Simon Cowell: Idol rich

The money's rolling in for the talent-show impresario whose hold over audiences and the industry borders on the terrifying
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Simon Cowell has always had his eye on the stars, from the time when, as a boy, he would peek over the garden fence in Hertfordshire at the movie industry parties that took place next door, attended by the likes of Liz Taylor, Richard Burton and Bette Davis.

He has spent his working lifetime spotting stars, as a record company scout and, most famously, as a judge on the world's most popular television talent shows. In doing so, he has become a star himself, one who, because of his nature, still gazes out at the other heavenly bodies around him to calculate just how high he has ascended in the twinkling firmament of entertainment.

So it should have pleased him that, according to the latest edition of Forbes magazine, he is the highest earner in American prime-time television, taking home a cool $75m (£45m) in the year to 1 June. Except he may have worried that the figure did not fully reflect his financial status, given that The Sunday Times Rich List claimed earlier this year that his personal fortune stands at £120m. As Cowell himself once said: "I'm interested only in making money, for myself and the people I work for. I mean, that's absolutely the only criterion I attach. That's it."

You'd think he might be satisfied, now that he has his £15m mansion in Beverly Hills, a fleet of cars that includes a Bugatti, a Rolls-Royce, a Bentley Azure and a Ferrari, and a profile in America that no Briton has enjoyed since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Yet he drives himself on, taking just one holiday a year, his diary booked 18 months in advance and purportedly so lacking in available windows that he was unable to arrange an appointment with President Obama (though that, one suspects, might have been an adroit piece of PR).

Cowell is, unquestionably, the star of The X Factor, the show that seems to have all Britain agog and has wrenched ITV out of a nosedive in its fortunes. After Christmas, he focuses on American Idol, the show which, with its average weekly audience of 27 million, is the greatest treasure in the schedule of Rupert Murdoch's Fox Network, which pays Cowell in the order of $45m (£27m) a year.

Then he crosses the Atlantic again to make Britain's Got Talent, the show that gave us the unlikely singing talents of Paul Potts and Susan Boyle. Cowell's company Syco is the joint owner with Fremantle Media of the worldwide Got Talent format, and he is the executive producer of America's Got Talent, an important show for NBC.

It's impossible to dispute that Cowell, who is 50, has a huge talent of his own for understanding the modern public's fascination with the instant fame game and for packaging that hunger for the small screen. But his stellar rise has not been entirely smooth, which is why, even now, he never misses a day's work.

He was born in Brighton into what he describes as "a comfortably well-off" family with connections in show business. His father Eric ran the property division of EMI records and his outgoing mother Julie was a former ballet dancer. He hated his schooling at the private Dover College in Kent and left when he was 15. Now living at the large family home in Elstree, outside of London, he began his career in the EMI post room after his father found him a job.

He quickly became a talent scout, before leaving to co-found Fanfare records, where he first made his name in the music industry, initially through the success of pop singer Sinitta's single "So Macho", and later thanks to his connection to Pete Waterman, who produced a string of Eighties pop hits. But then in 1989, Cowell's business got into severe financial difficulties and, aged 30, he was forced to live with his parents.

It was a defining moment. "I was shedding all the rubbish, the burdens of car payments, the house, all of it," he told The Sunday Times Magazine four years ago. Cowell likes a clear-out, mentally and physically. When he moved into his whitewashed Los Angeles mansion, with its spa, pool and private cinema, the star of American Idol turned up carrying his possessions in a single suitcase. "I hate belongings. I hate clutter," he told the Daily Mail in an interview in May.

After going bankrupt he found a job with record company BMG and honed his skills in identifying potential hits. His next breakthrough came courtesy of the unlikely duet of Robson & Jerome, a pair of actors whose cover version of the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" was the biggest-selling British record of 1995. More hits came from other cheesy releases from acts including the Teletubbies and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

As an unashamed anti-intellectual, Cowell would never be embarrassed by any of this. He starts his day watching episodes of The Flintstones in the bath, stocks his bookshelves with John Grisham novels and DVDs of Star Wars and Jaws, and delights in eating fish fingers rather than haute cuisine. "I've never been a cultural snob," he told Playboy magazine in 2007. "If I went to a French restaurant – which I probably never will again – I would ask the chef to make a plate of chips."

