They were the dream team – Simon and Cheryl, Cowell and Cole. Even the names complemented each other perfectly. He was the ruthless Svengali who made millions from pop music and talent shows; camp and uncompromising, with a fabulous line in putdowns. She was the working-class girl who had risen from nowhere to become the face of Girls Aloud – a pop group manufactured on the 2002 ITV talent show Popstars: The Rivals that be came the UK’s biggest-selling girl group of the 21st century. The only surprise was that she wasn’t a Cowell creation.
In 2008, Cowell signed her up as a judge for The X Factor and from the start it was obvious they had a special relationship. She had started out as Cheryl Tweedy, all tracksuits and crooked teeth, and labelled a chav by the tabloids after being convicted for common assault in 2003.
But by the time she made her debut on The X Factor at the age of 24 she had married the England footballer Ashley Cole and was the more sophisticated Cheryl Cole – gorgeous be-dimpled innocent reinvented by Cowell as the nation’s sweetheart.
Cowell and Cole were sugar and spice – she was the perfect antidote to the terrifying star of light entertainment. But there was also some thing more complicated at work; Cowell was softening, showing a more tender side, while Cheryl could be tough as old boots – not least when confronting Cowell.
While he dominated the other judges, their relationship was more nuanced. He seemed in awe of Cheryl. At times it seemed to be she who was pulling the strings. In his unauthorised biography he was quoted as saying: “I felt like a mouse being played with by a beautiful cat. She played me. I adored her.”
After three series together, it was announced that X Factor would launch in America. Of course Cowell would take Cole with him. But what Cowell hadn’t considered was that in the months since he had last worked with her, Cheryl had gone through a humiliating divorce.
By the time she reached America, her confidence was at a low. After two days on set together he sacked her. The tempestuous on- screen love affair between Cheryl and Simon was over.
Then, in June this year, Cowell announced both he and Cheryl, now 31, would return to the UK show for the first time in four years. The programme needed a ratings boost (not easy as it will be competing against BBC juggernaut Doctor Who) and times had moved on – he had become an unlikely father at 54, and she had become Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, marrying her French boyfriend of three months.
Now Simon and Cheryl claim they are closer than ever. Here for the first time they talk about friendship, betrayal, ruthlessness and starting again.
SIMON ON CHERYL...
I first met Cheryl when she was on Comic Relief Does The Apprentice in 2007. She got hold of my phone number and made this passionate plea for a charity. I met her that night and gave her the cheque. Amazingly there were no cameras around. I asked her why there wasn’t a camera crew and she said it was because she wanted to personally thank me for the money. Smart.
She’s a beautiful girl, stunning, but not really my type. First of all there’s a slight age difference! At the time she was 23, and I was in my 40s. I certainly didn’t think I was her type. I don’t look like a Premier League footballer.
Weeks after that first meeting I offered her a job on Britain’s Got Talent. She said yes, then three days before we started filming she pulled out. She said: ‘I just can’t do it, I can’t go out there and judge people.’
She called me after Britain’s Got Talent and said she thought she’d made a mistake. I said: ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got X Factor.’ She turned up on the first day wearing orange. She was shaking like an orange jelly. I had to take her to one side before we started filming. I said: ‘What d’you do when you watch the show at home?’ She said: ‘I scream at the TV and mainly at you.’ I told her that’s all she had to do now! Within five minutes she’d taken to it like a duck to water.
She was compassionate and sincere. I knew the public would relate to her. She had another voice, which is important on a show that appeals to a northern audience. She’s a tough little nut. She got where she got to because she’s what I call a killer. People like that have steel in their eyes. They know what they want and go out and get it. I’m a killer, too.
She’s very focused, very ambitious, and people listen to her. I went to one of these arena dates where we had 4,000–5,000 people in the room. She comes in and it’s like royalty has arrived. It was galling to see this wonder girl’s impact on an audience. Of course, it pissed me off that she stole my limelight, but at the same time I thought, ‘I’ve done my job, I’ve found someone the public is interested in.’ She had that star glow about her.
She’s lived her personal life through the media, and has found that difficult to deal with, particularly after the marriage breakup with Ashley. My falling-out with Cheryl came soon after her divorce and was a nightmare. We were all wound up. There was so much expectation on the show in America, and I definitely wasn’t myself. I was uptight. When I saw her I didn’t recognise her. Literally. The hair and outfit were crazy. Just totally crazy.
I asked her manager, ‘What’s she wearing, what’s happened to her hair?’ He was defensive about it. I haven’t a clue why she turned up like that. We then did the first day of auditions, and she was nervous, shy, not in her comfort zone. She’d put on a bit of weight, but not loads. That wasn’t the issue. The only way I can describe it is that it wasn’t Cheryl sitting in that seat. She’d lost her confidence. But in hindsight I don’t think that first day worked anyway. There was something not quite right about that show in America.
After two days I called her and said, ‘Look, it’s not going great, to be honest,’ then I mentioned what she wore and she turned on me. It wasn’t a great conversation. If I could go back in time I would have kept her on the show. It was stupid doing what I did. I didn’t sack her personally. That was the second-biggest mistake I made. When you’re under pressure you make stupid mistakes.
Why didn’t I tell her myself ? The exec producer was staying in the UK to do the show there, so I thought he was the one who could persuade her to do the UK show. We offered a much-improved deal, my dressing room etc etc, and she nearly took it, but at the last minute said no.
The worst it got between us was when she sent me a text message. It was like when you get a really horrible letter from an ex-girlfriend. The general tone was something along the lines of ‘F*** you, you’ve hurt me, you’ve let me down, I can never forgive you.’ I shrank. In a weird way I was glad to hear it. It was a week or two after the sacking, and I was glad to hear some thing. I replied, apologising. I accepted I had made a mistake.
