BMG Records executive Simon Cowell became the guy everyone loved to hate last year as the acerbic judge on the successful British TV series "Pop Idol." And now the Englishman will be offering up critical barbs on the U.S. version of the unscripted series "American Idol: The Search for a Superstar," premiering Tuesday on Fox.
During one of the auditions, for example, he tells a young hopeful that she should hire a lawyer so she can sue her vocal coach.
Cowell says he's just trying to give the contestants, ages 16-24, "constructive" criticism.
FULL COVERAGE: Saying farewell to 'American Idol'
"I am not there to stop someone from chasing their dream," he says. "If they believe they are great, good luck to them. But if they come to our audition and they want to be told the truth, they will be told."
More than 10,000 singers have auditioned for "American Idol" at talent searches held in Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Dallas and Miami. Besides Cowell, the judges include singer Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, a Grammy Award-winning music industry veteran and former executive at MCA Records. KYSR-FM (98.7) afternoon DJ Ryan Seacrest and comic actor Brian Dunkleman are the hosts.
Following the two-part premiere, viewers will determine each week whether constants advance to the next round by casting their votes via phone. The winner will receive a recording contract with RCA.
Cowell has found that contestants are a bit more aggressive here than in England. Though he was once threatened by a rejected contestant in the U.K., he admits he almost got beaten up after the New York audition by three participants who were angered by his comments.
"I wouldn't do the show without security," he says. "I have spent a fortune on my teeth, and I intend to keep them."
His outspoken opinions have also irked the other judges. "Randy has already offered to beat me up," Cowell says gleefully. "Paula has threatened to walk off because of my attitude. I think Paula's problem is that there is a lot of sexual tension between the two of us. I felt it on the first day I met her."
Seacrest and Dunkleman provide moral support for the hopefuls.
"We are not, obviously, here to judge the talent or give them the nod to go on the next level," says Seacrest. "We are there to hang out, ask them how they are feeling, talk about their nerves and really be their friends. Both Brian and I have had the opportunity to have some wonderfully energetic and exciting moments and, at the same time, some very difficult moments when the kids didn't have what it takes and they were destroyed, their hearts were broken."
Co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, who also did the British version, says "American Idol" is not a retread of two other recent series about music hopefuls, WB's "Popstars" and ABC's "Making the Band."
"With 'Popstars' and 'Making the Band,' you have to constantly think, 'Will this person fit into a band?' " Lythgoe says. "Here you are looking for an outstanding individual. The second thing is that at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what the judges think because once the top 30 contestants are there, the public takes over and the public decides on the top 10. Then each week, the public knocks one of them out."
Lythgoe maintains that "American Idol" is less a talent show and more a slice of human drama, "like the kid who turned up and said to the judges, 'Both my parents are deaf and they'll never hear me sing.' And he sang 'When I Fall in Love' and signed it at the same time. It was just beautiful."
There have also been numerous humorous incidents, especially revolving around contestants lying about their age during the audition process.
"We had one guy who was 53 telling me he was 23," Lythgoe says. "I said, 'I don't think so.' "