His pantomime villain on-screen persona, ability to create celebrities out of ordinary people and ruthless eye for a business deal have made him the grand master of reality television and one of Britain’s most recognisable people.
Now, the one-man showbusiness juggernaut that is Simon Cowell has reached another milestone: he has been named the best-paid man on US television, beating the billionaire real estate magnate Donald Trump in the process.
According to Forbes magazine, Cowell’s pre-tax earnings totalled $75million (£45m) between 1 June 2008 and 1 June 2009. The figure includes his income from American Idol – the most popular series on US prime-time TV with an average weekly audience of 27 million – as well as the money he made from his music production and publishing work.
The publication’s latest list of “Prime-Time’s Top-Earning Men” places the 50-year-old British impresario comfortably above Donald Trump, who stars in the American version of The Apprentice, where he fills the role of the belligerent boss taken by Lord Sugar in the UK series. Trump earned $50m when his income from numerous product endorsements, speeches and book sales was taken into account.
According to Forbes, the secret of Cowell’s success is his “diversified résumé”. He created the phenomenally successful reality shows American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor, and although he has since surrendered the rights to them – the programmes’ profits go to Simon Fuller’s 19 Company and Sony BMG – he is paid a handsome salary to be a judge.
Cowell, who left school at 16 for a job in the mail room at music company EMI, also created his own record label, Syco music, which steps in to offer the winning acts their first contracts in the industry. Last year, both the Christmas number one single (a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” by The X Factor winner Alexandra Burke) and the song it pipped to the top spot (the charity single “Hero” sung by the show’s finalists) were released by Syco. The label also put out the year’s fourth most popular album, Leona Lewis’s Spirit.
Cowell’s business sense is not faultless – today it was reported that a property investment he had made in Barbados had run into trouble. However, at the beginning of last month he spent an estimated £1m on his 50th birthday party at Wrotham Park, a stately manor in Barnet, Hertfordshire, and he is set to earn millions through two key album releases in the coming weeks.
On Monday, Leona Lewis’s second album Echo is due to hit the high street, swiftly followed one week later by I Dreamed A Dream, the debut album by the Scottish singer Susan Boyle, who rose to fame earlier this year on Britain’s Got Talent. Both are signed to Syco.
Of course, Cowell’s programmes are not to everybody’s taste. Yesterday, the rock star Sting described The X Factor as a “soap opera which has nothing to do with music”, adding that it amounted to little more than “televised karaoke”. In an interview with London’s Evening Standard, the singer said: “The X Factor is a preposterous show and you have judges who have no recog
nisable talent apart from self-promotion, advising them what to wear and how to look. It is appalling.”
Completing the top five in the Forbes list were Ryan Seacrest, who presents American Idol, and the actors Charlie Sheen and Steve Carell, respective stars of the popular sitcoms Two and a Half Men and The Office. The British actor Hugh Laurie, who stars in the medical drama House, came ninth with earnings of $10m.