Perhaps this is why he has the popular touch. He spotted the Irish boy band Westlife, whose first seven singles went to number one, and then he teamed up with Simon Fuller, the Hastings-born manager of the Spice Girls, to go into television with a talent show format called Pop Idol. The Simons were to have an odd relationship, simultaneously business partners and bitter rivals.

Self-confident and articulate, Cowell soon became the star of the show, alongside performers such as Will Young and Gareth Gates. Although American networks were not immediately convinced, the format was sold to Fox. But Cowell, separately from Fuller, began developing another entertainment format, The X Factor, striking a deal with Fremantle.

Cowell has since admitted that his plan was to give himself "leverage" in his dealings with Fuller, who launched a long-running lawsuit claiming that The X Factor was a mere copy of Idol, with 400 similarities. Somehow, the pair continued to work together.

American Idol grew from an audience of eight million in its first series to attracting 30 million viewers a week. At the heart of the show's success was Cowell's persona as "Mr Nasty" or "Judge Dread", the most notorious baddie on American television since Larry Hagman played JR Ewing in Dallas.

Though he likens his talent shows to soap operas rather than music programmes, he maintains he is not putting on an act but merely speaking his mind as he curtly puts down contestants with vicious unscripted witticisms. "I don't like bullshit. I don't like hype," he claims. And yet he admits he does "create the hype", as The X Factor audience has witnessed with this year's controversy over the continued success of twin contestants John and Edward Grimes.

Cowell eventually settled with Fuller out of court, in a deal which gave Mr Nasty an even greater share of American Idol in return for a stake in The X Factor. Cowell has three principal employers: Fox, Sony and ITV. He also has a stake in the careers of artists from the shows, such as Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke.

He has sold Syco to Sony and formed a new company, Greenwell Entertainment, with retail billionaire Sir Philip Green. He hopes to take The X Factor Stateside, a move which threatens to eventually pit the two Simons against each other once again and could mean that he will hand over lead judging responsibilities in Britain's The X Factor to Cheryl Cole.

It's a phenomenal success story, but is he happy? Single again after the break-up of his relationship with television presenter Terri Seymour, he has no wish for children and the clutter they would bring. In interviews, sucking on Kool menthol cigarettes, he complains of migraines and dark moods, wondering if "maybe I am a bit mad".

But he doesn't stop. For Cowell, whose first choice on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs was the Bobby Darin version of "Mack the Knife", the fear that one of his rivals' stars might be ascending higher than his own, never quite goes away. "I know exactly the people who are praying for my downfall on a nightly basis," he has said. "In a way it drives me on even more."

A life in brief

Born Brighton, 7 October 1959, to Eric Philip Cowell and Julie Brett (née Josie Dalglish). One brother, Nicholas, and two half-brothers, Tony and Michael.

Early life Grew up in Elstree, Hertfordshire, and attended Dover College in Kent, but left before sixth form.

Career After stints as a window cleaner, lawn mower, and waiter, his first real job was in the mail room of EMI Music Publishing, where his father worked. He left to set up E&S Music with Ellis Rich, his boss at EMI. He later left to work for Iain Burton, founder of Fanfare Records. Cowell rose to become a partner, collaborating with the hit-writing trio Stock, Aitken and Waterman, before the collapse of Fanfare's parent company forced him into debt. Working in A&R for music group BMG, he had massive hits with groups such as Westlife and Robson & Jerome. In 2001 he became a judge on Pop Idol, from which followed the huge successes of American Idol, The X Factor, Britain's Got Talent, including a "golden handcuffs" deal with ITV. He set up other record labels, including Syco, which subsequently became part of Sony's music empire. In November 2009 he was named the best-paid presenter on prime-time US TV.

He says "Medical science is bound to work out a way of bringing us back to life in the next century or so, and I want to be available when they do."

They say "He is creative, forceful, energetic, and always pushing to improve. He also never seems to sleep." Piers Morgan