'X Factor' Judge Paula Abdul on Simon Cowell: 'I Get a Kick Out of Seeing Him Happy' (Q&A)
"It was great, but you need time away, and it’s a total blessing that these few years allowed for us to breathe," says Abdul of her eight-year stint at the "American Idol" judges' table.
Like Siegfried and Roy, Penn and Teller, Daryl Hall and John Oates, and any number of pop culture duos, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell belong together -- at least on TV. How else do explain eight years of record-breaking ratings on America’s favorite singing competition show, American Idol?
The two parted ways after season 8, when Abdul made her exit, but the power couple is back in a big way with the premiere of X Factor (Wednesday and Thursday on Fox). What happens now that they’ve graduated to the major leagues, where auditions are held in arenas and the sky’s the limit for contestants young and old? More of the same, thankfully! And how we’ve missed it.
In outtakes from The Hollywood Reporter’s August cover story, Abdul recounts her Idol exit and fills us in on various X Factor shenanigans, not all of which involve the man America loves to hate.
The Hollywood Reporter: You left American Idol amid some controversy involving your salary. If everything including the money was the same, would you have stayed with Idol or still made the switch to X Factor?
Paula Abdul: I would say X Factor because I think change is always good. I’ve never had one job for nine years, and for someone like me, who’s been a director, choreographer and then a performer, I’ve had multiple reinventions when it comes to career paths. It makes sense to try something different, but it doesn’t take away from the love that I had with Idol.
THR: After you tweeted that you were leaving Idol, how did you feel that day?
Abdul: Really good. It wasn’t something that I just did on a whim. It was carefully thought out. Everyone was nervous about it, but not me. I’ve been very fortunate, but I’m no stranger to having to start over. In fact, I find it challenging -- when no one expects you to do much, you can always surprise them. I’ve always believed in myself because I’ve never had anyone say, “I believe in you, Laker Girl who’s five-foot-two; You’re going to be a world famous pop star and choreographer!”
I’ve always climbed unconventional ladders to success and [leaving Idol] was a great opportunity for me to take a look at where my passions lie. Where do I want to focus my creativity and energies? And I can take some time off, which I could never do before. A ton of people around me thought I was insane. They said, “You’ll never get another job,” and I reminded them that I’ve had longevity for almost 20 years in this business. It’s not easy. And as kind as I am, I’m definitely not weak.
THR: How long did you debate whether to stay at Idol?
Abdul: I pretty much made up my mind after the finale. It would have taken a lot for me to go in the other direction. It was time for me to move on.
THR: When did Simon Cowell first approach you about the X Factor and what was that conversation like?
Abdul: We talked right after I quit. He couldn’t believe that I actually did it -- like he was shocked. And I said, “I told you I would. I can’t let you down for being totally unexpected.” So we stayed in touch, but I had some things I wanted to do, like I wanted to travel. Originally, the show was supposed to happen a year earlier and when it didn’t, I wanted to start my own dance show. I had it in the back of my mind that if it’s meant to happen, it will happen. Simon and I ended up being a great duo on television. The formula was there -- lightening in a bottle that you can’t manufacture. It took years to figure it out. It was extremely awkward at first. I can have fun with him and at the same time be completely aggravated with him. It was great but you need time away and it’s a total blessing that these few years allowed for us to breathe. When X Factor premieres, it will have been three years since we last sat and filmed together. Now, it’s a whole different feeling, experience and situation. I get a kick out of seeing Simon happy. He’s totally in his element. He still annoys me and I annoy him, but we all get along well.
THR: And your contract for that CBS dance show was a hurdle when it came time to sign with X Factor, yes?
Abdul: I had to ask permission. I loved doing that show, it was such an enjoyable experience, but we got clobbered in the time spot.
THR: When X Factor live shows start up, you’ll be back at the same soundstage where Idol is shot….
Abdul: It was the same stage for the dance show, too! The first few times there, I would be banging on my dressing room door, like, “Open up!” And then realize, “Wait, this isn’t my dressing room.” I will have lived more in that studio than at my own home! I need to take over half of Simon’s trailer.
THR: When Cheryl Cole was making her exit, you were sort of dragged into it because people thought you two didn’t have good chemistry. Your thoughts on that?
Abdul: It was a total joke. We were friends, and I’ve only had lovely experiences with her. My whole thing is, I don’t want to get involved, but I don’t feel that anyone should have to go through what she went through; it’s completely unfair. I feel no shame in saying that.
THR: Let’s move on to another minor controversy, X Factor’s first promo, which seemed to poke fun at Idol…
Abdul: Not my idea, but Simon said I inspired him… I seriously did not know it was going to be that big a deal. He was putting on a pink sweater and making fun of me. But when it came out, it seems Fox was OK with it.
THR: Did you watch Idol last season?
Abdul: Bits and pieces. When there were 12 left, I got to meet them and thought right away, “That Scotty country singer kid is going to win.” I think Jennifer [Lopez] did a great job.
THR: Have you cried a lot at the X Factor judges’ table?
Abdul: Not at all. Nicole [Scherzinger] cries a lot. It’s very refreshing. I’m happy not to be the only one. But there were times when we were sobbing so hard, snot was coming out because we were so happy for the contestants.
THR: Did it make that much of a difference having a live audience there during auditions?
Abdul: Absolutely. You get an immediate sense of what the audience is gravitating towards. They boo you, but you have to be real with what you’re experiencing. I always feel like true performers really come out and give it their all.
THR: Here’s one from the “did you know?” file: Fellow judge L.A. Reid produced your first album?
Abdul: He wrote my very first hit song. We both met at very important times in our lives, and it was awesome. He’s magical. He’s an excellent tastemaker. I love that man. No one deserves as much success as he does.
THR: How did you initially meet?
Abdul: I was choreographing for Comic Relief and this R&B group were working next door and laughing. So these guys, [L.A. and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds], asked for my autograph and said, “Come listen to our stuff after rehearsal.” The next day, they come up to me and said, “We’re leaving our group to come write and produce songs for you.” I got them their first publishing deal and a check for $100,000.
THR: Have you slapped Simon at all yet?
Abdul: Yes, I have. He slaps me, too. He’s not supposed to but he does -- on the ass. I just knock him in the head.