At 17, Cowell is booted out of a series of schools due to bad behavior, and eventually drops out. "The two things I hated about school were the discipline and boredom...I just had this sneaking suspicion that learning about Newton's theory wasn't actually going to play a huge part in my future," Cowell writes in his 2003 memoir, I Don't Mean to be Rude, But... "I think it's fair to say that I was the world's worst teenager."
Cowell has interests in film, music and television, and sabotages a list of interviews for "boring" jobs (law clerk, supermarket manager trainee, building surveyor) set up by his real estate executive father Eric. However, Cowell eventually lands a job that suits his interests, working as a runner for producers at Elstree Studios. After turning down an offer to work on the set of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, Cowell takes a gig in the mailroom of EMI Music Publishing, where his father manages the property division. "From my first day on the job I began planning and scheming my way to the top of the business," Cowell writes in his memoir.
After years of moving up the music-industry ladder to become a producer and A&R (artist and repertoire) man, Cowell strikes out on his own by setting up Fanfare Records. He signs his then-girlfriend Sinitta and scores the smash hits "So Macho" and "Toyboy." He also releases the Power Rangers theme single, and later fails to land the Spice Girls.
Fanfare folds and Cowell is forced to move back in with his parents. He will later tell BusinessWeek that it was "the best thing that happened in my life, because I learned the value of money." The motivated businessman soon joins BMG as an A&R consultant.
Music impresario Simon Fuller creates a talent show called Pop Idol for British TV and has Cowell (along with three others) judge the abilities of contestants who hope to sing their way to stardom. Cowell's brutal honesty makes its first television appearance. "Let me throw a mathematical dilemma at you," he tells a contestant, "there's 500 left. Well, how come the odds of you winning are a million to one?"
American Idol, the transplanted Pop Idol brainchild of Fuller, debuts on Fox. Instantly the talent show becomes a cultural phenomenon. Cowel, who judges contestants with Paula Abdul and music vet Randy Jackson, emerges as the icon of brutal honesty. "You have invented a new form of torture," he tells one hopeful. In September, Kelly Clarkson is crowned the winner, beating Justin Guarini with 58 percent of the viewers' call-in vote.
Cowell spoofs his tell-it-like-it-is American Idol persona in Scary Movie 3 as a judge in an 8 Mile-type rap challenge.
Cowell releases his memoir I Don't Mean to be Rude, But..., which chronicles his childhood and experiences in the record industry. He also presents his tips for being a successful pop star. Entertainment Weekly recommends the book for "Idol addicts, [who] will revel in his relentless mockery of fellow judge Paula Abdul and blunt assessments of past contestants."
After a two-year search, Cowell finds the right combination for a quartet he develops for the Sony label. Il Divo is comprised of American tenor David Miller, French vocalist Sebastien Izambard, Swiss tenor Urs Buhler and Spanish baritone Carlos Marin. The pop-opera singing group goes on to release a self-titled debut CD in April 2005 and will later tour with Barbra Streisand.
Self-parody seems to be growing on Cowell, who satirizes his nasty Idol persona on an episode of The Simpsons. An animated Cowell judges applicants for an exclusive pre-nursery school and finds himself pummeled by Homer Simpson. "It's the best thing I've ever been asked to do," he tells the Daily Record.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Steve Finn/Alpha; Kevin Winter/Getty; Dimension/Everett; Columbia Records; WENN