Interview: Simon Cowell from America’s Got Talent

We had the honor of sitting down with Simon Cowell to talk about America’s Got Talent and American Idol. Here’s what he had to say:

So Simon, you have the number one show obviously, in the regular season. You’ve also got the number one summer show. How much of it is the format? How much of it is the host? And how much of it is just you?

S. Cowell: I wish it was me. I think it comes down to making good TV and, you know, I’ve learned with these shows now that you’ve got to make shows that you yourself would like to watch.

I thought the first two seasons of America’s Got Talent were good. I think this one is the best one by a mile because they – you see the difference this year, I think, with the crowd being effectively the fourth judge.

But most importantly, I think that these shows have to have a relevance because if you’re not finding stars at the back of these shows — whether it’s Idol or Got Talent— they’re a complete waste of time.

And everything changed last year on Got Talent when the guy who one, Terry Fator — this ventriloquist — went on to sign $150 million contract with a Vegas casino.

So, you know, the show actually did its job. It found a star and it’s a competition worth winning because if it’s not worth winning, I think the audience gets fed up with these shows.

And this show provides a platform for a lot of people who couldn’t in American Idol and actually is – put its roots in – because it’s all being done effectively in the US before starting with the Ed Sullivan Show, you know.

And I think America likes these kinds of variety shows. But this format now, it’s showing in over 100 countries. It’s a really popular show.

Right. Now, you know, I think – when it comes to American Idol, I think that you are the top talent evaluator of the three judges.

S. Cowell: I agree.

In your estimation, how capable are the Got Talent judges in finding talent?

S. Cowell: Well, that’s a good question. I think they did a good job last year. You know, they believed in the guy who won. When we watch the shows back if I thought they were completely nuts then we wouldn’t have them on the show.

But, you know, they seem to be making — in the main — pretty good decisions. I think that, you know, that the second part of the show is important because this is the stage, you know, because people are going to go to the semifinals and then the final.

What I’m interested in watching is to make sure that they give the right advice now to the contestants who are going forward because, you know, it’s one thing just to criticize but you’ve got to also give, you know, good advice which is going to help them.

When did you first cross paths with David Hasselhoff and think, you know, I want to be in business with him?

S. Cowell: Well I met David years ago when he was signed to be in G as a recording artist and he, at that point, was selling millions and millions of records in Germany. And I met him then and I really liked him.

I made the decision to hire David when he came on the final of American Idol. I think it was three years ago because one of the contestants — who wasn’t very good — had sung a David Hasselhoff song and we arranged for David to meet this guy on the live final.

And I saw the reception David got when he walked into the Kodak Theater. And at that point, I thought I’ve got to use David as a judge on one of our shows because he’s larger than life and he’s unpredictable, very emotional and funny.


S. Cowell: And there’s only one David Hasselhoff.

Right, he doesn’t sensor himself.

S. Cowell: I adore him.

How did you know that he and Piers would have this great chemistry, this – that they play off each other? I mean, did you – was it a crap shoot or did you kind of know going in that these two were going to be great together with Sharon as a buffer?

S. Cowell: Well I knew both of them. I’ve known Piers about as long as I’ve known David. And between the two of them, they have two of the largest egos I’ve ever seen in my life.

So I thought putting these two together would be great fun. And that’s exactly what you’ve got. You’ve got two people, you know, trying to be better than the other one.

And I think it makes for interesting TV, and they’re different people in a lot of senses. It’s like actually having people around for dinner at your house. You’ve got to get the right chemistry. It’s casting.

And I think David – I’ve seen a huge improvement in David as a judge this year. He’s got more confidence now and I think he’s really, really good – very, very important to this show.

Why is this season the best by a mile for Got Talent?

S. Cowell: Well, well thank you. I mean, I think it’s the best because it is closer to the format we originally decided or wanted to make. I said to some of the previous callers, I always thought traveling the show and allowing the audience to be a part of the judging process was part of the original format in my mind. And we didn’t really show it on the first two seasons.

It’s definitely closer to the show we made in the UK which has been a huge hit for us. And I think that change alone has made a massive difference and also the fact that the guy last year did so well with this huge contract, means that the talent’s got better and more interesting this year.

And to give credit to the producers, I just think they’ve made overall a much, much better show and it kind of stands separate from some of the other shows around at the moment.

Can you talk a little bit about the decision to have the audience so heavily involved, I guess I’d say, during the audition rounds. Obviously, it definitely added an aspect to things. But I mean, was it – I don’t know, was it kind of too hard on some of the contestants?

S. Cowell: To be honest with you, it was something I wanted from day one on the show in America, but it took us three seasons to persuade the network that it really was a crucial part of the format.

The most important reason for doing it was it differentiated the audition process from American Idol.

And I thought the idea of a contestant having to win over the crowd, as well as the judges, just made it a more fun, dramatic show to watch and for the audience, you know, they feel that – like they’re participating in the show.

