Hanging with Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul in Miami, watching The X Factor choose TV's next music stars
CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Even with a $5-million grand prize as bait, picking the world’s next megawatt pop star is no easy task.
Onetime American Idol star Simon Cowell admitted as much here at the Bank United Center Tuesday, leading the regional tryouts for his new attempt to dominate the world of reality television, The X Factor.
Joined by fellow celebrity judges Paula Abdul, Nicole Scherzinger, and Antonio “L.A.” Reid, Cowell faced an arena filled with a few thousand fans, assuring them their feedback over the next two days would help the all-star panel figure out which performers would make the next cut in the contest (these semi-fnialists had been chosen fby unseen producers from a group on 7,000 hopefuls in Apri).
Eventually, the singers would be coached directly by the judges to compete against each other for the big prize. But first, they had to win three of four votes among the panel, a process Cowell assured would not be an easy one.
“Anyone who thinks this is going to be fun – after about 30 minutes, you’re going to want to leave,” he said, speaking through a microphone to the cheering crowd, a knowing smirk creasing his face. “But we’ve got security here. So you’re going to be our fifth judge."
Cowell was the last to arrive here Tuesday – about a half-hour late or so -- apologizing earnestly to the phlanx of paparazzi and reporters lined up to get candid shots of the cast strolling into the venue.
Every moment of the audition process is positioned for possible telecast, so fans were lined up on one side of the walkway leading to the venue’s side door, while photographers and reporters were placed on the other.
One by one, Reid, Scherzinger and Abdul were brought in, greeting fans first to whip them into a frenzy, then turning to speak with TV cameras and journalists as the throng yelped behind them (after five people collapsed in the heat, organizers moved the crowd inside before Cowell arrived).
Reid, miraculously free from sweat in the sweltering Miami sun, insisted the commotion “isn’t about me; it’s about finding the next big music star,” even as he posed for paparazzi shots. Scherzinger gushed about her early roots on the unscripted music competition Popstars, sympathizing with the singers they were about to judge.
“I woke up this morning and what I needed to tell myself as an artist is ‘I have it…I have it all, I just need to trust myself,’” added Scherzinger, who was initially supposed to co-host the show before she was tapped to replace British pop singer Cheryl Cole, a judge on the British edition of X Factor.
When Cole left the program after just a few audition rounds in Los Angeles, rumors flew over the cause: her accent was too thick; she didn’t get along with Abdul; American audiences had no idea who she was. On Tuesday, for most of the judges, Cole’s departure was a subject to be avoided (“I don’t know what happened,” insisted Scherzinger.)
But Cowell was characteristically blunt in his explanation. “I wanted her to do the U.K. show, where I thought she would be more comfortable,” he said, relaxed behind a paid of black aviator sunglasses, clad in his trademark white t-shirt and jeans. “She obviously didn’t want to, and that was it.”
The stakes are high for Cowell this time out, developing X Factor as Fox’s highest-profile show for this fall; a format owner and executive producer instead of the well-paid hired hand as he was on Idol.
“This format, when it works, is the best show in the world,” insisted Cowell, while noting Idol “burned (away) the memory of Simon” with its emphasis on playing nice with the contestants after his departure. "It’s all dependent on the judges’ having chemistry and the contestants being good…you’ve got to have someone on the panel who knows the difference between a good singer and a star.”
Both seemed to be in short supply at the start of Tuesday’s auditions, where several acts struggled to handle the show’s huge stage and attention from the all-star judging panel. The network, wary of giving away anything which might appear on the TV show, has asked journalists not to name specific singers, their histories or what the judges may have told them specifically.
Cowell seemed to run the proceedings with casual ease, stopping singers when he’d heard enough. At times, it was tough to tell if some acts had been allowed onstage to serve as comic relief, though no performer was as obviously awful as the ones Idol makes fun of during its early audition process.
Indeed, Reid often seemed more judgmental and harsh than the notoriously biting Cowell. And some feedback was a bit confusing, as Scherzinger complimented one singer for changing her life before turning the person down.
But for the crowd – packed with the kind of teen and pre-teen girls who also seem to make up much of Idol’s audience – the audition was an upclose look at the new way to find worldwide fame; a glimpse of the big time so close, they could almost taste it.
“I’ve been watching Simon Cowell since I was in 4th grade; you need honesty to make it in the business and he’s going to tell it like it is,” said Erica Homefield, 18, of Pembroke Pines, an aspiring singer who came to watch the tryouts. “His honesty is really inspiring.”