What the X Is This All About?

 Andrew MacPherson

Eleventh-hour hirings, a bitter exit, an angry lawsuit by an "Idol" frenemy. Even before the U.S. version of England's most successful TV show debuts, Simon Cowell has his cherished buzz. Now, the global reality kingpin seriously unloads on his detractors and reveals his plans to get 20 million viewers. Anything less? A "disappointment," he says

Fox and Fremantle agonized over the lineup, considering a slew of candidates that included Carey and Lopez for judges (Cowell pulled out when Lopez's Idol offer was made so as not to create an internal bidding war at Fox; Carey may mentor) and High School Musical's Corbin Bleu as a potential host. In fact, the team debated Jones' hiring for so long that he was notified only two days before taping started. Ditto for Abdul, whose exit negotiations from CBS dragged until the eleventh hour.

For their part, Scherzinger and Jones were paraded in front of Fox president of alternative programming Mike Darnell and members of his staff in what she describes as a "horrible and awkward" conference. "They were, like, 'Monkey, monkey, dance! Let's go!' " Scherzinger says, still annoyed. "They were very intense meetings," adds Jones. "Me and Nicole hit it off, but Mike Darnell is a tough cookie, and he was just firing questions that I tried my best to handle -- basically asking, 'Why should we hire you?' "

"Mike is not a confrontational person, he'll never shout, he just gently steers you," Cowell recalls, though it's inevitable that a crack is coming at the expense of the pint-sized Fox reality boss. "Because he's so small, you're not aware that you're being pushed into a corner so that he gets his way."

Darnell remembers it more like a good-natured tease. "That meeting was a lot of joking and laughing," he says, "which is what we do to try to see how the two of them would get along and how quick their wits are."

When it came to Cole's hiring, Cowell says Darnell was "100 percent" behind it, knowing that the handling of her exit has drawn some harsh criticism of both men -- Cowell, who was accused of abandoning the girl he'd championed, and Darnell, who was painted as an Anglophobe (his confidence in Factor's success also was questioned). "I was very supportive of having her stay," Darnell defends.

Abdul and Scherzinger didn't walk away unscathed, either. It was reported that Cole lacked chemistry with the former and that she didn't get along with the latter. "It was a total joke; we were friends," says Abdul. "I've only had lovely experiences with Cheryl. To this day, I don't know the whole story." As for that too-thick Geordie accent? Despite concerns by some on the production team that the show was "too British," Jones defends his fellow Briton, who hails from Newcastle upon Tyne. "Cheryl judged about 150 acts -- maybe twice she got asked what she was saying," he says. (A word that tripped up contestants: when Cole would call a corny performance "camp.")

Scherzinger, however, isn't denying that she wanted the job. "Yeah, I did because I had gotten the experience with the U.K. show, and I knew it was going to be a phenomenon," she says. "I loved Simon so much that I accepted the hosting job, even though I'd never been a host before, but I'm so flipping passionate about what I do that I wanted to get my hands on the contestants, give them advice and come from a place of understanding."

So what really went down with Cole? At the heart was her clear discomfort, says Cowell, who reveals that two weeks before the show started filming, she was expressing some hesitation about going through with the deal. In fact, via her representatives (Cole is co-managed by Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am and his business partner Seth Friedman), Cole began to inquire about a return to the U.K. version, but she decided to stick it out and give America a shot. What happened next was the sort of communication breakdown that could kill a career, though Cowell had no such intention.

"I came to the conclusion that she may not be as comfortable here because I was seeing a different person," he says. "She was like Princess Diana when she would walk out in England, and I accepted the fact that people didn't know her here, but I think it did have an effect on her."

Cole's quiet demeanor on camera prompted a call from Cowell on Day 2 of filming. "I said: 'Cheryl, you've got to raise your game a bit. This is America, it's a much tougher market.' " Cole resolved to give it another try while at the same time, Cowell explored the idea of having her return to the U.K. show and had even secured a substantial pay raise (more than £2 million, according to a source); 24 hours later, they were negotiating the offer. "We had gotten to the point where she wanted my dressing room," Cowell continues. "It was decided: She would come back on Wednesday, and we wouldn't tell the media. Then it leaked and got unpleasant. She missed the deadline, which meant she'd lost the U.K. show."

Cowell says he urged Cole's management to reason with her, even putting the U.S. job back on the table, but a standoff ensued. "I asked will.i.am, 'How does she feel about it?' He said, 'It's none of your concern.' Then I got nervous. I called back to tell him: 'I don't care what you say; if she wants to come back, she's got the gig. But if I don't hear from her by Sunday, the deal's off.' I never heard from her. That was it. I think her silence was quite damning," he says.

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