Fox’s The X-Factor returns for its second season with a two-night premiere on Wednesday and Thursday (8/7C). I’ve seen the sizzle reel for the season and am amazed by the chemistry that new judges Demi Lovato and Britney Spears bring to the panel.
I was able to sit in on a conference call Q&A with Lovato and Simon Cowell, and their crabby uncle/sassy niece chemistry was evident right away. They talked about what we might expect in season two and Cowell expressed his displeasure in another network’s scheduling tactics with their singing competition. It was a very stimulating half-hour.
I imagine that you guys have run into each other in the course of time, but when it came time to work with one another, what were your first impressions of one another? Is there a moment from the first day, or even that first week, on set that stands out for you guys?
Simon Cowell: My first recollection was Demi saying to me, you’re much better looking in real life.
Demi Lovato: Of course, of course. I totally said that.
Cowell: I thought she was very confident, very bright, then became quite annoying, but knew what she was talking about.
The show is premiering on TV in just a few days, but you have yet to announce who the host or hosts are going to be. Are you ready to make an announcement yet?
Cowell: Not yet, no. We’ve screen-tested a load of people, but the audition shows don’t have any hosts. We’ve got about three or four weeks, but I think we’re going to make a decision in about the next seven days.
Demi, you’ve come out and spoken about how bullying has affected you. How in your judging, have you been careful not to cross that border into bullying territory when giving people some negative comments?
Lovato: I think bullying is something that’s totally different than criticism. Bullying, I think, can be when you’re just … harsh really for no reason. I feel when you’re giving criticism, you’re only trying to help somebody with their performance or their voice or whatever. I think definitely there could be a fine line between some jokes, but for me, ultimately, I’m just having fun and trying to give them criticism.
I know that you have not selected a host yet, and Simon, you just said that you’ve screen-tested some people. Who is in the running at this point?
Cowell: Quite a few people—people who are hosts, people who are actors. My gut feeling is we’ll probably go with a boy and a girl who haven’t had any hosting experience because I think that might make it more interesting.
So you definitely want to go with a pair, not just one host?
Cowell: You know what? There is so much talking on these shows now. We’ve worked out—it’s something like 11 or 12 minutes over a two-hour show. It’s just too boring, as Ryan demonstrated, for one person just to say everything. I think you’ve got to mix it up a little bit. The idea is—and then you’ve got to find people with good chemistry as well. I kind of know what we’re looking for, but that’s why we’ve screen-tested some people.
The X Factor and The Voice will be airing on the same night this season. With Britney seeming to be pitted against Christina, we were wondering why your show is going to clean up in the ratings, especially with new judges like Britney and Demi, of course?
Cowell: Let me answer that, if I may, Demi. First of all, I’ve seen the first show. I think it’s sensational. I think the girls do a great job. The contestants are great. The show looks different to anything else we’ve ever made before. I think this is the reason why NBC decided to put The Voice up against us. It is a spoiling tactic and it’s very simple—they don’t want people to see this first episode. I think it’s mean-spirited and I hope and I pray that it backfires on them because this is one of the best shows we’ve ever made.
I am … off about it because I think there is kind of a gentlemen’s agreement, but you have to rely that the viewers will make the right selection. I think three nights in a row is too much. I think there is a lot of interest, rightly so, in our show because of Britney, Demi, the way the show is going to look. We’re going to see what happens. But I’ve learned, don’t make any predictions.
How did you guys react when Christina came out and said that she doesn’t know what Britney will be able to offer X Factor? What do you say to critics like her?
Cowell: … to watch the show. She might learn something.
Lovato: I think the whole situation is, there is a little ice there, and I don’t know why they would do that. But you know, ultimately, it’s about finding a superstar and giving people the chance to win a huge prize of $5 million. That’s all that I really care about. I’m honored to be on the panel, let alone on a TV show, especially having a job in this economy. It’s amazing. That’s all I’m focusing on right now.
Because the other two judges on the panel aren’t here, I think it’s the perfect time to get both of your critiques on them and their performance as judges so far on this season.
Cowell: Demi, you want to go first?
