The only time I've dreamed about someone off TV, it was Simon Cowell. I'll spare you the details but I've always wondered what it was about him that made such an instant hit with my subconscious. So when I recently spotted him at Michael Winner's book launch, I couldn't resist weaving over to introduce myself and say "Hi, I've always wanted to interview you!" Unfortunately in my excitement, I spilled my champagne all over someone who was standing beside him, whom I completely ignored, persisting in telling Simon Cowell that interviewing him was my dearest wish in life - except that it came out as 'my dearest swish" because I was not entirely sober. He stared at me with that strange glittering half-smile we know so well from X Factor and said, "Fine." Fine? It was the last answer I was expecting so I just stood there gawping. "Do you want to take a number?" Cowell prompted, and I said "Oh yes, good idea!" and produced my diary and wrote down the number he dictated and then in very large capitals beside it wrote the name "SIMON CALLOW." Cowell glittered some more. "So nice to meet you, Linda," he said.
Well that's blown it, I thought the next day, but anyway I rang the number and got his PR man who - again to my amazement - said, "Fine." You do know that we don't pay for interviews? I said sternly. "That's all right - Simon and I are very rich men. Give me your number and we'll get back to you." And blow me, they did. Admittedly there were three or four changes of date, and I was told I could only have an hour, and if we wanted to take Cowell's photograph we would have to provide a make-up artist (we decided not to bother), but essentially he was as good as his word.
So I went to see him at Sony-BMG, where he works in a dull office in southwest London. He greeted me in a friendly enough way and chatted about Michael Winner - he knows him from Sandy Lane, Barbados, where they always spend Christmas and New Year. Cowell is flying out there as soon as X Factor finishes. "Michael is someone I never thought I'd be friends with but having met him, he's hysterical and charming and actually a very nice person, though he doesn't like to show it, but he's incredibly good-natured - I adore him." Did he hear Winner on the radio the other day saying he was short of money? "No. But tell him if he is, I'll buy his house - that'll sort him out."
Cowell could afford to buy Winner's house because he is now supposedly the richest man in television, worth US$200 million. He is paid US$30 million a series for American Idol in the US (making him the second-highest-paid American presenter after Oprah Winfrey) and US$40 million over three years for X Factor in the UK. He also produces other shows like America's Got Talent and Britain's Got Talent and has the right to sign any acts he fancies from all of these shows. Thus he effectively gets a free talent-spotting service for his record label, and he recently hit the jackpot with Leona Lewis, an X Factor winner whose first album went straight in at number one. So he is absolutely coining it - and he only started his television career six years ago, when he was 42. Before that he was a record-company executive, well known in the industry and well paid but a nonentity to the general public. He says he only agreed to appear on the box as a way of protecting his investment. He realized that the record industry was in decline: "I just felt instinctively that by using television as a vehicle we would have a better chance of selling records. But it was the record side of it which was the primary reason for getting involved, not wanting to get my ugly mug on TV."
He has said many times that money is what drives him, that it is his god. When Rolling Stone magazine asked what he wanted most in the world, he said simply, "Money. As much money as I can get my hands on." He once unforgivably said that he wished he'd been around in the 1960s to sign the Beatles, not because he admired their music but because he admired their royalties. People tend to assume he's joking when he says such things, but I'm inclined to believe him. It's puzzling, though, because he doesn't come from the sort of grindingly poor background where money would have been an issue. His late father was a successful real estate agent who ran EMI's property portfolio. They lived in posh Radlett just outside London and Cowell went to one of England's elite private schools. But even when he was seven or eight he would go round people's houses asking if he could clean their cars or mow their lawns - anything to get cash. "Because the principle from my parents was that you live in the house rent-free, we pay for the holidays but when we go on holiday, you should earn your own spending money. And I loved having my own money. In school holidays I would always apply for jobs, in warehouses, petrol stations or on a farm - I was always happier working than just mucking around."
