Let’s just get this out of the way right now: Yes, Simon Cowell genuinely is the kindhearted, quick-to-grin guy you see on the current season of NBC’s America’s Got Talent, which launches its live shows on Tuesday, July 26.
We’ll swear to it.
Credit the joy of being dad to adorable toddler Eric. And being freed from the laser focus on bolstering his record label via the global Idol and X-Factor franchises Cowell also helped create. But mostly, says the charming Brit, watching an endless parade of good people do entertaining things makes him feel like a kid at the carnival himself.
One with the platform and power to change the most talented performers’ lives — the hallmark of his Syco Entertainment.
Cowell says he conceived AGT with the idea of hunting Las Vegas’ next big thing, but quickly grew to love it for the everyone’s-welcome, international mélange of musicians, magicians, comedians, daredevils and dancing dogs that the competition attracts. “One of the guys who runs the network said to me, ‘The joy of the show is that we can be inclusive,’” Cowell says. “There are no boundaries, there are no rules, and that’s the way it should be.
“I like to think that I’m a crazy train who attracts the crazy moths — because I like that eccentricity,” he continues. “I don’t know what it is, but I’m fascinated by these people. That’s why I’ve always loved doing this show — because music is quite strict. Variety is much looser. I like some of the crazier acts, so when we head into the live shows, the majority are obviously good and will compete for the prize, and in the mix, you’ve got one or two oddballs, as well.”
That tasty combo makes AGT the ultimate in feel-good, family friendly fun, with the ratings to prove it. Where else can you get a load of, say, Vello Vaher, the gleeful, 52-year-old Estonian contortionist with a most unusual stomach? Or oven-mitted puppeteer Tape Face? Or Jon Dorenbos, the active-roster Philadelphia Eagle who moonlights as a magician?
Cowell’s especially proud that many performers AGT spotlights are too young (or old) to even appear on other talent shows, including Golden Buzzer recipients Grace VanderWaal, a preteen singer/songwriter Cowell likened to Taylor Swift, and 13-year-old opera prodigy Laura Bretan.
“The fascinating thing — and I don’t know why it’s become this way — is that they’re more confident than the adults now,” he says of his affection for AGT’s youngest contestants. “I learn more from the kids than the other way around.”
Case in point — his own Golden Buzzer choice, poised 16-year-old cancer survivor and vocal powerhouse Calysta Bevier. “When someone special walks in — like her, or the first time I met Carrie Underwood — you just know you’ve met a star,” he says.
Still, Cowell cites Britain’s Got Talent phenom Susan Boyle as a great lesson that the “fifth judge” — the folks in the audience and at home — often recognizes talent he might otherwise be tempted to ignore. “There’s a lot of people like myself who work for record labels who like to think of themselves as tastemakers,” he says. “The truth is, we have no idea. The public has completely different tastes, and it’s opened up my mind to thinking there are no rules anymore. If you’re good, you’re good — and that’s exciting.”
So is the chance to disprove that — despite what other talent contests might suggest — marketable talent only looks and sounds a certain way. All while giving audiences a guaranteed good time.
“It’s so easy to get really jaded about everything,” Cowell offers. “You go, ‘Oh my God, I can’t switch on the news. I don’t want to watch a drama. It’s all so depressing, and everybody hates each other.’ The reality is — and we’ve done these shows for a long time and we see pretty much everyone from all over the world now — they come in with these stories, and they come in with this talent, and you just go, ‘This is the real world, thank God!’
“And we can show it, and they can tell their stories and they’ve got something to compete for — because people got snotty about these shows when we first launched them,” he continues. “They’re like, ‘This is the music business — this isn’t the right way of doing it,’ and you go, ‘Well, the truth is they actually need opportunities like this so they can showcase themselves and they can have some success afterwards.”
While Cowell and Co. can only award a single act will score the million-dollar grand prize, every person who steps before the AGT cameras has the chance to bolster their social media presence, get themselves Googled and maybe — just maybe — see their dreams come true, too.
“A lot of the time, when I meet these people, I go, ‘How come you’re not famous already?!’” says Cowell (case in point, this season’s 62-year-old vocal powerhouse Ronee Martin). “And then they tell me the stories of ‘We couldn’t get in to see a record label,’ or they couldn’t do this or they couldn’t do that. That really became the whole point of the show as it got bigger and bigger, and that’s why I think that we get so many good people coming from all over the world — because they understand that your clip can be seen by hundreds of millions of people within a week. That’s an unbelievable opportunity.”
It’s an irresistible opportunity for Cowell, as well.
“The most important thing is when you can say, ‘I was there the first day,’” he says of his shows’ success stories. “That’s what I always remember most. That’s the part I love the most. Seeing them become what you hoped they would be, you go, ‘You know what? This crazy process actually works!’”
New episodes of America’s Got Talent premiere Tuesday and Wednesday nights at 8/7CT on NBC.