Lovato: Yes. L.A. and Britney are so amazing. I feel like they are doing just a great job, especially Britney. I feel like the world hasn’t really gotten a chance to see her personality over the past couple of years and now this is the perfect opportunity for people to really see the light inside of her just shine. She’s very witty and funny and quirky and I just have such a good time working with her. L.A. is so much fun to work with, so much funner than Simon, and we just have –
Cowell: I don’t think so.
Lovato: —… connection.
Cowell: I think Britney is a fascinating person because you just don’t know anything about her. She’s very unpredictable. You never know what’s going to happen. She has taken this very seriously and she’s surprisingly quite mean. In the past we’ve had judges who never say no. She can’t say no quick enough on this show. She’s quite difficult to please. But she’s a fascinating person and I’ve gotten to like her a lot.
L.A. is on the panel because, like me, we are two of the biggest hit makers in the world right now. As important as it is to have artists on the panel, you’ve got to have people who are currently having a hit record; otherwise it’s impossible to judge these shows. I feel very secure with L.A. But he’s … me this year because last year he had Justin Bieber, this year I’ve got One Direction, so there is a lot of competition between the two of us. But it’s a very well-balanced panel I think.
Just to follow-up on a question that was asked earlier about The Voice versus X Factor. Mark Burnett is saying that it didn’t enter his mind at all the fact that it was going go up against you all. Do you believe that at all?
Cowell: Give me a break. Like I don’t know when my show is going out next week. Like I said, it’s tactical. But it’s very important to get this message out—they don’t want you to watch this show. I think it’s going to backfire.
First of all, do you think you found a marketable star in auditions? Do you have that lightning-in-a-bottle effect like you had with Chris Rene?
Cowell: There are a lot of good people who came on the show this year. There is no question or doubt when you offer $5 million as a prize, you get a lot of good people. Interestingly, although they were weak last year, I think the groups are very strong this year, and particularly, the 12 to 17-year-old contestants. They’re like a whole new breed who actually haven’t even been brought up on these talent shows before. They’ve been influenced by what they see on YouTube, social networking, and stuff like that. They’ve brought something very interesting to the show.
It’s very, very competitive this year. Right from the get-go, you’re going to see some amazing people in the first episode.
I happened to notice in the previews—I would say Simon, in the last season, I kind of noticed you and Nicole would go back and forth, but I’m curious based on the previews, it looks like you and Demi go at it a little bit back and forth. Tell me how that rapport built itself to that point where you guys were able to be playful and give each other a hard time?
Cowell: I have a habit of working with annoying people and Demi has definitely brought that again this year in spades, in bucket loads. But that’s kind of what I expected. When I saw Demi a couple of years ago I thought she’d be interesting to work with because of what she’s been through, coming through the whole Disney system, being a bit of a rebel, very marketable artist. People like that are always going to be what I call, “lippy.”
We have different views on the contestants, but I thought it was important since a lot of the contestants are young and that we have a very young audience, that we have to have somebody closer to that age group. But if I’m comfortable with somebody, then you can argue with them. So I’m obviously very comfortable with Demi.
Simon, tell me a little bit about how you describe the chemistry of the judges’ panel this year now that you have Demi and Britney instead of Paula and Nicole. How does it feel for you?
Cowell: Both of these two, they’re like having two … who are very talented but difficult to control. We have no control over these two whatsoever and there are many, many times where we disagree, but that’s probably what’s made it more interesting this year. They’re both unpredictable, both have different views, strong views. It made every day interesting. To be fair to them, the effect they had on the audience when they both walked in was just staggering. I’ve never seen anything like it. I think the contestants were excited by them, so it’s been fun overall.
How do you feel about last year’s contestants and how they’ve done compared to, say, The Voice contestants? It seems like your contestants have gotten a lot more—they’ve been out there a heck of a lot more in my mind.
Cowell: I’ve learned over the years, because I’ve done these shows a long time, whether it’s One Direction, or Cher Lloyd, or Susan Boyle, or Leona Lewis, you’ve got to take your time making the record. You can’t rush anything out. Importantly, you just have to make a great album and that’s what we’re doing at the moment with Melanie. I think she’s a great artist and I’ve heard some of the future cuts. They sound incredible.
