Life After Idol
Simon's departure comes on the heels of a ratings dip for Idol—a decline of 8 percent—which Simon believes was due to a combination of factors, including former judge Paula Abdul's departure . "We had a great team. The show's a different show," he says. "She's a survivor, Paula. She's got great instincts, so for whatever reason she decided not to go back, she'll come back on top. I'm absolutely convinced of that."
The most important thing Simon brought to the show, he says, is his ability to spot a potential star, but what he's best know for is his no-hold-barred critiques. "I just couldn't take it seriously when these awful people were coming in and they sing horrifically," he says. "It has its ups and downs. There were many, many times when I've watched the show back, because [we] don't hear the backstory. We don't really know what's going on outside the room, and you hear a story about 'The cat died minutes ago and I'm singing this song for my cat.' I don't know that and when I watch it back and I'm being vile to them I think: 'God, I wish I hadn't said that. If only I had known about the cat.'"
Ultimately, though, Simon says his blunt criticism is actually meant to help the contestants. "It does frustrate me when you get these young kids come in who are absolutely terrible and they've been told all their lives by the mom, dad, family that 'You're going to have a career in show business.' That's when I actually think I'm doing some good, which is to say to them: 'I promise you, you're not going to do what you want to do. It just won't happen, so just stop. It's a fantasy. Get on with something in your life you're going to be successful at,'" he says. "I've given them what has helped me in my life, which is I never, ever got anywhere by people patronizing me. Even today, when I screw up, people around me will say, 'Simon, you've got this completely wrong.' And I listen to them."
But this failure served as a wake-up call, Simon says. "Once everything was gone, there was nothing I missed, and all the pressure went away. Then it kind of became reality, which was, I've literally got to start again with nothing." It took three or four years to pay back loans, Simon says, and then he started over. "In a weird way, it was one of the happiest times of my life."
Even when he had the Porsche and the fancy house, Simon says he never could have imagined the level of success he's reached today. "I do sometimes think, which is probably what still drives me—even though the memory of when I lost everything isn't a painful memory now, it's still a reality—many, many times I do actually think, 'Maybe the whole lot will come crashing down,'" he says.
These days, Simon is dating Mezhgan Hussainy, American Idol's lead makeup artist, but says that at 50 years old, he's not sure he wants kids. "When I was younger, my dad used to play soccer and games with me and I worry, if I were 70...that worries me a little bit," he says. "If they could be born at the age of 5, I'd quite like them at that age. I like them when they can talk and understand. ... I'm not sure I could deal with the whole gaga, googoo. But I do like kids when I can talk to them. I mean, genuinely like them."
Simon says these low moments might be a result of all the people who rely on him. "You can go through days where by the end of it, you feel that everything's been sucked out of you because of that dependency," he says. "You just become aware that a lot of people depend on you, rely on you, or you're not giving people the time you should be giving them. It's almost like a guilt thing, and that does drain me."
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.'"
So how is X Factor different from all the other talent shows Simon has judged? "First of all, there's no upper age limit. I like the idea that somebody who could be 60 years old can enter the show. There's a lower age limit—we're taking it down to 14—and singing groups can enter the show. So when we created the show in the first place, we kind of saw in our mind almost like a David versus Goliath potential final where a 16-year-old could be competing against a 35-year-old," he says. "I have genuinely no idea whether it's going to work or not, but I'll put its success or failure down to the fact, can we or can we not find a star? And I'm confident we can find a star."