Simon Cowell had to learn how to be that mean on American Idol, former Fox executive says

Simon Cowell had to learn how to be that mean on American Idol, former Fox executive says

It appears Simon Cowell isn't as scary as American Idol made him out to be.

Mike Darnell, a TV executive who previously spearheaded Fox's reality TV division, said that the former judge known for his frank comments and unimpressed persona had to learn how to be that mean for his stint on the show for the sake of showbiz. But underneath it all, Cowell is a "different character," Darnell said during a career retrospective session, per Deadline.

Darnell first took notice of Cowell's candor during an audition taping in Hollywood. He had already adapted a much more frank tone as a judge on the British version of Idol, Pop Idol, which ran on ITV between 2001 and 2003. At the time, nicer, more supportive judges were the trend on reality TV shows, and Darnell wanted to lean into something much different.

American Idol judge Simon Cowell at the FOX 2002 SummerTCA Tour at the Huntington Ritz Carlton Hotel in Pasadena, CA on Monday, July 22, 2002
American Idol judge Simon Cowell at the FOX 2002 SummerTCA Tour at the Huntington Ritz Carlton Hotel in Pasadena, CA on Monday, July 22, 2002

Kevin Winter/ImageDirect Simon Cowell on 'American Idol'

"I knew we had to get Simon Cowell, as he was the star of the show, but we needed something different in the U.S.," Darnell said. "The mean judge, the frank judge. In all the other shows before him, everyone was polite and nice, and I knew that was going to be [his] thing. Simon, to his credit, was willing to do anything." The former judge "learned the character," said Darnell, who is now president of unscripted TV at Warner Bros Discovery.

However, "underneath, he's a different character," Darnell said. "Watch Britain's Got Talent or America's Got Talent now and he's a much softer version now."

The English TV personality served as a judge on American Idol between 2002 and 2016, and would bring his biting demeanor to other reality competition shows in the years that followed, including The X Factor and America's Got Talent. Cowell revealed last month that networks have expressed interest in reviving X Factor, which concluded on Fox in 2013 after three seasons.

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