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HOME > The X Factor > The X Factor (Season 1)

Simon Cowell talks about his new 'The X Factor' reality competition


By Elizabeth Kwiatkowski, 09/14/2011 

Nearly two years after it was first announced, Fox's new American edition of Simon Cowell's reality singing competition The X Factor will finally premiere next week.

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On Tuesday, the former American Idol judge talked to reporters during a conference call about The X Factor and all the hype surrounding the show -- including how he felt about former Idol contestants auditioning, why he believed the singers' back stories were crucial in achieving a successful entertaining show, what challenges he faced bring the series from the U.K. to America, and why he insisted The X Factor will be a better show than The Voice although both reality competitions have many similarities.    

Some former American Idol contestants have auditioned for the show. What do you think about that and will there be any funny contestants who may make it to the end like The X Factor's U.K. version had?

Simon Cowell: I'm glad you asked that because I think it goes back to our point about having as few rules as possible. That was the whole idea of doing the show in the first place and we did expect some people who we've seen before on Idol to come along. So, I didn't really have a problem with that. None of them did particularly well. (Laughs) It was nice to hear -- or quite nice to hear -- them a second time.

And as far as joke contestants getting through to the finals goes... it comes down to the individual judges' decision, because in the latter stage of this show, you make decisions on who's going to make the finals depending on what category you're given. And already, there have been one or two questionable decisions by a couple of the judges, but that's down to them.

Do you think American Idol will win the reality competition program Emmy this Sunday? Why or why not, and if it does, would you find that ironic and/or threatening?

Simon Cowell: (Laughs) Well I'd find it very amusing that after all these years, the year that I wasn't on it, it would win the Emmy. I think that would make me laugh, so it probably will. With regards to being threatening, no. I don't see it as threatening.

I think it would be more ironic, but I think either way, I'm going to say if it does win this year, it's for all the years we did before. So, whatever happens, I'm going to claim the victory. (Laughs) I promise you, I'll replicate the Emmy with my name on it.

Could you tease any standout contestants in the competition so far?

Simon Cowell: With all the interest, we have promo'd a few. We held back a lot for the first show and what we're going to show tomorrow night in terms of what I would call different types of contestants to what you've seen before -- very, very different back stories, the kind of stories I don't think other shows would put on, but we are.

I think you'll enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it. Watching it back, it's quite edgy, it's very raw, it's real life, but it's a talent show. So, the ones who we thought were talented, we put on the show. But they are different to what you have seen before.

On other reality singing competitions like American Idol and The Voice, some contestants achieve radical re-inventions or re-arrangements of songs that impress viewers. Are you going to insist your contestants do that and push them out of their comfort zones?

Simon Cowell: Oh, 100% percent. We want as many unique versions as possible. Otherwise, it just turns into a karaoke competition. So, within about three weeks into the show, you're going to start hearing contestants way outside their comfort zone, hearing versions of songs you haven't heard before.

Part of the reason for doing that is you don't want it to be a bad sound, but secondly, we want to sell the versions on iTunes. So you've got to come up with unique versions, and that's part of the test to the contestants within the show. Who can come up with the most unique version of the song? Otherwise, it's just boring.

How important are the back stories that the contestants are going to share when attempting to make the show an entertaining success?

Simon Cowell: Personally, I think they're crucial because I get to meet the contestants for the first time when they audition, and we have no background information on them at all, which I don't want to know. And if they're interesting to me when I'm asking them questions, then I think they're going to be interesting to the people who are going to watch the show.

Normally when I ask them, "What's the most interesting thing that's happened in your life?" -- And they start droning on about singing at the age of three or four, I'm honestly not interested. I expect all of them to say the same thing, that they wanted to be a singer. That's obvious. I really am interested in their back stories.

If they got divorced, why did they get divorced? If they're married, are they happy being married? If they left college, how did their parents feel about them leaving college to pursue a music career? So, really, obviously No. 1 on the list is talent, but No. 2 is you've got to really, really be an interesting person and have a very good back story.

Now that you have Paula Abdul back, do you have any interest in bringing Idol judge Randy Jackson into The X Factor mix to attain your original TV judging-panel lineup?

Simon Cowell: Well, I miss Randy because he is really a good friend. Maybe we'll just get him a couple of front row seats every week and he can just do his dog-barking thing. No, but seriously though, I really do miss him, but he's happy on Idol.

I think of [music producer L.A. Reid] who we brought in as being genuinely a revelation, because he's one of the most competitive people I've ever worked with in my life. So it was a different challenge for me, but I'm going to miss Randy as a person. But we hang out all the time and I'm probably going to meet up with him this week for dinner. So, it's all good.

What do you think is going to connect the American public to The X Factor?

Simon Cowell: Well it goes back to the point someone made earlier on -- the back stories, how interesting are the contestants? Can you be bothered to invest time in them? Are they good and any different from what you've heard before?

I was very aware of that when we made the show because of the obvious comparisons to other shows out there. I always said to people, "I think when you watch the show, you've got to understand that there's more than a subtle difference between the two."