It’s always our aim, like we’ve done with One Direction, it’s not just to have a hit record off the back of a show, it’s launch an artist worldwide and to compete with everybody else out there. That’s what we try to do every year when we make this show.
This question could probably go to either one of you, but it’s kind of actually touching on what you just talked about, Simon. I know people get very emotionally invested in these shows when they’re going on, but it’s kind of a different story once people actually get out into the ‘real world.’
What do you think an artist—be it a winner, be it somebody who’s a runner-up, whatever, because we’ve had people in the past that have been successful that didn’t win. What do you think the artist really has to do to step out of that TV box and really become a legitimate artist in the eyes of the music-buying public?
Cowell: I think you’ve got to work hard. You’ve got to have that killer instinct. You’ve got to be marketable. You’ve got to prove to record producers and songwriters that you deserve to have the best material, and you’ve got to use the show as a launch pad and acknowledge the show and the part that it played. But Demi can answer this question probably better than I am. She’s number one in the charts at the moment. What did you have to go through, Demi?
Lovato: I think you have to go through so much to be able to make it to where you are. You have to make a lot of sacrifices. You have to be willing to not get a lot of sleep and to have to choose—like I said, make some sacrifices and work very, very, very hard. I’m thankful for where I am today, but I think a part of this competition is we also have to—a part of mentoring, we have to make the artist in the competition realize that it’s not just about getting on stage and who has the best voice and who has the best performance. It’s about making a pop star, and ultimately, signing someone who has what it takes performance-wise and also drive-wise.
I’m curious whether there were any determinations as to when the audition shows from each city would be aired. Obviously, here in Providence, we were curious as to when we’re going to see ourselves on TV.
Cowell: You’re going to see yourselves on TV next Wednesday. I think for the first show it’s pretty much decided that it’s going to be three cities in the first show because it’s a two-hour show. It’s going to be Austin, San Francisco, and Providence. Then the following day, I think you’re going to see a bit more Providence as well. Providence was a really successful city for us. We love it there.
Was it particularly enjoyable and a particularly strong stream of talent?
Cowell: I loved it there. I absolutely loved the city, loved the people. It felt like the whole city had turned up to watch the auditions and it was a buzz…
Lovato: Providence was amazing. I really enjoyed seeing how many people showed up to support their fellow …, their neighbors. It was really awesome to see the ….
Did you have some surprises, this first go round of hosting? Did you feel like there were some surprises? What were some of the bigger surprises coming through this?
Lovato: There … of surprises getting to see some people, that they step out on stage and you may not expect the voice that comes out of them. That was always really awesome. People just really surprising you with their performance, too. You never know what you can expect when you step out in front of that audience and you sit in the judges’ panel. You have no idea what’s going to happen that day. You have no idea how people are going to react. It’s full of surprises. It’s very unpredictable.
You’ve talked about the first show in particular being different from anything you’ve made before. Can you talk a little more specifically about what kind of changes you’ve made in terms of the show this year? Obviously the judges are a huge part of that, but in terms of the show and how it’s put together and what kind of things we might see.
Cowell: Yes. It’s difficult to describe on the telephone until you’ve actually seen it. Even when I watch the show myself, even though I’ve filmed it, there was a ton of stuff which I wasn’t aware of happening backstage.
But I suppose the headlines are that we’ve allowed the audience to see even more of the audition process than what they’ve seen before. There is a lot of stuff backstage. You’re definitely seeing way more of how the contestants interact with each other, how they prepare for the auditions, and in the case of the first audition, there is a lot of … that happens behind the scenes which you don’t normally see.
I found it fascinating to watch because this is the first time, even though I’ve done this a long time, I genuinely believe I know what it’s like to be a contestant on this show. I found it fascinating. There is a lot more reality than we’ve ever shown before. Maybe before, we showed people 60% of the process, now it feels like it’s 100%. It definitely feels different from many of the shows we’ve seen this year.
Just as a follow-up as well on that, obviously we’re moving forward a bit, but are we going to perhaps see—this show is about mentoring artists as well. Are we going to see more of that mentoring process, because there didn’t really seem to be a lot of that that we saw on screen anyway last year?
