Here’s some free show-biz advice: If you’re headed over to the BankUnited Center Thursday to audition for The X Factor, dress like a banana. Or wear a python around your neck. Or don’t wear anything at all. Weirdness counts.
“We encourage the eccentric — people who are out there,” says Simon Cowell, the show’s creator and chief judge.
“Somebody asked me the other day, what would we have done on American Idol tryouts if Lady Gaga had walked in three or four years ago with a lobster on her head? I don’t know if she would have gotten through, to be honest. But times are changing, and we all have to change with them.
“ … The more outrageous, the more risky, a contestant is, the better the chance of being successful.”
The X Factor, which debuts on Fox this fall, is Cowell’s new talent-hunt show. The audition that kicks off at the University of Miami at 8 a.m. Thursday is one of only six across the country this spring. But Cowell says there was never any question that one of the sites would be Miami.
“I love the whole vibe there,” Cowell says from his Los Angeles office. “It’s one of my favorite places in the world. I always stay at the Setai and really have a great time.
“We’re really expecting a Latin vibe at the auditions, which is what everybody always says about Miami, but it’s true. You walk down South Beach, that’s what you’re hearing all the time - which is a positive thing.
“The other thing about Miami is that you definitely expect to find somebody who is out there, flamboyant, not afraid to show what they’ve got. I would like to find the Miami version of Lady Gaga, or maybe Boy Gaga. I don’t care.”
The weirdness and talent of prospective South Florida contestants remains to be seen, but there are expected to be a lot of them. The first X Factor audition, in Los Angeles, drew 15,000 in March.
“There is no [top] capacity,” Cowell says. “If too many people show up, we’ll simply have to extend the days. We’re committed that every single person will be seen or heard by somebody representing the show.”
The X Factor’s format is similar to that of American Idol, the show on which Cowell was a famously acerbic judge for eight years. But there are important differences. One is that the show’s winner gets not merely a recording contract but also $5 million cash.
Instead of permitting only solo vocalists, The X Factor will have several categories, including groups, and divides vocalists by gender and age. And once the initial cuts have been made, each contestant will be mentored by a judge.
“On The X Factor, you might have a 12-year-old boy, followed by a group, maybe a Glee-type group or maybe a boy band, then the — I hope — next Destiny’s Child, followed by somebody who’s 65 years old,” says Cowell.
“There will just be massive variety. I’m especially interested in this idea of older singers. In England [where The X Factor has aired for seven seasons] there’s a recurring theme among the older contestants: They had a shot at the music business at 17, gave it up for whatever reason, then watched some of these shows and now want another shot. The stories are always good.”
One thing that isn’t going to change much from American Idol: Cowell’s epically brutal evaluations of contestants. Asked if he’s going to be mean, Cowell (who during interviews is quite genial) chortles a one-word answer: “Probably.”
“I’m not going to sit there and lie to people,” he explains. “I’ve never been able to do that. Have there ever been times when I’ve felt bad about something I said? Oh, loads of them. The problem is that we never know what the back story is on these people when they walk in. Somebody walks in, I’m not in a great mood, and I say something mean.
“Then I watch the show months later, and I see that the guy is outside the audition room crying because his dog died that morning, saying, ‘I’m going to sing a song in memory of my beloved Lassie.’ Then it cuts to me inside the audition room being vile, and he walks out crying. And I say to myself, why did I do what I did? But you can’t take it back.”
Meanness, Cowell says, was the whole point of American Idol.
“I was always a fan of all those old-school talent shows like Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour,” he says. “But when we were developing American Idol, we were very keen to inject some reality into it.
“It had to feel like a real music-business audition room. I’ve sat in them for years, and I knew the process. I knew what producers and record-company executives really say to people. I thought it would be amusing if we showed that.
“Not everybody grasped it immediately. I remember [former American Idol judge] Paula Abdul on the first day of taping. Somebody was singing out of tune and I said, ‘They’re terrible.’ Paula just sort of stared at me: ‘What did you just say?’ I said, ‘Well, what do you want to say?’
“She went on about ‘follow your dreams’ and all that, and then she burst into tears. I thought, ‘This is going to be a lonnnnnnnng show.’”