And I judged the British version of this show and sitting, you know, with 2000 people behind you going crazy is – it’s intimidating. But I think anyone who can get past that lot has got a chance to – of doing well.

So it’s – to me now, it’s one of the most important parts of the show and I think without that it’s not as good a show. It’s tough, though. I mean, I agree.

I’ve noticed that the audience is really, really harsh on the show – on America’s Got Talent. I just wanted to ask you what’s a worse audience: the audience that the America’s Got Talent contestants have to deal with or the boos from like the haters on American Idol that are always booing you?

S. Cowell: Ah, I could deal with the booers quite quickly. That’s not a problem. I find it quite funny, to be honest with you. I think the most intimidating audience I have ever, ever, ever seen in my life are some of the audiences on America’s Got Talent.

In particular, the audience who booed this singer before he even started and this guy had to overcome it.

It was tough. I quite like watching it because it actually makes me appear like a nicer person.


S. Cowell: So I’m going to kind of encourage it. But no, I mean, when they don’t like someone — this lot — they are scary. But at the same time, when they like you it’s a fantastic lift.

But, you know, we kind of encourage them to kind of say whatever you like. If you don’t like them boo, and if you do like them cheer. But, you know, they make you very, very clear.

But it’s very, very, very tough for the contestants. They’ve always said that.

Yeah. Now do you think you could handle the boos from the America’s Got Talent crowd? Could you, you know, fight back?

S. Cowell: No, I wouldn’t go anywhere near them.

Let’s talk about the Wild Card contestants. How is that determined?

S. Cowell: Well, it’s basically the viewers who determine it. We – well, basically the producers and myself chose the people we felt had the best reaction, you know, through the press, the Internet, the people we thought deserved a second chance.

And they’ve chosen a winner, I believe. I think it will be a popular choice. And I think it’s going to be revealed next Tuesday at the end of the show who the wild card contestant is. And I think it’s a good think that we did it.

What about the younger talent on your show, do you think there’s an age that is too young?

S. Cowell: Well, you know, we talk about this a lot. There’s one argument that says we shouldn’t be putting these kids on under the age of 16. I think you’ve got to take it case by case.

I mean, on the show this year we’ve got a four year old. But I’ve got to tell you, this is the most mature, ambitious four year old I’ve ever met in my life and if we didn’t put her on this show, she’d be entering something else.

And I also think that you’ve got to meet the parents and evaluate, you know, whether everything is sensible or not. So I think it’s probably a good thing because, you know, when – if they really are talented, why not give them an opportunity?

Definitely. What would you say the most surprising act that you’ve seen on the series is?

S. Cowell: I think it was the girl who was like 40DD who was smashing Coke cups with her breasts. I mean, that was – bearing in mind the winner gets a contract in Vegas, I mean, that was pretty extreme that one.

The smashing the cans…. It was a really bizarre kind of act this season. What types of talents on the show are you always floored by? Do you really like, like the fire acts or the acrobatics?

S. Cowell: I like — to answer your question — normal people with normal jobs, with an extraordinary talent.

I’m not a huge fan of these kinds of circus cabaret type artists. I just like people who, you know, have got a talent but they don’t know what to do with it. And those are the kind of people we encourage to come on the show.

I actually don’t like jugglers or acrobats very much. I’ll be honest with you, they bore me.

Out of all the acts that cross both the British and American stage, what type do you like the best: like dancing, singing? Do you have a preference?

S. Cowell: Gosh, you know, the more I do this, the more I believe in the process and I think these show, you know, are valid. I like to think that from the shows — whether they’re from the Got Talent brand or the Idol brand, or the show I do in the UK, the X Factor — that you find an artist, you know, who can become an international star.

Kelly Clarkson is a great example of that. The girl who won the British show, Leona Lewis, has become a huge international star. So I don’t really mind where they come from as long as, you know, you find someone who can be famous all over the world. That’s essentially what we’re looking for now.

Okay, fair enough. And just a follow-up to that, has your radar for spotting talent over the years gotten better or has it gotten to a point where it’s like the good and the bad sometimes seem the same?

S. Cowell: I think it’s definitely got better. I think these shows have helped me evaluate talent better than I used to be able to do because as I said, you don’t just look for someone who’s going to be a success in their own country.

You now say, you know, you want to find a worldwide star and, you know, this girl Leona Lewis who was recently number one in America in the single and album charts, she started off on our show in the UK and she was a receptionist in an office. Very, very shy girl but with an incredible talent.

And all the doors had been closed for this girl in the business. But, you know, when she came on our show, you know, you just see something. So – and I think I’ve been able to spot talent better funny enough through judging all these shows over the years.

From a contestant standpoint, if they are a singer, would it be better for them to audition for Idol or for America’s Got Talent? What would be the difference between the two?

S. Cowell: You know what, it’s a difficult question to answer that. I think both shows provide an incredible platform. I mean, the guy who won the first show I did in the UK was a guy called Paul Potts who was an opera singer.