Cowell: Definitely. A lot of what we did was off-camera. But I think you’re right. I think the mentoring process, how we actually work with the artists, how they interact with each other, where they’re staying, is an important part of this show. Like I said, it’s easier to watch it than it is for me to explain it, but you will see a marked difference to anything we’ve never done before. I think all that process has to be shown.
I was wondering, with all of these reality singing competitions out there now, how do you think X Factor stays above the rest of the pack and what makes it different from the other shows?
Cowell: I think partly, how I just answered the last question, is that you’ve got to make a different show to everybody out there, otherwise they all blur into one at the moment. For me, like I said, I’ve done this for so many years, I wanted to watch something different … I’ve ever seen before. We brought in a different skillset in terms of the reality, a different team. We … joined that with the existing team we’ve got.
At times—and there is no voice over on this show. There are no hosts. The contestants tell the story themselves. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be on one of these shows, this show is a real glimpse of how stressful it is for the contestants, like I said before, how they interact. But I do feel very proud of the first show that we’ve made. I think it’s a big leap compared to what I’ve seen before and it has to be different from all these other shows, because otherwise, they’re all going to blur into one and it’s boring.
Hi, Simon. Will you marry me?
McNaughton: I just wanted to know, … there are so many things going on this season, the election, The X Factor. Who do you consider the x factor for this election and if you were to judge them, what would your ruling or opinion be?
Cowell: Since I’m not American, I’m going to pass this one over to Demi.
Lovato: Oh, no. I’ve learned that you never talk about religion or politics in the spotlight. I don’t know. They’re both really great speakers, I guess.
McNaughton: Also, can you give a rundown of –
Cowell: You just ducked that, Demi Lovato. They’re both good speakers.
Lovato: Yes. They’re both good speakers. They’ve both got the x factor. They’re both nominated for a reason.
My first question is for Simon. We’ve been seeing some commercials with Britney judging some of the contestants and you’ve already alluded to how mean she can be. Are you surprised at this side of Britney? Do you think she’s actually meaner than you?
Cowell: Yes, like if you buy a dog, you expect it to lick you and then it turns out to bite you? It was rather like that. It was a real surprise. She’s really, really difficult to please. But in a way, I think it made it more interesting because she just wouldn’t say yes … for people to like her.
When you do these auditions in front of 5,000 people, they boo you. But she was kind of fearless. Because I know the first show Demi said, no, and she got booed, I could see the look on her face like, I don’t think I want to do this show anymore. It’s kind of difficult, but she’s going to surprise a lot of people, I think, when you see her.
Cool. For Demi, you’ve had a lot of acting jobs before and that’s sort of in your wheelhouse, but is this job as a judge everything you expected it would be or are you just surprised by everything that goes into judging contestants?
Lovato: It’s everything that I thought it would be and more because I always thought it would be so much fun and difficult, but at the same time, you’re in a position that you’re mentoring people. You’re trying to give them the best advice possible so that they can be groomed into this pop star that you know they can be. It’s a lot more challenging than I thought it would be, but I am very excited of putting everything that I have into it. It’s going to be a really great show. I’m excited to see it. But it’s funner to work on.
Simon, this one is for you. Last season you originally cut Melanie Amaro in an earlier round of the competition, but she went on to win the whole thing. Can we expect any moments like that when a judge has to reinstate a contestant once they’ve been cut or second-guessing a decision they had made?
Cowell: I think the answer to that question is probably yes. I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but I think probably every judge is going to make a decision afterwards that they’ve made the wrong decision or they’ve left somebody out. It’s particularly difficult when you make the decision before you’ve seen the audition go out. Then you see the audition go out and you’ve cut that person. It’s a problem. I don’t know what we’re going to do about it, but I think there have been a few mistakes this year, yes.
My last question for both of you, will we be seeing any performances either as soloists or in duets with the contestants with Britney and Demi?
Cowell: I want to see a Demi/Britney duet. Demi?
Lovato: …love that.
Cowell: Why not?
Cowell: Thank you, everybody, very much indeed.
Lovato: Thank you.
Photos by Frank Micelotta, Ray Mickshaw and Nino Munoz/Courtesy of Fox Television