‘X Factor’ fights ‘Idol’ comparisons
The season’s most hyped show, “The X Factor,” asks the $5 million question: Who has the X Factor, and what, exactly, is it?
Simon Cowell, executive producer of the singing contest, a U.K phenomenon, returns as a judge with former “American Idol” colleague Paula Abdul, record executive L.A. Reid and performer Nicole Scherzinger. The show is Fox’s prime time for Wednesday and Thursday, Sept. 21 and 22, and continues on both nights until its Dec. 22 finale.
Given that it is a Fox talent show for singers, with Cowell and Abdul judging, comparisons to “American Idol” are inevitable. “It is different,” Cowell says. “I was always working on both shows, and ‘Idol’ is a pussycat and this show is a tiger. Both are cats and one is crazier than the other. This is much more a reflection of my personality than the other show. Instead of auditions in a hotel room, these are in front of 5,000 people.”
Not that a producer would deflect buzz, but Cowell acknowledges this show has attracted more attention than would be expected of his reunion with Abdul.
“I think part of the reason is we have had so many people come to the auditions,” Cowell says. “We must have had 70,000 people. And they all Twitter now, and they started the buzz. It is a good show.”
Singers vie to win TV’s largest prize ever: a $5 million Syco Sony record contract. The winner will also be featured in a Super Bowl commercial for Pepsi, a show sponsor. After two weeks of audition shows, contestants hone skills in boot camp.
The 32 acts that survive boot camp are then divided into four categories: males 12 to 30, females 12 to 30, everyone over 30, and singing groups. Each judge is assigned a group and mentors those singers. This becomes a full-time experience as they all live in the judges’ homes or a vacation home or another spot the judge chooses, says Ann-Marie Thomson, head of media for Cowell’s Syco Entertainment.
Judges then halve the number of contestants before they debut on the live show Nov. 2. Given the ferocity of the competition, Abdul suggests a sure-fire way for singers to stand out from the crowd.
“If you want to do really well on ‘X Factor,’ kiss Simon’s ass,” Abdul says, grinning. “His ego loves that. And the worst thing you can do is kiss Simon’s ass because it annoys me seeing him gloat!” Abdul rocks a lacy white mini, a silver belt and matching heels, purse and nails. She says she’s thrilled to work with Cowell again.
As befits Cowell’s arch honesty, he says, “She can be, at one point totally endearing, and within seconds the most annoying person in the world! I don’t know if she does it deliberately. When we fall out, if one of us is resisting, it turns into a full-scale argument.”
If Cowell dismisses someone and Abdul champions them, viewers can expect a reasoned business decision from Reid, CEO of Sony’s Epic Group. Given that Reid was instrumental in the careers of Usher, Pink, Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey, Avril Lavigne, Rihanna and Kanye West, he relies on his gut.
“I don’t trust anyone else’s taste,” he says. “Would you let anyone decorate your home? It’s personal. My choice has always been to see talent raw.”
As far as spotting who has the X Factor, Reid says, “it’s a combination of things that makes someone. It’s magnetism and personality. It’s interesting to see when someone is too rehearsed and too learned. That’s boring.”
Auditions, especially when one’s future hangs on it, cannot be boring. Of the judges, former Pussycat Doll Scherzinger knows that so well.
“It is the same audition process I got my start in with ‘Popstars’ and I just feel like I am still doing it,” she says. “I can empathize.”
She recalls how excited she was to guest host on the U.K. version, now in its eighth season. Scherzinger has that naked ambition that Cowell seeks in a winner.
“I will find an opportunity to be on the show,” she says. “I have my album coming out. The main reason I am excited is to give back in some way.”
Regardless of coaching, even from Scherzinger (a winner of “Dancing with the Stars”) and Abdul (who has consistently reinvented herself as a dancer, singer and mentor), what can’t be taught is the X Factor. It’s what catapults someone from anonymity to superstardom. The X Factor seems elusive until that rare individual has it and shines.
“Susan Boyle, you could not describe her as somebody having the X Factor,” Cowell says, “because of the way she handled the audition, she definitely had it. You have to have an open mind. Boy when they’ve got it they have got it. The audience gets it as well. And you feel it.”
“The X Factor is something you can’t quite articulate it,” Abdul says. “But it is a feeling and bearing witness to something that just happened. When you see someone that possesses the X Factor, you get goosebumps. And you witness something that can be life-changing, and you’re witnessing something that just changes your life in a remarkable way.”
Simon Cowell is a judge on “The X Factor,” premiering Wednesday on Fox.