I’ll have more from my exclusive interview with Simon Cowell later tonight. But, for now, I can report that Cowell has told me all about how he’s been assembling his judge’s panel for his U.S. version of The X Factor which debuts this fall on Fox. “First of all, it’s like casting a dinner party. You’ve got to have people on the panel you get on well with.” But in my opinion this is sounding like the most boring dinner party ever and I wouldn’t bother staying tuned through dessert. Though recently he admitted that the process has shown publicly “complete and utter indecisiveness”, he made it clear to me he has finally decided on his judging panel.

Cowell tells me that in addition to himself and Antonio “L.A.” Reid, the chairman of Island Def Jam Music Group who resigned to join The X Factor panel on Fox (and about whom Simon said “was my No. 1 choice to sit alongside me on the show”), he has made up his mind to bring back Paula Abdul beside him and to add a Brit singer convicted of assault who’s unknown to American audiences, Cheryl Cole. Of course, Cowell was once an unknown here, too. I understand from Cowell that negotiations for Abdul’s deal haven’t even started and that Cole’s deal isn’t quite done yet. And of course, he could change his mind.

But an insider tells me about Cole that “she’s pretty much a shoo-in for for the show” and will be announced as a judge within less than a week. When I asked Simon about “this Cole woman” who began judging on the 5th season of Cowell’s British version of The X Factor which is now in its 8th season, he laughed at my description of her. I opined about how hard it is for UK personalities to click with U.S. audiences. Though she has her own widely imitated catchphrase there telling wannabe contestants they are “really, really luv-erly” in her incomprehensible Newcastle accent and has become a UK tabloid obsession, over here she’ll just be another nobody. (As Jennifer Lopez asked recently, “She is a singer, right?”)

But Cowell responded: “I never think about it as an American or British audience. I genuinely don’t. I think that’s what’s happened on a lot of these shows now is it’s almost like you’ve got to hire well known celebrities to be a judge. And with Cheryl, when I hired her initially, I’d only met her literally once when I offered her the job on [British] X Factor. I thought she was bright, cute, knew what she was talking about, ambitious. And you meet someone special a few times in your life.. And this girl is special. She’s just got a great ability to communicate. Shes a great judge. She’s smart. It’s just a hunch. If people take to her like the British public did, I think she’s going to do really well in America. And Fox was desperate to hire her.”

“Really?” I asked. “I heard there was pushback from Fox.”
“No, absolute opposite,” Cowell claimed. “Mike Darnell and Peter Rice will tell you they wanted her all the time, I showed a tape to Mike Darnell two years ago of a clip I’d shot in England of Cheryl and he said there and then, ‘I’d hire her now for Idol.’ They absolutely fell in love with her. In a way, the deal, it was almost conditional on Cheryl having the gig. They were desperate for her.”

“So,” I said, “wouldn’t it then be expected to have someone quote-unquote famous also on the panel besides you?”

“Yes. Very,” Simon replied. “I’ve always wanted Paula. Always been very vocal about that. I missed her the second she left the show. Always loved working with her even though she can be a pain. And I’ve been consistent about this. I don’t know what it is about her, but I’ve always clicked with her. You just have to get that chemistry, and she’s right. I’ve never found anyone better than her. I think there’s a good chance it will be her. We’ve agreed that we would meet as many people as possible, and now we’re reaching the deadline we’ve got to make the decision soon. But I think she’s got a really good shot.” 

But Cowell poo-poo’ed my suggestion that Abdul now may be too overexposed after serving as a judge on American Idol for 8 years and then departing amid a huge outcry from fans who wanted her to stay, and then moving on to headline another TV talent series as lead judge, CBS’s lame and derivative Live to Dance, which debuted in January 2011 only to be canceled after one season. Simon and Abdul are close friends and he made no secret on and off Idol that he didn’t want her to leave and that he disliked her successors, Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres.

