Born on October 7, 1959, in England; son of Eric P. (a music executive) and Julie (a dancer) Cowell. Addresses: Home--London, England, and Beverly Hills, CA. Office--S Records, Bedford House, 69-79 Fulham High St., London SW6 3JW, England.
Music executive Simon Cowell has been working in the entertainment business since 1977, and is the founder of S Records, a joint venture with BMG. He has also converted animated television shows, such as Teletubbies and The Power Rangers, into musical successes. However, he has achieved his most widespread notoriety as a judge of the television talent show American Idol. Cowell's acidic, blunt remarks about the performers's abilities are often true, but also often controversial.
Cowell grew up outside London, England, one of two sons of a dancer mother, Julie, and a music executive father, Eric. His family also included four half-siblings. Cowell was often bored in school, and as a result, he behaved badly, leading teachers to tell him he would never amount to anything. He moved from school to school, dropped out at age 17, and in 1977 began working in the mailroom of EMI, his father's music company. He then moved into the A&R field of this business.
When he was 22, Cowell and his business partner, Iain Burton, started a music publishing company, Fanfare, but the venture failed. A few years later, while working at a small record label, he met Pete Waterman, a successful music producer for BMG. Waterman told Cowell that his business tactics were "absolutely useless," according to People. Cowell was initially hurt by this cruelly accurate comment, but he accepted a position in A&R at BMG and followed Waterman around for the next three years, learning how the business really worked and building a list of pop stars. This venture took off, and between 1997 and 2002, Cowell's pop acts sold more than 25 million albums in the United Kingdom and had 17 number one singles. In 2001, Cowell created S Records, a joint venture with BMG. He also converted television shows, such as The Power Rangers and Teletubbies, into musical successes.
In 2001, Cowell and a partner decided to create a television show that would showcase amateur singers hoping for a break into the business. The show began as Pop Idol in the United Kingdom, and then crossed the Atlantic as American Idol--The Search for a Superstar, debuting in 2002. In the show, singers looking for fame and fortune compete and, one by one, are weeded out by judges. The first season's judges included singer Paula Abdul, music executive Randy Jackson, and Cowell.
The show's ratings increased steadily over the course of its first season, with as many as 15 million viewers watching the season finale on September 3 and 4, 2002. Over the course of the season, Cowell became known for his biting assessments of the singers. According to Daily Variety's Phil Gallo, "Abdul tends to give out warm fuzzies; Jackson is hit-or-miss in giving a direct assessment but generally forgiving of minor slips; Cowell tells it like it is. And while what he says may be hurtful to the performer ... his directness is immensely refreshing." Cowell's comments to performers included remarks that their singing was "rubbish," "pathetic," or that it sounded "like a train going off the rails," according to People. He told one contestant, "You will never, ever, ever have a career in singing." According to James Poniewozik in Time, he told another, "Who's your [singing] teacher? Get a lawyer and sue her."
Cowell's harsh assessments often rankled the more moderate Abdul, and led some contestants to speculate that Cowell was being particularly harsh because the controversy he created raised the show's ratings. Time's Poniewozik noted that many viewers were entertained and even gratified by Cowell's devastating honesty: "You may wince at Cowell's barbs, but you also welcome them when Abdul or Jackson offers a wimpy 'Good job' to a singer who has scraped the fingernails of her ambition down the chalkboard of her limited ability."
In Daily Variety, Timothy M. Gray wrote, "The show has finally found its real star: judge Simon Cowell." As Gray noted, Cowell received more media attention than any of the singers on the show, "and in the process has become America's favorite new villain." Gray quoted Cowell, who explained his brutal honesty by saying, "I tell them the truth. I think I am being nice, because I'm saving them a lot of anguish in the future." Gray speculated that Cowell's image as a villain might be intensified by his posh English accent, and Cowell agreed: "Who the hell is this Englishman coming in and telling us what we're good at doing or not doing? If we [in the United Kingdom] had a loudmouth American telling us what we should or shouldn't be doing, we'd probably feel the same way." Some contestants were so angered by his remarks that after being rejected, they lurked outside the studio with baseball bats, forcing the show to hire more security guards.
For the show's second season, Cowell received $2 million (up from $250,000); with the larger salary, he purchased a mansion in Beverly Hills, California. In 2002, Cowell was named one of People's sexiest men alive.
