It might seem strange that Simon is leaving one talent show for another, but discovering a star is what he loves most. "The ratings, the money, everything's fantastic," he says. "But when it works, [like Season 3 winner] Fantasia [Barrino] doing 'Summertime,' for three minutes that night I lost myself, you know? [I just thought]: 'This is great. I'm loving my life.'"
Simon says Fantasia is one American Idol winner who stood out from the very beginning. "Whatever she'd been through in her life made her the most likable contestant I've ever met. And when you've got that massive likability thing going on, particularly in a competition like Idol, that carries you an awful long way. And she had this amazing ability to not be afraid of being emotional."
Carrie Underwood is another winner Simon spotted early, he says. "I can actually remember—it was almost as if the whole cast was in black-and-white and one person walked in in color," he says. "There was not even a second thought. I didn't know if she was a great singer or a good singer—she's not the best singer I've ever heard in my life—but she knew who she was. She knew who her audience was, who they were likely to be. She spotted a gap in the market. I genuinely believe she'd worked it out for herself."
When contestants like Carrie and Fantasia go on to have success, Simon says it makes the whole show worth it. "It validates the process. If these people hadn't succeeded, what we did would have been a complete waste of time," he says. "If nobody's come out of it or sold any records, I would say, genuinely, 'Well, then we failed.'"