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Sir Simon speaks

January 9, 2008 |  1:45 pm

“American Idol” mania begins in six days. Sir Simon Cowell, the reality judge Americans most love and hate, took time out of his busy schedule in London today to talk to the press about the Fox juggernaut’s seventh season, among other things. “American Idol” premieres next Tuesday and Wednesday with four hours of auditions, beginning in Philadelphia.

Q: Executive Producer Nigel Lythgoe recently described relations between the judges this year as “childish,” “pitiful,” “the same as every year.” What do you say?

A: Was he talking about his relationship with us? Let me return the compliment to Nigel because that’s how I would describe our relationship with him: childish and pitiful. In other words, I’m just kidding by the way. It’s certainly not pitiful. I don’t think it’s childish. It can be a little acrimonious at certain times. That’s what happens when you’ve been together for seven years. You get on each other’s nerves. You scream at each other. We’re not going to sit there like three robots and be told what to do. It is what it is. I think we all find the auditions harder and harder as the seasons go on because it’s torture. And it gets on your nerves and therefore you can become a bit argumentative and emotional. But to describe it as pitiful, certainly someone in his position, shouldn’t be describing us that way. No.

Q: There has been criticism of the judges for being cruel to singers for their lack of talent. Are you guys just telling it like it is?

A: I hope so. I’ll be honest with you. There are certain times when you watch the show back — and I haven’t seen the audition shows yet — where you’re going to watch back and hate yourself for what you said at the time. And that’s partly because you don’t know the person’s backstory normally before they walk in the room. For all I know, their dog had died an hour ago and they’re singing this in memory of the dog and I’m or anyone else is rude. And you watch it back and you see the whole story unfold and it’s horrible.

But the problem is that you will get very bored and you will say things at times that can be harsh. But at the end of the day, every person that comes on the show, they have seen "American Idol," and they know what’s in store if they’re not a very good singer. But I hope most of what we say is meant as constructive or being honest.

Q: Tell us about the level of talent this year.

A: I think personally it’s one of the strongest years we’ve had in a long, long time. It’s younger. I think the talent is more current. They’re more interesting people. So I go into this season a lot more optimistic than I went in certainly last year. I mean, Paula and Randy went on the record last year saying the bar has been raised and all that nonsense and it’s going to be one of the best years. I didn’t go along with that. I didn’t believe it. But I will go on record this year saying it’s one of the strongest lineups we’ve had.

Q: You made references to this year’s contestants being more interesting people. How is that the same or different than talented people and in the audition process how do you look for interesting as opposed to necessarily the talented?

A: I am making these comparisons to a lot of artists that you see on the Internet now who are kind of doing their own thing. And they have a certain quirkiness and they have their own style. Rather than just a ton of talented puppets for want of a better word. These people just look more current, sound more current. They’re definitely individuals. And I think three or four of the contestants we’ve got this year all would get recording contracts without "Idol." I think they’re that good. It feels more fresh than I’ve seen before and definitely more memorable.

Q: Do you have an exit date in mind and can the show go on without you?

A: Nothing is gonna last forever. I think the exit date will be determined by the public, who eventually are going to get sick to death of you if they haven’t already. I always in my mind thought I’d go up until the end of my contract, which would be two more seasons after this one. Nine years is probably enough to inflict on anyone.

Can the show exist without me? Absolutely. It would probably get better.

Q: We heard that Fantasia’s brother auditioned this year. Does he have his sister’s talent?

A: The answer is he hasn’t. He was terrible. Dreadful. He can’t sing. I think I’m right in saying this, from memory, he was terrible. I remember thinking, "Oh, great, Fantasia’s brother is coming in" and it was all fantastic until he started singing.

Q: Did you watch “Hey Paula?” and is that the real Paula?
(Cowell cracks up before answering.)

A: I saw 30 minutes of the first episode and, to answer your question, yeah, a lot of it is the Paula I know, which is why I stopped watching because I have it in real life. So I don’t have to watch it on TV again.

Q: What does that mean? Does she normally cry that much and is she that mean to her assistants?

A: To be honest with you, she was at the mercy of the edit. I’ve only witnessed her being kind to her assistants and they seem to get on well. The crying and all of that, I saw that within the first hour of working with her. She’s an emotional girl. But I think what I saw, I thought it was very exaggerated in the edit because she doesn’t talk to her assistants like that generally.

-- Maria Elena Fernandez

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