On May 19, 2003, Cowell began working with CBS on a new relationship reality show, called Cupid, scheduled for broadcast starting July 9, 2003. In the show, Cowell and a young woman named Lisa Shannon, an advertising executive from Detroit, Michigan, traveled the United States looking for "Mr. Right" for Shannon. Two of Shannon's best friends joined the entourage to judge young men, who "auditioned" for the part of Mr. Right. Each man had just 30 seconds to impress Shannon and her friends with his sense of humor or other characteristics. In the fourth episode, Shannon began going on dates with those who passed this initial screening; after eleven episodes, viewers would choose which of these suitors would propose marriage to Shannon. If she accepted, she and the man would split the $1 million "dowry." Cowell did not appear on the show, but was heavily involved in behind-the-scenes decisions.
In July of 2003, Cowell signed a three-year deal with Fox to remain on American Idol, as well as develop new projects for the network. According to CNN.com, he would earn about $150,000 per episode for the third edition of the show, which was scheduled for January of 2004. On July 15, 2003, Cowell's agent announced that he had signed a $2 million deal with Random House for a book about American Idol. The book, titled I Don't Mean to be Rude, But ..., was published December 2, 2003, by Broadway Books, an imprint of the Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group under the Random House division of Bertelsmann AG. Co-authored by his older brother, Tony, the book provides an insider's view of the show and chronicle of Cowell's career.
Typical of Cowell's career, the 2004 launch of his new television program, X Factor, was marked by controversy. The show features a panel of three judges: Louis Walsh, Sharon Osbourne and Cowell, who provide criticism for aspiring vocal acts. The creator of Pop Idol, Simon Fuller, filed suit against Cowell's production company, Syco, claiming Cowell's X Factor television show copies his Pop Idol format. Cowell called the charges "utterly ridiculous." The suit failed, but controversy with the program continued, culminating in the season's grand finale involving a vicious verbal attack on the season's winner by Osbourne. It remains unclear as to whether or not she will be returning for the show's upcoming season. Considering that an Australian version of X Factor is scheduled to debut in early 2005, it seems safe to assume continued or additional controversy is unlikely to negatively affect Cowell's career.
Despite his reputation for having a sharp tongue, Cowell still has legions of fans. According to People, Cowell's friend Terri Seymour said, "Women are just desperate to get near him." The article noted that Cowell has a softer side: when he is not working, he volunteers at an animal shelter near his home in London, has lunch with his mother every Sunday, and takes bubble baths when he wants to relax. Another article in People told a story that revealed Cowell's sensitive side: One day Cowell was driving in London and saw a man kicking a dog. He promptly "screeched to a halt, leapt out of the car, and kicked the man," People quoted Cowell's friend Jackie St. Clair, who said this showed that, "Underneath it all, he's a big softy. He's a really sensitive, kind man."
Sensitive or not, Cowell warned People that he was not interested in settling down; in relationships, he enjoyed the chase, but quickly became bored once he had the object of his affection. In addition, in other areas of his life, he was driven by the need to make more money. His main aim in life, he told Sathnam Sanghera in the Financial Times, was to find a singer who would sell millions of records for his label: "If I wasn't selling records on the back of this, it would all be a waste of time."
by Kelly Winters
Simon Cowell's Career
With EMI Music Publishing, 1977-82; founder and co-owner, Fanfare Records, 1982-89; A&R consultant, BMG records, 1989--; founder and co-owner, S Records, 2001-; judge, Pop Idol, 2001-02, American Idol, 2002-; producer, Cupid, 2003-.
Simon Cowell's Awards
Record Executive of the Year, 1998, 1999; A&R Man of the Year, 1999.
February 2, 2006: Cowell signed with NBC to produce a talent search reality series, similar to American Idol, in which an unknown performer becomes a headline act in Las Vegas, Nevada. Source: Hollywood Reporter, www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr/television/brief_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001956899, February 4, 2006.
- Debrett's People of Today, Debrett's Peerage Ltd, 2002.
- Daily Variety, August 20, 2002, p. 5; September 4, 2002, p. 19.
- Entertainment Weekly, August 9, 2002, pp. 20-25.
- Financial Times, September 24, 2002, p. 10.
- Mediaweek, May 12, 2003, p. 5.
- New York Post, May 9, 2003, p. 133.
- People, July 8, 2002, p. 107; December 2, 2002, p. 117; May 26, 2003, p. 56.
- PR Week, December 7, 2001, p. 28.
- Time, July 1, 2002, p. 61.
- "Cowell signs for 3 more years of Idol," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2003/SHOWBIZ/TV/07/08/television.cowell.reut/index.html (July 8, 2003).
- "Idol judge lands $2 million book deal," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2003/SHOWBIZ/books/07/16/books.simon.reut/index.html (July 18, 2003).