Everyone's favourite talent-show villain is leaving American Idol, but that does not mean we have seen the last of the media mogul. Stephen Dalton reports. Some media pundits could smell revolution in the air last month when a co-ordinated internet campaign succeeded in bouncing the American rebel-rockers Rage Against The Machine to the top of Britain's coveted Christmas singles chart ahead of the woefully bland X Factor winner Joe McElderry. The scowling Svengali behind the television talent show, Simon Cowell, was not pleased. After years of imposing his iron will on docile pop consumers, he suddenly appeared fallible. It was an exhilarating cultural wobble, a real Ceaucescu moment.
Then, of course, the conspiracy theories began to circulate. Some claimed that Cowell benefited enormously from the publicity generated by this chart challenge, transforming it from tedious certainty to genuine race, pushing up sales of both singles. Others believe he may even have engineered the campaign himself. As Rage Against The Machine are signed to Cowell's partner label, Sony, this allows him to fleece a hitherto untapped market: his enemies. Pure, evil genius.
All of which sounds a trifle far-fetched, but speaks volumes about Cowell's current public image as a kind of Machiavellian poster boy for mercenary populism. To anyone repelled by his notoriously blunt comments to aspiring young performers on The X Factor, American Idol, Britain's Got Talent and similar shows, the 50-year-old music mogul certainly exercises an unhealthy stranglehold over the lowbrow media landscape.
To his detractors, Cowell is a soulless control freak hellbent on milking maximum profit from pliant, expendable, charisma-free pop puppets. Damon Albarn of Blur calls him the "self-styled Nero of trash culture". Sting recently slammed The X Factor as "televised karaoke" hosted by "judges who have no recognisable talent apart from self-promotion." Cowell was even excoriated in The Times for promoting the "heartless, thoughtless and superficial - the flotsam and jetsam of the polluted seas of celebrity that is likely to sink without trace into toxic foam".
So when Cowell announced last week that he plans to leave American Idol following the 2010 season to launch a US version of The X Factor on the same television network, Fox, he caused much excited media comment. Many believe the move will lead to untenable schedule clashes with his television commitments in Britain. Some claim it is the first real crack in Cowell's empire, the Big Brother-style tipping point at which viewers finally turn their backs on audience-baiting talent shows. Another Rage Against The Machine moment.
Well, dream on. Cowell's transatlantic move is all part of his game plan for world domination in 2011. If it comes together, he will leap from the paltry multimillionaire league into the billion-dollar stratosphere. And rest assured, his trademark barbed comments will only get meaner - because, let's be honest, cruelty is the Cowell brand. Without his sharp tongue and smug sarcasm, American Idol and The X Factor would not attract their record-breaking ratings. Everybody knows all the most memorably nasty Hollywood villains have English accents.
But there are few clues to Cowell's pantomime villain persona in his comfortable, middle-class background. Born in 1959 in Brighton on the south coast of England, he grew up in London's leafy commuter belt. According to his oft-quoted official biography, his rags-to-riches rise through the music business ranks began in the post-room at EMI Records. Often overlooked is how his father Eric ran the giant entertainment company's property division, helping to secure his son a more prestigious role as a talent scout in the A&R (artist and repertoire) department.
Leaving EMI in the early 1980s, Cowell cofounded several smaller labels and music publishing companies, helping to launch a string of pop acts including Sonia, Westlife, Five and his sometime girlfriend, Sinitta. He also scored novelty chart hits with the television stars Robson & Jerome, Zig & Zag, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the Teletubbies and more. Even then, musical credibility was never a concern. Commerce ruled.
And yet Cowell's music industry career was far from sparkling. There were huge successes, but just as many long-forgotten flops, and plenty of personal setbacks. When the parent company behind one of his labels went bankrupt, he was left broke and briefly lived back at home with his parents. On the day he celebrated his first British number one single with the Irish boy band Westlife, in 1999, his father died of a heart attack.
Cowell's business masterstroke came after he joined Pop Idol as a judge in 2001. In 2002 he founded another label, music publishing and television production company, Syco. A partnership with the US-owned Sony corporation, Syco now produces The X Factor and its sister shows Britain's Got Talent and America's Got Talent. With a string of chart-toppers including Il Divo, Leona Lewis, Alexandra Burke and Susan Boyle, the label now reportedly accounts for around 70 per cent of profits generated by Sony's UK music operation. But crucially, Cowell remains a bigger star than any of his acts, and infinitely richer.
It is on this unprecedented cross-media platform that Cowell has built his fortune. His sweet deal with Britain's ITV network allows him to promote his own acts on primetime television, earning him a reported £7 million (Dh42m) annually for The X Factor alone, plus a cut of every record sold. But this figure will look like chicken feed if he can apply the same business model to the US market in 2011.
So what's driving Simon Cowell? It surely can't be money, not any more. He once claimed the profit motive was "absolutely the only criterion" behind all his decisions, but he now has a personal fortune bigger than even the most profligate playboy could spend in a hundred lifetimes. Last year he was named the highest paid man on primetime US television, ahead of Donald Trump and just behind Oprah Winfrey. How can anyone need more money than Donald Trump?
According to Forbes magazine, Cowell earned £46 million last year, mostly from his appearance fees on American Idol. He reportedly owns three Rolls-Royces and five houses, including a $22 million (Dh80) Beverly Hills mansion. The Sunday Times Rich List estimates his personal fortune at around £123 million, a sum that is set to rocket when he launches The X Factor in the US. "Cowell will be our first broadcasting dollar billionaire and that will happen soon," claimed the Rich List author Philip Beresford last year.
More than money, it seems a fiercely competitive streak is Cowell's main driving force - or possibly his Achilles heel. He certainly calls it a "curse", while openly admitting that he cannot bear the thought of a competitor doing better than him. An armchair psychologist might point to the fact that his father was hugely successful, and two of his brothers are millionaires. A need to prove himself to his mother is also part of his chemistry. Tellingly, the nickname that former girlfriend Sinitta coined for Cowell was "Mummy, Look!"
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 to fill the traditional bad-cop judge's chair on Pop Idol and American Idol. Both shows were instant hits, but tensions developed once Cowell himself became bigger than the brand. When he struck out on his own to launch The X Factor in 2004, the friendship quickly soured. Fuller and his 19 management company fired off a volley of lawsuits, accusing Cowell of ripping off their patented Pop Idol format. The case was settled in 2005, giving Fuller a minority stake in The X Factor while temporarily preventing Cowell from engaging in direct competition with his "good friend".
That legal restriction ends next year, which explains Cowell's decision to dump American Idol and launch a US version of The X Factor. Fuller reportedly offered his most famous judge "Oprah money" to stay on the show, but he refused. After years of working to make his rival richer, Cowell wants payback. This is not about money. This is personal. Beating Fuller's personal fortune, said to be around £400 million, is sure to figure in Cowell's sights.
To help realise 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 have promised a multimedia juggernaut that will be "bigger than Disney", relaunching The X Factor with a new permanent home in Las Vegas, complete with branded merchandise and online pay-per-view broadcasts.
So far, Cowell's plans for world domination are hardly secure. Sony have indicated they are unwilling to work with Green, but huge potential profits may help change their minds. Nobody rages against the Simon Cowell machine for long. Even when you attack him, you only make him stronger. Now that is pure, evil genius. * The National