Make no mistake: I admire Simon as a consummate showman who knew exactly how to manipulate both American audiences and media to make a huge splash across the pond from the UK where he already was a star. But it’s clear to me now that, after all the big names suggested as judges on the U.S. version of The X Factor — Diddy, Snoop, Cee Lo, Fergie, among many others — Cowell wants himself to be the only celebrated celebrity on his new show. It’s a seismic gamble, and I’m surprised that Fox honchos are letting him do it especially with all the major talent out there they could hire to pump up ratings for the freshman series with such a tired premise. I also think Cowell wants to keep as much of the show’s moolah for himself and his production banner Syco and not share the wealth. Cowell himself stepped away from being one of the weekly main judges on the British X Factor for its new fall season after he and the broadcaster wrangled for weeks over how Cowell could do both the UK and U.S. versions at the same time. The UK X Factor begins in August, while the U.S. Fox version starts in September. ITV even suggested providing a private jet to zoom Cowell back and forth. But Cowell said no. Then ITV suggested moving production of the Fox version of X Factor to New York instead of Los Angeles. Cowell also said no. Now ITV bosses are furious about how Cowell has treated the broadcaster that made him a star. “The feeling is that he’ll make so much from the U.S. show that he doesn’t care about the UK version at all anymore,” one insider recently told Deadline’s London Editor Tim Adler recently.

But will Cowell with this panel that’s more of a “ZZZZZZ Factor” than The X Factor

Cowell has been stung by the impression being left by many media outlets that celebrities are refusing his offers to be a judge. He told me, “I keep reading about all these people we’ve approached and have turned us down for the show. And I thought this would be as good a place as any to say who we’ve approached, what’s true, what’s not true, so it’s like more official.” For instance,

— I told Cowell I’d heard that he and/or his producers had early on approached Diddy but that the multi-hyphenate producer/singer/actor/etc would only do it if he owned part of The X Factor. “The last part was true. I’ve read an interview where he said if he was approached for X Factor, that’s what he’d want. But there was no way that would ever happen. Not only that, Nikki, but we don’t have that kind of budget to pay these kind of salaries. So we didn’t even approach him.” 

— About Snoop, Cowell told, “I’ve read that he’s turned us down. Honest to God, I’ve met him before, but I’ve never once spoken to him about the doing the show.”

— About Cee Lo, who is currently one of the judges and mentors for contestants on NBC’s upcoming singing TV show The Voice, Cowell told me, “I met him and his manager for 30 minutes. He told me he was doing The Voice. I said maybe we should set up a meeting with your producers. And then I started thinking about that afterwards and decided it’s sort of pointless doing that since he’s going to be committed to that show. And I already knew at that point that L.A. Reid was pretty much a done deal. So I just didn’t follow it up. But, again, we never offered him the show, and he didn’t meet our producers, and he certainly didn’t call me to say he turned us down.

— About Jennifer Lopez, now one of the main judges on American Idol, Cowell offered a similar explanation: that he’d talked to her but when she told him she was also talking to American Idol, he withdrew consideration of her immediately — and never offered her the job.

— About Gloria Estefan, Cowell reiterated that the singer just unexpectedly “turned up” in early April at the X Factor Miami auditions but that there were no discussions with her about the judge’s job.

— About Mariah Carey, Cowell admitted he’d “love” to have her but that it was clear she won’t be available for some time and will be focusing on her personal life because of the imminent birth of her twins.

As for Cole, a few weeks ago both Reid and Cowell let slip that she would definitely be a U.S. judge, though they later retracted their statements. Surely none of the contestants auditioning for The X Factor producers in LA (over 18,000), Miami (12,000), NY (20,000), Seattle (over 5000) and in audition booths placed in various regional markets for those who can’t make it to the audition cities, have a clue about Cole. She first became famous after winning Popstars the Rivals, a TV forerunner to The X Factor. Then called Cheryl Tweedy, her first single with her girl group Girls Aloud went to No. 1. What set Girls Aloud apart from other robotic R&B girl bands was their 1960s sound masterminded by Cowell’s music producer Brian Higgins. Cheryl married soccer star Ashley Cole in 2006 and seemed set to be the next celebrity footballer’s wife after Victoria Beckham. Now known as Cheryl Cole, her solo career took off after she teamed up with will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, who exec produced her smash hit Fight For This Love.

But the working class-rooted Cole also has a rough history: she punched a washroom attendant in the face after they got into a fight. Cheryl was convicted of assault and ordered to do community service. In fact, Cole’s criminal record was a worry because the U.S. authorities usually refuse entry visas to those with a criminal past. This would have derailed Cole’s U.S. X Factor chances. At first villified, Cole saw the pendulum of public opinion swing back after her husband’s adultery was exposed by the British tabloid press. Cole is a special obsession of the News of the World owned by Rupert Murdoch who also owns Fox where Cole will appear.