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Simon Cowell Reflects on Early Days of Reality TV While Building Multi-Generational Empire

Maybe NBC should stand for “Never Be Complacent.”

Because, according to those who work with Simon Cowell, the creator and executive producer of the network’s juggernaut franchise “America’s Got Talent,” that’s his mantra. That edict has driven the 58-year-old mogul to success on both sides of the Atlantic, as founder and CEO of Syco Entertainment, a global music, television and film production company that boasts a roster brimming with A-list artists and worldwide formats including “Got Talent” and “The X Factor.”

“Simon is the opposite of complacent,” says Cecile Frot-Coutaz, the former CEO of FremantleMedia (and incoming head of YouTube’s EMEA operations) who has worked alongside him for years. “He has ambition. He’s not afraid to push boundaries. He’s not afraid to fight for what he believes creatively, and he wants to lead the way. He’s always thinking, ‘How do I make it better? What’s next? What do we need to do on ‘Got Talent’ next year to stay ahead of the game?’ He never, ever rests on his laurels. Ever.”

The five-time Emmy nominee — and winner of a slew of other awards, including Mipcom’s Personality of the Year in 2014 — is adding to those laurels with a star on the Walk of Fame on Aug. 22.

Cowell admits he thought it was a joke at first.

“I really thought someone was winding me up,” he tells Variety with a laugh, in an interview at his home in Malibu. But once it sunk in, he says, he was very flattered — if a bit concerned about whom his star was going to be next to.

“When I first came here [to the U.S.], I’d never done TV shows before, so when this happens, you do literally have to pinch yourself,” he says. “It’s fantastic.”

NBC’s president of alternative and reality Paul Telegdy, a fellow Brit, says the honor is emblematic of Cowell’s decades-long journey in Hollywood.

“If you come from the other side of the Atlantic and you think of Hollywood, everyone knows what it means to have your star laid down,” he says, dubbing Cowell “a highly weaponized piece of talent.

“There were very few people whose individual names as brands cut through the clutter in the early part of the 21st century. Simon is one of them.”

Cowell never intended to be on screen. He was running a record label in the U.K. when he was approached time and again to star in reality series. He turned them all down — until someone walked in with the pitch for what would become “Pop Idol,” the British forebear to the American hit. There was only one condition — that Cowell himself be one of the judges. He finally relented.

“I only intended to do it for one year,” he says. “Now it’s been 17, 18 years.”

Cowell’s reality television career took him from “American Idol” to “X Factor” to “America’s Got Talent,” now in its 13th season (as well as its British counterpart).

Simon Cowell was known as the brutally honest judge on Fox’s “American Idol,” for which he was five-time Emmy nominated.
Courtesy of Fox

“The best buzz, if I’m being honest with you, is that the shows are still on air, and people still enjoy them, and we are creating stars,” he says. “That’s the most important thing to me out of all of this.”

Cowell has been a fixture on American TV screens since he debuted as a judge on “American Idol” in 2002.

“There’s literally nobody better in front of the camera,” says Sam Donnelly, who showruns “Got Talent” in the U.S. “He is, in my opinion, the best judge out there on these kinds of shows.”

But it’s his skills behind the camera, as well, that set him apart. As a producer, he knows what it takes to create hits.

“When he’s sitting at the judging table, he’s not just there as an artist who knows what sounds right, what doesn’t sound right,” Frot-Coutaz says. “He’s also somebody who understands how to produce an album, but also how to produce television. So he produces himself, and he produces the panel as he’s sitting at the desk.”

The secret of his success, Cowell says, is instinct — having the confidence to speak his mind and identify raw talent.

“It’s harder than people think, because you’ve got to be able to spot something in somebody in three minutes, and make a decision that that person could become a star.”

But getting it right is the best part of the job to Cowell.

“He’s not afraid to fight for what he believes creatively, and he wants to lead the way.”
Cecile Frot-Coutaz

“You always remember that moment when you discovered a star for the first time, whether it was Harry Styles or the other guys from One Direction, Leona Lewis or Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood or Susan Boyle,” he says. “I remember them vividly, like they were yesterday.”

“If I were to just look at what really gets him out of bed, what really drives him, I think it’s that thrill of discovery,” says Frot-Coutaz. “At the end of the day, he’s passionate about breaking new artists, and I don’t think that’s going to stop.”

Case in point: His discovery of Camila Cabello during the American version of “The X Factor” in 2012 (it’s now in 178 territories). He was taking a cigarette break when he spotted her backstage, crying, because the producers wouldn’t let her audition. He persuaded them to give her a shot, and the girl band “Fifth Harmony” was born.

“You’ve got to keep your eyes and ears open, because you don’t want to miss these diamonds,” he says.

But Cowell is also willing to admit when he’s wrong. He recalls Boyle’s debut on “Britain’s Got Talent,” when the judges dismissed her because of her appearance, then were bowled over by her stunning vocals. The moment went viral.