Then she did something for my birthday a few months later. She hired a plane to advertise how old I was in Miami. It was one of those planes that had a banner behind it, saying something like ‘Happy Birthday Simon you’re 52… Ha ha ha!’ It was quite funny, and I thought in her own strange way it was her reaching out to me.
Gradually we started talking again. Then we met. Each time we met it got more comfortable. She told me I betrayed her. I think she was surprised I ’d made that decision because we were close. But the professional has always got to come before the personal in work.
We’ve both changed for different reasons. If you’d seen me 18 months ago and said ‘Simon, back at home now you’ve got two dogs and a six-month-old baby,’ I’d go ‘Yeah, right!’ It was never going to happen, but it did. And I’m enjoying my life now.
The first five months were weird. Eric didn’t have a clue who I was – I could have been anybody. But the last two weeks have been good – he’s started to recognise me and, as everybody knows, I demand recognition! He’s a cutie. I had a really nice day yesterday, working from home, with him and the two dogs in the garden.
As for Cheryl, she’s met this guy, married him after three months and is incredibly happy. I didn’t know Ashley well, but the few times I met them together I thought they were more like brother and sister. I didn’t quite get that husband–wife thing. But this guy is confident, and charming. She’s changed. She’s fun again. Mind you, I can’t remember her new surname to save my life. I think she’s married some one with a surname you can’t pronounce so she will become Cheryl, like Madonna and Beyoncé. It was the grand plan to become a one-name artist.
Is she a better singer than judge? Whatever I say I’m going to get into trouble. But I’ve got to be honest – as a singer, she’s very good, but she’s a better judge.
CHERYL ON SIMON...
I called Simon for some money when I was on Comic Relief Does The Apprentice. I had Karren Brady on my team, and Trinny Woodall, but I was the only one with the balls to call him. He was very different from his X Factor persona when I met him. He was charismatic, kind. I only asked him for £1,000. He gave £25,000.
He was vain, though. He just has an aura. He’s aware that people are attracted to him. He loves it. I’ve never fancied Simon. We’ve always had more of a brother-sister chemistry than a sexual tension.
He asked me to do Britain’s Got Talent, but just before filming was due to start I said, ‘I can’t do this!’ I wanted to be a pop star, I didn’t want to be on TV. I got the wobbles. He said, ‘That’s a shame because I was going to ask you to join X Factor.’ I said I wouldn’t do X Factor for all the tea in China.
Then he called again, and said ‘You’re in a privileged position where you can really guide these people; you’ve experienced what they’re going through, you’ve auditioned, you’ve performed…’ He was very convincing. I had four days to make up my mind because Sharon Osbourne had left unexpectedly just before it was going to start. I spoke to the [Girls Aloud] girls and they said why not? It was a big deal for me at the time.
Simon liked the fact that I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind and disagree with him. I’d also tell him when he was rude. I’ve changed since then. I’m 31 now. I was 24 when I did the first X Factor and I’ve been through so much stuff in my personal life. I hope I’ve grown. As a judge, I’ve also changed. I understand now the importance of not giving someone false hope – in my first few days I would have said yes to everybody.
We had great fun in the auditions. We’d cry laughing. When Simon’s grumpy everything’s bad; the light’s bad, sound’s bad, these kids are boring, everything is going wrong. But when he’s on it, he’s hysterical. He is quite childlike.
I’d done three series in the UK, gone to America, then he sacked me. In hindsight he was right because I wasn’t myself. He wasn’t himself either. He was under a lot of strain because it was a new venture. But he handled it wrongly – he got somebody else to sack me. I didn’t want to talk to him at the time. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. The sacking came on top of everything else; it was just the cherry on the cake.
It’s been said so many times that I wanted to be massive in America, but it was more that I felt let down as a friend; that he didn’t approach m e d i r e c t l y o r s a y, ‘I can see you’re in a bad place, this doesn’t feel right for you, go back home.’
He’s always found confrontation difficult, and deep down it’s because he’s a good person. He’s ruthless in business, but he finds it hard to confront someone face to face, especially if he cares about them. So he copped out. He has to put business in front of friendship, but I don’t think he’d ever do it again. He learnt a lot from it. We both did. I’ve learnt a lot from Simon.
I made the first move to make up. First of all I sent him a very abusive text message. What I said was: ‘F*** you, f *** the orange and purple outfit, f *** big hair, f *** you all. In fact f *** off.’ I don’t think I got a response. Then on his birthday I hired a plane to fly over Miami with a banner at the back. I heard he didn’t want anyone to know how old he was or where he was staying, so I sent ‘Simon Cowell is 52 today. Ha ha ha! Love Cheryl.’
I can’t remember how much it cost, but it was worth every penny. It was a bit of revenge but also a gesture of friendship. I knew that he’d hate it but also find it funny; it was me saying no hard feelings. I’ve warned him never to let me down again. Just let him try.
We’re both in a really good place this time round. He’s got his baby and he’s more settled. I was surprised when he became a dad, but I was always the person who said, ‘It would be the best thing for you. You’d be an amazing father. If you loved a child like you love your dogs...’ I’m going to have a word with him about getting married. He jokes about being too tight to get married, but I don’t think he is. He’s very generous.
It feels like we’ve never been away. There’s always tension between us in the show, and I suppose this time there’ll be even more. I can’t tell if he’s deliberately winding me up, but he’s definitely more menacing. He knows the buttons to push and he’s doing it on purpose. He’s made me more competitive than ever. He’s more ruthless than me but I’m stronger in my opinions; I believe what I’m saying.
He’ll never remember my new second name. He just can’t be bothered. I told him just Cheryl will do.
The X Factor 2014 begins on Saturday at 8:00pm on ITV
[Photo (C) Alex James/Radio Times]