“X Factor” marks the spot for Simon Cowell

By Jeff Pfeiffer

This week, FOX announced that Simon Cowell’s upcoming American version of his hit British series The X Factor will be awarding the show’s winner with a record-breaking $5 million record deal, the largest guaranteed prize in TV history.

“It’s a massive, massive risk,” Cowell said in a conference call earlier this week, talking about the huge amount of prize money. “I think it puts everybody, rightly, under an enormous amount of pressure, because I didn’t want to go into this show without feeling a certain amount of pressure. With pressure, you have to find a star. I also did it because I believe I can find a star.”

It’s that belief that he can find a star that led Cowell to bring his hugely successful British show — it’s been the UK’s No. 1 program for the last seven years — to America.

“We’ve been thinking about this show for a few years now,” Cowell said, “about whether we should do it or not do it in America, and we made the decision last year that we were going to do it.”

The X Factor is a singing competition that looks for talent, young and old alike, and differs from Cowell’s previous hit, American Idol, in that it has lowered the younger age limit for contestants to 12, and has eliminated any upper age limit.

“I think that makes the competition more exciting,” said Cowell, “that maybe you’re going to find a 12-, 13-, 14-year-old genius performer who could be competing against a 45-year-old. … I think probably five or six years ago I wouldn’t have [lowered the age limit]. … I went on record years ago saying I think it’s wrong to have people around this age doing it, and now I think times have changed. … Through experience, when I worked on Britain’s Got Talent and what happened this year on America’s Got Talent, there are some incredibly talented young kids out there, and because I work for a record label, over the last 12 months we’ve started to see a trend of what kids this age are capable of doing, whether they can withstand the pressure.”

Cowell also discussed his rationale in getting rid of the upper age limit.

“One of the biggest criticisms I had over the years were people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who said, ‘I have what it takes. I haven’t been given a chance. I know I have a phenomenal voice, but I haven’t had a chance to enter a competition.’ I used to hear this over and over again. This is why we took the upper age limit off completely. … With Susan Boyle, who would have thought that this lady living on her own in Scotland would go on to sell 20 million records? I mean, it’s just typical of the record business saying you have to look this way or whatever. By the way, I was guilty of that. Susan Boyle taught me a huge lesson: that I have to be more open-minded. I think the American audience knows what talent is, and I don’t think it matters whether you’re in your 40s, 50s, 30s or you could be 14 years old. If you have it, you have it.”

And just was is that “it” — that “X factor” — that Cowell is looking for?

“It’s an expression we’ve used over the years,” Cowell said. “I’d heard so many times about is it the look, is it the voice, and then over the years recently you’ve seen a different kind of artist emerge. A good example of that is Lady Gaga. Now, God only knows what we would have said to her if she’d have walked into Idol three years ago with a lobster on her head. I don’t know, but she’s got it. [The X Factor is] an all-around description. It’s not necessarily about perfection; it’s about having that special something and getting it right at the right time.”

Cowell confirmed that he will be one of the judges seeking out that “x factor” on the show, but had no information at this point on who his fellow judges might be. And will we be seeing the same old Simon we had gotten used to on American Idol?

“You know, look,” he said, “you adapt over the years. I started to cringe over the years when I started to see people being booked as the so-called ‘mean judge’ and just being gratuitously rude for the sake of it. I don’t like that. I have my own style. I like to think that I’m honest. I wouldn’t sugarcoat something just to make myself popular. I’m going to try to be consistent to how I’ve been over the years. … People know what to expect if I’m on the judging panel, so I don’t see things are going to change too much.”

But Cowell and his fellow judges will be doing more than just critiquing on this series.

“The reason we replaced Idol with The X Factor in the UK to begin with,” he said, ” is that I got bored of just judging. I got frustrated when I kept criticizing people’s song choices, what they wore or what they didn’t do right. I wanted to make a show where I actually, along with  my fellow judges, could help the competitors on a weekly basis, because that’s what I do in my real job. If you work for a record company you work with the artist on everything — their song choices, their stylists, their choreographers — and it made sense to me that we should do that on a TV show. It’s definitely more interesting for me because I have a lot more to do. Secondly, it’s an interesting thing to be jud ed as well as the competitor. When you lose an artist, part of you has lot as well. When your artist wins, you win. It really does become incredibly competitive between the judges once the competition stars. In a way, they’re more competitive than the artist, because we don’t pretend to like each other.”

Another difference is in the auditioning process. Auditions begin March 27 at the L.A. Sports Arena in Los Angeles, with later dates and locations to be announced for Chicago, Dallas, Miami, New York/New Jersey and Seattle. Cowell explains how he decided a few years back in the UK to change the audition process.

“We made the decision that I couldn’t fit in an audition room with two other people and judge properly,” he said. “I’ve done it too many years and I wanted to change things up. So I made a decision that we would change the audition so that each person or group would now have to audition not just in front of the judges, but in fact 4,000 or 5,000 people in an arena. Essentially, it was supposed to be similar to them doing their first concert. What it does, it really helped me to show who could handle the pressure, who was a good performer, and also, it was vital that I got audience feedback as well. There have been many, many times on these shows when I’ve hated somebody and I’ve practically had a mutiny going on behind me, where the audience went crazy that we didn’t put them through, and they have changed our minds. I’ve also seen, for instance with Susan Boyle, how an audience lifted her, and I think they were the ones responsible for turning her into a star. I don’t believe Susan Boyle would have gotten through in the old-fashioned audition method. I think it was the crowd and seeing them give her a standing ovation which is what made that clip so special.”

Based on Cowell’s own history of having that “x factor” when it comes to successful shows, it looks like his latest American translation will be special as well.

“I kind of feel at the moment like I did when we were launching American Idol,” he said. “I was excited about the show, I was excited about the prospects, but I hadn’t a clue whether it was going to be a hit or whether we were going to be kicked out of the country after three weeks. I remember the network put a one-month break clause in the house I was renting, which shows at the time I don’t think they were particularly convinced either.”

This time, it shouldn’t take much convincing of American audiences.

For more information on auditioning for The X Factor, visit www.fox.com/theXfactor.


Credit: Ian Derry/FOX