Let me start with an admission: I am predisposed to like Simon Cowell before I even enter his office. He has arranged the interview as dusk descends because he keeps what he calls “vampire hours”. When I hear this, I cheer silently. No orange-juicy breakfast meeting in a boardroom, then; no fake early morning jollity followed by a snap departure. This is a man who goes to bed at 5.30am and only starts the serious work of the day after 3pm. We will be fine.
The last time I met Cowell was at a GQ dinner in the Dorchester Hotel some years previously. He sat opposite me and asked me to explain the then current parliamentary issue of the day – the row over the 42-day detention period of terror suspects. I was a few drinks in and, to my eternal shame, I think I did. In some depth. He listened intently and asked polite questions and I, riveted by my own voice, held this media mogul in a conversational hijack. I learnt something very interesting about Cowell that night, too. He is excellent at making other people feel important.
This time, I find him in the offices of his company Syco in west London. It looks like a Four Seasons spa resort. Soft suedes and chic leathers in the kind of colours that interior designers call taupe, ecru, mink and stone. When I enter the room he greets me with a peck on the cheek. At least I think he does, but maybe it was I who initiated the kiss (a thought that haunts me through the first ten minutes of the interview).
The 53-year-old is shorter in real life – a trim figure in unremarkable clothes. His skin is smooth and his voice is cool. He is not particularly handsome, but he is attentive and, the Cowell trademark, incredibly polite.
He lights a cigarette almost immediately – an apparent breach, I later discover, of the Health Act 2006, which bans workplace smoking. I do a double take as I realise I haven’t seen anyone smoke indoors (outside Russia) for about five years. He offers me one, an American brand, menthol Kool, and his aura of power is such that I almost say yes before remembering I don’t smoke.
There are a lot of things to ask Simon Cowell. I want to hear about the new series of Britain’s Got Talent (right) and The X Factor, Botox and the women in his life. Instead I blurt out: “I read you were looking for a wife. You’re not, are you?”
His reply is cautious. “I am not actively looking for a wife, no.” And so we talk about what Facebook might call his relationship status and his approach to the women he has dated.
“I’m happy single, and when I’m in relationships as well. I tend to be in a relationship more than being single. Terri [Seymour] lasted six years, Mezghan [Hussainy] lasted two years, and that was in a nine-year block, so I was only single for about a year out of those nine years. But I’m very good on my own, a) because I never get bored and b) because there is always something I need to catch up on.”
Last night his catching up included not just Terri and Mezghan, but his other great public love and erstwhile partner, Sinitta. I ask him why he is still so close to his exes. It’s one of the things I find most unusual about the Simon Cowell I have read about. He remains attached or indebted to the women he has, well, fired.
“They do seem to get on well. Yes, Sinitta and Mezghan were on holiday with me this year. They have never spent much time together, but they got really close,” he confesses. Doesn’t he think that odd? I mean it’s unusual, isn’t it? But he tells me it’s the reverse. He rarely ends acrimoniously. “I break up very well. I am a good breaker-upper.” Indeed, he is renowned to be a generous jilter, sometimes throwing a house into the equation.
So what does the one constant woman in his life – his mum, Julie – make of the girls he brings home? I’m dying to know if within this close mother/son relationship she ever gives him a hard time for not getting on with it.
“I think, like any mum, she would love me to settle down with someone she likes, but she has known me long enough to know that I am also happy when I am not with someone. She’s probably more fearful of me being with the wrong person.”
He credits his business instincts to his father, Eric, who died in 1999. “I still think how he would handle a crisis. He was incredibly calm. He never used to blame other people and I think I have probably inherited that from him.”
He describes his own management style as “inclusive. If we have a meeting about a show, I will bring in 25 or sometimes 30 people. I don’t believe in a hierarchy because I want to hear what everyone has to say.”
He knows, though, that win or lose the buck stops with him. When we meet, the first few episodes of ITV’s Food Glorious Food (left) – the one where the winner’s dish will be made into a ready meal and sold in Marks & Spencer’s – have got the TV critics going. The tabloid word here might be “panned”. I ask him what he thought of the viewing figures.
