Simon Cowell Talks X Factor: 'Old Dog' Paula, 'Crucial' Back Stories, and Death to Karaoke

Honesty is the best policy when it comes to reality TV, says Simon Cowell — and that’s a rule he’s applying to Fox’s hotly anticipated singing competition The X Factor. “You’ve got to say what you think,” Cowell said in a conference call with television reporters this afternoon. “It doesn’t always make you comfortable when you watch it back [on TV], but it definitely makes the show more honest.”

That unflinching commitment to keeping it real even applies to airing what Cowell describes as a “childish meltdown” he had during a particularly frustrating string of callback auditions — a scene that found its way onto an eight-minute X Factor promo released by Fox this week.

Cowell, who hasn’t been regularly seen on U.S. television since American Idol‘s ninth season ended in May 2010, said that while it was “a bit embarrassing” to watch himself lose control on camera, the moment is a stark reminder that “it’s not always happy sunny days when you make these shows. Things go wrong. Bad things happen backstage. People have major tantrums — including the judges and the contestants. And you’ve gotta show all that — the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

In that spirit of honesty, Cowell also addressed competition from The Voice, the Emmy chances of his former employers at American Idol, and the list of songs he definitely doesn’t want to hear coming from the mouths of X Factor contestants.

Don’t expect X Factor episodes to play like sleepy sets from your local karaoke bar. | “We want as many unique versions [of songs] as possible — otherwise it just turns into a karaoke competition,” said Cowell, when asked if viewers can expect X Factor mentors to push contestants to radically rearrange well-known hits in the vein of Kris Allen’s “Heartless” or Adam Lambert’s “Ring of Fire” back in his Idol days. In fact, teased Cowell, “within about three weeks into the show, you’re gonna start hearing contestants way outside their comfort zones, hearing versions of songs you haven’t heard before. Part of the reason we’re doing that is you don’t want it to be like a bad soundalike, and secondly we’re going to sell downloads on iTunes, so you’ve got to come up with unique versions. And that’s part of the test of the contestants within the show, who can come up with the most unique version of a song.”

Certain singing-competition staples will be strongly discouraged. | Among the tracks Cowell is hoping will be verboten on The X Factor: R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” Etta James’ “At Last,” Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” and John Legend’s “Ordinary People.” What’s more, said Cowell, “everybody seems to think ‘Unchained Melody’ is my favorite song of all time. I think somebody said that as a joke, because it’s not. I can’t hear that anymore.”

Expect old tricks from certain old dogs. | “With Paula [Abdul], the great thing with her is that after about five minutes of filming, she’s not aware that the camera is on anymore, and she’ll fight with you over something — sometimes important, often not,” mused Cowell. “But that’s what I like about her: She is prepared to argue. So it was like getting an old dog back from the rescue pound — grateful to see you and the relationship’s back in tact.”

Old dawgs, however, will have to stay on the sidelines. | “I miss Randy [Jackson], because he really is a good friend,” said Cowell. “Maybe we’ll just give him a couple of front-row seats every week and he can do his dog-barking thing.”

Listen carefully for the many accents of Nicole Scherzinger | “Paula can be a bit wacky at times, but Nicole actually wasn’t far behind — in a fantastically self-centered way which she wasn’t aware of — which I found really amusing,” said Cowell. He was particularly fascinated listening to Scherzinger’s accent change depending on which city was playing host to X Factor‘s audition tour. “When she was in New York, she had kind of this Brooklyn thing going on,” Cowell described. “And when she was in Dallas, she became this Southern Belle.”

If you’re not a fan of American Idol‘s frequent focus on contestant back stories, you may be hitting the fast-forward button during The X Factor, too. | “Obviously No. 1 on the list is talent, but No. 2 is you’ve really, really got to be an interesting person and have a really good back story,” Cowell said of what he looks for in auditioning contestants. “When I ask them what’s the most interesting thing that’s happened in your life, and they start droning on about singing at the age of three or four, I’m honestly not interested.That’s obvious. But If they got divorced, why are they divorced. If they’re married, are they happy being married. If they’ve left college, how did their parents feel about them doing that to pursue a music career.” What’s more, added Cowell, The X Factor will showcase “different types of contestants than what you’ve seen before, and very, very different back stories — the types of stories I don’t think other shows would put on. It’s edgy, it’s raw, it’s real life.”

You’ll see some familiar faces from Idol, and a few examples of what Cowell calls “joke acts” similar to UK X Factor sensations Jedward and Wagner. | Cowell explained it was always his intention to have “as few rules as possible,” which is why he had no issues with considering Idol castoffs for his show. As for goofy, gimmicky performers, Cowell noted that “there’ve been one or two questionable decisions by a couple of the judges” already. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

U.S. audiences are a bit more vocal — and dangerous — than those in Britain. | Cowell recalled there were instances filming in the U.S. where he had to call back certain rejected contestants because “otherwise I think I may have gotten seriously injured.” But while American spectators “certainly let you know when they disagree with you” and aren’t afraid to perform their duty as the show’s “fifth judge,” one thing Cowell noticed was that evening audiences were more lively than daytime ones. “A lot of them were drunk, so they were louder and I like that,” he said. “I might do that for the live shows: Just make everybody drink.”

Cowell isn’t worried that NBC’s The Voice beat The X Factor to the punch in introducing the concept of judges-as-mentors to a U.S. audience. | “They didn’t do it as well as us, if I’m being honest with you,” said Cowell. “You’ll genuinely see the difference on our show. And look, it’s not just what you do during the show — anyone can mentor — the point is can you mentor someone through the show and actually create a star? So you’re gonna have to judge X Factor on what we do compared to what they did on The Voice.”

No one is going to pretend the whole Cheryl Cole imbroglio didn’t happen. | “She’s in Episode 1. She’s in the first hour,” Cowell revealed. “In terms of how we address it, I think we can pretty much tell it as it was. She was on the show, and then she got replaced by Nicole. So on the first half of the show next week it’s Cheryl, and then the second half it’s Nicole.”

Cowell says he won’t be surprised if American Idol finally wins the Emmy for Outstanding Reality Show Competition for its first season without him. | Cowell explained he’d find it funny and ironic if Idol gets that long-awaited statuette without him — but he’s got a strategy for coping. “Im gonna say if it does win this year, it’s for all the years we did before,” he said with a laugh. “Whatever happens, I’m gonna claim victory, I promise you, then replicate the Emmy and just put my name on it.”