Simon Cowell Talks ‘Celebrity Duets’

     August 22, 2006

No matter what you think about Simon Cowell you have got to hand it to him when it comes to making successful shows on television. A few years ago it was American Idol, and then this year he put on American Inventor and Americas Got Talent. Now he is premiering a new show called Celebrity Duets, which is airing back at his bread and butter network FOX next week.

The basic premise of Celebrity Duets is a celebrity performer will be paired with a recording artist and they will sing and be judged like on American Idol. The difference is the judges are not going to embarrass the celebrity performers.

Just a few years ago this show would have been impossible to get off the ground. No celebrity or recording artist would trust a TV producer, or be willing to perform like this. But Simon Cowell is no ordinary producer. Mr. Cowell is fast becoming the reality Aaron Spelling, someone who is just in touch with what America wants, and gets the ratings to prove it. Ultimately that is why these artists and celebrities have signed on. He knows how to market and sell a show, and he has also proven that his shows help raise sales of the artists that have been on it, and keep other non A-list celebs in the limelight. If this show takes off you can expect a much better selection of celebrities and performers to be on season two.

So I am sure you are curious who are the celebs and who are the peformers?

The host of the show is Wayne Brady and the celebrities are Chris Jericho (WWE World Champion), actress Lucy Lawless (“Xena: Warrior Princess,” “Battlestar Galactica”), actor Cheech Marin (“Cars,” “Nash Bridges”), 2004 Olympic Gold Medal-winning gymnast Carly Patterson, actor/director Alfonso Ribeiro (“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “All of Us”), Jai Rodriguez (“Queer Eye”), actor/comedian Hal Sparks (“Queer as Folk”) and actress Lea Thompson (“Back to the Future,” “Caroline in the City”).

The recording artists are Clint Black, Michael Bolton, Belinda Carlisle, Taylor Dayne, Peter Frampton, Macy Gray, James Ingram, Wynonna Judd, Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle, Kenny Loggins, Richard Marx, Brian McKnight, Aaron Neville, Smokey Robinson, Randy Travis, Dionne Warwick, Lee Ann Womack and others.

The show will premiere on a one-time-only special night with a two-hour episode Tuesday, Aug. 29 (8:00-10:00 PM ET live/PT tape-delayed) on FOX. The Celebrity Duets performance show will have its time period premiere Thursday, Sept. 7 (9:00-10:00 PM ET live/PT tape-delayed).

Also just announced, Marie Osmond is going to be one of the judges.

Below is a transcript of a conference call Simon Cowell just did with the media. While I was not one of the participants, I thought some of you might want to read it. Enjoy.

M. Cherkezian Have you confirmed the third female judge?

S. Cowell Not confirmed, but I have an idea who it’s going to be.

M. Cherkezian Okay. Will it be female?

S. Cowell It looks like female, yes. This person is a recording artist. But that could all change, but I don’t think it’s going to. It has to be confirmed in the next 24-hours because we’re on-air in a week.

Moderator Our next question is from Rodney Ho with the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

R. Ho Can you give us a little bit of a sneak preview of the actual formatics of Celebrity Duets? How is it going to play out?

S. Cowell Yes. I mean we spent a lot of time thinking about what was the best way to test the non-singers. I’ll refer to them as the non-singers. We thought the best way of doing this was is that every week, they have to team up with one of these legendary singers.

So in the first two-hour show, you’re going to see, there are eight celebrity non-singers and obviously eight legendary singers. The first hour, each celebrity will be teamed up with one of the singers. In the second hour, they’re going to be teamed up with a different singer. So it’s almost like a different discipline each time and they will have to sing, for instance, a rock song and a ballad. Part of the fun for the audience is going to be is that you won’t know who the singer is until they walk out on the stage. So the non-singer will start and then ten seconds later, out will walk the singer you’re going to recognize.

Moderator We’ll go next to Jon Bream with the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Go ahead.

J. Bream I just wanted to say as a music critic, I always appreciate your honest spot-on critiques. It gives credibility to my profession.

