Is Simon Cowell really an evil genius – one of those bad-tempered, all-powerful pop-culture impresarios for whom songs are merely audible widgets, and people handy flesh packets with malleable backstories to sing them? Or is he actually a flawed and fallible human being with a sad addiction to Botox and a desperate need to be liked?
All of the above, or so a new British biography tells us in its own flashy, trashy and deliciously revealing way. Tom Bower's recent book, Sweet Revenge: The Intimate Life of Simon Cowell, has been making waves on this side of the pond and not only for the revelations you might expect.
Sure, it's filled with the juicy tidbits we've come to anticipate from an investigative sniffer-outer of celebrated sleazebag excess. (Bower has also written unauthorized books on Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, Lord and Lady Black, and Richard Branson.) But in this case, the juice was offered to him willingly and free of charge, in a Champagne glass, aboard a 200-foot yacht moored off San Tropez.
Sweet Revenge, in other words, has the highly unusual distinction of being a dirt-dishing, no-holds-barred biography that was kinda-sorta authorized by its own beleaguered subject. As Bower told me over the phone from his London office this week, he'd started researching his book back in late 2010. The following spring, once he'd "spoken to loads of people in the industry," he received a call from a third party inviting him to meet with the former American Idol judge. Naturally, the author jumped at the chance.
At their meeting, Cowell told Bower that since the book was going to be written anyway, he'd rather be involved. Bower explained that was fine – but that Cowell would not get to see the manuscript, nor would he have final approval over its contents.
Amazingly, Cowell agreed. Bower proceeded to spend the next few months hanging out on Cowell's yacht in the Mediterranean and flying around with his subject (who was preparing for the launch of the U.S. version of his British hit, X Factor.) In all, Bower estimates the two spent a couple hundred hours together in what he describes journalistically as "the perfect scenario really, in which you get everything you want and you don't have to give anything away."
We learn of Cowell's love of colonics and potions (apparently he travels everywhere with suitcases filled with eye drops, face creams and bath salts), biannual Botox blowouts, and weekly vitamin injections meant to counteract the effects of smoking a pack of Kool menthols a day. His personal life has included a long string of fly-by-night relationships with topless models, lap-dancers, low-rent singers and, most famously, Kylie Minogue's sister and X Factor (UK) judge, Dannii.
That Cowell tends to make up for his behaviour as a self-described "hopeless boyfriend" by being generous with his exes does not do much to endear him to the reader. Nor does his love of money, attention and what Bower describes as "nursery food" (Cumberland sausages, mashed potatoes, white-bread sandwiches, scones with cream). At one point, Cowell has the galley chef track down the franchise owner of the junk-food chain Pizzaland to replicate his favourite tomato sauce.
So did Cowell agree to let an uncontainable force like Bower into his life? And why did Cowell attend the launch party of the offending book (which he admits caused him to bury his head in a pillow for a week)? Bower says the reason was twofold.
One, Cowell has a profound understanding of the uncontrollable nature of celebrity. "He is," says Bower, "more talked-about now than ever before."
Two, he wanted to air old grievances, specifically his long-standing dispute with his twin-like arch-nemesis, Simon Fuller, creator of the Idol franchise. "I think he thought he would neutralize me by getting me on-board," says Bower. "And the result was a book that told more than he would have liked, but some of what he wanted as well."
The same cannot be said of former media baron Conrad Black, who in 2007 launched a libel suit against Bower. The case has been frozen while Black served his prison time, but what with him being sprung from the joint stateside this week, it may soon be reactivated.
Bower says that if Black wants to sue him in Canada, he will happily see him in court. But unlike his latest subject, he has no lingering affection for his Lordship. "Frankly, I can't think of anyone less relevant," he says, dismissively. "He's like a dinosaur, only without the appealing qualities of a dinosaur."
Cowell, on the other hand, appears to be a vain and self-obsessed Svengali with all the appealing qualities of a vain and self-obsessed Svengali. In the world of Tom Bower, that's actually a compliment.
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