It’s been four months since Ellen DeGeneres signed on as the newest American Idol judge, but she and Simon Cowell haven’t had many opportunities to bond. For one thing, Cowell’s been in London shooting the sixth season of one of his other televised talent shows, The X Factor. Plus, ”there’s a 100-yard restraining order,” explains DeGeneres, who lives in Los Angeles, where she tapes The Ellen DeGeneres Show. ”I put it in my contract. Even when we do see each other, he can’t look me directly in the eye. It’s ‘Miss Ellen’ to you, Simon.”
Looks like Cowell may have finally met his match. After the departure of original panelist Paula Abdul, adding DeGeneres to the table alongside fellow judges Cowell, Randy Jackson, and Kara DioGuardi could be just what Idol needs to top last year’s attention-grabbing season. Fox’s megahit is set to return Jan. 12 at 8 p.m., and producers are excited about the first round of auditions that were completed before DeGeneres came aboard. ”What we’re seeing this year is a lot of kids coming to the show with great emotional backgrounds,” says executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz. ”Kids who are not semipros who have had failed record deals, but who live in the middle of Tennessee and have never been on a plane.” They’ve also decided to revert to 24 semifinalists instead of last year’s unwieldy 36, to help the audience connect more with the contestants. While all related parties declined to comment on the declaration made by Tony Cowell last month that his famously irascible brother would leave Idol after his contract expires in 2010, the newest judge has some thoughts on Simon’s future. (More on that in a minute.) EW arranged the first interview between DeGeneres, 51, and Cowell, 50, and quizzed the duo on how her hiring came about, whether Ellen plans to tolerate Simon and Ryan Seacrest’s gay jokes, and if the happy-go-lucky comedian can actually make the cranky Brit get up and…dance?
EW: Ellen, how did you first hear the show was interested in having you as a judge?
Ellen DeGeneres My manager and agent called and said, ”There’s interest. Is there interest on your side?” And I said, ”Yeah!” I’m a huge fan of the show, but I didn’t think for a second, ”Oh, Paula’s gone; now I’ll do this.” It didn’t even occur to me. I was really surprised it didn’t get out, because we talked about it for a while.
EW: Simon, were you and the other judges part of the hiring process at all?
Simon Cowell I’ve never really had that much part in the casting. Because we haven’t had much casting, to be honest with you. I think they probably called us all pretty much at the same time, to make sure there weren’t going to be any issues. And obviously there weren’t going to be — everyone was very excited.
DeGeneres I think they called Clay Aiken first, then Simon.
EW: Your first appearance on the show will be during Hollywood Week, which begins airing Feb. 9, correct?
DeGeneres I was going to wait until the live shows, but I thought it was better for me to know who these people are before we get to the live shows. So I’ve been looking at all the tapes, and I’m aware of who made it to Hollywood Week, and I will be part of that.
Cowell In fact, Ellen actually knows more about the contestants than I do. Because I forget everybody within about a week of doing the auditions. So I’m going to be asking her who’s any good.
EW: Ellen, being on Idol should also be a boon to your talk show, since you’ll have each kicked-off contestant as a guest and can give some behind-the-scenes scoop. Is there anything that will be off-limits?
DeGeneres I think anything that will hurt Idol in any way. I don’t want to give anything away. And if someone’s a real jerk, I’m not going to expose them. I may change my mind if they really are a jerk.
Cowell It’s bloody tempting, though, right?
DeGeneres Yeah, it would be.
Cowell They’re very media savvy with us now, these contestants. You never really get to know much about them because they’re aware of themselves and they’re always nice to you. It’s only afterwards that it all changes.
DeGeneres But when you give your feedback, Simon, and somebody talks back to you, that’s one thing that I just don’t think I would tolerate. It’s unbelievable that people don’t have any respect. They go on a show, they know they’re going to be judged, that’s what the entire show is about, and yet they tell you you’re wrong. It’s just rude and disrespectful and not okay. So that’s not going to happen on my dime.
EW: Many Idol fans really had the knives out when Kara DioGuardi joined the judges’ panel last year. Are you scared that there will be negativity directed at you, Ellen?
DeGeneres Yeah, sure. And I understand it. I was one of those people that was skeptical, like, ”Why are they adding a fourth judge? I don’t understand this.” But I do think that Kara adds a lot to the show now. And also, it’s not just a new judge: It’s a new judge in the place of someone that they loved. I mean, a lot of people loved Paula, and I don’t want to be the person that took Paula’s job away from her. Which I wasn’t. I’m not going to be able to please everyone. I gave up trying to do that a long time ago.
Cowell Join the club.
DeGeneres I am who I am. People either like me or they don’t like me, and it’s got nothing to do with if I’m a new judge on Idol.
Cowell I also think the day people stop screaming at the TV set disagreeing with us, it’s over. If we’re all on the same page, it’d be the most boring thing in the world.
DeGeneres The difference is, Simon really is, in my opinion, mean to people sometimes. So I think I’ll be hard, but if he’s rude, I’m going to let him know he’s rude.
Cowell And I may disagree with you. You are at your most comfortable when you can argue with somebody. If everything is ”After you,” ”No, after you,” that’s uncomfortable.
EW: What do you say to the Paula fans who don’t know if they want to watch the show without her?
DeGeneres It’s not like someone came to me and said, ”Hey, we think Paula’s going to leave; will you take this?” I never would have done that. I wish her the best. There’s plenty of space for everybody in this town. I hope nobody is angry that she chose to leave and I happen to be in the same place that she used to be.