“Disappointing,” he says. “We would have liked another million. What’s frustrating – and it’s both a blessing and a curse – is that if you are well known, your shows get publicised, which is great. But if the figures aren’t quite what people are expecting, I get slaughtered. I don’t know an awful lot about food shows, but I thought this was a really good idea.” Not only does he refuse to write it off, he’s already talking of another series, though how much of that is Cowell bravado I can’t tell.
He points out that Food Glorious Food still gets 2.6 million viewers and sounds annoyed that so much is made of his ratings in the press. “Seriously, I’ve had times where numbers have gone down by one per cent and the headline is X Factor figures down.” I point out that if he didn’t want to be judged on ratings, surely he wouldn’t leap into America predicting what the viewing figures would be on his shows. But since we are now onto The X Factor and since he has brought it up, I ask him what went wrong last season. And he is beautifully candid.
“The format is ten years old and any format that has lasted that long, if you want the figures to have a chance of going up, you have to change the format, because the inevitable result is if you don’t, they will go down.”
What’s changing? He can’t say. The environment is “too competitive out there”. He tells me the basic formula will stay intact, but he will change “every aspect of the show in some particular way. It will look like a slightly different show to one you have seen before.” The audition rooms will be making a comeback.
Is that because he recognises it’s getting boring? Again, it’s an impressively no-holds-barred response. “When the numbers go down, regardless of the excuses people come up with – time-shifting or whatever – for me it’s that they don’t like the show as much as they did. My job is to try and make the show better than it was two or three years ago.”
Cowell admits there has been too much emphasis on the judges and not enough on the contestants. And I can’t stop the cynic in me wondering what kind of back stories he’s looking for now. How vulnerable or screwed-up or unhappy will the next kids have to be?
“Er…” he pauses. “I wouldn’t put it quite that way. I would say that you have got to find contestants who are interesting people.” He denies that it’s the troubled contestants that people want to watch and insists it’s those like Stacey Solomon and Leona Lewis – people who don’t take themselves too seriously – who we root for. Does it ever get to that level of discomfort where he thinks he’s playing with people’s lives? He sighs. And I’m not sure whether it’s because the question troubles him or frustrates him.
“It happens on every show you make. There is a moment where you feel uncomfortable, but then you look at things with perspective and the truth is – over the years – the show has benefited a lot of people’s lives who wouldn’t have had an opportunity.” It’s a good spiel. And I can tell that he is uncomfortable in a pseudo Mother Theresa role. He makes no bones about his commercial interests – the reasons he makes the shows. And he will be the first to admit he’s not driven by a messianic yearning to make the world a better place. He has ruled himself out as a judge on The X Factor – “for this year” because of his commitment in America – but says at some point he will return. “There’s something about this show which is closest to my heart, so at some point I will definitely come back on it.”
So, I ask, when he picks his judges, are they basically women he fancies? It’s his first real laugh. “A lot of them, yes, I’m not going to lie.” Was he madly in love with Cheryl Cole (right)? “I think my entire production staff – including a lot of gay people – were madly in love with Cheryl. I mean, literally, when she walked on set on the first day in the UK I thought that she was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen in my life. I mean, genuinely. She was just absolutely stunning. She still is, but I remember that day vividly as in ‘God, you are gorgeous.’”
It’s a ringing endorsement and a fairly unambiguous eulogy to the World’s Hottest Woman. So does it bother him when people say he’s gay – or ask when he’s going to come out?
“If I was living 200 years ago in a coal mine, maybe, but I work in possibly the gayest industry in the world! Music and TV! It would make no difference to my life or my career. A lot of my friends are gay, but I’m not and don’t even think that way any more.” So does it matter if people get him wrong? “I couldn’t care less [if people think I’m gay] because it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It feels like such an antiquated question now.”
He describes the falling-out with Cole as a time he became public enemy number one – “she didn’t like me very much” – but says they have made it up now. “It’s almost back to where we were.” I’m struck once more by the curious reversal. With the exes there appears to be no malice. With the work relationships there appear to be a lot of tears. Perhaps it’s simply that power is a bigger aphrodisiac than sex these days.