Thus he was very happy to leave school at 16 and get a job at the EMI mailroom, among other places. He hated school - "I couldn't bear the discipline and the boredom. Every time I sat in a chemistry lesson I thought, what am I doing this for - I don't ever want to be in a job that involves a Bunsen burner," whereas the record industry in those days was a limitless money tree. There is no evidence that he ever cared much about music, but he soon showed a talent for finding the sort of acts that would sell records, and he did sell an awful lot of them - more than 100 million albums. He also created 75 number one singles, including the ineffable Robson & Jerome's cover of Unchained Melody, which beat Pulp's Common People to number one in 1995. "Yes they did," he says cheerfully when I remind him, "and they also beat Wonderwall by Oasis" (with Up on the Roof the same year). Isn't he ashamed? "No. I'd love to have one of those groups every year. You know, there's always a market for that kind of thing, and if people like it, why shouldn't they be allowed to enjoy it? That's always been my attitude. I have the same views on food, because I cannot bear wanky French fancy food - I'd rather have an all-day breakfast." Sure - though one wonders why in that case he bothers to stay at Sandy Lane.
Anyway, by his late 20s he was already making loads of money, but then overextended himself and only just avoided bankruptcy. He had to sell his house and his Porsche and move back with his parents for five years. Did he find that humiliating? "Not in the slightest. I didn't lie to anyone about it and I certainly wasn't treated any differently by my friends or family. It was almost a sense of release in a strange way, like all these burdens suddenly disappeared and I genuinely didn't miss any of them. I bought an old TR6, and I loved that car more than the Porsche. Obviously I didn't take flash holidays, and I lived on maybe US$300 to US$400 a week but I managed fine. I can't say I was any more unhappy then than I am now. I've always been fairly jittery, you know. I've never believed this is going to last forever."
So if he can be so sanguine about losing money, why does he care so much about making it? He isn't mean - when the disgraced BBC DJ Jonathan King was arrested he agreed to stand his bail bond without even asking how much (it was US$100,000). But he needs to make money somehow for reassurance.
"I think what it does is it allows you more freedom. It gives you more of a choice with your own destiny. I've always been petrified of working for a boss who I didn't like but who I was in fear of, because I wanted my salary. Years ago I used to have to go to these ghastly conventions and I despised the whole process, but I was also quite fearful that if I didn't toe the line, they'd fire me. I remember when I was about 34, I had to go to some weird off-site meeting - and I never got that whole golfing thing, all that nonsense - and in the middle of this really tedious presentation I just lost it and started laughing. And the guy, in front of about 20 people, actually told me to leave the room! Like I was six years old again! And I just thought at that point, I can't do this. So having a bit of money means that you don't have to do that. I don't stare at my bank balance but I just know that if, God forbid, I fell out with a boss here I could just leave."
But isn't it weird for somebody supposedly worth US$200 million even to have a boss he's afraid of falling out with? Cowell's business affairs are way beyond my comprehension, but two years ago he sold his own company, Syco, to BMG (known in the industry as Big Mean Germans), so on the face of it he is just a salaried employee now.
"Not quite," he says. "But the deal changed - it always changes. I can't go into details, but there was a reason why we felt the time was right to sell. I worked for BMG before they merged with Sony for 20 years. This is my home - they're my partners. They've been very good and the relationship has worked very well."
It is the longest relationship he's ever had. He was once engaged to the singer Sinitta and for the past five years has been with the former model Terri Seymour, but he has never married, and he has always been adamant that he will not have children. He has been saying for years that he is "too old," but loads of men do have children in their 40s. I wondered if he really meant that he was too young - that in his own mind he's still 18?
"No. But I guess I just envisaged that if I had a son and he was 16, 17, I would have liked to have played soccer with him but I couldn't see myself doing that. Not that my life has changed that much since my 20s. I've calmed down a bit, I guess, but I don't feel any more tired than I used to. But it was just that image of my son saying: "Can we go and play football?" and me saying: "I can't." "Nah. It's such a cliche, playing football with his son - I don't buy it." Why couldn't he envisage having a daughter, or indeed a son who played music?