S. Cowell Oh, thank you very much. I appreciate that.

J. Bream I had a two-part question about tips for competitors. One, what tips do you give to competitors on the Celebrity Duets show and then, what tips do you have for competitors for just kids coming to the American Idol auditions here in Minneapolis in a couple of weeks?

S. Cowell Well, that’s a very good question. Let me answer the second part first. Which is on American Idol, which is try and be original, the big problem we normally have are people coming in doing third-rate, fourth-rate Mariah Carey impersonations. So we normally say to them be unique, be original. That’s normally the best advice I can give.

On the Celebrity Duet, I think it’s shut your eyes, hold your breath and hope for the best because this is going to be tough. I mean it’s hard enough when you sing in public when you’re used to singing and most of these people on this show aren’t. Now the fact that we are teaming them up with some of the best singers of all time, the Patty LaBelles, the Gladys Knights, that’s a nightmare. So there’s not much advice I can really give them.

J. Bream So this is a planned train wreck for some of them.

S. Cowell Well, no. I mean, look, there are so many celebrities who wanted to come on this show, who genuinely couldn’t sing a note. Every one of these people genuinely believe they have a great singing voice – genuinely. We auditioned them three or four times. So they all think they can win. They all think they’re going to probably have big successful recording careers at the end. But I’m not going to lie and say I know what advice to give them when you’re singing with, as I said, Patty LaBelle or Smokey Robinson. I just wouldn’t know what to do other than try and stay in tune and be good.

J. Bream When you auditioned them, did you critique them?

S. Cowell No, I stayed away from it. But I have all the tapes.

Moderator Next, we have Eric Deggans with the St. Petersburg Times.

E. Deggans What is it about these shows, having these celebrities do things that they’re not familiar with that engages viewers? How did you figure out a way to bring a twist to this that would be unique?

S. Cowell Well, I’ll be honest with you. I really like Dancing with the Stars. I thought it was a really fun show to see people like – whoever it was – Nick Deshea’s brother trying to be a dancer or the football players. I thought it was a great format. I always felt the second I saw it, that it would actually work as a better singing show than as a dancing show. But we had one big problem. To make it work, we would have to bring in legendary artists. You couldn’t team up a celebrity with a vocal coach. It just wouldn’t work. So we went into this with if we could get the Smokey Robinsons, the Gladys Knights of this world, we have a show and if we don’t, we won’t.

To be truthful, I never in a billion years thought that they would come on the show. Then when we found out that these artists were willing to come forward, a) I was surprised and b) I thought we have the makings of a really great, difficult talent competition here. It’s a show I would love to watch myself.

E. Deggans Does it help or hurt that you’re associated with American Idol?

S. Cowell I think it helped because Idol has been so successful. Artists are artists. They don’t want to be on a show, no one is going to watch. I think it helped them believe in the fact that it could be successful, but I’ll be honest with you. The credit goes to the producers on this show because they’re the people who book the talent.

Moderator Next, we have Marisa Guthrie with the New York Daily News.

M. Guthrie So I’m wondering, do you ever get tired of hearing bad singers?

S. Cowell I get tired of hearing mediocre singers. But when they’re really, really, really bad and I watch it back on the show, I like it. I don’t like it at the time, but I like watching it back.

M. Guthrie How many bad celebrity singers came through? You said a lot of people wanted to be on the show. I know you’re not going to name names.

S. Cowell I’m not going name the shame here, but a lot. It’s the same kind of thing that happens on Idol, a lot of people who obviously think they’re fantastic in the shower. We put them in a recording studio and they were absolutely hopeless. Mike Darnell at Fox, he was very clear with me from day one. He said, “One of the reasons I’m going to make this is is that these people have to be good because otherwise, it’s not a show you’re going to want to watch. We want some fantastic performances and some surprisingly good performances.” He always stuck to that.

