Simon Cowell has been awarded the main ‘Personality of the Year’ honour at the MIPCOM Television Festival in Cannes. So he flew me in from LA to interview him on stage in front of 4,000 delegates.
‘ Better the devil you know,’ he explained. ‘I’ll sharpen my horns,’ I replied.
I found him backstage, smoking furiously and fretting.
People would be surprised to see Simon’s private anxiety before he performs in public. Everyone assumes he’s always the super- confident persona we see on TV. But, one of the reasons he’s so successful is because he worries so much about every tiny detail of what he does.
I walked out first. ‘Wow... I haven’t had an audience this big for months,’ I said, to more laughs than felt comfortable. Then I retold the story of how Simon first created the Got Talent format, the success of which was one of the main reasons for his award.
We had lunch in 2005 and he casually announced he was going to bring back an all-round talent show. ‘There used to be loads of them like New Faces and Opportunity Knocks in England and The Gong Show in America. Now there’s nothing like it airing anywhere. I’m going to revive it with three judges, three buzzers and any act from dancing dogs to fire-eaters – and I want you involved.’
A month later, we filmed a pilot called Paul O’Grady’s Got Talent with Simon, me and Fern Britton as judges – and delighted ITV bosses green-lit a full series straight away. But O’Grady then defected to Channel 4, so ITV shelved it. Simon persisted.
Six weeks later, he texted me to say he’d sold the rights to NBC in America. ‘I can’t be on the panel because of my American Idol contract. So I need someone as arrogant and obnoxious as me and your name immediately sprang to mind.’
I flew out to LA and three months later, America’s Got Talent launched to stupendous ratings.
‘I feel like Dr Frankenstein,’ Simon sighed when he saw me in my trailer on the Paramount movie lot. Britain’s Got Talent followed, and now, incredibly, Got Talent has been sold to 67 countries, making it officially the most successful entertainment programme ever. (The X Factor is not far behind.)
A giant map appeared on screen, with every part of the world where Got Talent airs coloured blue. ‘Most of the remaining white area is ocean,’ I explained, ‘where even Mr Cowell’s tentacles cannot reach.’ ‘Yet,’ he responded. ‘But there is a massive white blob of land amid all the blue – Mongolia. Why have you never sold Got Talent to Mongolia, Simon?’
He stared at the screen in horror. ‘I didn’t know that. You’ve just made me very unhappy.’
‘ Does Mongolia not have any talent?’
‘ Every country has talent. This is not good, I’m going to investigate the Mongolia situation as soon as this is over.’
Everyone laughed, but knowing how competitive Simon is, I could tell he was being deadly serious. At the end of an absorbing chat, I asked him to sum up his life and career. He pulled out his phone and read out a text he’d received that morning from Ella Henderson, the X Factor contestant whose debut album has shot to number one in the charts.
‘As a little girl I had a dream. That was to sing, with my own music, in my own way. Right now I have just released my very first debut album and you have no idea how much that means to me. I know I couldn’t have done any more and whatever happens from here I just have to say I’m so glad to finally share my music with the world and for you to be a part of this incredible process. It really has felt Tonight, Simon received his award at a glittering ball. Ella Henderson sang three songs ( beautifully), then a video was played paying tribute to the guest of honour, featuring Oprah Winfrey, Rupert Murdoch, Harvey Weinstein and Pharrell Williams.
Simon walked up on stage, took a deep breath and to my astonishment choked up with tears.
‘My life has changed so much for the better this year,’ he sobbed, ‘thanks to Lauren and my son Eric.’
He said a few thank yous, then the tears ran freely again. ‘I just wish my dad was here to see this.’
He came back to our table and hugged Lauren – who was also crying. I have never seen him so emotional.
We even managed a rare moment of sincerity between the pair of us.
‘I’m very proud of you, Simon,’ I said. ‘Thanks Piers,’ he laughed, ‘I can see you might even mean that!’