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

Simon Cowell is a man of many smoothies. On a July afternoon, seated in the sun-exposed corner of his poolside terrace high above the Sunset Strip (a 5,000-square-foot rental while his $8 million Beverly Hills pad is remodeled), the 51-year-old tanaholic and entertainment mogul requests from a staffer a spinach blend (made up of two large handfuls of fresh leaves, crushed ginger, lemon and a tablespoon of honey), a carrot concoction (containing exactly 25 green grapes and 10 ice cubes) and the all-powerful "Super Smoothie," which calls for, among other ingredients, the juice of eight lingonberries imported from Russia (average price: 135 rubles -- or $5 -- per kilo, but add another Benjamin for overnight shipping).

The X Factor creator and head judge, who's personally worth an estimated $254 million, can certainly afford such extravagances, along with the Rolls-Royce Phantom parked outside (MSRP: $450,000) and the full-time driver who spends 90 minutes a day shining it and etching X's in the carpeting with a handheld Dirt Devil.

Reality TV's most successful mogul, Cowell has made a career of playing and winning big with other people's money: ITV's in the U.K. (the network broadcasts blockbuster Cowell properties X Factor and Britain's Got Talent and was the home of the original Pop Idol), Fox's in the U.S. (the company paid more than $250 million to wrestle the rights to X Factor from NBC) and Sony Music's the world over (Cowell's Syco label has been partnered with the entertainment conglomerate since 2002 in a joint venture that distributes his music releases). His American Idol paycheck alone netted the judge a cool $35 million a year; artists signed to Syco Records have sold more than 200 million albums (20 million from Susan Boyle alone); and his Syco TV, which produces X Factor and Got Talent with FremantleMedia, is a veritable cash cow. Now, after nine years at the center of America's No. 1 primetime show, the man with a special touch for finding talent is about to undertake his most audacious all-or-nothing career move: the Sept. 21 launch of X Factor in the U.S. on Fox. An audience of less than 20 million would be a flat-out "disappointment," he says. Equally important: "Buzz. In England, you genuinely get the feeling the whole country is talking about the show. I hope for that."

At stake beyond the pressure to successfully launch a much-hyped show is another factor: bragging rights in the almost-gothic rivalry between former friends Simon Cowell and Simon Fuller, creator and executive producer of American Idol. Fuller is suing Fox and Fremantle for an executive producer credit on X Factor, stemming from a legal settlement the two Simons agreed to in 2004, which extended Cowell's stay at American Idol (he left the show in decline after season nine once contractual obligations finally allowed him escape) and allowed him to launch X Factor in the U.K. In turn, Fuller forfeited Pop Idol, the British predecessor to American Idol, to Cowell (the out-of-court settlement has not been made public, though details have emerged over the years). In the end, Cowell says he didn't see much personal or professional gain from the arrangement, other than the payday. "My attitude on Idol was, I didn't have anything," he elaborates. "I had a stupid three- or four-year license for the records, and that's not what I wanted or expected."

Apparently, neither did Fuller; as his lawsuit states: "Fox and Fremantle made hundreds of millions of dollars thanks to the creative efforts of Fuller. Now, when it is time to finally perform on these unequivocal promises, Fox and Fremantle refuse to provide Fuller his executive producer credit for The X Factor and refuse to pay Fuller an executive producer fee 'commensurate with his duties and stature in the entertainment industry.' … Given that, the X Factor show would not be able to broadcast in the United States at all."

Says Cowell: "You can't give someone an executive producer's title if they didn't executive produce the show. It's like me saying I want to be executive producer on The Voice or Project Runway. … Genuinely, when it comes to this lawsuit, I haven't got a clue. It's not part of our settlement agreement, so I was as surprised as anyone." A source contends that Fox and Fremantle entered into a separate contract giving Fuller a stake in X Factor should the show make it to air in the U.S. (Fuller declined to comment for this story.)

Cowell calls his relationship with Fuller "complicated," but while he's careful to point out that he's not named in the suit, clearly Cowell is bothered. "It goes back to being a kid; if you shake hands with somebody, then it's a deal, simple as that," he says. "If someone breaks that trust, and they can't admit it to you, it's cowardly. I'd rather have a person look me in the eye and say, 'I'm going to screw you.' "

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