Review: Sweet Revenge - the Intimate Life of Simon Cowell

New Statesman
American Idol judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson , pictured here in 2005. Photograph: Getty Images

Sweet Revenge: the Intimate Life of Simon Cowell

Tom Bower

Faber & Faber, 432pp, £18.99

The mental image of Simon Cowell in a singlet isn’t easily dispelled. Tom Bower’s biography has been titillating journalists for weeks with news of Cowell’s affair with Dannii Minogue and partiality to lap dancers. But it is the details – the singlets – that illuminate the book: Cowell being injected with vitamins; Cowell eating “nursery food”; Cowell declaring that the best tomato sauce he’d ever had was on a Pizzaland pizza in Windsor and demanding that his chef, Geoff, make him a replica (Geoff traces the Pizzaland owner to Abu Dhabi and makes Cowell a pizza in a box decorated with Pizzaland’s motif; I’m still worried about Geoff). When you’re extremely rich and have lost all normal human instincts, these are the sorts of things you can do without people murdering you in your sleep.

Cowell’s power and influence are undeniable. If you own a television, they’re also inescapable. He is the emperor of Saturday night entertainment. Cowell’s brainwave was to create a machine that feeds itself, his vastly popular programmes sourcing artists out of whom he can then make millions. The machine, over the past ten years, has clawed into the US and been copied across the world, reaching ever deeper into the pockets of audiences and advertisers.

You know all this. What you don’t know, until you read Bower’s book, is the psychedelic horror of the early, failing years, which by happy chance occurred during the aesthetically problematic decades of the 1980s and 1990s. The reader is fed joyous accounts of Cowell’s habit of crashing his father’s flash cars, his indefatigable promotion of such musical luminaries as Sinitta, Sonia and Robson and Jerome, his reputation for being incapable of spotting talent (he was only interested in Take That if they dropped Gary Barlow).

Bower depicts a young man burning with desperation, reliant on his father for cash bailouts, a figure of industry-wide mockery. (He is perfectly described by a music producer in the 1980s as “not credible. He looked like he was in charge of Easter eggs.”) Eventually, he has a genuine hit (if that’s a fair description of Westlife) and it’s not long before the TV version of Cowell is launched and the money rolls in.

Bower’s central theme, as the title suggests, is revenge. He was granted access to Cowell yet he is at pains to assert his authorial independence: copy approval was not granted and he “arrived unaided at my own conclusions”. But if only he hadn’t opted for such an obvious narrative: the hopeless, grasping youth who transforms into a brutally successful businessman with a desire to take revenge on all who had stood in his way (Simon Fuller). As a storyline, it bears a remarkable similarity to the artfully filmed life histories of X Factor contestants who turn their backs on a miserable life in the suburbs of Luton to seek global stardom. We are too well trained by Cowell’s televisual output not to see through the ruse.

Far more likely, it’s that gnawing insecurity that drives him. Cowell, Bower tells us, lugs around two suitcases of beauty products and gives Botox vouchers as Christmas presents. His greatest pleasure is to lie on the sofa between ex-girlfriends who attend to his ego like Roman slaves. He still has the teen mentality of wanting to be in the cool crowd, of resenting “arty” types who actually like music. He dismisses girlfriends as “boring”, the classic attack of the dull. He lives surrounded by a cast of grotesques – “best friend” Paul McKenna, Philip Green, Piers Morgan and the Murdochs: an Avengers Assemble parody of the super-rich, who live suspended over the Atlantic in their jets, toasting themselves with Cristal.

Bower’s prose lacks elegance – “Celebrity and shameless vanity have become Cowell’s vehicle of subversion,” he booms – but he compensates with an eye-watering gallery of anecdotes. It’s worth reading Sweet Revenge for these alone (but only if you can handle being seen with a book whose back cover bears a photograph of Cowell topless on his yacht, flambéed a deep orange by the sun).

I’ll leave you with one: last year, Cowell visited his new multimillion-dollar, 15,000-square-foot home on North Palm Drive, Los Angeles. “Everything, he declared, was ‘great’, except the grass in the garden. ‘It’s too smooth, like for bowling.’ He ordered it to be ripped out and replaced with normal grass.” The world’s greatest music mogul is a spoiled child.