Simon Cowell is the Barry Goldwater of reality TV: in your heart, you know he's right. After a weak rendition of You Keep Me Hangin' On last month on an episode of American Idol, sweet-faced Leah LaBelle was told by Cowell to "pack your suitcase." The crowd booed him lustily. The next night Idol's army of home voters sent LaBelle packing. This is the Cowell paradox. Fans of Fox's megahit talent shownot to mention its contestantshave few kind words for the adder-tongued English judge. He's been jeered, doused with a glass of water on camera and even menaced by an Idol reject with a baseball bat. Yet week after week, the audiences that hiss at him end up doing pretty much exactly what he tells them to.
At a time when the record industry is floundering, Idol has discovered unlikely stars such as Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken. What the show understands and the music biz often doesn't, says Cowell, is that "it's personalities, it's conflict, it's all of those things that actually make (performers) interesting." Cowell has led a rebellion against the tyranny of self-esteem that is promoted on talk shows and in self-help booksthe notion that everyone who tries deserves to win. At bottom, people are booing Cowell for gleefully confronting us with a fundamental truth: some are more deserving than others. That may not make him America's idol. But somehow we don't think he minds.