Someone else who appears to have been ‘‘exed” is X Factor judge Tulisa Contostavlos. Cowell humours me while I attempt to identify the new fourth judge, but what he doesn’t do is deny that Tulisa is off the show. He promises he has taken a gamble with the new judge. Someone who appeals to the middle-aged and to the young, someone who has been around for a while. He rejects my feeble guesses: Cliff Richard? Tom Jones?
And then his press man, quietly listening in the corner, steps in to redirect the interview with a gentle prod, “Shall we have a bit of Britain’s Got Talent?” So I ask about the auditions (“the usual – the good the bad and the ugly. You know, some people who shouldn’t have been there.”) and he tells me how satisfied he was to poach Alesha Dixon from the BBC, but how little he enjoyed going head to head with The Voice UK in the weeks when the BBC was beating ITV. “No one was happy. You picked up the paper and they were having a field day with it. My job as team leader was to keep everybody’s energy up and say, ‘You know what, I think ours is the better show.’” He’ll need his best team leader qualities again as The Voice UK has pulled forward its transmission time to steal a march on Britain’s Got Talent.
Cowell divides his time between London and Los Angeles and says he feels at home in both. His fitness regime sounds as if it owes more to Hollywood than Hammersmith. I’ve read that he does 500 press-ups a day, has vitamin jabs, colonic irrigation and Botox.
“It’s all true,” he confirms. “I mean, not 500 push-ups, but several hundred. I work out three or four times a week, I have Botox, take tons of vitamins and vitamin infusions – if you believe that these things work, you will feel better.” It’s an interesting admission of quackery for such a hard-nosed businessman. His luxuries, he’s happy to admit, are fast cars and lemon bath milk. But does he know what he’s worth?
“Yes.” He doesn’t elaborate, so I hazard a guess. Around £300 million? (OK, not a pure guess, as last year’s Sunday Times list of music millionaires credited him with a fortune of £225 million.) “Well, I wouldn’t actually like to put a figure on it. I mean… it’s quite a lot.”
Is that because it embarrasses him still? I’m trying to work out if the boy from London is still more English at heart than American. “I’m not embarrassed about it. I don’t feel comfortable saying what I’ve got. It’s not something I would ever have that conversation about.” So yes, embarrassed, then.
I ask him what hits him when he returns to the UK – a land flirting with a triple-dip recession with no clear way out. What does he think is going wrong here? What would he do if he were Prime Minister for a day? The answer is more apprenticeships. “100 per cent apprenticeships – I don’t think we do that enough. I had to find my own mentors.” So what’s the fix for that, then?
“Well, first of all, be patient before you make any money and you have got to want to learn – I think that is absolutely key. The difference now compared to when I was growing up – designer things, travel, a phone – none of us had a clue. I never craved anything that I couldn’t afford.” What a curious response, I point out, from someone who now sells – no, franchises – the joy of instant fame and gratification to the world.
“Well, yes, I think there is a certain irony to it. I agree with you. The juxtaposition to that is someone like Susan Boyle who, without Britain’s Got Talent, would still be sitting in that house having people throw stones at her door.”
Ha! I knew he wouldn’t be able to get through a whole interview without mentioning Susan Boyle. We don’t dwell on her wellbeing. But I ask about his. There was a time last year when he switched off his phone for two months. So was he a nervous wreck?
“It was BLISS. I went through a phase, it was probably just one unpleasant text message too many, but I thought, ‘This is going off for a day.’ And then it got to two days, then a week…” He talks like a recovering addict. And lets slip he has two phones, not one. But he is a man who has learnt to shut himself off when he needs to and, as he would put it, just think.
And then the interview is over. We have photos taken and this time, he comes towards me. A farewell kiss on the cheek that liberates me from my earlier cringe – nothing if not impeccably polite. As I leave the building I glance at my watch: 6pm, the rush-hour traffic is building, the light is fading, my work is almost done. Cowell’s vampire day is just beginning.
Britain's Got Talent begins on Saturday at 7:00pm on ITV