Do you have what it takes to entertain millions of Americans? If so, Simon Cowell and Mel B. want to see it.
Cowell, famous for his snarky, no-nonsense approach to judging musical hopefuls on "American Idol," and fellow British television personality Mel B. (aka Scary Spice herself), are now both judges on NBC's top-rated reality series "America’s Got Talent." There, they're meeting (and judging) various performers competing for the chance to capture the imaginations of audiences everywhere — along with a $1 million prize.
And while impressing these judges is sometimes as simple as possessing powerful pipes, double-jointed dance moves, or the ability to performa a striptease at the tender age of 90, this duo insists that picking out the next sensation is a lot more complex.
The twosome recently gave a telephone conference in order to give us a peek at what judging talent is really like, and whether Cowell has softened up over the years.
It seems difficult to compare different types of acts. What's your criteria?
Simon Cowell: It's a good question. I'll tell you what happens. I mean, like you said, there is no way any judge in the world can be an expert on everything. And we're judging everything from dogs to jugglers to singers. And sometimes — actually not sometimes — a lot of the times, you have to put it down to: Do you want to see that act again? And do you think that they can improve? And how are you feeling in that moment? Because I do look back on the show, with the people we do put through … I mean, there's no logic to it! But I think that's what makes this show fun. There are no rules and there's no scoring system you could possibly use when you're judging some of these crazy acts.
Mel B: Do you want me to add onto that?
Simon Cowell: What do you think, Mel? Yes!
Mel B: I mean, I basically judge on if I'm entertained or not, no matter what their act is — whether it's a danger act, a singer, or something that's just really abstract that I've never seen before. If I'm entertained [or] I say to myself, ‘Oh my God, I would pay to go watch that show in Vegas,’ then I'm going to vote yes all day long.
Do the judges know anything about the performers before they come out?
Simon Cowell: Nothing. I mean …
Mel B: It's a surprise.
Simon Cowell: I ask for them to tell us absolutely zero about anybody. And look, sometimes [the producers] might say, 'There's something so sensitive [about this performer], don't go there.' But that's really, really rare. Our job, funny enough … is to find out what we can, and [find out] what they want to tell us — and not knowing makes it much more fun and interesting for us and the audience sitting behind us, I think. But then of course, the audience at home gets to know everything that we don't know.
Mel B: I am a very, very nosy person. So I like to find out a bunch of stuff before they act. And I think the audience appreciates that, because we're seeing it just like they are for the very first time. And I think that comes across.
Are there any indicators you look for when evaluating the long-term success of an act?
Mel B: I mean, I don't [have any] because I like to just react to what I'm seeing there and then. You know, Heidi [Klum] sometimes says, ‘But what are you going to do next?’ And to me, I don't care what they're going to do next. All I know is I'm in that moment, and I'm thoroughly entertained. And sometimes I think to myself that it's better left unsaid, and it's better not to even ask. So it is more of a surprise the second time round, because sometimes, even though they seem like a one-hit wonder, they can pull some stuff out of the bag the next time you see them.
Simon Cowell: Yes. I mean I agree actually with what Mel said. I think in this day and age it's almost impossible to predict that kind of stuff because so many factors have to happen after the show. If you look at One Direction or Susan Boyle, I mean, I don't think any of us could have possibly predicted what was going to happen next. And a lot of times … it comes down to the act. It's got to be in them that they are going to push and fight for a successful career afterwards. And some people do it and some people don't. And sometimes, when we're sitting doing the audition — with Grace [VanderWaal] as an example, this is the little girl who played the ukulele — she had this massive response on the show. Genuinely, on the day I thought she was good. I didn't think she'd get that response.
Cowell (Cont'd): It really took me by surprise. I mean I was happy for her. But the same thing with Tape Face. I mean, I thought 'Yes, that was funny.' And then he gets like 30, 40 million hits on YouTube or something. You just can't predict (things) anymore.
Mel B: He went viral big time.
Simon Cowell: Yes. Which is good. I like that.
Why is the show so much better this year?
Mel B: I mean, I love Simon. And yes, I'm here on the phone and I will say — you heard it from me — I love working with Simon. And with Simon, you don't know what to expect … He's a very loveable guy, by the way. I'm just happy that he's on this panel. I think he adds so much. And I know from what people are telling me — like the public and my friends and just in general — people are warming to Simon so much. And I don't think they expected him to be like this. I mean, I expected him to be like this because I know Simon. But I really think his addition has taken it to a whole new level. And Simon, don't get a big head and start repeating this. OK?
Simon Cowell: I do love you, Mel. And actually, you know what really makes a difference … are the acts, actually. The show is all about the acts. And I think what's happened is that we've been able to attract better music acts, which you do need in a mix on a show like this. And also it has to be fun, this show. If you ever get too serious, particularly in this day and age with so much bad news on the news and everything, gosh, you gotta have escapism. And you've got to have a show where most things end up well and they're fun. And that's why I think the show has worked so well this year. And it is a great panel, I have to tell you.
What do the singers in particular, do to differentiate themselves and stand out?
Mel B: Well, I think it's all about being really clever with your song choices. Because if you're going to choose a popular song, which will always go down well, you have to put your own twist on it. So I think they've got to really do their research and put their own stamp [on it], especially if you're a singer. But when I look at the show as a whole, you have everything there. You know, we've got a 90-year-old stripper. We've got a footballer that does magic. We've got so many different genres of acts that are really good and really entertaining. And, you know, the singing performances and acts that have gone through are really, really good too. And I think what's been great this season so far is everybody's backstory — like they really are hungry for this. They're not just doing it because they're talented and somebody told them to do it. They're actually on this show to really, really win and be a serious competitor. And that like raises up the stakes and raises up the ante, especially with live shows, because with live shows anything can happen.
Simon Cowell: Very good darling. I like the fact that you started with the 90-year-old stripper.
Mel B: What other show do you get to see that on, but next to a singer?
Simon Cowell: Not many. But they're always welcome … It's been a learning curve for me — a big learning curve, because I think the old rules are starting to go. When we first started these shows there was a kind of a formula for what people should or shouldn't do. And I think now it's all about showing people who you are. And if you've got the confidence in who you are, you stick with it … It's important that everyone's got the confidence now to say, 'This is who I am, I'm proud of it.'
Simon, do you think you've changed as a judge?
Simon Cowell: I mean —
Mel B: Oh, let me tell you!
Simon Cowell: I think I was edited badly years ago, is the honest truth. And I haven't always been rude. I mean, maybe at times I get a little bit frustrated. But I actually like most of the acts, but you just never saw that before, I don't think.
But bad editing?
Simon Cowell: Well, I wouldn't say bad. I'd call it selective.