He can't sing or play an instrument, doesn't know how to use an iPod and prefers watching TV to listening to CDs – yet it's the music industry that has made Simon Cowell his fortune. Albeit with a few bumps along the way...
Born in Brighton and brought up in Hertfordshire, Simon Philip Cowell had what he describes as a comfortably well-off childhood with parents Eric and Julie. His dad was on the board of directors for record label EMI, running the company's property division. The family also included his three half-brothers, Michael, John and Tony, a half-sister June and younger brother Nicholas.
Early signs of Simon's famously critical eye came, he remembers, at the tender age of four when he looked at his mother's white fuzzy pillbox hat and remarked, "Mum, you look like a poodle".
After he dropped out of school, Julie – whom he says he takes after and is famously close to – got him his first step on the ladder in the music business. He had been working as a film runner when she saw an ad for a job in EMI's mail room and filled in an application for him.
He got the job and worked as a post boy until his father's connections got him re-hired as an assistant in the artist and repertoire division – responsible for scouting new talent and artist development.
Parlaying this into a career as a record producer, he left EMI during the early Eighties to form independent label E&S Music. This folded within a year, however, forcing him to return temporarily to his former employer. But in 1985 he was off again, to form Fanfare Records with business partner Iain Burton.
The company enjoyed a string of successes with artists like Sinitta Malone, who was Simon's girlfriend at the time, but in 1989 Fanfare, too, folded, leaving Simon bankrupt, deeply in debt and back home living with his parents.
Rather than feeling embarrassed at his misfortune, however, Simon said it was in fact "a relief": "Everything went – my house, my Porsche, all the things I thought were important. I had nice food every night at home. I was quite happy, really."
Later that year he became a consultant for BMG, going on to sign a number of hit acts through his S Records label. Among them were Curiosity Killed The Cat, Sonia Evans, 5ive, Westlife and Robson and Jerome – whose version of the Righteous Brothers hit Unchained Melody
became the top-selling single of 1995.
Simon also managed to corner the market for novelty records, signing the music rights to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Teletubbies and the World Wrestling Federation.
While some in the industry may have looked down their noses at his choices Simon says he's not snobbish about music, insisting he has mass-market tastes. "My talent is for creating things the public will like," he says. "I'm interested only in making money, for myself, and the people I work for. I mean, that's absolutely the only criterion I attach."
In 2002, he set up another label, Syco Records, which would later become part of Columbia Records and Sony BMG Music Entertainment, as well as make him a multi-millionaire. But while he's had success since with artists like classical group Il Divo, it is with talent TV shows that he has made his mark – and the majority of his fortune.
Together with Spice Girls manager Simon Fuller, he created Pop Idol
, serving as a judge for the first season in 2001. The show was a huge success, largely thanks to Simon's acerbic contribution. With his derogatory comments and insincere catchphrase "I don't mean to be rude, but...", not to mention his penchant for tight t-shirts and high-waisted trousers, he became a national celebrity overnight.
Simon's attempts to sell the show in America were initially less successful, although Fox eventually picked it up in June 2002. US audiences loved it and Simon was instantly propelled to A-list status across the pond. Over 26 million viewers were tuning in at the end of the first season when Kelly Clarkson was announced the winner.
A canny businessman, Simon also released Idol
-related records, while Simon Fuller owned part of the show and managed winners' careers. The two fell out in 2004, though, and were locked in a legal battle after Simon launched new UK talent competition The X Factor
which Fuller claimed was based on the Pop Idol
concept. The lawsuit was settled with Simon Cowell agreeing to return to Idol
for five more seasons.
The talent shows have swelled his bank balance considerably. In 2006 Simon agreed to remain as a judge on American Idol
for the princely sum of £20 million per series for another five years – indeed, the 2010 season is his last – while in the UK he signed a three-year "golden handcuffs" deal with ITV worth £20 million. He further augmented his stable of hit reality shows with American Inventor
, America's Got Talent
and Celebrity Duets
. In 2007 his production company launched a UK show to find stars for a new stage version of the musical Grease
, while his fortune looks set to soar even more after the announcement that he will take the hugely popular X Factor
to America in 2011.
His indulgences are houses and cars, of which he owns several, and the hard-working vegetarian takes just one holiday a year – usually to Barbados, where he has a luxury villa.
Simon has always declared himself unwilling to settle down and have children. His long-term relationship with model Terri Seymour came to an end in 2009. "I don't think I would be great marriage material. I don't think I'm that reliable," he told one US publication.
However, 2010 saw a huge U-turn for the mogul, who became engaged to Afghanistan-born makeup artist Mezhgan Hussainy. When asked about the swirling rumours on a US chat show, he replied: “Are they true? Well, I do have somebody in my life now. And I kind of made a decision this year to make someone happy.” He went on to concede that he had bought her a ring in London – and that he couldn’t write children out of their future plans. “I'm kind of torn because I'm a bit too old to have kids, but then again I think it would be important to have a lot of mes around in the future,” he said.