DATE January 15, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Tammy Faye Messner discusses her book "I Will
Survive...and You Will, Too"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Tammy Faye Messner, formerly Tammy Faye Bakker, was the first lady of
televangelism in the 1980s. Now she's starring on the reality show "The
Surreal Life" in which six faded celebrities live together for 12 days and
nights. Her cast members include Vanilla Ice, the former rap star, and Erik
Estrada, who starred in the TV series "CHiPs." Tammy Faye also has a new
advice book called "I Will Survive...and You Will, Too."
She and her first husband, Jim Bakker, helped build Pat Robertson's Christian
Broadcasting Network and the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Their own empire
included the PTL Network, their televangelist variety show, "The P.T.L. Club,"
and Heritage USA, the world's first Christian theme park. Their empire fell
apart in 1987 after Jim Bakker was in the headlines for committing adultery.
He was later convicted of financial fraud.
Tammy Faye is now married to Roe Messner, who built Heritage USA. She's
developed a gay following, a phenomenon which was both explored in and
furthered by the documentary "The Eyes of Tammy Faye." Last week, she hosted
a drag bingo AIDS benefit.
I asked her about the start of her career when she and Jim Bakker were
Ms. TAMMY FAYE MESSNER ("I Will Survive...and You Will, Too"): Well, it was a
very simple life. We went from one church to the other, ministering. We'd
minister for a week and sometimes we'd get $50 or sometimes they would pay us
by bringing things to us rather than money. And so we lived a very meager
life, but it was a very satisfying life because we were doing what we felt
called by the Lord to do.
GROSS: And how did you end up doing television?
Ms. MESSNER: A man named Neil Garthaway(ph) saw us doing puppets. Jim and I
did a puppet called Suzy Moppet and Olly the Alligator. I did them. It was
sort of like "Kukla, Fran and Ollie," if you remember that one many years ago.
And Jim talked to the puppets and I did both of them. And a man came to
church one day and saw us doing the puppets, and he went back and told a
fledgling television station about us. The name of the man that owned it was
GROSS: So Pat Robertson had a fledgling TV station and that's where you
Ms. MESSNER: Fledgling, barely went around the corner.
GROSS: Uh-huh. And that's where you started doing your puppet show?
Ms. MESSNER: That's where we started doing the puppet show. And, I believe,
the puppet show is what helped to build the first Christian broadcasting
television station because, as the children got interested in it, then they
would bring their parents along with them. And it just turned into something
GROSS: In your book, you say that Jim Bakker used to watch the Johnny Carson
show and felt that Christians needed their own talk show. Why?
Ms. MESSNER: Well, because we needed to be able to talk about God, just like
Johnny Carson talked about the things of the world. And so he asked Pat
Robertson if the children's show became something that was going somewhere and
really helping, if we could one day do a Johnny Carson-type show? And after
we had done the children's show for about two years, Pat finally let Jim do
the first "700 Club." That's what they named it.
GROSS: It's almost like talking about God the way Johnny Carson talks about
celebrities 'cause that's what he really talked about was celebrities.
Ms. MESSNER: Well, who's the greatest celebrity?
Ms. MESSNER: God or--It was wonderful. We talked about God as, you know, a
real person, not as God up in the sky or God somewhere else around. He was
God that was right there with us. And that's what Christians believe, that he
is right there with us every day, part of our lives every day, and that's what
our talk show was about. And we talked with other people. We had Christian
celebrities, too, that we, of course, brought into the picture.
GROSS: So tell us more about how you saw the Christian talk show, "The P.T.L.
Club," as being different from its secular counterpart.
Ms. MESSNER: Well, everything was about Jesus. You know, no one had to worry
about hearing a dirty joke or about, you know, have they--everybody could
watch it. And you didn't have to turn it off for underage children, and that
was wonderful. And besides, the presence of the Lord that we felt there in
the studio went right into the homes. And people at home were able to enjoy
that presence of the Lord that we were feeling there in the studio and become
an actual part of the show itself, which I think is wonderful. We were the
first reality TV because we never rehearsed, we never had much of a format.
We'd write a format down, but if it went a different direction, we just went
with it, you know.
GROSS: How did you start raising money on the air?
Ms. MESSNER: Well, we had to raise money, you know. We didn't have
Coca-Cola, we didn't have all, you know, the commercials that all the other
stations had, that the secular stations had. So we had to figure out a way,
you know, to buy airtime, pay employees and do all those things that a regular
television station has to do. And so the only way to do that was to raise
GROSS: And when the money really started coming in, how did you decide how
much to keep for yourself and how much...
Ms. MESSNER: We didn't.
Ms. MESSNER: We had a board of directors, and the board...
GROSS: You mean you didn't decide yourself?
