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Simon Cowell has cooked up a new TV format, Walk the Line, a heady mix of talent show and what ITV hints is actual tightrope walking. It will be broadcast later this year, but the 62-year-old music mogul won’t be one of the on-screen judges. He’s scaling back his filming commitments to spend more time with his girlfriend, Lauren Silverman, 44, and their seven-year-old son, Eric.
So we’ll miss out on his acid tongue? Yes, though the contestants won’t mind. Cowell’s brutal appraisals of wannabe entertainers have included: “You look like one of those creatures that live in the jungle”; and “If you had lived 2,000 years ago and sung like that, I think they would have stoned you”. It makes for good telly: Cowell has built a £400m fortune thanks to The X Factor and Got Talent franchises. The latter has spawned 70 international versions, from Iceland to India, making it the most successful reality TV format ever. Cowell further monetised his newly minted stars through his record label, Syco Music, which signed acts such as One Direction and Little Mix. It had 41 No 1 singles in the UK over its 18-year lifespan.
Was he destined for fame? Cowell had a comfortable upbringing in Hertfordshire. His desire to succeed was evident from a young age – he would flip over the Monopoly board when he was losing – as was his fascination with celebrity. He remembers peeking over the fence at the parties of his film-producer neighbour, attended by stars including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and thinking: “I’d like to be there.” But his move into the music business, aided by his father, who was head of property at EMI, had several false starts. Cowell eventually established a career creating novelty records for wrestlers, puppets and Power Rangers. He once put on a dog costume to mime a song by Wonder Dog on Top of the Pops.
When did he hit the big time? In 2001, when he was one of the judges on the first series of Pop Idol, a precursor of The X Factor. American Idol was launched in 2002, The X Factor in 2004 and Britain’s Got Talent in 2007. The shows were inescapable: the 2009 final of Britain’s Got Talent pulled in more than 17 million viewers. Cowell produced the shows and masterminded every detail: he would often stay up all night rewatching and analysing episodes. “I can spot a light bulb out at 100 metres,” he said. It paid off: in 2013 Cowell made £61m and tied with Howard Stern as America’s highest-paid TV personality.
Is his personal life equally glitzy? Cowell’s high-waisted trousers, plunging V-neck tees and bushy chest hair clearly do it for some women. He’s dated a string of Page 3 girls, models and lapdancers, and once had a fling with Dannii Minogue. He used to have a marked distaste for commitment: while dating TV presenter Terri Seymour, he reportedly referred to her as “my current girlfriend” and dismissed talk of children by suggesting that she get a pet terrapin. But Cowell now seems to be enjoying family life and is keen for his son, Eric, to join him in showbusiness one day.
Where do the Cowell clan live? Between a £18m home in Malibu – where Cowell had an accident on an electric bike last summer and was almost paralysed for life – and a £15m mansion in Wimbledon, southwest London. He’s fond of creature comforts: he once paid £2,000 to have a bath in a London hotel suite when his boiler was broken. He’s also dabbled in lavish, often bizarre health treatments, including a sheep placenta facial and being wrapped in clingfilm and tinfoil after being covered in “detoxing” oils. “After about two months I realised, this is actually torture,” he said of the latter procedure. More regular are his Botox injections and a weekly vitamin drip. Yet he still smokes, a habit he picked up when he was eight.
What’s next? The X Factor hasn’t aired since 2018 and ratings for his other shows are plunging. Cowell sold his record label to Sony in 2020 and, like many celebrities in the twilight of their careers, has turned to Las Vegas. America’s Got Talent Live opened there this month. While Cowell is still a commercial force, the golden age of reality TV is very much over: who’d be publicly humiliated by him when internet fame and fortune are just a TikTok away?