Inevitably there have been rumors that Cowell is gay or bisexual, and he can certainly seem very camp - especially when he wears one of his V-neck sweaters over a bare chest, which he is worryingly fond of doing. (Incidentally he once described his mother as "very camp," an odd epithet to use of your mother.) But he's never made any effort to scotch the rumors because, he says, "That would imply that it's some sort of evil thing. And there are plenty of gay people who work in television and music and films, so if I was [gay], it wouldn't be a problem saying that I was." Has he ever had any sort of gay relationship? "No."
OK, so let's accept that he is straight, but a determined bachelor who plans to remain childless. Now who does this remind us of? It seems blindingly obvious to me, but evidently not to him, because he reacts like Dracula faced with a crucifix when I say it: "You're just like Michael Winner." Nothing I have said so far has rattled him in the slightest but now his jaw drops, he puts his head in his hands and starts groaning, "Oh no! No, don't say that!" Eventually he recovers and says, "I'm only teasing, because I like Michael. And I would admit there are similarities, yes. But that's as far as I'll go!"
But later, when I'm leaving, he asks "Do you really think I'm like Michael Winner?" and looks rattled again when I say yes. But of course they are alike - not only in their eternal bachelorhood, but I would guess that Cowell is like Winner in other ways too - a control freak, somewhat persnickety and set in his ways, fussy about the house, a bit of a hypochondriac.
Winner told me recently that whenever he thought about marriage in the past he always saw a big flashing sign saying "Alimony, alimony, alimony," so he backed off. Was this Cowell's reason for not marrying - that he was afraid of being taken to the cleaners?
"I don't think that would happen. I think, however, at the point that a marriage breaks down and the lawyers get involved, it can get very nasty. And I genuinely think that the contract involved in marriage is outdated. If I go into a relationship with an artist, which at most is going to last five years, we have a 100-page contract covering every eventuality. Whereas with marriage you go into it with no contract, with laws that date back hundreds of years, and I don't think that's right."
But if he's so worried about money, couldn't he have a "prenup?" "Yes, but then that worries me because - and this is going to sound completely contradictory - the fact that I would need a contract to go into a relationship also bothers me."
But why is he so sure that any marriage would fail? "I'm not. I'm erring on the side of caution. There's no need for me to get married. I live with someone; we're happy; end of story."
He once said that every marriage he knew was a disaster, but surely his parents were happily married? "Incredibly so. They were both on their second marriages and it was unbelievably happy to the point where the superstitious side of me goes, "I couldn't follow that." They were as happy as I've ever seen two people, mainly because they never stopped talking. From the second they woke up to the second they went to bed, yak yak yak, all day long - I used to call them the chipmunks."
Anyway he has no engagement plans - he says he and his girlfriend Terri Seymour are perfectly happy as they are. They spend quite a lot of time apart, because she is based in the US, where she works for the entertainment show Extra, but that's fine, he says, because he likes spending time on his own. But she is 34 - what happens if or when she wants children?
"I don't know. Look, we've had this conversation, she and I, and that is quite a private matter, but I think we both understand each other." (Incidentally, Grazia magazine got wildly excited the other day when he was seen holding hands with Dannii Minogue, and there were jokes about it on X Factor, but it looked like the purest publicity fluff to me.)
His current television contracts run till 2009, when he will be 50, but he thinks after that he might retire from the screen. He'd still like to produce shows, but not appear on them. I'm surprised because I thought he liked being a "face" on television but he's not so sure. "I quite like it. I mean, it's not a bad job! It's fun. But it's an incredibly tight schedule. I'm petrified right now of getting ill because everyone round me has got flu and if I get it I'll screw up all the filming. I also think there is a limit, when the public just goes: 'I'm bored with you now.' And I don't think that time is too far away."
I'm inclined to agree - this X Factor has been pretty boring. On the other hand, Cowell has been its sole redeeming feature. I'm still not sure why, but there's an edge to him, a glint of danger.
And incidentally I've discovered since I started doing this piece that loads of women have dreamed about Simon Cowell - he seems to be almost as dreamed-about as the Queen. Which I don't think you could say of Michael Winner, so perhaps they're not entirely alike after all.
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