Ms. MESSNER: ...of directors decided. The board of directors decided; we did
not decide ourselves. At first, we didn't even take a salary. We took the
same salary--everybody took the same salary when we first started out. And
then as it grew, we were able to organize a board of directors, and the board
of directors were able to vote on what our salary would be. We had nothing to
say about it even.
GROSS: You ended up making a lot of money and having just several really
Ms. MESSNER: Now how do you know that, Miss Terry?
GROSS: Reading about you.
Ms. MESSNER: Yeah, you read--you probably heard about it in the rag
magazines, but our home that they said was such a mansion was not a mansion.
It was an old house that we bought and redid. We had a small home in Palm
Springs because it was the only place that we could go to get away. And we,
at one time, had a small home in Gatlinburg, which was just a little cabin.
And so those were our homes.
GROSS: But really, I mean, you did have what I think everybody agrees was a
pretty opulent lifestyle during that period.
Ms. MESSNER: We had a very nice lifestyle, we did. But, you know, it was
given to us by our board of directors and, you know, we didn't ask for it.
GROSS: I guess the larger question is: Were you comfortable living in that
kind of opulent lifestyle, knowing that a lot of the money was coming from
listeners who probably weren't living anywheres close...
Ms. MESSNER: Terry, we worked so much that I never thought about it. Our
whole life--my husband, Jim Bakker, worked almost 24 hours a day. And he
worked so much and I worked so much that we just never thought of it. The
thing about money is this, in my estimation: When you have money, you never
think of it; when you don't have money, it's about all you think of. And we
had enough to where we didn't have to worry about money, but we never thought
about the fact that we were getting paid too much or too little or too
whatever. We never thought about money, and that's God's honest truth.
GROSS: But you're asking for money all the time so you had to be thinking
Ms. MESSNER: Well, we were thinking about money to keep--we had 3,000
employees that we had to pay. We were on all over the world. We had
television time we had to pay for all over the world. And how do you do that?
I mean, we had millions of dollars' worth of buildings at Heritage USA.
GROSS: Your first husband, Jim Bakker, after the development of Heritage USA,
was convicted of bilking his followers of $158 million.
Ms. MESSNER: Yeah, and that's a lot of crap. I'm sorry, but it is. If
people want to know where the money went, they need to go out at Heritage USA
and look at the millions of dollars' worth of buildings that are still sitting
there rotting into the ground which is a very sad situation. Jim never took
a--he never took a postage stamp from PTL, and I will say that before God.
Jim is one of the most honest men, and still is, that I've ever known.
GROSS: So you're divorced from Jim Bakker but you still defend him in terms
Ms. MESSNER: Yes, I do because I lived with the man for 30 years and I know
what went on and what didn't. And I know the truth of the situation, and I
wouldn't have to defend him. I've been divorced from him for 12 years, but I
do defend him because I defend right.
GROSS: There was a sex scandal that was responsible as well as the financial
one for his downfall in the world of televangelists.
Ms. MESSNER: I think the sex scandal is real; the financial scandal was not.
GROSS: Well, that must've hurt a lot.
Ms. MESSNER: Yes, it did hurt a lot. It takes a lot of--only women who have
been there understand what that's all about. And even though it was a
one-night stand with Jim and it happened nine years before we built Heritage
USA, it still hurt when it happened till I thought I wanted to die.
GROSS: A lot of people felt like, `See, the televangelists are hypocrites.
They're preaching against extramarital sex, you know, and look at what's
happening.' Did you think that this was a sign...
Ms. MESSNER: Terry, everyone is...
GROSS: ...of hypocrisy in...
Ms. MESSNER: No, everyone--I think this is a sign that everyone is human. We
are just human beings, and we're only sinners saved by grace and we trip and
fall and stumble sometimes, too. Just because you're a preacher or a priest
or a rabbi or whatever does not make you immune from sinning.
GROSS: Of course, some of the televangelists have preached quite loudly
against certain, quote, "sinners," and have suggested that they should be very
marginalized in our society, particularly here the way--some of the
televangelists, like Jerry Falwell, for instance, have preached against
homosexuality. You, on the other hand, have actually become very close to a
lot of gay people and are something of a cult figure among certain people,
Ms. MESSNER: Well, they were very, very--well, I think--I did a show back
when I was doing "Tammy's House Party." And I did a show, not even knowing it
was going to ever turn into anything special, Terry. I did a show with a gay
man who had AIDS, and my heart went out to him because I felt like people were
treat--no one would hug him, no one would even get near people that had AIDS
at that time. And they were so looked down upon, and I felt that was wrong to
be looked down upon for a disease and be blamed for a disease. And I felt
Jesus would've gone to that person and put his arm around them and love them
and cared for them. And so that's why I did that show. And that show turned
out to be something that I never dreamed in the world would change my life
GROSS: Well, later you did a show--and I think this was a secular
show--called "The JM J. and Tammy Faye Show."
Ms. MESSNER: Yes.
GROSS: And he was gay.
