American Idol judge Simon Cowell feels optimistic that the show's eighth-season contestants will be better than what viewers saw last season.

"Where I think we got a little bit stuck last year, it was kind of like battle of the blondes and they all looked the same.  I couldn't differentiate one from the other," Cowell told reporters during a Wednesday conference call.  "This year there seems to be more personality.  They're definitely standing up for themselves more, which I like.  They're different from the people we've had before.  I'm actually happy and I'm optimistic about this year."

American Idol's eighth season premieres on January 13, however the show's Hollywood Round competition already took place last month and Cowell said the contestants that the judges selected were an "interesting bunch."

"We tried to be as broad and as open minded as possible so that we don't end up with 12 people from The Stepford Wives.  I think it's important that we have all types of singers, all types of people because I have to say, I think personality is as important as talent on a show like this.  I think it's important for the show," Cowell told reporters.

"What you hope you end up with is somebody like [Idol third-season winner Fantasia Barrino], who's not only extremely talented, she's an incredible person, has a great vibe and makes the show interesting.  We tried, where we can with what we had, just to get a more interesting group of people."

The Idol judge described it as "absolutely vital" to find people "who are all-around entertainers" when casting for the show.

"Some of the biggest stars in the world should be able to be entertaining entertainers.  There were just too many people, I felt -- last year in particular -- who just weren't saying what they were thinking," explained Cowell. 

"I've always prided myself on this show that it's a two-way battle.  We can criticize them and they have absolutely every right to criticize me in return.  I've never ever been afraid to show that on the audition shows, the middle shows and certainly on the live shows.  Hopefully this year it might be the year of the contestant fights back a little bit more because I think we need that."

Cowell will have some help in dishing out the criticism this season, as Idol's traditional three-person judging panel has added new fourth judge Kara DioGuardi.

"She has experience," said Cowell of DioGuardi.  "She's written hit songs.  She has an opinion, which is very, very important.  She talks a lot. I think she's probably well qualified."

While Cowell thinks DioGuardi is qualified, he isn't sure if she'll work with the show's dynamics.

"I have no idea whether this is going to work or not," he told reporters.  "I haven't seen the show back yet.  It's only when I watch the show back whether we actually know if this has been a good idea or a bad idea.    The thing I do support is at least trying new things.  Sometimes it works and as you said before, sometimes it doesn't work.  That's the delicious thrill of making reality television - you genuinely don't know."
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Cowell said he had been "very, very happy" with the Idol panel of himself, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul due to their "unique chemistry."

"I'm in two minds about this because part of me goes a bit, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' and the other part of me goes, 'Well, it has worked in the U.K. [on Pop Idol and The X Factor],'  So we'll have to wait and see."

Cowell also joked that adding another female to the panel has been tough for him and Jackson to handle.

"One is hard enough; two is unbearable," he said.  "They've both got personalities, they're both very forceful... At least I've got Randy by my side, so it's not that bad."

In addition to a new fourth judge, American Idol's eighth season will also feature the return of a "Wild Card" semifinals round -- the first time it's been utilized since the show's third season in 2004.

"I think the wild card is a good idea," said Cowell.  "I wasn't crazy about the process we went through the last couple of years where we were given a small group of contestants who you actually got bored with once you hit about show five of the live shows.  This way this is a bit more jeopardy and hopefully a bit more fun in the middle stages."

While the "Wild Card" round will be returning, American Idol's fund-raising Idol Gives Back event will not.

"From my perspective, the reason we haven't done it is this:  First of all, with what's happening in the world and America having problems along with the rest of the world, I don't think it feels right to be turning to people who have problems with mortgages, etc, this year, to start donating money to charities when they have enough problems at home," explained Cowell.

"The second issue is that looking at Idol Gives Back in the future I think that we are going to have to up the balance on how much money is going to American charities.  I think it's important that we give more.  Now, this is my own personal perspective; I'm not talking on behalf of the network.  If we do decide to do that, then I think it's very important that we get the right organizations in advance and make sure that the money's going to the right places."

Cowell assured reporters that Idol Gives Back will happen again, but reiterated "it just didn't feel appropriate this year."

"I personally feel uncomfortable asking people, when things are tight, to be doing this sort of thing.  If I felt, or we all felt, that it was the right thing to do, then I guess we could put on an additional team, but if we don't, as I said before, I'm almost certain that it will come back," he said.  "I hope that more money will go to charities in the United States because it's an American show.  We've met some of the people we've helped out.  I have to tell you, it did make a massive difference, so I'm very, very enthusiastic about doing this again."

Cowell also addressed Idol's celebrity mentors, however he failed to reveal any of the artists that will participate in the upcoming eight season. 

"We try every year to get Paul McCartney on.  For whatever reason, he won't come on," said Cowell.  "People in the past, when you get someone like Lionel Richie or Quentin Tarantino, who are just brilliant fun, those are the kinds of people you would like to come back on the show.  I know Quentin wasn't a mentor, but he was a terrific guest judge."

Cowell also referenced Britney Spear's performance on The X Factor last month and said he "loved it."  He added Spears would "be literally first on the list as far as I'm concerned in any capacity" when it comes to celebrities appearing on Idol.

"I would love to see her mentor the contestants," he gushed.  "If she doesn't want to do that and she wants to come on the show to perform, I would welcome her anytime.  The buzz we had on [The X Factor] when she came on was extraordinary.  Even with all the stuff that's gone on with her over the past two years, there was more excitement and interest in her than I've seen in anyone in years.  So she would be very, very welcome."

American Idol's Top 12 eighth-season finalists won't perform for the first time until March 10, however Cowell stuck to his guns that he thinks a male has the best chance of taking home the title.

While Cowell had previously stated he was "100% a guy will win this year," he told reporters during the conference call he didn't have any specific male contestant in mind.

"When you do the Hollywood Week, which we did about a month ago, you get to see all the contestants for a second time.  My memory of that was that the guys overall - maybe five or six of them - were just stronger and they stood out more than the girls," he said. 

"I've said this in the past:  I've been wrong.  Somebody like a Kelly Clarkson can emerge in the middle stages, which you're not expecting.  Still, anything can happen."

The "anything can happen" cliche can also apparently be used when describing Idol's eight-year run, as Cowell said he thought the show would have been "off the air in about three or four weeks" after it first premiered in 2002.

"Luckily, things turned out much better," he said.  "I mean, it's gone way, way beyond our expectations.  I love the fact that at this time of the year everyone's looking forward to the audition rounds, everyone's looking forward to the season returning.  I think where Fox has been smart compared to other shows is that they haven't been greedy with it.  They haven't put it on twice a year.  That would have killed the process."

In addition to describing Idol as "the best eight years of my life," Cowell also opened the door to the possibility that, despite his previous comments that he planned to leave the show after his current contract expires following its ninth season, he may choose to remain an Idol judge beyond that.

"It could still continue without me.  I've always believed that," he told reporters.  "This show is successful all over the world and I'm only on American Idol.  I'll make a decision next year as to what I do as an on-screen judge because there is a big, big schedule now and I do two other shows, so it's been hard.  I think that this show could continue for another 10, 20 years, to be honest with you."