After eight season of American Idol winners, the biggest star the reality show has spawned has been Simon Cowell. Originally pegged as “the mean British judge,” he has gained a newfound respect over the years with fans for his forthright criticism and banter with fellow judges, such as the departed Paula Abdul and her replacement, Ellen DeGeneres. So it was a big deal when he recently announced that the current ninth season of Idol would be his last before focusing on bringing his hit UK show The X Factor to this side of the pond. “They’ll be a lot of people who want the job, and ironically it’s going to help next season because there’s going to be a lot of interest on who replaces me,” Cowell says. “You’re there to be honest and truthful, hopefully give constructive advice, and most importantly, say what people at home are thinking.” On Wednesday, this season’s top 24 were announced (click here for a rundown of the contestants), and Cowell held court in a conference call tonight with reporters about a number of subjects, including judges both old and new as well as who could replace the irascible Brit. Read below for his thoughts on a number of subjects, and let us know in the comments who you think should replace Cowell next season.
Photos by Michael Becker/Fox
On if a woman needs to win American Idol this year: It depends what she’s like. We’ve had a few years now of guys winning the show, and I’d say there’s a better chance of a girl winning the show, certainly better than last year. You want somebody who represents what’s going on at the moment. I’d love to find a Taylor Swift — somebody who’s relevant rather than just a contest winner.
On what makes a successful contestant: You’ve got to be original. The reason David Cook did so well and he suddenly came into the front when he competed was that he managed to find interesting versions of well-known songs and did them in his style. I remember when he first did the Lionel Richie song Hello and turned it into a rock song, or when he found the Chris Cornell version of Billie Jean. He was smart. Don’t always do the obvious — try and find something that is more unique and interesting to you. And suck up to me, that always helps.
On balancing contestants who are good for the TV show vs. good for the music industry: The reason we put a variety of people through was primarily on talent and just interest in them as people. If you just pick everybody because they look the way you think they should look — it happened a few years ago. Every blond girl in the competition looked identical. I couldn’t tell one from the other. It’s important that you can recognize talent and personality, and it’s good we have a mixed bag this year. It’s about remembering people. Part of the problem when you do this show, from the auditions to the Hollywood round, most people you can’t remember. If you can remember somebody, it’s a good place to start.
On what mentors he wants to have on his last year: We’ve had some pretty good people, haven’t we? I think we should have Lady Gaga, because she is the most relevant pop artist in the world at the moment. She should be No. 1. I’ve met her and she’s very smart. I like her.
On the Pants on the Ground phenomenon, started by aging Idol hopeful “General” Larry Pratt: It’s one of the reasons why on X Factor we didn’t put an age cap on the show. I always found a lot of these older contestants funny and interesting, whether it’s him or somebody like Susan Boyle. I’m absolutely thrilled all this has happened to him because he needed a break and I’m glad it’s worked out well.
On rumors of him and Ellen not getting along: I wouldn’t say we didn’t get on well. I don’t know Ellen that well. It was a difficult position for her because she started work on the Hollywood Week, which is quite a difficult show to do. There was one story I read that I turned up an hour late or something and that she wanted to film. The truth was, I think I turned up 15 or 20 minutes late because I did a press conference earlier in the day and they did start filming, but that wasn’t a particular problem. There was no fallout. I was trying to guide her through the week, and that was about it, really.
On why Ellen was a good choice: She actually is very responsible for people she has performing on her own show – I know that for a fact because I’ve dealt with her as a record label. And she loves music.
On what he misses most about Paula: Paula’s my friend, amazingly even though we used to argue a lot. She was somebody I just got very close to. Over the years, we’d hang out together after the show. She always made me laugh, and I always thought she was funny. It’s like not having your friend on the show anymore, so I do miss her.
On what kind of person should replace him: You’ve got to be good-looking. [Laughs] Secondly, I think you’ve just got to know what you’re talking about. More and more now I’m starting to realize with these shows is that we have to put people on the shows who actually know what they’re talking about. Rather than guessing, they’ve really got to have experience so that you can not just criticize – you can offer constructive advice as well.
On if Howard Stern or Perez Hilton would be a fitting replacement: I know Howard’s name has been in there for a while, but I’m fairly certain there hasn’t been an approach at any time for Howard to do the show. Perez would be funny. He’s got good taste in music, he’s a personality — that could work.
On how much experience in the music industry is necessary for an American Idol judge: I think it’s really important. When we first started, we had a record producer [Randy Jackson], an artist [Abdul] and an A&R man, so you’ve covered pretty much everything you need to do. I would say somebody who’s had managerial experience is always very helpful. In simplistic terms, it’s like if you judge ice skating at the Olympics: If you’re going to give a score, you genuinely need to know what you’re talking about. Over the years, judges have been replaced by personalities. That in the long term will create problems because you’ve got to be able to spot a star. So for whoever replaces me, my advice has always been find somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about and has actually experienced success in the music business. Howard doesn’t seem to fit any of those criteria. [Laughs] He’s played records — maybe that’s a good qualification. He obviously wants the job. Good luck to him.
On the whole nation thinking he’s irreplaceable: It’s very, very flattering, and I really do appreciate it. But the show goes on, and I’m going to feel sad when it all ends. It’s much nicer to be popular than unpopular, so I do appreciate it.