Ms. MESSNER: Yes.
GROSS: How did that show come about?
Ms. MESSNER: Well, I was asked by FOX Network to do a show. I had not done
television in a few years, and so I was very nervous about doing the show by
myself. So I asked if they would hire a partner for me to do the show with.
I think it's always better when there's two of you and, you know, you can play
off each other. And so about 10 different men applied, and we ended up
choosing JM J. Bullock. And we were like brother and sister immediately. We
just connected. He had watched "P.T.L." He was of the Baptist faith and knew
a lot about what I had been doing. And so we just immediately connected.
GROSS: So did you talk about homosexuality on the show?
Ms. MESSNER: No.
GROSS: I'm wondering if you've met gay men who do you in their drag show?
Ms. MESSNER: Oh, yes, many of them.
GROSS: Yeah? Uh-huh?
Ms. MESSNER: Oh, yes, and they do me better than me. I love it. I think
it's so fun.
GROSS: What have you learned about yourself from watching people in drag do
Ms. MESSNER: Oh, nothing new. You know, it's mainly how they dress; it's
not what they say or what they do. It's mainly how they dress with the long
eyelashes and a lot of hair and cute clothes and lots of jewelry, you know.
GROSS: Do you think of yourself as dressing almost like a drag queen where
everything's just a bit exaggerated?
Ms. MESSNER: Well, I don't think so. No, uh-uh. I think I dress very
tastefully. I like big jewelry. I'm a little 4'11 woman, but I like big
jewelry so that's basically the only thing that's exaggerated on me is I
probably wear bigger jewelry and carry bigger purses than most people do. I
like big stuff.
GROSS: My guest is Tammy Faye Messner. She has a new book called "I Will
Survive...and You Will, Too." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Tammy Faye Messner, formerly Tammy Faye Bakker.
Since you, obviously, have friends who are gay and you have something of a gay
following, what's your reaction when televangelists preach that gays are
doomed to sin, that we should protect our youth from gay people, that gay
people should be marginalized, they shouldn't be allowed to marry, they
shouldn't be allowed to teach?
Ms. MESSNER: I think that preachers should be allowed to preach the word of
God. I don't think they ought to pick on certain people or certain sins. I
think they should be allowed to preach God's word. And if that bothers
people, then that is their problem, whatever sin the preacher preaches on. If
you're a liar and the preacher's preaching against lying, then, you know,
you've just got to accept that.
But the gay people and I--I mean, I love the gay community--we have agreed to
disagree. I am not a homosexual and the gay people know that I don't belive
in the homosexual lifestyle. But we have agreed to disagree on that and go
ahead and love each other and care about each other anyway.
GROSS: So you think that the word of God is against homosexuality?
Ms. MESSNER: I believe that the word of God teaches against homosexuality,
yes, I do.
GROSS: I'm wondering, like, how you--if that belief doesn't come in conflict
Ms. MESSNER: But I do believe...
GROSS: ...what you've seen among gay friends?
Ms. MESSNER: I do believe that there's going to be homosexuals in heaven. I
believe that. If they've ask Jesus to come into their heart and forgive them
of their sins, I believe that God is--that there will--people ask me that a
lot, and I believe that if they follow God's word, that God will certainly
come into their life and be part of their lives.
GROSS: Do you go to church much now? Or do you attend services through
Ms. MESSNER: Oh, no, no, I go to church. We have a church in Charlotte,
North Carolina, that we attend every Sunday that we're home.
GROSS: And what's it like...
Ms. MESSNER: I believe church is very, very important. The Bible says in
the last days to forsake not the assembling of yourselves together because
Christians can be an encouragement to one another by getting together and
fellowshipping together. The fellowship of church, I think, is just as
important, almost, as hearing the preacher preach.
GROSS: Do you think that we're...
Ms. MESSNER: It's a little hard for me to go to church sometimes because it
reminds me so much of what I used to do. You know, of course, we used to be
the leaders in the Christian community, and we used to be the ones preaching
the word all over the world. And to sit in a church and not even be a part of
it has been very hard for me.
GROSS: You've remarried.
Ms. MESSNER: Yes.
GROSS: Now your husband, Roe Messner, ended up in jail for a couple of years.
He was convicted of bankruptcy fraud, of not declaring all of his assets. And
since both your husbands spent some time in prison, did you go through this
period of saying--like, of questioning God, of saying, `Why is this happening
to my family? We've been trying to do your work and look at what's
Ms. MESSNER: Oh, I think there are times when everyone gets angry at God and
gets hurt. I would say not as angry as hurt. You know, you feel like you're
working as hard as you can for God, and then he allows something to come into
your life to eventually make you a better person but you don't know that at
the time. And I cried a lot. I cried out to God a lot. I asked why a lot.
