Twenty minutes simply is not enough time to spend on a conference call with a jovial Simon Cowell, especially at this time of year.
Every journalist approaches such a call with their own specific button to push, box to check or axe to grind, with “American Idol” just days away from opening voting for its ninth installment, an installment that will also be Cowell’s last with the show.
There are the usual local-interest questions from reporters regarding contestants representing their area.
There are the usual questions about the obligatory controversy-of-the-day (Chris Golightly today, who-knows-what tomorrow).
There are the usual questions about dream mentors and — although not on the Thursday (Feb. 18) afternoon call — dreaded theme nights.
There are the usual questions about judging disagreements, formerly focused on his battles with Paula Abdul, now delving into alleged bickering with new judge Ellen DeGeneres.
And now, added to the mix, there are the questions about the impending mortality of his “American Idol” gig and the search for his replacement, which seems to only be happening through the tabloid press, the blogosphere and via talk radio, rather than through any official channels or with any earnestness. There are the questions about how anybody will possibly fill Cowell’s shoes, queries that Cowell is more than pleased to playfully answer.
Like I said, 20 minutes isn’t enough.
It just happens that this reporter got in the first question in Thursday’s call and I had my agenda as well, asking about the sense that looking at the popular music landscape, “American Idol” would be better served with a female winner this year, rather than a third straight male winner.
“Depends on what she’s like,” Cowell says. “I kind of know where you’re going. We’ve had a few years now of guys winning the show and I would say that there’s definitely a better chance of a girl winning the show this year, better than last year. When you talk about the landscape, I think you’re absolutely right, that you want somebody who represents what’s going on at the moment. Look, I’d love to find a Taylor Swift, somebody who’s relevant rather than just a contest winner.”
That was all I got, but what other questions were addressed by reporters?
Well, about those reports of disagreements with Ellen?
“I wouldn’t say that we didn’t get on well,” Simon insists. “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 that 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 fall-out. I was trying to guide her through the week and that was about it, really.”
And absence certainly makes the heart grow fonder for Cowell. While his relationship with Abdul was always built around playfully bickering, he’s come to see past that faux-acrimonious filter in his months without her.
“Paula’s my friend, amazingly even though we’d argue a lot,” Cowell acknowledges. “She was somebody who I got very close to over the years. We’d hang out together after the show. She always made me laugh. I always thought she was funny. So it was just like not having your friend on the show anymore, so I do miss her.”
What does Simon think about this year’s Top 24, unveiled on Wednesday night, a group that some people feel favors quirky personalities over polished star personae.
“The reason we put a variety of people through was, I think, primarily on talent and an interest in them as people,” Cowell explains. “I think if you just pick everybody because they look the way you think they should look… It happened a few years ago. Every blonde girl in the competition looked identical. I couldn’t tell one from the other. I think it’s important that you can recognize talent, personalities. I think it’s good that we have a mixed bag this year.”
And who would he like to recruit as a mentor before shedding his “American Idol” coil?
“Who comes to mind? We’ve had some pretty good people, haven’t we?” Cowell reflects. “I think we should have Lady Gaga, because she’s the most relevant pop artist in the world at the moment, so I think she should be No. 1. And I’ve met her, she’s very smart. I like her.”
But no question was raised more frequently and in more different ways than what Cowell thinks about where the show will go in his absence, with several people poking and prodding specifically to get Cowell to share his opinion on Howard Stern, the man most publicly lobbying for the gig.
“I think you’ve got to know what you’re talking about,” Cowell says of his replacement. “I think more and more now I’m starting to realize with these shows 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. And Howard? I know Howard’s name has been in there for a while, but I’m fairly certain that there hasn’t been an approach at any time for Howard to do the show.”
Cowell emphasizes the importance of music industry experience for his replacement.
“It’s interesting that when we first started, we had a record producer, an artist and an A&R man, so you covered pretty much everything you need to do,” he says. “I would say somebody who’s had managerial experience is always very helpful. But in simplistic terms, it’s like if you judge the ice skating at the Olympics. If you’re gonna give a score, you genuinely need to know what you’re talking about. I think 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 whoever replaces me, my advice has always been, ‘Find somebody know actually knows what they’re talking about and has actually experienced success in the music business.'”
While that seems to rule out Stern, Cowell acknowledges, “He’s played records. Maybe that’s a good qualifications, that he’s played records, that he’s a DJ, but he obviously wants the job. Good luck to him.”
[Of Perez Hilton, another self-promoting wannabe “Idol” judge, Cowell was more complimentary, saying “Perez would be funny. He’s got a good taste in music. He’s a personality. That could work.”]
One thing Cowell has insisted since he announced his departure at the Television Critics Association press tour last month, is that “American Idol” can and will survive without him. He just thinks it’s important that the producers cast the correct new judge.
“You see people put in a role to play a certain role, which has become quite tiresome, when people always describe that person as ‘The Mean Judge’ or whatever that is,” Cowell says. “You’ve just got to find somebody who can actually make a difference to the contestants, who’s not afraid to speak their mind, who’s prepared to be honest and occasionally blunt, but not to be gratuitously rude. I’m really getting tired of that now. But look, there are going to be a lot of people, as you know, who want the job and I think, ironically, it’s going to help next season, because I think there’s going to be a lot of interest as to who replaces me.”
“American Idol” begins its Top 24 performances next Tuesday on FOX.