Simon Cowell is about to return to U.S. airwaves on America’s Got Talent – his first Stateside judging job since The X Factor USA went off the air in 2013 – but of course, he will always be associated with American Idol. So as American Idol comes to an end this week, Yahoo Music’s Reality Rocks thought this was the perfect time to reminisce with TV’s original “mean judge” about Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, Fantasia, Tamyra Gray, Jennifer Hudson, that World Idol debacle, wannabe Simons, that weird Idol/X Factor battle for TV supremacy, wild times with the original judging dream team featuring Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, what he thought changed for the worse about Idol after he left… and whether he ever regrets leaving Idol for The X Factor five years ago.
YAHOO MUSIC: You were famous for being the “mean judge” on Idol. The show got a lot nicer after you quit. How did you feel about that?
SIMON COWELL: Well, I do recall after I left, there was some weird commercial they made, and it was like an orange juice commercial, with them saying, “We’re going to be nice,” and everyone was smiling. And I thought, “My God, this show has changed!” I think that they were trying to make a virtue out of the fact that I had left. But I never thought we were mean [on Idol]. I just thought we had a sense of humor, and it was kind of funny when some of these awful people would come on the show. That was the fun of the show!
When you started The X Factor in America after that, that show’s first ad campaign dissed Idol for being so nice. I always thought it was odd to pit the two shows against each other, especially since they were on the same network.
It’s a very good point. I actually think in hindsight that The X Factor should not have gone on TV at the same time as Idol. It replaced Idol in the U.K. and then became huge. I think if I were doing it all over again, X Factor would be coming on [in the U.S.] now, not then. There were just too many competition shows on at that time.
Do you ever regret leaving Idol?
Oh God, no. I had my own reasons why I just had to get off that show. You have to move on and do other things with your life. I seriously have no regrets. But certainly for the first three or four years of Idol, I had the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. It was like the lunatics had taken over the asylum. The show was doing well, and we were finding great artists – which is why I did this show in the first place. It was never about being on a TV show for me. It was all about finding artists for my label.
After you left, Idol became much more about celebrity judges. And then, of course, The Voice came along. How do you feel about that shift, from industry judges to famous judges?
Well, it did get to a point where whether or not you could actually judge wasn’t a criterion; it was just about how well-known you were. Having said that, chemistry always is important, which is why I think The Voice works so well. But we were just lucky on Idol, because not only did we work well together, but we also found a bunch of stars. That’s what I think we did better than anyone else. It was lightning in a bottle. We just had this real understanding, the three of us, and in its weird way it worked. And it nearly didn’t, because Paula tried to walk out 12 times on the first day! We were lucky she stayed. Because when it did work, it was great.
Idol caught flak in its later seasons for being unable to create stars anymore. Do you have any theory as to why the show’s track record declined?
Look, trying to find stars is actually really difficult, no matter how many people turn up [to audition]. There’s no exact science to this. You either get lucky, or you find someone with potential. But the idea that the judges don’t play a part in that is crazy. As an example, I don’t think any other show would have backed Clay Aiken. And I think Clay was really important to the show, because he wasn’t a typical type of singer you’d see in the charts, but he was popular and he was fun. I think most people would have dismissed him from his first audition, but I had a feeling that there was something about him that the public would like. But that’s what I do in my day job. If you don’t have that experience, then you won’t find a star.
Do you think this shift in judges, from industry types to artists, affected the sort of talent, or level of talent, that Idol found and promoted in its later seasons?
Yes. One-hundred percent. It’s not easy spotting a star. I’m sure over the years, they missed people – or backed the wrong people. You have to have judges on these shows who are A&R guys, who run record labels. That’s what our jobs are. Artists’ jobs are not to find other artists.
Did you pay attention to any of the winners or contestants from the seasons after you left the show?
I didn’t, to be honest with you. I liked Phillip Phillips, and that was about it. I couldn’t remember anyone else.
So you stopped watching Idol after you left?
I stopped watching it while I was on it! [laughs]
What’s your fondest memory of being on the show?
It was just the time I spent together on the road with the other guys, because we did become good friends. I always had some crazy nights with them. I remember one night we were in Texas and we actually forgot that we were recording a show the next day! We stayed up till 8 or 9 in the morning, and then we kind of staggered into the audition room and tried to do this show. It really was one of the funniest days.
Who’s your favorite Idol contestant of all time?
Kelly Clarkson. Fantasia, too – I always had a soft spot for her. But I think Kelly, because she was there when it all started. Without Kelly, we never would have had the credibility and success that we had.
What’s your all-time favorite Idol performance?
Tamyra Gray’s “A Fool in Love,” from Season 1. She was the one I was hoping was going to be in the finals with Kelly. No disrespect to Justin Guarini, but I think Kelly versus Tamyra would have been an unbelievable competition.
It was the first big Idol shocker when Tamyra went home. Did any other eliminations surprise you?
Obviously Jennifer Hudson. When it happened that night I took the blame for it all, but it wasn’t my fault; she just chose the wrong song that week. But I think we were all surprised when she left. But of course, it was the best thing that ever happened to her.
You had so many good one-liners and critiques. What is the one that stands out to you?
I can’t recall a specific line, but I think one of the funniest things that I remember watching back was actually when I kept getting this girl’s name wrong. Her name was either “Tamika” or “Ta-mee-ka,” and I kept getting it wrong and she was getting really annoyed with me. That one thing still sticks in my mind as being really funny. She was so upset – and she was more upset about me getting her name wrong than me saying she couldn’t sing!
Did you notice how after you broke out on Idol, it seemed every reality competition show had a version of you – like “the Simon Cowell” of the panel?
Well, right from the beginning there was a ridiculous show we had to do – I don’t know why we agreed to it – called World Idol. I have to get it on tape so I can watch it back again. I remember on the day thinking, “This is something out of Monty Python!” I think there were like 11 judges, and all of these judges were trying so hard to be rude. They’d obviously written out all this stupid stuff for themselves to say, because they thought they were going to be on this international show – which was a disaster, by the way. So that’s when I saw [the Simon-copycat phenomenon] for the first time. I found it absolutely hilarious.
So American Idol is going away. The X Factor USA ended a while ago. A lot of recent singing competitions, besides The Voice, never got off the ground. Do you think this is the end of the singing-show era?
No, I don’t think so. Everything comes around full-circle again. I’ve learned that in life. There was nothing clever about this [Idol] format; anyone could come up with an idea like this. What made it work was who was on the show. And that applies to any show you make. If you put talented people together and you’ve got great producers, of course you can do this again. In this particular case, it just ran out of steam. But it had a great run.
So how would you like American Idol to be remembered?
For me, I always remember the good times. I think it had a sense of humor. No one should take it too seriously. It was a fun moment in time.