I had some big questions. But I knew if I didn't have God, I wouldn't have
anyone. And I know that God promised he will not put more on us than we can
bear, and Romans 8:28 says, `For we know that all things work together for
good to those that love God and to those that are called according to his
purpose.' And so if we really believe the Bible that is there for us to read,
we might be able to feel hurt at God and we might be able to question him, but
we have to believe that what he is doing is right for us. And, ultimately,
that's what I believe.
GROSS: Do you see your first husband anymore, Jim Bakker?
Ms. MESSNER: Oh, yeah. In fact, we're all friends. When the grandkids have
something special happen at school and we all come together, we all laugh and
have a good time and talk about the old days and have some good time together.
And I think that's the way it should be.
GROSS: Now there was a documentary made about you a couple of years ago.
Ms. MESSNER: Yeah, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye."
GROSS: Right. And it was made by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, who also
made the current movie "Party Monster." What impact did that movie have on
your life? It was a very sympathetic portrait of you and...
Ms. MESSNER: Well, to me, it was a very--it wasn't as sympathetic as it was
truthful. They delved in and got the truth of the situation as it happened.
See, when I went to--when they asked me to do this, I said, `No, I will not go
back. You cannot go forward looking in the rearview mirror and I can't go
back. It hurts too bad. I finally got my life, you know, back on track and
I'm not going back.' But they convinced me to go back with them.
And I traveled with them for almost two years doing things--or they followed
me and the things I was doing. And they talked to the people that had been
part of my life, and they got down and got to the bare--where the rubber meets
the road. And they did not--they said, `You are not going to be able to see
this till everybody else sees it. You are not going to be able to know what's
in it, you are not going to have any power over anything that we tape or do.
Are you willing to do that?' And something within me, and I have to think it
must have been God, said it was OK to do it. And so I trusted Randy and
Fenton, and thank God that I did because it changed my life.
GROSS: How did it change it?
Ms. MESSNER: It changed my life by people seeing me as a real person, other
than a cartoon figure that I had been pictured as by so much of the media.
GROSS: Talk a little bit more about the cartoon figure. This...
Ms. MESSNER: Well, you know, I had always been pictured as a, you know,
fluffy little bubblehead with big long eyelashes and big jewelry that didn't
have a brain in her head. And that's what I was pictured as. People realized
that I'm a relatively intelligent person, I'm a person with deep feelings, I'm
a mother, I'm a grandmother and that I've done a lot in life and I have had a
lot of life experiences. And that's what they were able to show through "The
Eyes of Tammy Faye."
GROSS: Tammy Faye Messner, thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. MESSNER: Well, thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Tammy Faye Messner has a new book called "I Will Survive...and You
Will, Too." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, the wittily wicked judge of "American Idol," Simon Cowell.
Here's the first winner of the TV talent show, Kelly Clarkson.
Ms. KELLY CLARKSON: (Singing) Miss independent, miss self-sufficient, miss
keep your distance. Miss unafraid, miss out a mile away, miss don't let a man
interfere. No. Miss on her own, miss almost grown, miss never let a man help
her off her throne. So by keeping her heart protected, she'd never ever feel
rejected. Little miss apprehensive said, ooh, she fell in love. What is this
feeling taking over? Thinking no one could open the door, surprise, it's time
to feel what's real. What happened to miss independent? No one more the need
for me to miss him. Goodbye on you. Real love is true. Misguided heart...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Simon Cowell, "American Idol" judge, discusses the
show and his new book
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
"American Idol" starts its third season on Monday and once again we'll be
treated to some awful singing by people who think they're quite talented. And
we'll hear the blunt, some would say cruel, criticisms of the show's most
controversial judge, Simon Cowell. He's not just a judge, he co-created the
"Idol" phenomenon, which started with the British TV show "Pop Idol." Cowell
has been in the music industry most of his adult life and is now an executive
at BMG Records. Last season, the winner of "American Idol" was Ruben
Studdard, and the runner-up was Clay Aiken. They've both released records
which became hits.
Let's start with a track from Ruben Studdard's album "Soulful." This is his
version of The Carpenters' hit "Superstar."
(Soundbite of "Superstar")
Mr. RUBEN STUDDARD: (Singing) Long ago and oh so far away I fell in love with
you before the second show. And your guitar and you sound so sweet and clear,
but you're not really here, it's just the radio. Don't you remember you told
me you loved me, baby? You said you'd be coming back this way again. Baby,
baby, baby, baby, oh-ooh, baby, I love you, I really do.
GROSS: Simon Cowell, welcome to FRESH AIR. When "American Idol" started, or
let's get back to when "Pop Idol" started, the British version, did you know
right away that you were going to, as a judge, be rude, or totally honest,
depending on how you want to look at it? But did you know that that's what
your persona was going to be?
