Simon Cowell: the restless ambition of TV's Mr Nasty

After conquering the TV talent-show business, Simon Cowell now plans a television empire that he boasts will eventually rival Disney.

Everyone knows Simon Cowell is vain: a fellow American Idol judge once joked that his RayBan sunglasses are mirrored on the inside too. He even turned down a recent dinner invitation from Barack Obama because their diaries "didn't quite match". All the more reason why he's been chafing at the bit of late, says The Sunday Times. Despite his success as TV's most bankable personality, "Mr Nasty" is not his own man.

Cowell long ago sold the rights of hit reality TV shows The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent to Sony BMG. The worldwide Idol franchise, meanwhile, is owned by a consortium including Fox, Fremantle and 19 Management, the vehicle of Cowell's long-term rival and fellow British svengali, Simon Fuller. So small wonder Cowell seems to have jumped at a plan to team up with old friend Sir Philip Green to form a television business that they boast will eventually rival Disney (see below).

When Rolling Stone magazine asked Cowell what he wanted most in the world, he replied: "Money. As much money as I can get my hands on." It's a puzzling obsession, says Lynn Barber in The Observer, because Cowell, 49, wasn't exactly born into grinding poverty. His late father, Eric, was a successful estate agent who ran music publisher EMI's property portfolio. He grew up near Elstree in Hertfordshire with a glamorous set of neighbours: Joan Collins was on one side; the head of Warner Bros on the other. "He was very cheeky as a small boy; he knew his own mind," his mother Julie told The Mail on Sunday. Expelled from three schools, he left at 16 with two 'O' Levels and took a job in the EMI post-room. "I wanted my own pay packet."

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His big break came in 1984 when he met producer Pete Waterman, part of the Stock, Aitken & Waterman trio then cleaning up with a host of manufactured stars. Waterman inspired him to form his own label, Fanfare. The first signing was Sinitta, with whom Cowell notched up his first big hit, So Macho. "There is no evidence that he ever cared much about music," says The Observer. But he had a talent for "finding the sort of acts that would sell records". The eventual tally was 75 number-one singles.

Yet when the music mood changed in the early 1990s, he failed to adapt and only just avoided personal bankruptcy. He spent the next five years living with his parents, trying to relaunch his career. By 2001, he was back. Having launched boy bands Five and Westlife, he passed up the chance to appear on a new hit-maker show, Popstars. Its subsequent success infuriated him. "I thought, 'I've got to do something to retaliate.'" The plan was to showcase his acts in shows he would fashion. The result was Pop Idol.

Cowell polite and softly spoken off-screen is the life and soul of any party, says The Daily Star. But he admits to depression. Having split with girlfriend Terri Seymour, he rattles around his Beverley Hills mansion. Fear of being tied down means bachelor status suits him. But there's a hint of wistfulness: "I'm just a wandering asteroid without a home... I sometimes think I'm never going to be happy."

Do Cowell and Green have the business X Factor?

If there's one group of people Simon Cowell can't abide, it's poseurs, says The Observer. He gets a lot of flak about the "sentimental gush" he puts out, but "if people like it, why shouldn't they be allowed to enjoy it", he says. "I have the same views on food" he can't bear fancy French food "I'd rather have an all-day breakfast." One of the reasons he has long admired Sir Philip Green is that he detects a similar no-nonsense streak in the Top Shop and BHS tycoon. "What I like about Philip is that he is not embarrassed about the fact that he is successful... he makes you understand it is not rocket science." In many ways, the two "richest bad boys of British business" are two of a kind, says Breakingviews. They're both obsessed with detail and there may be considerable business logic to their pairing. Merchandising is one of the more profitable parts of the movie business; the same may well prove true of the kind of cult TV shows fronted by Cowell.

At present the difference in their wealth is vast, says The Sunday Times. Green is worth about £4.7bn; Cowell a relatively modest £180m. It's not yet clear how much each will invest in the company, nor who will own the lion's share of the outfit. As one analyst put it: "the question is what's worth more: Cowell's creativity or Green's business savvy?" But if they can make it work it will be a powerful combination. The ultimate arbiters will be the public. "Will the double X-Factor pair fall out before they reach the final? Will they win the audience vote? The Phil & Si Show or Business Idol, as Cowell would surely call it may yet prove to be gripping entertainment."