“When that clip arrived on my laptop, and I saw me, I said, ‘I actually hate my guts right now.’ Because we were really sneery,” he says. “That was the tipping point.”

In the early days on “Idol,” Cowell gained a reputation as “Mr. Nasty,” for telling contestants honestly — if a bit brutally — what he thought of their talent, or lack thereof. But that on-screen persona couldn’t be more different off-screen.

“A lot of people thought that whenever I met them in public, I was going to insult them. I literally had people coming up to me, saying, ‘Can you insult me?’” he recounts, shaking his head. “I’m not like that in real life.”

Simon Cowell has built an empire in music and television as founder and CEO of Syco Entertainment.
Associated Press

Those who work with him concur, dismissing those insults as his “shtick.” “He’s somebody who cuts through things, who see things for what they are, but he cares hugely about people,” Frot-Coutaz says. “I don’t think you can do what he does successfully without liking people and without understanding what makes people tick, what makes people cry, what makes people laugh.”

He’s deeply involved with the creative process of all of the shows he works on at all levels — often inviting the crew over to his house for, say, a pizza party. “He’s really got his sleeves rolled up and knows who does what on the shows,” Telegdy says.

Having given up his cell phone about a year ago (“it’s an addiction,” he says), Cowell now spends more time with the staff one-on-one or in meetings, rather than getting buried in text messages and emails.

“I find talking to people as a group of people way more interesting than telephone calls,” he says. “I just realized that, look, if someone wants to get ahold of me, genuinely, they can get ahold of me.”

That’s not to say he doesn’t have high expectations of himself as well as those who work around him. “For anyone that goes on the journey with Simon, buckle up, because he’s got exacting standards,” says Telegdy. “He doesn’t suffer fools.”

From his perch both behind and before the camera, Cowell has seen massive changes in reality programming, but he was confident that “everything comes around in a cycle” — and indeed, “America’s Got Talent” has endured.

But it was “nearly impossible” to sell the show at first, he says. “Nobody understood why I would want to make a variety show,” he recalls. Then he got a phone call from NBC, which bought the show in the room. “It rated very well the first week, and then off the back of that I was able to sell it in the U.K., and then we were able to sell it all over the world,” he says. It’s now in 194 territories across the globe.

“If we’re careful with this show, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be around for years,” he says.

The show has weathered the frenzy over an ever-rotating panel of celebrity judges; Cowell sits next to Heidi Klum, Mel B. and Howie Mandel, a panel that’s been comparatively stable vs. other shows who’ve recast with each season. The quartet works, Cowell says, because they all legitimately care about the talent. “At the end of the day, regardless of who’s on the judging panel, it’s the contestants, for me, that are the most important,” he says. “If you’ve got good contestants, you’ve got a good show; if you’ve got bad contestants, nothing you can do about it.”

“For anyone that goes on the journey with Simon, buckle up, because he’s got exacting standards.”
Paul Telegdy

Timing matters, too. He looks back on the American launch of “X Factor” with regret — blaming the timeslot as well as his own now-infamous claim that “if it gets below 20 million, we’ve failed,” he says. “It was the most stupid thing I’ve ever said. Why didn’t I just keep my mouth shut? If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t have done it.”

But having tasted success again and again drives him to keep trying for more. “When you’ve experienced it, you must, cannot, live without feeling it again,” says Telegdy. “When you wake up to a six rating, when you wake up to something where you can genuinely say, television changed last night, Simon’s felt it. It’s great to be in the company of people that understand that feeling because it means they stay focused on how to reclaim that.”

Those around Cowell credit the arrival of his son, Eric, now 4, for turning “Mr. Nasty” into “Mr. Nice.”

“When you see a lot of the younger acts, now, as a dad, you’re thinking, ‘God, if that was my son, I’d want him to be looked after,’” he says. “I try now to be a little bit more constructive. Rather than just, ‘You’re terrible,’ it’s, ‘You’re not that good, but you could be better if you did this.’”

But it’s not simply that fatherhood has softened his rough edges. “I think he’s looking at acts differently because he sees how Eric responds to things,” says Donnelly.

Cowell reveals that he keeps his son at his side when he’s giving notes on a show. “Some of the time he can’t be bothered, but occasionally he jumps up,” he says. “And I’m thinking, ‘That is definitely staying in the show.’”

In fact, he hopes to train Eric in his footsteps — that’s why he brings him to every live show he can. “I would love for one day him to be able to take over this,” he says. “That’s the whole the point of keeping the company being successful, the show successful, so you can hand it over.”

Cowell does have another show idea — or three — in mind, though he’s not willing to divulge details just yet, as well as plans for an animated movie. “If I could make a movie which Eric loved, it would be the most important thing in my life right now,” he says.

“I don’t know what’s next for Simon, but I know something is next for Simon,” says Telegdy. “We will always take seriously whatever comes next for Simon Cowell. You’d be caught napping if you didn’t.”

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