Mr. SIMON COWELL ("American Idol" Judge): I didn't really think about it too
much, actually, Terry. I got so caught up in the development of the show in
the UK, I hadn't really given my role too much thought. And, in fact, when we
started auditioning, the very first day, on the very first British show, it
was just terrible because we all kind of got camera-fright and became very
polite, so the first hour of TV was just atrocious and it--and in the end I
had to take out one of my fellow judges, out of the room, and say, `This is
just awful, because I'm just dying in there, because all the things I want to
say I'm not saying. So I think we should just behave as we would in a normal
audition,' and walked back in the room and from that moment on it all changed.
GROSS: Well, now, wait a minute, at a normal audition do you speak that
honestly to the person who's auditioning or is that how you talk after they
leave the room?
Mr. COWELL: If I'm being honest, we're worse, because, you know, normal
auditions someone will open the door and we'll just say, `Leave,' before they
GROSS: Oh, really? Why? Based on their hair or something?
Mr. COWELL: Yeah, just on the way they look, on everything. You just know if
you're auditioning for something specific and somebody walks in who you know
he's not suitable, I mean, it's like the door opens, `Leave.' So I--you could
argue that perhaps, you know, in real-life auditions, people are treated a
little bit more harshly.
GROSS: Now on "American Idol" you've seen a very bad singers. What do you
think makes bad singers think that they're good?
Mr. COWELL: Oh, God, well, I wish I could explain that. I don't--I can't
answer that. But I can, I think, answer why these people enter a competition
like "American Idol," because I think today more than any other time in
history we live in what I call a fame epidemic, whereas when I was at
school--I'm 44--when you asked the people in my class `What do you want to be
when you left school?,' most of the girls would reply `Nurse,' and most of the
boys would reply `Racing driver,' or `Train driver.' Ask that same question
today and I think most of the replies will be `famous.' And I think that's
partly because of just how--the type of magazines which are popular at the
moment. They are broadcasting the type of lives you could have if you become
famous. And this is to encourage everyone now to chase that dream.
GROSS: Boy, you're really feeding into that, though, aren't you, with
"American Idol," particularly, like, there's videos in it where all of the
contestants talks about what it's like to ride in a limo and to get the
makeover and to have somebody do your makeup and sign autographs and it's like
`Oh, boy, maybe I'll be famous, too, one day.'
Mr. COWELL: Oh, absolutely. I mean--but I think the show works because--in
other words, one feeds off the other at the moment, I think, Terry.
The--it's--we--I love the idea of giving somebody 15 minutes of fame. And
actually taking it away. I do. I love it.
GROSS: Why do you like the `taking it away' part?
Mr. COWELL: I don't know. I'm just quite sadistic, really, Terry.
GROSS: That sounds that way, actually.
Mr. COWELL: But that's--you know, that, of course, we argue with being the
ultimate torture. As you quite rightly say, we put them in the mansion and we
give them the limousine and their fate now is determined by somebody picking
up the telephone or not picking up the telephone. But it's sort of like a
delicious thrill, isn't it?
GROSS: One of the things I found very interesting about watching "American
Idol" is that in a way it's a catalog of all the bad mannerisms that have
seeped into pop music. Like if you watch the show enough, you can see all of
the things that have gone wrong in pop music, that people are picking up on
and trying to emulate. For example, like that kind of melisma where you're
singing around the note and up and down and around the note and embellishing...
Mr. COWELL: Yeah.
GROSS: ...a lot without doing a good job of it, without really adding
anything, and it becomes really annoying. It just becomes pure mannerism.
There's a lot of that on the radio. There was a lot of that in "American
Mr. COWELL: Yeah.
GROSS: Do you ever feel that way, like, you're watching this kind of catalog
of things that have gone wrong in pop music?
Mr. COWELL: A hundred percent. I--because like you, Terry, I loathe that
kind of singing. Because for me when you listen to some of the great singers
like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, these guys never sang like that but they
were just amazing singers. It's almost an affectation now because you're not
supposed to sing like that. I absolutely loathe it. But I was talking to the
girl who brought me down from the publishing house earlier on and just
basically saying--we just both said how much we dislike music on the radio at
the moment because it's so monotonous.
GROSS: I just want to make it clear that I don't think all singing around the
note is bad, it's just that there's a certain kind of pointless embellishment
which is really annoying.
Mr. COWELL: Well, it's like people coming in, Terry, where they try and copy
and artist so accurately that they even sing the ad libs.
GROSS: Right, right, right.
Mr. COWELL: You try and explain what an ad lib is. You know? It's not part
of the song. It's an ad lib and they do it in their audition. I mean, it
drives me nuts. There aren't too many Frank Sinatras or Ella Fitzgeralds
around at the moment to copy. They are copying bad singers in the first place
and, of course, it becomes like some ghastly Xerox machine. You know? The
original isn't very good and the copies are even worse. But, you know, Terry,
look, if I'm being honest with you, the show works because of its
Mr. COWELL: If it was a perfect show, it would be boring.
