Simon Cowell sits on a balcony overlooking the pool at the Beverly Hilton hotel and lights another cigarette. It's a tumultuous time for the fiery Brit, whose baby-daddy drama is dominating tabloid headlines just a month before The X Factor is set to premiere its do-or-die third season in the United States. But Cowell has rarely appeared more at ease. "I think you're really going to like it more this year," he says of his singing competition.
After last season's addition of judge Britney Spears proved to be a multimillion-dollar dud and original panelist L.A. Reid jumped ship (Demi Lovato is the only holdover from Season 2), Cowell again restructured the panel, this time focusing on experience and chemistry. Enter Kelly Rowland, a former member of Destiny's Child who worked on the U.K. version of The X Factor in 2011, and Paulina Rubio, a Latina superstar whose previous gigs include coaching the Mexican edition of The Voice. Mario Lopez will take on full hosting duties, after sharing last season with Khloe Kardashian.
The format itself is also undergoing some tweaks. The contestant categories will revert nearer to what they were in Season 1 (Boys, Girls, Over 25s and Groups), the grand prize has been reduced from a $5 million recording contract to $1 million, and the show has refocused its goal of discovering major talent (such as Cowell's U.K. X Factor find One Direction). Here, Cowell and his team discuss the show's new direction.
TV Guide Magazine: Simon, this is your third panel of judges in as many years. Why do you think this group will work?
Cowell: I have had more fun making the show this year than I had the first two. The first year is always difficult, but the second year actually felt a bit dark. These shows should be a celebration — fun and funny. And I wanted these three girls because they are all fun and give me a hard time.
TV Guide Magazine: How did you decide on this almost all-female panel?
Lopez: I'd like to take credit for that! Simon and I were having a conversation and I said, "Picture this: Simon's Angels!" But after getting them together, it's more like Simon's Demons. [Laughs]
Rowland: We definitely add a lot of sass. I think we bounce really well off of each other and bring different things out of each other. And finally Simon gets to sing this year!
Cowell: I didn't really sing; I did an impersonation of somebody singing.
Rubio: And I break the ice sometimes if it's getting really serious. You just need to talk from your heart, be real to the people in front of you and give them good perspective on whether they're good or not. Don't forget that this is music — it's not the Nobel Peace Prize. It's the universal language, so keep having fun!
TV Guide Magazine: Demi, why did you want to return?
Lovato: I had so much fun last year and knew that if I went into it again, I would have a clearer idea and vision of what I was looking for. I feel like I've learned a lot, especially from these women, who are my sisters and so easy to work with. It's kind of ridiculous the bond that we all have.
TV Guide Magazine: Last season, American Idol put two strong female personalities together, and it caused friction that turned off many viewers. Did you take that into consideration?
Cowell: Of course I did. The last thing I wanted was a catfight amongst the girls. It would have been ridiculous. Contestants aren't interested in us arguing. Every one of these girls is focused, listening, really thinking about what these artists could be in the real world.
TV Guide Magazine: Mario, you're entering this year as a solo host. Does that change your job description?
Cowell: We're going to make him wear a dress some weeks.
Lopez: I'm like the host of a party, ensuring everyone's having a good time, making everyone happy and keeping things moving along. If I uphold my duties and keep Simon Cowell happy, we all win.
Cowell: The secret to being a good host is that you've got to be a good listener, and Mario's a good listener. You've got to have passion, you've got to have an opinion, so if Mario disagrees, he can say whatever he wants.
TV Guide Magazine: What other format changes can viewers expect?
Cowell: There's a middle section to the show that is going to be really dramatic, very tough on us and the contestants, and very high-pressure. You've never seen this before on one of these shows. It will look more like the live shows than the boot camp, which is completely gone, along with the judges' homes. It was the one element of the show I wasn't happy with, and it looked too similar to what everybody else is doing.
TV Guide Magazine: Did any cities stand out with exceptional talent?
Cowell: Charleston, South Carolina. You get a different vibe in each city. Long Island was good; in Denver there were some good people. Everywhere, luckily, there was somebody.
Rowland: A young man, Josh Levi, is one to watch. He's about 14 years old, and where his vocal control is at such a young age, he pretty much knows exactly who he is as an artist.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you pay close attention to what The Voice and American Idol do, both in their formats and in the ratings?
Cowell: I like competition, I really do. But there are way too many competition shows, and that's why you've got to constantly evolve. I look at the competition as, who is going to do the best with the contestants? Can we do a better job? In a year's time, you want to be saying this artist is No. 1 all over the world and it's because they did The X Factor.
TV Guide Magazine: So are you done making changes to this panel?
Cowell: When I did the first two days in Charleston, I was on a real high. I said that's about as good as we've ever done. Loved the girls, it was fun, it was different, and it's starting to feel like the show I've always wanted to make. I'm really happy. I think it will stay this way.
Lovato: I actually think that he got happier and nicer as a person.
Lopez: Well, when you're hanging out with three beautiful women, you're going to get happier.
Cowell: They're like dolphins — they put me in good mood.
Lovato: Thanks. He's like an anchor that weighs me down. [Laughs]
The X Factor premieres Wednesday, Sept. 11 at 8/7c on Fox.