Born in Brighton, England, Cowell started out in 1979 as a mail room clerk for EMI Music Publishing, where his father was an executive. He eventually worked his way up to record producer, but left during the 1980s and started his own label, Fanfare Records. After initial success, his investments began to fail and he returned home to live with his parents.
Simon Cowell became a judge on the first season of Pop Idol in 2001, and did the same for American Idol in 2002. His acerbic style of judging was a major reason for these shows becoming popular, especially on American Idol where more viewers knew who "that nasty guy Simon" was than knew the host or the contestants, with his signature phrase "I don't mean to be rude." Cowell also appeared on the one-off World Idol program in 2003, where it became clear that each country's version of the Idol franchise had attempted to come up with its own "Simon". Further proving his effectiveness as a villain, in 2003 Cowell placed No. 33 on Channel 4's list of the all-time 100 Worst Britons.
Simon Cowell's S Records signed the top two finishers of the first season of Pop Idol, Will Young and Gareth Gates, both of whom went on to have No. 1 UK hits. In June 2003, Cowell sold his half-share in S Records for US$42 million to BMG, thus becoming a multi-millionaire.
Not everything Cowell touches is a success: he produced the dating-based reality show Cupid in 2003 in the US, but it garnered negative reviews and failed to gain an audience.
In December 2003, Simon Cowell published a book, I Don't Mean to Be Rude, But.... In it, he recounted his childhood, his years working in the music industry, his experiences on Pop Idol and American Idol, and, finally, his tips for being successful as a pop star.
Efforts begun in 2001 materialised in 2004, when Cowell returned to his group manufacturing roots with his latest brainchild, the internationally successful operatic pop group Il Divo, composed of four young opera singers of four different nationalities.
In 2004, Simon Cowell created (under his production company Syco), and was a judge on, a new British TV talent show The X Factor, with Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh. The X Factor was a success with viewers and has returned for a second series in 2005.
However, Simon Cowell was sued by Pop Idol co-creator Simon Fuller in 2005 over The X Factor, saying it was too much a copy of Pop Idol, but after a while they settled out of court. The lawsuit threatened to block Cowell from appearing for the fifth season of American Idol, as Cowell's old contract had expired and he was negotiating a new contract at the time. Upon the settlement, Cowell signed a new five-season American Idol agreement with Fox Broadcasting Company.
Besides judging unknowns, occasionally Cowell comments on already-established pop icons, for example opining in Esquire magazine that Beyoncé Knowles was overrated, or on the more positive side, saying that Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" was one of the best pop records ever made.
In the Season Five premiere of Punk'd, Cowell was tricked by Ryan Seacrest and Randy Jackson. He became the seventh non-American/non-Canadian to get "Punk'd". He also appeared as a guest voice in an episode of The Simpsons ("Smart and Smarter"), in which he gets beaten up, and made a cameo appearance as himself in Scary Movie 3, where he sits in judgment during a rap battle. Cowell is also known for his animal-rights activism and is a supporter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Simon Cowell maintains an apparently lavish lifestyle with several houses, a Ferrari, and a relationship with television presenter Terri Seymour.
Simon Cowell also appeared on an episode of the UK version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?.
Some controversy came over a January 23, 2006 episode of American Idol by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, accusing the show of being homophobic, after Cowell suggested a male singer would be better suited to drag performance.
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