M. Guthrie Why do you think these celebrities want to do this? I guess the same question for Dancing with the Stars. Why? It seems like they’re just setting themselves up for–

S. Cowell I don’t know what it is. There are certain people I know, and I’ve met them, who have said, “God, I’d love to go on that Dancing wit the Stars show because I think I’m a good dancer.” They’re very well known people. I think it’s the same thing with this show. The people who we booked, they were really keen to be on the show. I guess it’s something they’ve wanted all their lives, which yes, they’ve happy being actors, actresses, whatever they are. But probably deep down, they’ve dreamt of being number one in the charts or something because they’re taking it really seriously.

Moderator Thank you. We’ll now go to the line of Hal Boedeker with the Orlando Sentinel.

H. Boedeker Can we go on with this idea, though, have they been training? Can you talk a little bit more about these particular singers? Can you give us some idea of how good you think they are?

S. Cowell Well, I’m not going to say which ones I think are the best now because I think that’s the fun for the audience. But for me from what I’ve heard, there are two or three people who can win. They’ve been taking vocal lessons. They’ve been practicing for weeks. We’re putting them with really good coaches. We have the Idol MD on the show, Ricky Minor, who’s working closely with them.

Let’s face it. On this show, they have to be good because they know who’s going to be joining them halfway through the song. So they’re treating this very, very seriously. They’ll be as prepared as they can possibly be, but that can all fall part on the night with nerves. I think the point where when you’re on stage and you’ve started a song and then you look behind you and on walks Gladys Knight, I mean that’s a scary moment.

H. Boedeker I didn’t understand. They know who’s coming out, though.

S. Cowell They will know very shortly before their performance. The audience won’t know until the singer comes out, as to exactly who they’re going to be singing with on the night.


H. Boedeker So they haven’t practiced with this person, though.

S. Cowell A little bit. Not a lot, a little bit. They’ve spent more time practicing on their own.

Moderator We now have Brian Camtor with Headline Planet.

B. Camtor Okay. Just to go back over what you addressed in terms of choosing celebrities for the show, how did you determine whether or not one had too much experience to be eligible? Because I know actually Chris Jericho fronted a metal band called Fozzy and a few of the contestants have Broadway experience, so I’m curious where you drew the line, as to who was too much of a musician to appear.

S. Cowell Well, we didn’t want people who were know as much for their singing as they were for something else, so the fun of the show really for me was the surprise element. To be honest with you, I think most people, 99% of the people will know Chris Jericho from something else other than singing. So it helped in a way that they’ve had some experience because as I said, the most important reason for booking them was they had to be good. But I wanted them to be known primarily for something else.

B. Camtor Okay. I’m also curious how song selection will work on the show.

S. Cowell Well, that’s really between the person they’re singing with and the person themselves. They have to find a mutual comfort zone.

B. Camtor Okay, but they’ll be allowed to choose the song then.

S. Cowell Yes, they will. Yes.

Moderator Next, we have Kelly Torrance with the Washington Times.

K. Torrance My question was you said that celebrities were really anxious to be on this show. I’m curious about how celebrity selection worked. Did you put the word out and people came to you, or did you specifically go to people like Lea Thompson and say, “We heard you’re a great singer and want to be on the show.”?

S. Cowell Well, a bit of both really. Once the show was announced, we had certain people coming to us, but we relied mainly on the producers of the show who knew a lot more people in this area than I did. So we kind of muddled through it really. I can’t say there was a scientific approach. I don’t know exactly how many we saw, but the eight we ended up we thought was an interesting mix. It wasn’t an obvious mix. We wanted people from all different backgrounds from sports to acting and all sorts of things. But like I said to the other people, being able to sing and being able to cope with the stress was our most important consideration.

Moderator We will now go to Stacy Krause with IGN.

S. Krause David Foster makes sense for a judge, but Little Richard?

S. Cowell Well, he’s an artist and he’s interesting. He’s a personality and I think that I’ve seen so many of these shows where the panel is so dull, I wanted to put someone on the show who I’d be interested to watch. Somebody said, “What about Little Richard?” I went and booked him. I’d watch him. I mean I genuinely am interested in Little Richard for some reason and I think it’s going to be quite an interesting dynamic between him and David because David is very serious. He’s that sort of person. Little Richard is probably a bit more unpredictable, so who knows what could happen? It wasn’t the obvious and that’s what I liked about it.