GROSS: How much of a say do the singers have in which songs they do?
Mr. COWELL: They--it is totally down to them. I mean, you know, Terry, we
could sit there week on week, really helping them with their choice of songs,
choice of arrangements, what they wear, but the fun as the show continues is
watching the contestants getting it right and of course watching them get it
wrong. For instance, when Clay sang that ghastly version of "Grease" on
"American Idol 2" and came running out in that awful red leather jacket. You
just think `What are you doing?' But that's again, you know, the appeal of
the show is that some weeks they get it right and often they get it wrong.
GROSS: My guest is Simon Cowell. He has a new book called "I Don't Mean To
Be Rude, Butt...." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Simon Cowell of "American Idol" is my guest. He has a new book called
"I Don't Mean To Be Rude, Butt...." You know, "American Idol" is really just
like an incredible marketing machine. You know, you put the people on TV. By
the time the series is over, the person who wins is a star. Then they make
the record. So there's already an audience waiting for the record before the
record is even released. And then, after the first season, there was the
movie. Now there, you know...
Mr. COWELL: Don't mention it.
GROSS: What's that? Don't mention it.
Mr. COWELL: Don't mention that.
GROSS: That was a big failure, wasn't it?
Mr. COWELL: Yeah. God, almighty.
Mr. COWELL: But the funny thing was, I remember when the producer told me
the name of the film, and he said, `It's called "From Justin to Kelly,"' I
said, `Have you ever heard of a director called Ed Wood?' And he said, `No.'
And I said, `Well, it sounds like the title of one of his films, because it
sounds like a transvestite movie, "From Justin to Kelly."' He didn't get the
joke, and it ended up looking like an Ed Wood movie. Big mistake.
GROSS: Well, couldn't you have stopped it?
Mr. COWELL: No, absolutely not. I mean, there are certain peoples who, you
know, who are involved with the artists who can do what the hell they want. I
mean, I can hold my hand up as the record label and say, `Big mistake here,
guys,' but, you know, they learn their lessons.
GROSS: Now you have a management company that manages the people on "American
Mr. COWELL: No, I'm the record label.
GROSS: Oh, you don't do the management, too?
Mr. COWELL: No. There's two Simons, myself and Simon Fuller.
Mr. COWELL: And we created the show together. And he has the television
rights and the management rights.
Mr. COWELL: And I have the recording rights.
GROSS: I see. So when they make a record, that's your thing, and the
management is his.
Mr. COWELL: Correct.
GROSS: So how long does he get to manage them? Like, how long does the
contract say they're under his management when they do "American Idol"?
Mr. COWELL: My guess is it probably runs about the same length as the
recording contract, which normally would run anywhere between three and seven
years, depending on how many options you want to pick up.
GROSS: Oh. So, like, Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard are
all contracted to you for, how many, three to seven years did you say?
Mr. COWELL: We normally have an option to release up to five albums.
Mr. COWELL: And in every year, you decide whether you're going to pick your
option up to make another album or not.
GROSS: Are you buddies with them, or...
Mr. COWELL: No. No. Not at all. Not at all. If I see them, you know, I
spend a bit of time with them. But I've got to be honest with you. I've
never really been what I would call buddies with any of my artists, because it
doesn't work. I feel there has to be a separation.
GROSS: Now early in your career as a record producer, you--I mean, you know
how to market things. You called the World Wrestling Foundation and suggested
you do an album with, you know, Randy "Macho Man" Savage and some of the other
Mr. COWELL: Yeah.
GROSS: ...not because they were great singers, but because they had an
audience who would buy their product. So you had a built-in market.
Mr. COWELL: Yes. Yeah. It was just common sense. They'd come over to the
GROSS: Oh, let me just say, it's the World Wrestling Federation, not
Mr. COWELL: Federation.
Mr. COWELL: You're absolutely right.
GROSS: It sounds like a non-profit organization the way I said it.
Mr. COWELL: Believe me, that's not. They came over to London. And I read it
in one of our newspapers that they'd sold out 82,000 seats in 27 minutes.
Hang on a minute. There's not a rock band in the world who can do that. And
I also found out that they were selling about two and a half million videos a
year to the fans who watch the show. So it didn't take a lot of time to
realize that if they were selling that many seats and that many videos that
there would be a lot of kids who would want to buy an album from the wrestlers
as well. It was just common sense.
GROSS: But did it ever make you think, `But I'm not being true to my musical
love. I'm just doing this as pure marketing'?
Mr. COWELL: What do you think, Terry?
GROSS: `Give me the money.'