So, it's a combination of it's got to be raw, you've got to allow viewers to see things they haven't seen before, you've got to like or hate the contestants, and they've got to be brilliant every week. And if you don't have any of that, people will switch off. I would switch off if it didn't have that.

How has doing the American version of The X Factor been different from doing its British version?

Simon Cowell: Well, it's a good question because when we first did this, it was kind of weird for me because we'd do these auditions in front of a crowd of 4-5-6,000 people in arenas. And of course, nobody had seen the show before.

And in a strange way, it made it more interesting because the audience didn't know what to expect. I could feel that they were kind of excited and a bit edgy, and then they got it quite quickly. I would say the American audiences are more vocal.

When they like someone, they let you know, and they certainly let you know when they disagree with you. There are a few occasions where we have to -- otherwise, I think I may have gotten seriously injured -- bring back some contestants we said, "No" to, because the audience wanted them through.

We did say to them, "You're sort of like the fifth judge here." So, it was fun and everywhere we went, the crowds were good -- better in the evenings because you could feel a lot of them were drunk. So they were louder and I like that. I might do that for the live shows -- just make everybody drink before they come in. 

One of the main parts of The X Factor you had planned was to mentor the contestants. Now that The Voice had jumped in and followed through with a similar idea, how do you feel about that?

Simon Cowell: Well, they didn't do it as well as us, if I'm being honest with you. You'll genuinely see the difference, I think, on this show. I kind of expected them to do something like that, but that's the nature of the game when you make reality shows. But it is a necessary part of the format, that you really do mentor these contestants.

Look, it's not just what you do during the show. Anyone can mentor. The point is, can you mentor someone through the show and actually create a star? So you're going to have to judge X Factor on what we do compared to what they did on The Voice.

As I'm talking to you this week, an artist I mentored on X Factor last year in the U.K. -- they didn't win, they came in third -- they're going to have the biggest selling single this year and the biggest selling album. They're a band called One Direction.

So that's what I call proper mentoring -- where you're preparing somebody for the real world. It starts the second you're given your category. When you find out who you've got... you work with them all the way through until the end of the show.

Cheryl Cole has been seen in a couple previews for the show, so how is her editing going to be handled? Is she going to be edited out completely?

Simon Cowell: (Laughs) No, no. She's in Episode 1. She's in the first hour, so in terms of how we address it, I think we could pretty much tell it as it was. She was on the show and then she got replaced by [Nicole Scherzinger]. So, in the first half of the show next week, it's Cheryl, and then the second half, it's Nicole.

What challenges did you overcome bringing the show to America and trying to make it work effectively compared to the U.K.  version?

Simon Cowell: Well I think the first challenge was, if I'm being honest with you, I think the network initially would have been happier if we all stayed on Idol for the rest of our lives and there wouldn't be another show. The problem with that was is that the show was becoming more and more popular around the world, and inevitably, somebody would have came along and dumped something really, really close to this show.

And once we explained this to Fox, they accepted the fact that it's going to have to go on the air. They didn't have to be sort of dragged and screaming to the end, but these are expensive shows to produce. But because we had a really good couple of years the last two years in the U.K., I think it kind of speeded the process up and then they got really into it.

And then the other challenges of course are trying to make your mind up on who should be judging it, who should be hosting it -- lots of things went wrong along the way. Bad things happen when you make reality shows and they don't become very public, but you've just got to deal with it.

Do you think a show like The X Factor can produce a star like Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber right out of the gate?

Simon Cowell: 100% percent, yes. And like I was saying earlier on, what I've seen with the show in the last couple years in the U.K. , the kind of artists we've attracted -- the artists that are coming through -- are not just competing, they're murdering the opposition in the U.K. at the moment. We hope to do the same thing with the show here.

I mean, that was always the sole reason for making a show like this. Can you find a different kind of artist who doesn't just work in a competition show -- because you're always going to have a winner -- but actually can compete with the big artists out there around the world. That's what you hope is going to happen, and I will die trying until the end to do that.

We've seen on some of the other reality singing competitions that the winning contestant doesn't always go on to have a very successful music career. Sometimes, the runner-up is more successful, so why do you think that is?

Simon Cowell: Well I think it goes back partly to what we were talking about earlier on -- about the mentoring process -- and it was a huge reason why in the U.K., I left Idol and started X Factor, because I used to get frustrated that we as people who work in the music business weren't allowed to do anything with the contestants on a week by week basis and they would make these awful decisions.

I do think that if you've got the right artist and they've got the right person working with them, you can start to demonstrate on the show each week the kind of record you'd be releasing after you hopefully won the competition.

And that's why I think some of these contestants haven't done well, because they win because of popularity not because of the unique talent they demonstrated on a week by week basis. And that's why you have to update the process. You got to do something different and you've got to take risks. So, we'll wait and see and see what happens.

The X Factor will premiere on Wednesday, September 21 at 8PM ET/PT on Fox.

(Photo credit Fox)


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