Moderator Thank you. Our next question is from Amy Amatangelo with the Boston Herald.

A. Amatangelo Hello. I was wondering how you think the judging might be different now that they’ll be judging celebrities. Are you worried at all that they might hold back?

S. Cowell No. I don’t actually, no. They have to be honest. It’s going to be quite awkward for David because I think he’s worked with a number of these artists before, the singers. But for the non-singers, you have to treat them as you would on American Idol. You know the rules. You know you’re going to get praise or not. Every one of them was prepared for that when they entered into the show. Certainly with David, I mean they’ll get a very, very honest critique each time because David, probably more than anyone else other than me, knows what he’s talking about.

A. Amatangelo So they’ll be judging both the celebrity and the celebrity non-singer.

S. Cowell Well, I think the emphasis has to be on the non-singer, yes.

A. Amatangelo What were you looking for besides a singing ability in the non-singers?

S. Cowell I would like to think that at the end of this show, somebody is able to launch a successful recording career because no matter what they tell you, my hunch is that’s what they all believe could happen at the end of this. I mean there is a purpose, I think. I think they all believe that they could become a successful recording artist at the end. I don’t think most of them will admit that, but that’s my hunch.

Moderator Our next question is from Carol Litehauser with US Weekly.

C. Litehauser When you were booking the talent, were you trying to find maybe like a range from mediocre to good to make for good television, maybe someone was a little less talented than the others to throw a comical aspect into the show?

S. Cowell Well, it would have been very easy from what I heard to have found a ton of absolutely hopeless singers. I think on a show like this, particularly bearing in mind the caliber of the proper singers we’ve booked, we have to achieve great performances in most cases. I think some are going to find it tougher than the others. But honestly, no one was booked for comedy value. Now it could all go wrong, but the intention was is that any of them could win this competition.

Moderator We will now go to Mekeish Madden Toby with the Detroit News.

M. Madden Toby So you have to tell me. Little Richard is sort of your Hasselhoff, right? I mean he’s kind of out there and kind of like Pallo or Hasselhoff in the judging.

S. Cowell Well, I didn’t compare him to Pallo and David.

M. Madden Toby I mean in that you never know what you’re going to–

S. Cowell Well, yes. I said to someone else, I love personalities. I love unpredictability. I didn’t want to make this panel too straight. I think with Little Richard, you have that sense of unpredictability. Most importantly, I based it on who would I like to watch on a show like this. As soon as his name was mentioned, I mean there was absolutely no second thoughts. It was 100%, you have to get Little Richard to judge this show and then I would tune in.

M. Madden Toby Was it the GEICO commercial or whatever that commercial is where he’s like reenacting the woman’s insurance claim?

S. Cowell I haven’t seen that one. I’ll have to get a copy of that. But every time I’ve seen the guy interviewed, I mean I am genuinely fascinated by him in the same way as David has always fascinated me. I thought he was a great fit on Got Talent and I have a feeling Little Richard is going to do the same thing on this show. I think he’s going to make it just a little bit more interesting as a whole.

M. Madden Toby And Wayne Brady, is he going to sing at all?

S. Cowell Possibly. Not within the actual competition itself, but we’re talking about the results show right now, as to what we can do. Maybe that’s a possibility. I think he’s quite keen to do it.

Moderator Thank you. Before we go to follow-ups, if you haven’t asked your initial question, please press star one now. We have a question from Jessica Herndon with People Magazine. Please go ahead.

J. Herndon So do you think the expectation is greater or less on non-music celebs than the average Joe’s who try out for Idol?


S. Cowell I think this is a tougher show than any show I’ve been involved with because everyone who enters Idol has had primarily experience as a singer and obviously, that is supposed to be their comfort zone. I think this is very difficult for a number of reasons. I think for the non-singers, this is outside their comfort zone and because they’re more high profile, it’s more difficult when it goes wrong. I think the biggest problem they have, quite simply is that they are teaming up with some of the best singers in the world. So it can’t get more difficult than that, so I have a lot of sympathy for these people.

Moderator Our first follow-up will be from Rodney Ho with the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

R. Ho Given your Idol contract, I know you weren’t allowed to be on American Inventor or America’s Got Talent. Is that also in play here, you won’t be able to appear on the show?

S. Cowell I’m not sure yet. We’re going to have a discussion this week, as to what my role or non-role may be.

R. Ho Is it because it’s a Fox show, so you might have a little more leeway?

S. Cowell Definitely yes, and we have to make a decision this week, as to what I’m going to do on it.

R. Ho Also, do you think non-singing celebrities will talk back more to the judges than maybe the Idol singers have done?

S. Cowell Well, yes. We have to have a conversation with them, as to whether they’d be happy or not happy with me being on the show. But yes, my experience of working with celebrities is they’d be a lot more what I call lippy than the other contestants.

R. Ho That’ll be fun.

S. Cowell Yes.

Moderator Your next follow-up is from Eric Deggans with the St. Petersburg Times.

E. Deggans I was really interested in how do you sort of figure out the dynamics of a judge’s panel because you’re right. We’ve seen some of these go horribly wrong when nobody is interesting or they’re all crazy. So how do you figure out how you’re going to balance these different personalities? Is that the key to the success of the show?

S. Cowell Yes, it really is. I mean it’s just a chemistry. I always think that you book your lynch pin first of all and in this case, we always wanted David Foster as our main judge, mainly because he is probably the most successful producer in America. So he felt like the first person we should book.

Then once you’ve done that, you have to work out conflicting personalities, so you don’t have everyone saying the same thing. Because I know David well, the idea of him having to work with Little Richard just amused me. That’s why we did it.

E. Deggans What do you think about the notion that these shows, looking at Idol, have always tried to cast a villain, and do you have a villain on your panel?

S. Cowell No, not intentionally, no. David has some fairly strong opinions. Most importantly, I think it’s important that you have someone on there whose opinion you can trust. David has probably sold half a billion records in his career, so you would have to listen to his opinion because he generally knows what he’s talking about. That’s where I start from, which is does the lead judge actually have the experience and the success to back up what he’s talking about. In this case, no one is better than David Foster.

Moderator Our next follow-up is from Megan Cherkezian with

M. Cherkezian There are more singers than celebrities and I know you said the audience won’t know who’s coming out on stage with the celebrities. But is there some sort of rotation impact?

S. Cowell Yes, exactly. That’s one of the things Fox was very keen and the producers to do is that each week, it’s rather like a discipline. The non-singers have to work with another legendary singer. We thought that was more fun for the audience, rather than just seeing the same two people week after week. So one week, you could be with Gladys Knight. One week, you could be with Patty LaBelle, or one week, you could be with somebody else. I think that’s the fun of the show, not quite knowing who that person is going to be week-on-week.

M. Cherkezian Are you giving them a certain few to choose from each week, or can they try to team up with anybody each week?

S. Cowell No, no, no. We make the decision. Yes, definitely.

Moderator Our next follow-up is from Hal Boedeker with the Orlando Sentinel.

H. Boedeker Simon, I have to ask. Who’s the lynchpin of the Idol panel?

S. Cowell Me. Why did you ask?

H. Boedeker Did you want to say any more about it?

S. Cowell No.

H. Boedeker Why Wayne Brady?

S. Cowell That’s a bad question today.

H. Boedeker Why Wayne Brady?

S. Cowell Why Wayne Brady?

H. Boedeker As host.

S. Cowell I like Wayne, actually, having got to know him quite well, there’s another side to Wayne, which I really like. He’s fun. He’s confident. He can sing. He was an obvious choice for this show. He was put forward by a number of people, so we didn’t even think about anybody else.

