03.08.10

Simon Cowell's Troubled Empire

In the U.K., between an X Factor backlash and the instability of spinster sensation Susan Boyle, scandal and PR nightmares have plagued the Cowell business.

Of all the fates, balancing twin international entertainment empires on one pair of shoulders may not seem like the worst one, but nonetheless, there must be moments in the recent days of Simon Cowell when he wonders whether perhaps he has stumbled into too much of a good thing, and whether even a man of his generous pectoral endowments, can keep all these balls from crashing down.

The Cowell Empire is composed of two heretofore separate solar systems, each populated by an array of planets (TV shows, recording artists, etc.) orbiting around their brush-cut sun god.

With all the sturm und drang, British critics have begun asking for the first time, the once unthinkable question about the show that for years has topped U.K. ratings: Could X Factor actually have overdone it and be on its way out?

In the Western orbit of the empire, the United States, the system is bracing for its biggest change yet, as Cowell prepares to exit the vehicle of his ascent, American Idol, and to import his own show, The X Factor, to the U.S airwaves on Fox in the fall of 2011. (And for that matter, the perpetual man about town reportedly prepares to marry.)

View our coverage of American Idol Season 9
While he takes a last lap around the Idol track here in the U.S., however, back home on the Eastern edge of Cowell's empire, the tone has been far less valedictory. In fact, for the past few months, Cowelldonia in Britain has been rocked by one bizarre, disturbing event after another. (Cowell's U.K. representatives did not respond to requests for comment.)

The source of the troubles goes back perhaps to the differences between the two empires. Whereas American Idol lives in—by the standards of modern television—a fairly gentle, nurturing little bubble, with its focus on singing talent still remaining very much at the show's forefront, Cowell's U.K. fixtures, X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, exist in the much more rough-and-tumble, sharp-elbowed world of British television, where ravenous tabloid culture intermingles more brazenly with on-air entertainment.

The first signs that things may have accelerated beyond the normal level of freewheeling theatrics came during last season's X Factor with the tabloid-driven meltdown of one of the show's stars. After Cowell, in his judge's hat, called Danyl Johnson's rendition of With a Little Help From My Friends "the best, first audition I have ever heard," the 26-year-old schoolteacher was catapulted to instant stardom as the video of his performance became an international viral hit.

His prospects in the competition, however, evaporated when Johnson became the centerpiece of a media circus, first with reports of arrogant and bratty behavior by the singer. Then, midway through the X Factor season, British tabloids published reports alleging to "out" the young singer. These stories might have remained an unmentioned sideshow had one of the judges not brought them front and center onto the X stage. Critiquing his rendition of a song from the musical Dreamgirls, Dannii Minogue said to a stunned Johnson, "If we're to believe everything we read in the papers, perhaps you didn't have to change the gender references." Cowell asked Minogue to repeat to him what she had said—when she did, in front of cameras on his own live television show, he stared at her in utter disbelief.

Johnson's backstage tantrums eventually led to his receiving a late-night summons to the office of Cowell himself for a dressing down, but it was too late to salvage the situation. Johnson ultimately finished in a distant fourth place.

And this January, British reality TV's often combative relationship with its contestants—they get put through a ringer that would turn an Idol alum pale with horror–spilled over into British courts when an alum from Cowell's other U.K. tentpole Britain's Got Talent lodged an official complaint about unfair treatment with England's media and employment overseers. Filed by one Emma Amelia Pearl Czikai, the complaint alleges that the show ignored her warnings about a spinal condition she possesses that affects her ability to hear, and the producers did not properly calibrate the background vocals during her performance to accordingly. Because, she claims, they sought to mock and humiliate her by featuring a performance with out-of-whack vocals rather than another she performed under better conditions. She told the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper of the suit, "I had an illness that affected me at the time and they knew that there was another broadcast that proved that I could sing…This story is the truth behind the joke. They made one big joke out of me and put it on YouTube and sold it in 30 countries. The whole world is saying: ‘This stupid woman's a laugh.'"

While some charges have been dismissed by British review boards, parts of the complaint continue to work their way through Ofcom, the British equivalent of the FCC], where Czikai apparently faces gargantuan hurdles in proving discrimination took place due to her infirmities.

Away from the live show's klieg lights, X Factor's world also took a highly unsettling turn in October when Leona Lewis, its most celebrated star–the one true star the show has produced in its six seasons– was punched in the face at an autograph signing event by a 6'5" man who had auditioned for and been rejected by X Factor.

Meanwhile with all this mess swirling around, the Cowell empire took a hit where it hurt the most–on the album sales charts. For the past five years, the victory single produced by each season's X Factor champion has owned the top position on the UK's charts for the all-important Christmas sales week, an exalted spot in British tradition. In December, however, an Internet campaign sought to deprive the show of its assumed No. 1 slot, urging people to buy the metal band Rage Against the Machine's 1992 single "Killing in the Name." The campaign led to the band selling 500,000 copies of the song, soaring past X winner's Joe McElderry's rendition of "The Climb." A chastened Cowell remarked, "I now realize I've taken too much for granted… I accept there are people that don't like the X Factor."

With all the sturm und drang, British critics have begun asking for the first time, the once unthinkable question about the show that for years has topped U.K. ratings: Could X Factor actually have overdone it and be on its way out?

And then there's Susan Boyle.

Turning a middle-aged semi-shut-in into a international phenomenon was always going to be a tricky proposition, but the road for the woman who has become Cowell's biggest star ever has been even rockier than any could have predicted. American audiences who saw Boyle's appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show witnessed a woman who seemed still uncomfortable and slightly confused, doing anything but basking in the limelight that her humongous record sales have earned her.

Since finishing her Britain's Got Talent stint–having had to check into a hospital to recuperate after the finale–bizarre incidents and meltdowns seem to have continued to plague the spinster sensation. In January, Boyle came home to discover a burglar in her bedroom, one who she claims may have tried to break into her house before.

The incident led her brother to complain about the lack of security around her and worry that she could be slain like John Lennon. After she recently fainted in Heathrow airport, her brother spoke up again, publicly saying that the star "needs 24 hour care."

Cowell, for his part, in the vortex that continues to swirl around his leading lady Boyle noted in a recent interview that, for the record, he gave her the chance to leave the show and walk away from fame while she still could.

A quarter of these headaches might decimate the career of a lesser star or a more timid mogul. But this is a man whose very presence on American Idol, whose ability to "say what he really thinks," at first glance stunned American televised politesse out of a fifty-year stupor and revolutionized the airwaves. For the past decade, through controversy and turmoil, Cowell's razor-sharp instinct for the appetites of the public has fueled the growth of one of the greatest dominions entertainment has ever known.

Given all that, there's little reason to think a few bumps in the road are going to truly slow down Simon Cowell as he prepares to climb his next, highest mountain—when he leaves American Idol and brings X Factor to our shores. One can be certain that watching entertainment's most unflappable, relentless personality stare down these challenges is sure to keep the drama of American Idol and its leading man front and center for many days ahead.

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Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a recent memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost.