His plan to leave American Idol and launch the U.S. version of The X Factor will likely keep this busy bachelor’s single status intact.
He’s the man millions of TV viewers love to hate, the cruel judge who has crushed the hopes of countless aspiring stars and starlets. But Simon Cowell is also one of the most shrewd, powerful and successful figures in the modern entertainment industry. And one of the most famous single men in the world.
Cowell’s recent shock announcement that he plans to leave American Idol following the 2010 season to launch a U.S. version of his hit British talent show The X Factor has caused much excited comment on both sides of the Atlantic. Many believe the move will lead to untenable schedule clashes with his media commitments in London, and bitter ratings battles with Idol co-founder Simon Fuller as they both battle for viewers on Fox.
In fact, Cowell’s transatlantic move is all part of his game plan for world domination in 2011. If it comes together, TV’s most eligible bachelor will leap from the paltry multi-millionaire league into the billion-dollar stratosphere. The 50-year-old music tycoon is refocusing his energies on America, where he already lives half the year, because this is where the biggest rewards potentially await him.
To help realize his imperial ambitions, Cowell has joined forces with the British retail billionaire Sir Philip Green, merging his Syco operation into a newly formed joint venture, Greenwell Entertainment. The outspoken pair promise a multimedia juggernaut that will be “bigger than Disney.” They plan to launch The X Factor with a new permanent home in Las Vegas, complete with branded merchandise and pay-per-view internet broadcasts.
Last year, Cowell was named the highest paid man on primetime U.S. television, ahead of Donald Trump and just behind Oprah Winfrey. The acts he has launched on American Idol and its sister shows in Britain —including Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jordin Sparks, Leona Lewis and Susan Boyle — have sold more than 150 million albums between them. With a stake in half a dozen hit shows, his own record label, music publishing and TV production companies, Cowell is the hardest working man in show business.
Where love fits into this hectic schedule is highly debatable. Cowell has reportedly been single since splitting from his long-term girlfriend, the TV presenter Terri Seymour, at the end of 2008. Seymour told one British newspaper that their six-year relationship ended because of clashing work schedules and the transatlantic distance between them, although her desire to have children has also been blamed.
“I’m terrified of the responsibility,” Cowell admitted when Britain’s Daily Mail asked him about fatherhood. “I have to be able to fly to Los Angeles at a minute’s notice.” But despite their split, Seymour and Cowell remain good friends. They have often been seen in public together since, and he even bought her a house as a goodbye gift.
Indeed, Cowell remains close to several of his ex-girlfriends. Jackie St Claire, a former model, hosted his star-packed $1.5 million 50th birthday party last October at a palatial mansion near London. And the American-born Indian singer Sinitta, a former pop star in the UK, is still a bosom buddy and regular visitor to Cowell’s various homes around the world.
Since his split with Seymour, gossip reports have linked Cowell with several women including American Idol make-up artist Mezghan Hussainy and two British models, Jasmine Lennard and Emma Noble. But any hint of romance has been denied by Cowell or his friends.
Ultimately, Cowell seems like a good friend to women but too single-minded to work as a long-term boyfriend. He admits that he is “not very romantic” and “a bit of a control freak.” He is also wary of marriage, dismissing it as an “outdated contract.”
The hard-nosed business language speaks volumes. Cowell has always put business first. He once claimed that profit motive was “absolutely the only criterion” behind all his decisions, joking on 60 Minutes that he believes public executions should be sponsored and televised. He also brushes off criticism that he only creates bland production-line pop stars: “I’d rather be McDonald’s than a three-star Michelin chef.”
A high-school flop who began his music business career in the mail room at EMI Records in London 30 years ago, Cowell launched a string of U.K. labels and pop acts in the 1980s. But his business masterstroke came when he joined Pop Idol, the British forerunner to American Idol, in 2001. His outspoken persona, essentially playing the bad cop alongside more diplomatic judges, earned him a similar high-profile boo-hiss role on American Idol a year later.
Variations on the Idol and X Factor franchises now air in more than 30 countries. Cowell not only receives an appearance fee but also a cut of every record sold via his Syco label, which is part of the Sony Corporation. Syco also produces the U.K. version of The X Factor, plus its sister shows Britain’s Got Talent and America’s Got Talent.
Friends insist Cowell is a charming and generous character in private, but his sharp tongue and outspoken opinions have helped push American Idol to record-breaking ratings of 30 million or more. Likewise, his spiky chemistry with co-hosts Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, Ryan Seacrest and new arrival Ellen DeGeneres are all key to his audience appeal. He may be the meanest man on American TV, but cruelty is the Cowell brand. Everybody knows all the most memorable Hollywood villains have English accents.
According to Forbes magazine, Cowell earns around $75 million a year, mostly from his appearance fees on American Idol. He reportedly owns three Rolls-Royces and five houses, including a $22 million Beverly Hills mansion. London’s Sunday Times “Rich List” estimates his personal fortune at close to $200 million, a sum that is set to rocket when he launches The X Factor in the U.S. “Cowell will be our first broadcasting dollar billionaire and that will happen soon,” claimed “Rich List” author Philip Beresford last year.
So what’s eating Simon Cowell? More than money, it seems a fiercely competitive streak is his main driving force — or possibly his Achilles heel. Cowell calls it a “curse,” but openly admits he cannot bear the thought of a competitor doing better than him.
Cowell’s chief rival in this Freudian psychodrama is another Simon – the former Spice Girls manager Simon Fuller. Ironically, it was Fuller who launched his friend and colleague to international stardom by hiring him as a judge on Pop Idol and American Idol. But the two later fell out when Cowell launched his own copycat U.K. talent show, The X Factor, in 2004.
A string of lawsuits that Fuller launched against Cowell were settled in 2005, giving Fuller’s company, 19 Entertainment, a stake in The X Factor while temporarily preventing Cowell from engaging in direct competition with American Idol. That legal restriction ends next year, which explains Cowell’s decision to dump Idol and launch a U.S. version of his own hit British show.
Fuller offered his most famous judge “Oprah money” to stay on American Idol, but he refused. After years of working to make his rival richer, Cowell wants payback. Beating Fuller’s personal fortune, said to be over $600 million, is sure to figure in his sights. This is not about money. This is personal.
All of which means Cowell may be too busy for full-time relationships, but the single life obviously suits TV’s most eligible bachelor. “I honestly can’t think of one woman who would be perfect for him,” his ex-partner Terri Seymour told Britain’s News of the World last year. “I think he needs more than one woman, and none of them should live with him.”
As he builds his new empire in Hollywood and Las Vegas, Simon Cowell is laughing all the way to the bank. And why not? He seems to live a charmed life surrounded by immense wealth and beautiful women, whether former girlfriends or casual dates. Regardless of his reputation as TV’s meanest man, Cowell clearly has The Ex Factor.