Mr. COWELL: OK. Give me the money. And you know, it's a funny thing about
the music industry which, yeah, I think it's quite unusual. Because I think
in television and film, it's readily accepted that both TV and film has to
survive as an industry by selling to all sorts of demographics. I mean, you
have children's TV. You have more serious TV. You have mass market TV. My
theory about the music industry is that why shouldn't we run the record label
with that concept which is, of course, you can have the more credible serious
stuff, but why shouldn't a younger audience be able to buy music they like,
which isn't necessarily the most artistic form on Earth, but they love when
they buy it? I mean, I've never seen the sense of being snobbish about music.
You either like it or you don't.
GROSS: So there's versions of "American Idol" now in 21 countries. What are
some of the most interesting differences between what the singers in each of
those countries are like, you know, how they perform, what their mannerisms
are, what really irks you about them?
Mr. COWELL: Well, here's the interesting thing. Nothing changes all over
the world, Terry. You know, if you took away, you know, the talking part,
it's really difficult--probably with the exception of Lebanon, which is fairly
ghastly, "Lebanon Idol." It's almost a contradiction in terms, isn't it?
But, no, I think that's why the show works as a universal show, which is that
the same rules apply. Most of the people who turn up are terrible. Every
single person believes they are God's gift to the music industry. So they are
GROSS: Does every country cover Stevie Wonder records?
Mr. COWELL: Yes. Every country now. The funny thing was is that we, you
know, as you know, started the show in England. And then when we sold it all
over the world, every country tried to find somebody unpleasant on the judging
Mr. COWELL: And that's quite bizarre, people who I've known for years as
jolly nice people suddenly turning into complete pigs. And that's quite
GROSS: Everyone who watches the show knows that part of the drama of
"American Idol" is the tension between you and one of the other judges, Paula
Abdul, who was a pop star in the '80s. And her persona on the show as a judge
is somebody who's always supportive. Even if she hates the singer, she'll
find something nice and encouraging to say to them. And you're just the
opposite. If something bothers you, you'll just bluntly say it. So you argue
with each other on the show, and there's a whole constellation of jokes about
your relationship. Did you know things would be like that? 'Cause you must
have been in on hiring her in the first place. You created the show.
Mr. COWELL: Well, when it was decided to hire Paula, you know, we all had a
hand in the decision. And I only knew of her as a pop star, and I only met
her for the first time when I walked into the audition room on that first day
in Los Angeles, and I was introduced to her 20 or 30 minutes before the show
started. And it was Paula who, you know, kind of reacted strangely within the
first hour of auditioning, because I don't think she quite knew what the show
was going to be like. And I guess she thought we were all going to be like
the people on "Star Search" and tell everybody they're great. And after the
first three or four auditions, I mean, she was horrified, really horrified.
And that did create a lot of tension.
GROSS: When Paula Abdul became a judge on the show, did you feel like saying
to some of the contestants on the show, `This is what happens to pop stars 10,
20 years later, people don't know who they are anymore?'
Mr. COWELL: God, that's a good point. No, I didn't actually, but now you
mentioned it, I think I might mention it. `Don't enter, this is what
happens.' But you know what? It's funny enough, Terry. At the end of the
day, I actually do like Paula, and because, you know, she's actually got a
much, much harder job than I've got. It's easy for me to criticize all these
people and to be rude. I would find it really hard to do what she does week
after week, which is to try and see, you know, the bright side of things. I
couldn't do it.
GROSS: Simon Cowell of "American Idol" is my guest. He has a new book called
"I Don't Mean To Be Rude, Butt...."
A few months ago, you introduced a new program, "American Juniors," which
Mr. COWELL: I didn't.
GROSS: You don't have anything to do with that?
Mr. COWELL: I'm saying that quickly. No.
GROSS: Oh, I thought it part of the same franchise, so to speak.
Mr. COWELL: No. Absolutely not.
Mr. COWELL: No.
GROSS: So what do you think of it?
Mr. COWELL: Dreadful.
Mr. COWELL: Absolutely dreadful. Well, what's the point? I mean, no one at
the age of 11 can really sing. There's nothing that you can say to them,
because you can't criticize a 10- or 11-year-old. The whole thing was just
ghastly. I didn't want anything to do with it.
GROSS: Were you offered the chance?
Mr. COWELL: Yeah, not as a judge, but as an executive producer.
GROSS: So how much of this is just, like aesthetics, and how much of it is,
like, moral, that it's not right to put young people through something like
this, like kids through something like this?
Mr. COWELL: Well, I have a problem with that. I really do. I even have a
problem with people entering our show at the age of 16 now, because they're
just not ready for it. I mean, I go into this show as a grown-up, and I like
to treat people like grown-ups. And I find it very difficult sometimes,
saying to a 16-year-old, you know, what I really think, because they're just,
in my opinion, not mature enough to deal with it. And I don't think it
benefits anybody, me, them, the audience at home. They're just to young, you
know. They've got to be of an age to deal with this kind of thing, because
the music industry, you know, look at Michael Jackson. You know, you take
someone in at an early age, and you see what happens. I mean, you lose your
growing up period. And this is what happens when you go into the music
industry at such an early age. Now you say that to an 11-year-old, they're
never going to listen to you, because, once again, they want to be rich and
famous. But when you deprive someone at that age of their normal growing up,
you really can do them serious damage in my opinion.