I don’t think he would’ve stood a chance on the British version of Idol, but on Got Talent, it was an incredible platform for him and he’s gone on to sell nearly five million albums. And he’s having a movie made about his life. So I think it depends on the type of singer you are.

With Idol I know, once the season actually ends, the 10 contestants are tied to doing the concert tour and all that. What about America’s Got Talent? What beyond the show at – once their season ends, what hand do you still play in their career?

S. Cowell: Well I think there’s a very good chance this year that we will do a tour possibly in Vegas. So like the Idol contestants, they’re going to get a chance to showcase themselves.

And some of them will get work, some won’t. But we’ll be a little bit more involved with them afterwards.

What do you want to see changed on Idol?

S. Cowell: I’d like to see the middle stages of the show change because I think we can make them better. I think we can make the end part of the show much more exciting than we’ve done before.

And we’ve got some ideas which are definitely going to give the show a little bit more jeopardy than we’ve had in the past, which I’m not going to show yet.

But you’re definitely, definitely going to see a change for the show and I think it will be an improvement. I feel confident.

Were you at all disenchanted with Idol last year? Did you – did I sense that you were bored with the show last year?

S. Cowell: I started to get bored because of the middle sections of the show – because we were – we had 24 people. By the time we hit say show five of the live show, I felt that I’d known them for years. I did.

And the other problem was they were so media savvy, these contestants, that they never showed us or you their true personality. I mean, in parts they were like robots.

And I think we’ve got to make sure that when we put people on the show that they have personality because I didn’t know much more about them at the end than I did at the beginning.

I thought the talent was great and, you know, the figures were very, very good considering it was the seventh season. But I think that it could be just more interesting and controversial than we did last year.

I know that Nigel announced that he’s going to be stepping back from the day-to-day stuff on Idol, are you at all going to be sort of stepping in to more of a day-to-day role there on that show?

S. Cowell: Yeah, I already have to be honest with you. I mean, we had a couple of meetings in the UK recently with the main production team and some of the Fox guys, and we’ve spoken through parts of the format — in particular the middle stages and the end stages — as to what we think we can do to improve it. So yeah, I would say that I’m going to get more involved this year. Yes.

With an Executive Producer title or…

S. Cowell: Yeah, I don’t like to give myself a title really. I feel uncomfortable if I’m on the show. I haven’t decided yet.

But I think with Nigel there it, you know, it became too much of a crowd and he’s a very good producer. But I think now he’s stepped down, then I probably will get more involved.

Do you think that Nigel’s success because of Idol and now So You Think You Can Dance kind of overshadowed his role as the Executive Producer of Idol at all?

S. Cowell: Well, you know, I work with so many producers now across Idol, America’s Got Talent, Britain’s Got Talent, X Factor and most of them have different producers on them, that they’re all doing incredibly well.

So you must never depend on one person. I mean, I don’t think we would’ve had the success initially without Nigel. But, you know, we’re onto our eighth season and, you know, (Kelly) is still on the show, who was there with Nigel from day one.

So I think that it feels like it’s going to be a different show this year because of it. And we’ll see whether that’s an advantage or a negative. But in terms of the overshadowing, no.

I mean, most of – as I said, most of the producers, we work with – normally are involved with more than one hit show. So I’m kind of used to it.

As far as just people getting success in the business — and I guess I’m talking about the entertainment business even though it could apply to any business — how much do you think, I guess, that ratio would be between talent and luck?

S. Cowell: Wow. I think a combination of the two. I mean, I think when you look at Got Talent and Idol — you know, bearing in mind how many tens of thousands turn up — there’s a huge amount of luck involved.

Having said that — and I said this to a previous guy — I actually find it easier now to spot the good from the bad very, very quickly. I mean, you can see 100 people a day but if you’ve got something good, you stand out, you know, very, very clearly nowadays.

But I think without these shows, it’s very interesting because, you know, the music business as you know, has got much, much tougher now and there’s not an awful amount of exposure available to variety acts anymore.

They – these contestants desperately need these shows now. I think the answer to the question is, though, if you’re good you’re good and you will stand out in a crowd.

Yeah it definitely shows. When you look at the shows, a lot of the people who are doing so well today all come from these shows, whether it’s Idol or any variation of that. It’s really great.

S. Cowell: I know, absolutely. I mean, I always said with these shows that if we didn’t find any genuine stars, we might as well just shut them all down. It’s a complete waste of time.

But if you look at David Archuleta’s record this week, which is exploding, I mean, there really is a reason for doing these shows now.

You mentioned Archuleta’s single. What did you think of his first single?

S. Cowell: I think it’s great. You know, he’s a genuine pop star.

Was that the right choice for him, that type of song?

S. Cowell: Yeah, absolutely. He’s doing great and he’s going to sell a lot of records.

Interview By: Emma Loggins


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