A few years ago I witnessed Simon Cowell enjoying a cigarette outside a restaurant in Mayfair. He was relaxed, tanned and skilled with a lighter. My brain thought, "there's a short man who knows what he wants and how to gets it".
My brain was right. "X Factor" was massive in the UK that year. Massive beyond anything the BBC was pumping out. Bruce Forsyth on "Strictly Come Dancing" was basically a much-less-funny version of Bernie from "Weekend at Bernie's". The highlight of the "Strictly" season was a one-off special from Blackpool. Yes, Blackpool. "X Factor", meanwhile, could get the likes of Beyonce to do karaoke with the acts in the final. Yes, Beyonce. She ain't never heard of Blackpool.
We, as the audience, knew that Cowell was basically one of us. He had the same thoughts about the turgid dross being sung. The same low attention span. The same bewilderment at the antics of Louis Walsh and Dannii Minogue (more about her later). Simon knew that it was not about finding the next Mariah or Michael Jackson. It was about providing us, his mates, with a fun Saturday evening and a slightly better Christmas No. 1 to play in the car than Mr Blobby. Together we found a mutual equilibrium of bland tedium that left each of us warm and glowing. If one of us had needed to borrow the Phantom that weekend; Simon would have tossed over the keys with a grin and told us to 'look after her' and 'don't look in the glove-box'.
Fast-forward to 2012 and things are different. Very different. Twelve months ago, you see, Simon left us. He broke our hearts by leaving the UK "X Factor" and setting up shop in America. He didn't even bother to change the name of the show, such was his contempt for us. He told the world that he would only be happy with at least 20-million viewers. He smuggled Cheryl Cole over to LA in his suitcase and re-inflated her in front of Fox's head honchos. They told him to deflate her as quickly as possible and send her home. Cheryl's dreams were quite literally popped overnight. It turned out that Americans didn't massively get "X Factor USA". There is much talk of a total revamp and better judges (i.e. more expensive and crazy ones). Simon has told the world that he will do better. He had always intended to. He never fails because his mum wouldn't let him.
But what about the three-legged donkeys he left behind in Britain? "Britain's Got Talent" and "X Factor UK" saw new judges and fewer viewers. Cowell blames himself for taking his eye off the ball. Poor acts got through. Poor judges got through. Simon will do better. He had always intended to. He never fails because his mum won't let him. He's easing himself back behind judging desks in an effort to rescue his UK babies. Already, though, he is under the cosh. That fine circus of entertainment that is "Britain's Got Talent" is being soundly beaten a million times over by the likes of Jessie J, I.am.William, Sir Tom Jones and some bloke no-one's ever heard of. The BBC have come good in the battle to thrash Cowell. "The Voice" is a hit. A real hit. For how long? Well, until we get bored. But that should be long enough for Cowell to totally lose his footing on the mountain of light entertainment.
So what is he doing about it? Well, might seem kind of weird, but he's pretending to disapprove of an 'unauthorised' book about his life. So strong is his disapproval that he actually invited the book's author (some guy) on his yacht apparently. I read that in the Daily Mail, so it must be true. The Mail has been in total overdrive, bless them, about the sordid revelations of Cowell's sex life. An affair with Dannii Minogue? Surely not? One night stands with other women? Max Clifford was wheeled out yesterday to face the press on Simon's behalf. Did he deny these outrageous claims? Erm, no. He confirmed them.
As soon as Max Clifford appears on the scene, you know that a master tactician is at work. Is it possible that Simon and Max had a hand in all this, you ask? Well, that is not for me to say. Do all these revelations bestow a huge amount of publicity on a man who desperately needs a huge amount of publicity right now? Who knows? Rocket science is rather less complicated than all this. Quite how Sir Simon Cowell turns his year around in the face of strong competition from the BBC (and "Idol" in the States) is an interesting puzzle. I'm not suggesting that things will go so badly wrong that he's working at Tesco this time next year, polishing Joe McElderry CDs in the bargain bin by the checkouts. But he might find himself asking Max Clifford to get him on Dictionary Corner to help pay the bills. Only time will tell.