Hell will probably have long frozen over before there is an X Factor panel of jostling egos that actually likes each other.
Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole/Fernandez-Versini (she’d like to be known by the latter surname but everyone uses the former) may have finally buried the hatchet after he humiliatingly sacked her from the American X Factor but she and Louis Walsh still aren’t, shall we say, cosy.
‘They have history’, groans Simon as he looks at Cheryl on one side of him and Louis on the other. ‘They don’t really like each other.’
When Cheryl was in Girls Aloud, Louis was the band’s manager, although – as she once said – he didn’t manage them very well; they pretty much did it all themselves.
Harsh? Undoubtedly. Untrue? Probably not. The Westlife and Boyzone manager later admitted that he struggled to deal with girls. But that didn’t stop him having a go back at Cheryl. ‘I am a better manager than she is a singer,’ he later said of his one-time protégée, and ‘two words: voice coach’. The spat was very public and more than a touch childish but it has carried on this year.
Cheryl did not want Louis – who insisted he was leaving last year – back on the panel when she agreed to make her return. Simon overruled her; there are some benefits to being the boss. ‘I can’t imagine not having him here,’ he shrugs.
So how are things now? Well, not good given the frostiness in the air when we catch up with the new X Factor judging panel. In their presence you rather feel like a referee trying to stop children bickering. I ask if they’ve been out for a drink to build bridges. Cheryl snorts. ‘No!’
Simon, 54, who seems delighted to have got them in the same room, if only to watch sparks fly, laughs uproariously. ‘Cheryl had it written into her contract that she can’t ever be alone with Louis,’ he grins. Cheryl doesn’t disagree. ‘Well we don’t like each other,’ says Cheryl, 31. ‘I don’t think we ever did. We’ll work together, but there’s no love lost there.’
Louis, 62, is a bit more diplomatic – to a point. ‘Let’s just say we are very different people. We agree to disagree. In a sense I suppose it’s good for the show. It would be very boring if we thought in the same way.’
Indeed; it would be rather boring without all the fights, wouldn’t it? Clearly Simon – back on the panel after three years on his American version of the show – thinks so.
There’s an intriguing moment during our interview where I ask about some of the awful things Cheryl and Louis have said about each other over the years, and they brush it off, but Cowell – Chief Troublemaker, clearly – hits Google to find some of the juiciest gems, reading them out.
He is in his element with two panel members who may or may not end up throwing water over each other by the end of the series. Still, at least he’s candid about his mischief-making. ‘I think it is boring when people get on too much. The fact that these two don’t like each other is fun to watch, they have different personalities.’ How so?
‘The thing about Cheryl is that she has that likeability factor,’ says Simon. ‘When a contestant walks into a room they just immediately like her and warm to her. Louis? Not so much’. Ouch. The next question, given that poor Louis seems to be such a whipping boy, has to be ‘Why is he here then?’ ‘Ah well, he is a good manager and he knows the business,’ says Cowell. ‘You don’t sell 100 million records by accident.’
The surprise, perhaps, is that the anticipated catfight – between Cheryl and new judge Mel B – hasn’t yet happened. Cheryl admits that she was unsure how she was going to get on with the famously terrifying Mel (she was much more scary in the Spice Girls than Victoria was posh).
She seems to have been charmed to bits, though. ‘People did think we’d be at each other’s throats, but I like her!’ says Cheryl. ‘Our paths had crossed before and I never had a problem with her, but you don’t know how you will get on with someone. She’s funny. She’s really easy to talk to – she chats away about her kids.’
Mel, 39, is surprisingly quiet when the attention turns to her; she is standing there with crossed arms looking a little, well, scary. ‘We all get on,’ she insists.
‘I love Louis, who I have known for some time. Cheryl is adorable and Simon is a hoot. I don’t feel anything but love for them all. We have been having a lot of fun. We tease each other, we pick on Louis a bit. It’s just fun. Simon always asks me, “Do you want a hot dog?” for some reason – he hasn’t explained why. But it annoys me. I always call him “Grumpy,” because he is, and Cheryl and I take the mick out of his accent when he says, “sweetie, darling”.’
So is this the team that will bring back the ratings to the X Factor which have been haemorrhaging since Simon left for America? He obviously hopes so.
Simon’s wooing back of Cheryl since she was fired from the American X Factor by the show’s executive producer (after he ducked out of doing it) has been well documented. The humiliating sacking came soon after her split from love-rat footballer husband Ashley Cole and a difficult battle with malaria and it made it seem like her fortunes were on a downward spiral. At the time she vowed to never forgive Simon and sent him several expletive-filled text messages.
‘I made a mistake in not telling her myself,’ he admits today. ‘But Cheryl has gone on record herself saying she wasn’t mentally ready for that show. It happens, but I had no doubt that she would slot back in. She was incredible on the British show, and this time around she’s even better.’
