanding those who control the music and media world is fascinating. As the author of unauthorised biographies of controversial tycoons, including Robert Maxwell, Mohamed Al Fayed, Bernie Ecclestone and Richard Branson, I am always curious to unearth the truth about powerful men climbing the greasy pole.
Cowell perfectly fits that description. A Google search shows that more than 35,000 stories have been published in British newspapers and magazines about him during the past 11 years. With similar exposure in the US media, Cowell’s publicity machine has been aggressively churning out endless self-adulation.
Revelations have been limited to “confessions” by lap dancers about steamy nights with Cowell, variously described as a “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” lover. In my experience, the publicity was a suspicious smokescreen put up to create myths and hide embarrassments about the background to Cowell’s triumphant decade.
There couldn’t have been a better moment for me to write Cowell’s biography. Over the past year, his phenomenal success has been challenged like never before. With Britain’s Got Talent (BGT) going live over the past week climaxing in the final this Saturday, Cowell admits that his future is being tested.
Undoubtedly, his reputation was on the line in recent weeks as The Voice UK on BBC1 edged ahead of BGT in the ratings. The embarrassment followed sceptical reviews of last season’s X Factor, with Take That’s Gary Barlow as one of the judges. Irritated by Barlow’s performance, Cowell fumed about the production while his own X Factor ratings in America stuck at 12 million viewers instead of the 30 million he’d predicted.
He was accustomed to supremacy, but cynics began predicting his demise. Cowell derided his enemies’ wishful thinking. Under strain, he’s now fighting back to keep his title as the King of Reality TV.
Without approaching Cowell, I began my research last year. Interviews with friends, former colleagues and rivals revealed a man who had failed at school, flopped in the music industry and who, after barely escaping bankruptcy at the age of 32, had struggled to promote indifferent artists across Britain until 1998 when the success of Westlife finally won him respect.
Then in 2001, he burst into the spotlight on ITV’s Pop Idol as “Nasty Simon” and “Simon the Super Stud”, the vain health freak photographed with lap dancers, who enjoyed cruelly demolishing deluded wannabes. Unlike other celebrities, Cowell shamelessly admitted visiting Stringfellows and taking lap dancers home for the night or on holiday.
There was, I realised, something intriguing about television’s King of Humiliation surviving his own medicine to become a power-broker of Britain’s TV and music industry. Not least because no one could explain the mystery of how he pulled the strings and, more importantly, of a surprisingly private person who confided his fears and vulnerabilities only to a small group of girlfriends.
After two months’ research I’d begun to break the barriers when, unexpectedly, I received a call inviting me to meet the celebrity himself. “I’ll co-operate with you,” suggested Cowell, during a strained conversation in his Kensington office. “Only on my terms,” I replied. “You can’t control anything I write and you won’t see the book until it’s published.”
Cowell agreed and over the next six months I flew with him on a private jet between London, LA and around America. Then I spent many days and nights with him in America’s cities, as he conducted auditions for his first American X Factor, and I interviewed him on many occasions at his home in LA.
“There’ll be bits of the book you won’t like,” I warned, as I joined him last summer on board Slipstream, a 193ft chartered yacht moored off St Tropez. He nodded warily. I repeated the warning on the same yacht in the Caribbean last January. By then it was too late for him to retreat.
In Chicago, New York and Los Angeles I had sat in the front row of arenas packed with 4,500 rowdy fans as Cowell sifted through some of the 100,000 contestants eager to win a $5 million recording contract at the end of America’s X Factor. Behind his alternately jovial and nasty expressions seen on screen, Cowell proved to be a relentless producer, constantly editing and re-editing his programmes live on air and openly dissatisfied if his producers failed to offer good talent.
Equally, I watched inside the privileged judges’ room as he grew increasingly dissatisfied with Cheryl Cole as her failure to jell with American audiences spilled into a drama. Cowell first mentioned his concern about Cole at the end of the first day of auditions in LA. When he arrived late on the second day, there was a noticeable lack of warmth towards the singer.
His attitude hardened during the six hours of auditions as she struggled to make an impression. When he summoned a meeting for all the producers at midnight on the second day, there was clearly a crisis. Disregarding the clock, Cowell phones staff and friends until about 5am, then takes a sleeping tablet and awakes at noon.
His first hours follow a rigid pattern in an attempt to preserve his appearance – he’s 52 – and prolong his life. Special fruits, vitamin tablets, detoxined water and then a massage are supplemented by drips, colonic irrigation and weird treatments to offer what he calls “a balance” to his chain smoking.
He’s at his best when learning from mistakes and by overcoming his failures. Defying debunkers gives him the greatest pleasure. No one is more critical of his performance than Cowell himself and no one is more demanding from fellow panellists than Cowell, as Cheryl Cole discovered to her cost.
He cannot be ignored because his dissatisfaction fuels a relentless quest to raise quality in his shows and bury competitors. On the road, he’s surrounded by three permanent assistants responsible for his communications, diet (best described as nursery food), 26 pieces of luggage and three laptops so that he can constantly review his own shows and programmes based on his formats shown around the world.
In between, he listens to music and views demo discs of artists seeking to appear on his shows. Unlike most celebrities, Cowell is constantly thinking beyond his own performance and even the sale of the formats of his two principal shows – X Factor and the Talent programmes – which have both been adapted for broadcast in over 40 countries.
The shows are themselves used to find new singers. Simultaneously, sales of their music and discs further enrich Cowell and Sony. One Direction, a boy group created by Cowell last year, is currently America’s sensational hit, adding to his success with Susan Boyle, Leona Lewis and many others. By merging TV and music, Cowell has created a money machine.
Beyond those successes, he is constantly inventing new formats – currently he’s selling in New York the blueprint for a show about competing DJs – and plotting how to consolidate all TV music reality shows under one owner – himself.
His driving force is revenge: revenge against those who mocked him at school, made snide comments as he delivered EMI’s mail around Soho as a teenager, humiliated him as a record producer at RCA and especially against Simon Fuller, his former partner and ex-manager of the Spice Girls, with whom he developed what became the smash hit American Idol.
He accuses Fuller of sharp practice that, although wholly legal, allegedly exploited Cowell’s ideas. Until now, Fuller has claimed total credit for inventing American Idol based on Pop Idol. Now, Pop Idol’s key British producers contradict Fuller and the war between the two Simons threatens to intensify if Fuller, true to form, issues writs to assert his position.
Cowell, Fuller now knows, is no longer a meek, fun-loving music producer but is ambitious to become a global media mogul. Unlike Fuller, who hasn’t devised a successful new show for several years, Cowell’s dominance in Britain and the USA casts him as an intriguing prospect. Working around the clock, he’s managed to improve BGT and the latest viewing figures showed it was slightly ahead of The Voice UK.
But Cowell remains restless, not least about senior ITV executives who resent his influence over the network and publicity about his louche lifestyle. With only one year to run on his ITV contract, he and ITV’s chiefs are positioning themselves for aggressive negotiations over the network’s most successful shows. Their respective strengths in their battle will depend on BGT’s ratings this week and whether Cowell successfully re-invents X Factor for the autumn series – or topples into decline.
TV programmes, Cowell knows, are as much about creativity as personalities, prejudices and politics. He’s isolated by his fame, and his continued success depends on controlling his demons while navigating through conflicts to retain his influence over TV and music. He hopes there will be no “End” to his life’s story.
The Britain’s Got Talent final is on ITV1 tonight at 7:00pm