Merciful isn’t exactly the first word that springs to mind when describing Simon Cowell – as many viewers still can’t make up their minds whether they love to hate or hate to love the blunt-tongued impresario who presides over The X Factor US, which returns for its second season on Thursday.
Tightening thumbscrews is what Cowell does best. Where his ex--employer American Idol kindly allows contestants to audition in private for a few judges, The X Factor US not only plants hopefuls before a panel of four superstar judges, but before a fifth “judge” as well – a live audience of thousands they have to win over or face the boot.
“It’s almost as if they want it more this time,” says Cowell, impressed with the new season’s wannabes. “There’s something in the air right now.”
Cowell knows that mind-blowing pressure separates the diamonds from the clinkers: self-deluders without the vocal ability, charisma and stage presence to win an unprecedented US$5 million (Dh18.4m) recording contract with Syco/Sony Music need not apply. One thing’s for certain – Cowell, a tastemaker on a global scale, is neither a trifler nor a time-waster.
Just ask Britney Spears or the teenage sensation Demi Lovato, two newcomers who join Cowell and the returning L A Reid on the judges panel in their search for an out-of-this-world talent. Anyone over the age of 12 can compete, whether solo or part of a vocal group.
Spears’s musical career boasts sales of nearly 100 million albums and countless awards and accolades, including the 2011 MTV Video Vanguard Award and Billboard’s Best-Selling Female Artist of the Decade (1998-2008).
“I didn’t know what to expect working with Simon,” says Spears. “I just knew he had a reputation for being a little blunt. But he’s adorable and I really respect the fact that he says what he thinks and doesn’t really care what anybody else thinks.”
Lovato says she was “totally afraid” of Cowell. “He’s so hilarious, but he can also be pretty harsh, so I was really, really nervous about working with him. And then I got to the set and it’s basically been so much fun.”
The singer and actress Lovato enjoys a dedicated young fan base. Her single Skyscraper, from her most recent album, Unbroken, went platinum, while the video for her new single Give Your Heart a Break has already scored 10 million YouTube views. Her film credits include Camp Rock and Princess Protection Program.
Reid says he believes the new season is skewing “a little looser, a little younger” thanks to Spears and Lovato.
“I think what we bring is a fresh perspective on today’s music and today’s artists, and what The X Factor is today,” says Lovato.
“I’m absolutely delighted Britney and Demi are joining us,” says Cowell. “Britney remains one of the biggest stars in the world, she’s talented, fascinating – and I believe she knows exactly how to spot The X Factor. Demi’s had an amazing career in music, TV and film for someone her age. She’s young, confident and enthusiastic. I think it’s really important that she speaks to our younger audience. The new panel will be dynamic and will work really well with the changes we are making to the show.”
One mystery lingers, however – who will host?
Ever the showman, Cowell is keeping up the suspense until a September 11 premiere party in Los Angeles – to be attended by last year’s winner Melanie Amaro and the Cowell-mentored boy band One Direction – for the big reveal. Early rumours circled about Khloe Kardashian, but now hint at a pair of hosts, possibly the Glee actor Kevin McHale and Fashion Police’s Kelly Osbourne.
• The X Factor US returns with a two-part season premiere to be broadcast at 9pm on Thursday and Friday on OSN First
• Turn the page to read about this week’s debut of the Arab version of The Voice