Cheryl’s new husband, French restaurateur Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini, has been on set and Simon clearly approves. ‘I think she looks happier and seems happier,’ he says. ‘She is funnier which I never thought I would say about Cheryl Cole [he clearly didn’t get the memo about the name change]. But she is making me laugh at the moment. She is more confident in herself. And although she probably won’t admit it, she enjoys working with me and I love working with her.’
Cheryl agrees that she’s probably a better judge than she used to be. ‘I’m older, a bit wiser – hopefully,’ she says. ‘I think I’m better with the older contestants this time round. Before, I was 24, I felt a bit intimidated judging people who’d been in the industry a lot longer than me. I felt that by criticising them I’d be being a bit patronising, you know what I mean? They’d been on the circuit for years. Who was I to tell them they weren’t going to cut it? I’d been brought up to respect my elders. I found it difficult.’
Clearly she has no problems with being rude to her older boss though. ‘Simon can be great but he can also be really irritating,’ she says rolling her eyes. ‘We work very long days on the X Factor and sometimes he really winds me up. He knows what buttons to press.’ So far the two have come to blows over the decision to lower the audition age to 14. Cheryl told one contestant he should be concentrating on exams rather than singing contests.
‘I am still in two minds about this really,’ admits Simon. ‘And I think as a parent you think about it differently. There is an argument to say that they should be in school and I get why Cheryl said it. The other part of me thinks that if they are not going to try and get a deal on my show, they will be going elsewhere. If I can give them an opportunity because they are really good, that is to be encouraged.’
His six-month-old son Eric will be making his own appearance at the X Factor – although firmly behind the scenes. ‘He is very cute, so alert, a very cute little thing,’ Simon smiles sweetly. But he still hasn’t changed a nappy, ‘oh no darling, I think he will be beyond that stage before I have to do that,’ he says.
‘But I do bath him, occasionally, and I feed him and play with him. He is starting to laugh and recognises me. Most of the time he’s a happy baby.’ I wonder whether Cheryl’s shotgun marriage has given him any thoughts in that direction with Lauren Silverman, Eric’s mother. ‘We’ll have to wait and see,’ he grins.
Mel B is the only actual new member of the panel in the show’s 11th year, and even she appeared as a guest judge in the 2012 series. The former Spice Girl has found fame all over again as a talent show judge; she has been on the judging team on Australian X Factor and a children’s version of The Voice out there as well as America’s Got Talent, which she films in New York.
‘I was slightly nervous about Mel,’ admits Simon. ‘She has done a lot of these shows so I was worried that she was going to be a judge for hire; take the money and turn up but not really be that interested in the show. I couldn’t have been more wrong; she has been a revelation.
‘She is an incredibly articulate judge, she knows what she is talking about, she has good instinct and I have never known anyone work as hard in my life. She gets off a plane from New York straight onto our show and doesn’t miss a beat. She is amazing.’ She is a little scary, he admits when she is out of earshot, but he likes that. ‘She is not doing it for effect, she is that person in real life,’ he says. ‘She can be funny one moment and then the next bite your head off. But there is a great heart there and she is a nice person. And she really wants people to succeed on these shows.’
Mel, as well as being a talent show judge, has her fingers in several pies. She’s a partner in a US company that sells water and an Australian health food firm, and she lives in Los Angeles with second husband Stephen Belafonte and her three daughters; Phoenix, 15, from her marriage to Jimmy Gulzar, seven-year-old Angel from her relationship with Eddie Murphy, and two-year-old Madison with Stephen.
‘My life is busy but I don’t know anything different,’ she says. ‘I think X Factor is a great show to be part of. It creates superstars, it makes people’s dreams come true.’
For that, of course, we need good talent. Simon admits he was disappointed with last year’s crop but thinks this year it will be better. ‘It’s the talent that really defines the show,’ he says.
‘Last year, it was ok, but it wasn’t my favourite year. I think it was very predictable right from the get-go who was going to win and once the live shows started Sam Bailey was in a different league to everybody else. Cheryl and I said if we had been mentoring Tamera Foster we would have got her into the final and that would have made it more exciting.’
It’s worth noting that Tamera – who came fifth – was mentored by Nicole Scherzinger who replaced Cheryl as an American X Factor judge.
Sam Bailey, the former prison officer who, as Simon predicted, did end up winning and who is about to have a baby, has had one hit album which was rushed out for Mother’s Day earlier this year. ‘She will make another album with us, I think,’ says Simon.
All the judges say that the biggest surprise this year so far has been the age of some of the strongest contestants. ‘I think it’s going to be an interesting year for people over 25,’ says Simon who – surprise surprise – is mentoring the older category.
‘One of the most successful recording artists this year is going to be a woman called Sia, who’s 38. I find that interesting. The music business used to be very ageist and I think that’s changing – and it’s partly down to social media and growth there.’
So there we have it: are we saying that it’s an older, wiser, X Factor all round, this year? Cheryl says, ‘Naw. It’s still like working with schoolboys.’