H. Boedeker Can you give us a preview of your Dick Clark Tribute for Sunday night? Anything you could tell us?

S. Cowell I can’t at the moment, no, mainly because I haven’t gotten it all written yet, but I’m doing it because I’m a huge fan of Dick.

Moderator The next follow-up is from Stacy Krause with IGN.

S. Krause What kind of role will the judges play overall with the eliminations and everything?

S. Cowell I believe I’m right in saying on show one, they actually get to eliminate the first person. Then week-on-week, it is the public who will make the decision, but I think the first elimination is going to be made by the judges.

S. Krause So they’ll just be acting as advisors to the public basically after that?

S. Cowell Yes, very much so in hopefully the same was we do on Idol, which is as I said before to somebody else, their opinion should count on this show because they’ve all had success. But at the end of the day, it’s down to the American public.

Kathy, We’ll just take a couple more questions.

Moderator Okay. We just have one more in queue at the moment. Amy Amatangelo with the Boston Herald.

A. Amatangelo Hello, again. I just wanted to ask, do you worry at all about saturation of the market, how it might affect American Idol with all these different shows coming and particularly that have a lot of the same appeal of seeing people perform and watching them be judged?

S. Cowell Well, I think if they were all on air at the same time, there would be a problem. But a lot of people who watch Idol, they’ve all said to me, “It would be great to have a big singing competition in the autumn.” But we were very aware that this competition had to be very, very different from Idol, which we’ve set out to do. So I think it’s far enough away, I think it’s different enough. As I said to someone earlier on, it’s a lot more difficult than Idol in a lot of ways, so I think this one is going to fit very well in the autumn.

A. Amatangelo Does the set look different? Are there other things you’ve done to be deliberately different, to really make it stand apart from Idol?

S. Cowell Well, a singing competition is a singing competition. We spent a fortune on the set to make it look good, made sure we have the best possible cast, so that it really feels like a competition. So it is a very, very different type of show, yes.

Moderator We do have a couple more lines in queue. Do you have time, or would you like to end it?

S. Cowell No, that will be okay.

Moderator Okay. Then we’ll go to Jon Bream with the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

J. Bream Hello, again. There’s a limited number of hit duets in the history of popular music. Is the fact that some songs that these people may choose to do are not duets? Is that going to factor into it, that the judges may say, “Well, this doesn’t work well as a duet.”? Are they only critiquing the performance of the non-celebrity?

S. Cowell Well, it’s a good question. I think that when you get it right with the right song and the right two people, it can work fantastically well. At the same time, it can also go horribly wrong. That’s why I think, depending on who you’re paired up with and the choice of song is absolutely essential on this. But the main reason for doing the duet in the way that we’ve done it is to make it as difficult as possible for the non-singer. I don’t think we could have made it more difficult.

Moderator Our final question will be from Marisa Guthrie with the New York Daily News.

M. Guthrie I just want to clear up the music selections, because I’m not quite clear on it. The producers are picking the song for the contestants.

S. Cowell Advising. I mean there’s no kind of like heavy-handedness about it. We have great MDs, great vocal coaches. Some of the songs are obviously tied in with the actual singer themselves.

M. Guthrie So they might sing like a classic Patty LaBelle song.

S. Cowell Exactly.

M. Guthrie Okay. So the contestant and the professional singer sort of brainstorm and come up with something and you and the producers advise.

S. Cowell Absolutely.

M. Guthrie And a lot of it is the stuff, the songs that the professionals, their own songs, correct?

S. Cowell Yes. I mean when Smokey Robinson sings, you’re going to hear a few Smokey Robinson songs.

M. Guthrie Sure, but not exclusively, just their own song.

S. Cowell Not exclusively.

M. Guthrie Okay. Thank you. That clears everything up.

S. Cowell No problem.

M. Guthrie Okay. Bye.

Moderator Mr. Cowell, do you have any closing remarks?

S. Cowell Me? Just thank you, everybody, for phoning in. Enjoy the show.

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