Page last updated at 00:42 GMT, Monday, 14 December 2009

Simon Cowell on his career, X Factor and Susan Boyle

By Kirsty Wark
BBC Newsnight presenter

An extended version of Newsnight's interview with music and TV guru Simon Cowell

Life for Simon Cowell is pretty good - he is fabulously wealthy, Barack Obama drops his name, and Gordon Brown says he is an X Factor fan.

Although according to the prime minister, Business Secretary Peter Mandelson prefers the BBC's rival Saturday night show Strictly Come Dancing - something which Cowell told me he found very funny.

In real life, Cowell is a much more thoughtful and engaging character than his television persona would suggest (not an uncommon occurrence).

Our interview was long in the negotiation, but remarkably obstacle-free once we entered the rather lovely Sony HQ where he has a suite of offices.

Laughing off criticism

It may have been a charm offensive, but I certainly didn't detect any arrogance.

When asked about claims that his X Factor and Got Talent hit TV shows exploit the contestants, his reply was - they don't have to do it.

"Sometimes you feel that it's like a tidal wave of stuff"

"Sometimes when I watch the show back I think we've gone too far because I see the pre-story beforehand, I can then see the audition from their perspective and there are times where I think I could have handled that better or I was in a bad mood and I was too rude.

"At the same time... no-one is sort of dragged kicking and screaming onto the audition set," he said.

I put it to him that there have also been complaints from the pop world that the X Factor is not edgy enough.

When I asked what he thought of The Pet Shop Boys' criticism that ultimately the show is turgid, he laughed, and said: "Well I can say the same thing about their last record! Because I used to be a fan."


Cowell's biggest success this year has been Susan Boyle, though when asked who makes more money, him or Boyle, his answer was frank.

Simon Cowell on Susan Boyle's breakdown and how, despite the pressures of fame, her life has improved

"Probably the record label, yeah, that's normally the way it operates, but she's going to make a lot of money."

But he claimed that he would have walked away from the deal if it had not been what Boyle and her family had wanted.

"I said to them at the time, the truth is, if this is too much for her or if she doesn't want to do it, we'll rip the contract up. No-one is going to be forced into doing anything.

"We were going to make a lot of money and we have, but I would have walked away from that, I would."

Sense of responsibility

Cowell accepted full responsibility for her breakdown leading up to the final: "I didn't realise how much pressure she was under that week, with all the scrutiny."

He also admitted that when Boyle first appeared in front of the judges he was sneering, and that he is ashamed of that.

Simon Cowell talks about allegations of bullying in the X Factor house

I believe Cowell is genuinely concerned about Boyle, who still calls him "Mr Cowell" despite their phone conversations every two to three weeks, and him urging her to call him Simon.

He said that when he spoke to Boyle on the phone last week she said to him, "Will this go on forever?" - something he said he found interesting.

His response? "I said, 'well you're unstoppable, I think this can go on for as long as you want'."

I asked Cowell if he has a duty of care towards Boyle for however long she does go on - indefinitely.

"Yes," he said.

Cowell lives and breathes his TV shows, the artists he controls and the records they make - he is a multi-tasker who is a hard taskmaster on himself.

He is driven by the desire to do everything and do it the best way he can, but he told me he has dark times when it all gets too much.

"I get to a point sometimes where I get overloaded, where you can have a week or a month where you're responsible for so many things, where you have to deal with so many people, and this can go on from leaving the office till five or six in the morning if we have to deal with America, where you just have enough and it's just too much information."

X Factor in North Korea?

Yet he and retail tycoon Sir Philip Green are in cahoots for yet another venture - taking X Factor to America - but he said press reports suggesting it will be based in Las Vegas are wrong - that if, and when it begins, it will be in Los Angeles.

Simon Cowell: "We would have a red telephone someone from Number 10 could call in"

Given that versions of his talent shows are made in more than 20 countries, I asked him whether he would be happy to take X Factor to a country like North Korea.

He carefully said he would ask for advice from the UK government, but went on to say that in Afghanistan and countries where these shows run, their impact has been good: "You allow the public to get involved, I think it is more of a positive thing than a negative thing."

And Cowell has designs on the next UK general election.

Not a Politicians' X Factor, but a series of big prime time shows leading up to the election in which the public would hear two sides of the argument about several issues.

There would, he said, be a red telephone for the politicians to ring in, a massive X Factor-style studio audience split for and against the issue, and live voting by the viewers.

Buying ITV?

And the subjects? Well it was clear he noted the huge audience for BBC Question Time when the British National Party was on - immigration of course, then fox hunting, the war in Afghanistan...

Capital punishment? I asked. "Well we could do it," he replied. "We could ask the question."

There are strict guidelines for broadcasters in a pending period before an election, but you could see such a show working.

Cowell said he wants "a bear pit". And if anyone can deliver a bear pit it is Simon Cowell.

I always said as long as I was doing this that the minute you feel the audience want you to go - and I'm sure it's going to happen, and I've been quite lucky I've lasted this long - it wouldn't be a problem
Simon Cowell

The show is probably destined for ITV - and, no, in case you are wondering, he said that he and Sir Philip have no intention of buying ITV.

"We've been approached by various people in the past who wanted to have a look at ITV and asked us if we'd be interested, but it's so much work to do," he said.

I wondered if Cowell could become even more famous by anchoring these political shows. But he said he would not appear.

As for his currently glittering on-screen career, I asked him what he would do if his popularity started to wane: "What happens when you decide you want to sack yourself, or when you just stop cutting the mustard?"

"That's going to happen," he replied.

"I always said as long as I was doing this that the minute you feel the audience want you to go - and I'm sure it's going to happen, and I've been quite lucky I've lasted this long - it wouldn't be a problem."

Watch the full Simon Cowell interview on Newsnight on Monday 14 December 2009 at 2230GMT on BBC Two, then afterwards on the Newsnight website.

Joe McElderry wins X Factor crown
13 Dec 09 |  Entertainment
Cowell plans global X Factor show
02 Dec 09 |  Entertainment
Cowell named top earner on US TV
11 Nov 09 |  Entertainment
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24 Jun 09 |  Business
Cowell urges ITV to avoid clash
19 Sep 09 |  Entertainment


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