How many times has Simon Cowell spoken to reporters about "American Idol" in the past eight years? How many conference calls? How many TCA press tour sessions? It's been over a dozen, to be sure, so it's a bit surprising to hear Cowell approach the new season with a little bit less bluster than usual.
For one thing, Cowell doesn't proclaim the contestants for the upcoming eighth installment of "American Idol" to be the best the show has ever had.
"My feeling, having done the Hollywood round, was we have an interesting bunch," Cowell tells reporters on a conference call. "Where I think we got a little bit stuck last year, it was kind of like battle of the blondes and they all looked the same. I couldn’t differentiate one from the other. This year there seems to be more personality. They’re definitely standing up for themselves more, which I like. They’re different from the people we’ve had before. I’m actually happy and I’m optimistic about this year. I could be wrong."
Wrong or not, Cowell made many similar claims after the Hollywood round last year, saying that the judges had picked a group with more personality than in the sixth installment, before presenting a Top 12 group of girls featuring the roughly interchangeable blondes like Alaina Whitaker, Kady Malloy and Kristy Lee Cook. So how was this season different?
"Well, we tried to be as broad and as open minded as possible so that we don’t end up with 12 people from the Stepford Wives," Cowell says. "I think it’s important that we have all types of singers, all types of people because I have to say, I think personality is as important as talent on a show like this. I think it’s important for the show. What you hope you end up with is somebody like Fantasia, who’s not only extremely talented, she’s an incredible person, has a great vibe and makes the show interesting. We tried, where we can with what we had, just to get a more interesting group of people."
Cowell, ever the willing prognosticator, has already told reporters that this year's winner will be a guy, though he's not confident about that either.
"When you do the Hollywood week, which we did about a month ago, you get to see all the contestants for a second time. My memory of that was that the guys overall -– maybe five or six of them –- were just stronger and they stood out more than the girls," Cowell hedges. "I’ve said this in the past: I’ve been wrong. Somebody like a Kelly Clarkson can emerge in the middle stages, which you’re not expecting. Still, anything can happen."
Hoping to enhance that anything-can-happen spirit, producers have made some changes this season, including recruiting singer-songwriter Kara DioGuardi as a new judge, giving Paula Abdul a distaff partner-in-crime for tense negotiations.
"Well, what guy would like that? Come on. You know? You have two girls ganging up on you. One is hard enough; two is unbearable," Cowell jokes. "They’ve both got personalities, they’re both very forceful and you have... At least I’ve got Randy [Jackson] by my side, so it’s not that bad."
Cowell actually sounds respectful of DioGuardi's experience, particularly the work she's done with past "Idol" winners.
"I'd think it’s probably a good thing," he says. "At least she knows what the end process is and what you have to do to turn somebody into a recording artist. She’s obviously not snobby about this kind of music, which some people can be, with this kind of process. At least she’s not going to look down on the process, which is a good thing."
Despite DioGuardi's addition, Cowell proudly retains the deciding vote in the event of a two-two tie, a power he wielded with entirely predictable results.
"There was one particular girl -- you’ll see her on the show -- who came in in a bikini," Cowell laughs. "I mean, the second she walked in it was a 'Yes' from us guys and a categorical 'No' from the girls. Luckily, I had the casting vote and you’ll see her again."
Cowell was previously outspoken about messing with the "Idol" three-judge dynamic, but he's come around to be at least open to change. He's done a similar 180 on the show's use of guest judges and mentors, acknowledging that a good judge or mentor -- he mentions Quentin Tarantino and Lionel Richie -- can be an asset. High on his wish list for this run of "Idol" would be Britney Spears, who appeared on his UK series "The X Factor" earlier this year.
"[S]he would be literally first on the list as far as I’m concerned in any capacity," he races. "I would love to see her mentor the contestants. If she doesn’t want to do that and she wants to come on the show to perform, I would welcome her anytime. The buzz we had on our show when she came on was extraordinary. Even with all the stuff that’s gone on with her over the past two years, there was more excitement and interest in her than I’ve seen in anyone in years. So she would be very, very welcome."
Don't come away with the impression that old-fashioned "American Idol" no longer excites Cowell, or that he takes it for granted.
"When I first did 'American Idol,' the one thing I made sure I had was a return ticket because I genuinely thought we’d have been off the air in about three or four weeks and I’d be making a very hasty return back to the U.K.," Cowell says. "Luckily, things turned out much better. I mean, it’s gone way, way beyond our expectations. I love the fact that at this time of the year everyone’s looking forward to the audition rounds, everyone’s looking forward to the season returning."
For those of you looking forward to the season returning, "American Idol" comes back to FOX on Tuesday, Jan. 13 and Wednesday Jan. 14.