11.09.11

The Anti-Ryan Seacrest

Steve Jones is a former model and U.K. personality who once took his pants off on TV. So why did Simon Cowell ask him to host The X-Factor—and why is he making more headlines than the contestants? Jones talks to Ramin Setoodeh about the show, Paula Abdul, and not hooking up with Nicole Scherzinger.

Steve Jones, a major TV personality in the United Kingdom, recently was uprooted to Los Angeles for a new job. He’s the host of Fox’s singing competition The X-Factor, which means he has to wipe away those tears from the eliminated singers—and Paula Abdul. After two weeks of live shows, he’s yet to master such a delicate art, and the critics are harping on Jones. The New York Times called him “utterly irrelevant.”

But he’s learned an important trick to dealing with fame. “I have never Googled myself,” he says, on a lengthy phone call from his new home in Beverly Hills. “Madness lies down that road. I know me better than anyone else. I don’t think I need other people’s opinions, mean opinions. Would you Google yourself?” 

His interviewer admits that he does—frequently. “What happens?” Jones demands in his Welsh accent. “Are there pictures and stories? Ooooh no. My skin crawls at the thought of it.”  

Perhaps it’s for the best that Jones, 34, possesses such restraint. If the Internet is to be believed, Steve Jones is:

(A) Hooking up with his co-worker (and former Pussycat Doll) Nicole Scherzinger.

(B) Feuding with Paula Abdul, because he cut her off before she was able to say bye to one of her teams.

(C) Too cold for American audiences.

(D) Possibly getting fired for these and other reasons. 

Jones cheerfully addresses all these topics, in a warm, self-deprecating manner we’ve yet to see from him on The X-Factor. He says that even he doesn’t like watching himself on TV. “I hope I don’t come across as too tense,” he says. “I’m very critical of myself. That’s something I’m trying to deal with and get over.” When he has seen the show, he finds himself thinking, Why didn’t I say that instead? or Aw shit, that would have made a brilliant comeback.

The first time he watched a full episode was recently at the producers’ request, after he kept cutting off the judges. “When I interrupted Paula, she wasn’t mad at me,” Jones says. “It’s a two-hour show, and we’ve got to get through it, otherwise we’ll literally fade to black and won’t have any conclusions, and we can’t have that. I have about five producers screaming in my ear: ‘Steve shut up!’ I love Paula. If it weren’t highly illegal, I would lock her in a box in my basement and keep her there. She’s a very attractive lady. But please don’t print too much on that, because you’re going to make my professional relationship with her awkward.” 

As for other relationships, he says that he’s single. When asked if he’s dating Nicole, Jones goes silent. “Scherzinger!” he says, with a laugh. “No. I did not know that,” he says of the reports “We were just texting each other about the show last night. She never mentioned that we were seeing each other. That’s ridiculous. We have a definite brother-and-sister thing going on.” 

In England, Jones has a reputation as a ladies’ man, and he’s been photographed with starlets like Hayden Panettiere, Pamela Anderson, and Paris Hilton. “Did I date Paris Hilton? No. We had a mutual friend,” he says. He cozied up to Angelina Jolie when she was his first celebrity interview eight years ago. “I was totally over the top and cocky and forward,” he says. “It was a very flirty interview and she played ball. Still filming, I saw her that evening at the premiere, and I gave her my telephone number on the back of a tube ticket. She took it. I’m still waiting for that call, by the way.” 

Jones has persevered through a string of odd jobs. His first gig was at a factory in Wales. “I printed cardboard boxes,” he says. “I don’t want to be down on the job, but it wasn’t for me.” He spent his early 20s as lead singer of a struggling band. “I think I’d choose a rock star over—dare I say—a host,” he says, revealing a dream to one day perform on The X-Factor. He wasn’t as fond of his years as a runway model in Asia and Australia. When he tried to move that career to England, he remembers, the big agencies shut him down: “You’re not good-looking enough,” they told him. He went back to Wales and auditioned for a music competition show called Pop Factory, where he learned how to become a TV personality.

On Britain’s Channel 4’s T4, he hosted a weekend talk show from 2003 to 2010. Jones had Ricky Gervais administer electric shock to him during a segment. By the second jolt, Jones was on the floor writhing in pain. On another day, he appeared on TV not wearing any pants and exposed himself when he left the stage. “If they asked me to walk out on The X-Factor with my bum out, I’d do it in a second.” But his European sensibility can get lost in translation. He never considers that Fox wouldn’t let him, with all the kids watching. “Even a little bum shot like that? We did that sketch at 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, so maybe it’s different in the U.K.” 

“A lot of people mention: ‘You’re going to be the new Ryan Seacrest.’ I wish.”

As his profile rose, Jones had always wanted to make the transition to American TV. He took a meeting with Simon Cowell two years ago, and he had to wait a long time for his X-Factor offer. The producers dangled it in front of him for nine months, only signing him two days before they started shooting. “I wanted it so badly,” he says. “It was getting hairy, because obviously I had bills to pay. I think the story was, Simon had said to his people, ‘I want Steve Jones to host the show. But it’s going to be the biggest and best, so find me somebody better than him.’” He pauses for a beat. “Obviously, they didn’t look hard enough.” 

He actually was supposed to be the show’s co-host with Scherzinger, but that changed when the Pussycat Doll was moved to the judges’ table. “Nicole had never hosted before, so it was a steep learning curve for her,” he says of their few days filming together. “I think she wouldn’t mind me saying she wasn’t really comfortable. She’d rather be out there voicing her opinions.” 

As for his own opinions, he won’t say which contestants are his favorites, because he doesn’t want to hurt their feelings. He says he’s grown close to all of them, since his dressing room is on the same floor as theirs. It’s so dark and tiny, he calls it “the Bat Cave.” “My bathroom is adjoining with the next dressing room,” he says. “I always think the lock is going to fail, and a bunch of backup dancers are going to open the door, and there I am, sitting on the toilet.” When the cameras are rolling, Jones doesn’t know the name of the eliminated act until the very last second, when the producers mention it into his earpiece. “As soon as people have an inkling, it loses spontaneity,” he says. “Simon is all about the mayhem.”  

But some of that mayhem hasn’t suited Jones. On last week’s live episode, a group of tween singers in a band called InTENsity were axed. With the live performances running too long, Jones could only muster the line “InTENsity are inconsolable,” while the tweens sobbed and bawled in the background. “That was a toughie,” Jones says. “It’s horrible when you don’t have the time to show that you care. It makes me look insensitive.”  

He hopes to stick around TV long enough to show audiences his softer side. And he might, since The X-Factor was just renewed for a second season. He’s heard the Ryan Seacrest comparison too, but he thinks he has a long way to go. “I’m definitely still getting used to it,” he says. “A lot of people mention Ryan in the same breath as my name: ‘You’re going to be the new Ryan Seacrest.’ I wish,” Jones says. “The man’s prolific. I’m like, ‘I’m sure he’s worried, with $50 million in the bank, please, he could give a shit.’”