GROSS: My guest is Simon Cowell. He has a new book called "I Don't Mean To
Be Rude, Butt...." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Simon Cowell, a judge on "American Idol," and the show's
Now you come from a pretty privileged background. You grew up on an estate
with a staff north of London. Your father was in real estate. He was the
head of properties for the record publishing company EMI. And so, you know,
you grew up in fine surroundings. So does that help you understand, or does
it not help you understand the drive for money that people have who don't come
from that kind of background?
Mr. COWELL: Well, even though my parents had money, I'd say 90 percent or 95
percent of the people who are my friends and who I grew up around were
self-made. Everything they achieved, they did themselves. And we were always
encouraged, myself and my brothers, that if we were going to earn money, no
one was going to give it to us. We had to earn it ourselves, and we had to
start, you know, literally from the bottom. And that was kind of drummed into
me from a really early age. I mean, when I joined EMI, I could have joined in
a sort of a senior management position even at the age of 17, but decided to
take a job in the mail room for two years so I could work it out for myself.
The only difference, I suppose, was that growing up, I could see what money
could buy you if you had it, so I was quite keen to have some myself.
GROSS: One more question. When a performer is doing what you consider to be
a really bad job, you often accuse them of being, like--performing like they
should be at Six Flags or some other, like, theme park or amusement park. But
in some way, the type of pop singing that's done on "American Idol" seems to
be the type of pop singing that would flourish at those parks, but not have a
home in a lot of other places. You know, the clubs that teen-agers and
college students go to don't have that kind of pop. And, you know, the
expensive clubs like in Vegas have older performers. I know you've created
venues for them, but was there a pre-existing venue for that type of pop of
people that age?
Mr. COWELL: Probably not, no. I take the point you're saying, Terry, which
is that, `You look as if you're contradicting yourself sometimes.' The
problem we had was simply this, is that if we had decided to bring in rap
music and hip-hop music, I actually don't believe anybody would have watched
this show. The only time we feel that we can keep an audience is when they
are singing older songs in an older style. And you'll notice that all the
people who've won this competition have never varied from that. I mean, one
of our better singers, Tamyra Gray, she veered off slightly one week by
singing something a bit more contemporary, and she was voted off the show.
GROSS: Why is that, do you think?
Mr. COWELL: Because--do you know, I honestly don't know. I think you could
argue one of the reasons is because there is an older audience watching. But
you could also say that even the younger kids who are watching, even though
they don't like to admit it, they actually do like traditional old pop songs.
GROSS: Do you know what I think it is, too? You take something like hip-hop,
you're supposed to have a certain, like street cred or authenticity or
Mr. COWELL: Yeah.
GROSS: And you're certainly not going to get street cred or authenticity by
being on "American Idol."
Mr. COWELL: Listen, you've hit the nail on the head. And, you know, we had
this supposed rocker on the show last year. His name was Patrick. But he was
somebody who looked like he'd gone into the rock shop and said, `Make me a
rock star.' I mean, he just wasn't believable. And I described him as being
a sheep in wolves' clothing, and made the point, 'cause when he said to me,
`I'm into rock 'n' roll,' I said, `No you're not, mate, because rock 'n' roll
is anti-establishment. This is establishment, this show. So just by the fact
that you bothered to audition, you've told me very, very loud and clear you
are not rock 'n' roll.' But it's exactly the point you just made. You know,
if you really are into that kind of music, you stay away from a show like
GROSS: Where are you now in the production of the next season of "American
Mr. COWELL: Well, we have shot all the audition shows, and I know who our
finalists are, or our 36. And I have to tell you, Terry, these are some of
the worst audition shows you will ever see in your life.
GROSS: Does it keep getting worse? Does it get better or worse as the show
gets more and more of a reputation?
Mr. COWELL: After "American Idol 2," I didn't think you'd get any worse than
this. And then we went to Houston, and that was unbelievable, unbelievable.
GROSS: Simon Cowell, thank you so much.
Mr. COWELL: It's been a pleasure. I've enjoyed talking to you, Terry.
GROSS: Simon Cowell has a new book called "I Don't Mean to Be Rude, Butt...."
The third season of "American Idol" begins Monday. We'll close with a track
from last season's runner-up, Clay Aiken. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. CLAY AIKEN: (Singing) Ooh. Watcha doin' tonight? I wish I could be a
fly on your wall. Are you really alone? You're still in dreams. Why can't I
bring you into my life? What would it take to make you see that I'm alive.
If I was invisible, then I could just watch you in your room. If I was
invincible, I'd make you mine tonight. If hearts were unbreakable, then I
could just tell you where I've been.
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