It is 8pm in Beverly Hills and the sun has gone down over Santa Monica Boulevard. A slight breeze ripples the decorative line of flames at the rear of the garden in Simon Cowell’s $34m mansion. The marble floors shine as brightly as in a television studio, and each piece of furniture and ornament is flawlessly aligned and polished. Cowell sits on the terrace with a packet of Kool menthol cigarettes and a tumbler of vodka and soda, filled with crushed ice, recalling the moment that changed his life.
He was 40 and had just made another career blunder, rejecting an invitation to become a judge on Popstars, the first television programme based on a competition to find singing talent. His fellow music executives looked down upon him as a novelty merchant with laughable taste. In desperation, he had scrambled to rectify his mistake by helping launch a rival ITV show called Pop Idol, on which he was a judge, along with the producer Pete Waterman.
“Pete was on the list to be Mr Nasty because I’d worked with Pete for years and he was a dick in real life, so I thought he’d be a dick on television. But he turned into a complete softie during the auditions, crying all the time, and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘These acts are horrible.’ I thought it was more funny than anything else – I was amused. It was just something that happened.”