Simon Cowell became a pop culture icon as the snarky judge on “American Idol.” Though he departed the show in 2010, he has kept busy: He’s a fixture on the U.K. airwaves, remaining a judge on “X-Factor” and “Britain’s Got Talent,” both of which he created. Now, he’s heading back to the States to make his mark on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”
Why is now the right time to return to American television?
I’ve been having discussions for years about being on “America’s Got Talent,” but for whatever reason the timing didn’t work. And then Howard [Stern] came on the show, and Howard was doing a good job. When he decided to go, we had a quick conversation, and that was it, really. I’ve been doing the show for 10 years in England; I know it like the back of my hand.
Have you missed being in the U.S.?
Of course. When you’ve been on a show which is done well, it’s a fantastic feeling. This is a very successful show, so rather than launching something new, this felt like an easier, more obvious thing to do. I want to bring better music acts back to the show because I thought that was the only thing that was slightly missing.
Does “America’s Got Talent” feel different from “American Idol?”
This reminded me of the early days of “Idol,” in a weird way. There was a kind of naïveté to the contestants, which I like.
You didn’t watch “American Idol” at all, after you left the show, right?
Not really, no. Once I left, I left. It was a very clean break. Then I saw bits and pieces obviously on the very last episode. It was fun and just interesting see all those people I’d seen years ago. When we started, we found people with great personalities.
You’ve had a lot of offers to come back to American TV since leaving “Idol.”
Some crazy, crazy shows! One of them, I’m not kidding, was to be on a naked dating show as a host or something. Just wacko ideas — loads and loads and loads. A lot of music shows, all types of things, but this is the only one that interested me. I actually thought I was being punk’d half the time. Some of the strangest things I’ve ever seen.
It’s hard to imagine why you turned any of those down…
Maybe I should have done the naked dating show [laughing].
How do you juggle all of your projects?
You can’t do everything. When you’re filming a show like this, that’s your priority. Then it’s spending time with your development team, which is probably the most important thing; otherwise you’re just doing meeting after meeting, which drives you nuts.
Was it tough to take off your producer’s hat to be a judge?
You just have to. That’s what I’ve managed to do in England. You can’t do both. You’ve just got to be a judge and you’ve got to be there to hopefully spot people who’ve got potential, which is what I love the most. And also spot someone who isn’t obvious, but could be good — that’s the whole point of doing these shows. When you sit in auditions and even after a long day, someone comes in and just blows it out of the park, it’s a fantastic feeling.
Did anyone really impress you during auditions for “AGT” this time around?
There’s a couple of singers. And there’s somebody who I think of like Susan Boyle, but a much younger girl who I just didn’t expect to be good, [but] was honestly incredible and so unexpected. That’s what I’ve always thought about the “Got Talent” brand — it has that ability to do that. It really does surprise you. It happened a few times when we did the auditions this year.
What is it like working with Heidi Klum, Mel B and Howie Mandel?
Howie is very funny. Heidi is nuts, but brilliant to work with. Mel, I’ve known for years. It was good for me because they obviously had worked together for a few years so they’ve got great chemistry, great shorthand, they really are friends.
Is it awkward being a judge with them when you’re technically their boss?
I kind of felt like the new boy on day one, but I found it really comfortable from almost the minute I got there, to be honest with you. They had this thought that I was the boss, which I never, ever, ever came in with that attitude — if anything, I felt a bit like the outsider. We gelled really quick and I think they’re a really good panel.
How do these judges compare to other panels you’ve been on?
This is one of the best, I’ve got to say. I think on “Britain’s Got Talent” and “America’s Got Talent,” we’ve got two really, really strong panels now. Importantly, they might be on the show for the right reasons — they like the show, they like spotting people with potential. When you’re doing ten hours, it’s very easy to get tired, aggravated or obnoxious, but they’re so easy to work with. That’s what makes it fun.
You’re a father now. Has that softened you up at all?
I think, yeah. With the kid acts, definitely, because you see things at a completely different perspective once you become a dad. In terms of everything else, if someone’s terrible, there’s no point in lying to them and saying, “you’re going to have a career” — because they’re not.