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.
EW: Ellen, you are the first Idol judge with no experience in the music industry, which some people have complained makes you unqualified. Do you think it matters?
DeGeneres It’s not like I’m not a huge fan of music. That accounts for something. I’ve also been on stage, alone, trying to entertain an audience. I started in stand-up for 15 years. I know how important it is to reach that audience. So I can put myself in their position. It’s not necessarily singing, but it’s keeping an audience captivated.
Cowell The only people who matter in the judging process are the public. We could hire four incredible vocal coaches tomorrow, who know more about music than I’ll ever know in a lifetime, and it will be the most boring show in the world. It’s more than a scientific ability; it is your star power that is vital. Ellen has got a good instinct for people, and that is absolutely crucial.
EW: Ellen, last year you served as a judge on an episode of So You Think You Can Dance — although it seemed like you were going more for comedy than for criticism.
DeGeneres I just wanted to go see the show, and suddenly I was asked if I want to be a judge. And I’m like, ”Well, those are better seats — I’ll be a judge.” I just thought it would be interesting, and then I thought, ”Oh, I have to actually critique them.” I don’t know anything about dance, so I just really did focus on making it funny. But it’s a totally different thing [from] singing. And I will be funny [on Idol] — if something’s obnoxious or stupid and there’s a joke to be made, that’s what I do first and foremost. But I’ll have more to say about a singer — with singing, it’ll be funny, but there will also be true, honest critiquing.
EW: Okay, now let’s get to the serious stuff. What’s going to be the seating order at the judges’ table?
DeGeneres I think I’m on Simon’s lap. Am I on your lap?
Cowell You can sit on my lap.
EW: Has it been decided yet?
Cowell I think I’ll be sitting by Ellen, of course. I’m not going to sit by Randy. Randy has the pimp spot. I think it’ll be Randy, Kara, and then me and Ellen in whatever order.
EW: So, Simon, you might not be on the end?
Cowell You never know. Although I do get a bit claustrophobic in the middle. I don’t like, even at dinner parties, sitting between people. I always sit on the edge.
EW: Are there any new theme nights you’d like to see?
Cowell I’d like something with a bit more emotion. Something like Why I Hate You So Much. Literally. Rather than love songs. Something that gets a little bit deeper, maybe.
DeGeneres It’s Alanis Morissette Week!
EW: Ellen, you’ve signed a five-year contract — and rumors persist that Simon will leave Idol after his contract is up in 2010. How do you feel about the prospect of being a judge without him?
DeGeneres If Simon goes, I go!
Cowell [Laughs] Oh, Ellen!
DeGeneres I will not be there without Simon.
Cowell That’s quite a tricky situation you’ve put me into! I think right now we have to concentrate on the next season and just get through that and worry about everything else afterwards.
DeGeneres I’ll be like a monkey on his back wrapped around his neck: You will not go!
EW: Ellen, in the past Simon and Ryan have been criticized for their gay-themed banter. Are you going to police this?
DeGeneres Simon, I guess this is as good a time as any to tell you — I’m gay.
Cowell Are you serious? No one told me that. Let me tell you something: We are the least racist, homophobic show in the world. What we do have, thank God, is a sense of humor. I hate political correctness. I wouldn’t go into any show saying anything is off-limits. If we have to abide by a ton of rules, we might as well call it a day now.
EW: Is that cool with you, Ellen?
DeGeneres Well, I don’t go by that rule, where there’s no political correctness at all. If we lived in a world where there was no such thing as racism or homophobia, then obviously there would be no off-limits. Unfortunately, there are people in this world that don’t like other people, and that was one of the issues that was brought up about Adam Lambert. So I’m sensitive to it just because I’ve experienced that kind of discrimination. At the same time, the stuff that Simon and Ryan do — none of that has ever been offensive to me. I’m more offended by people who make jokes about something sounding like an animal that’s been caught in a lawn mower or whatever. Because there are sick people out there that would go, ”What’s that sound like?”
Cowell Ah, you could be right. Well, we both love animals, don’t we?
EW: Simon, you did compare one singer last season to ”cats jumping off the Empire State Building.”
DeGeneres No, that would be bad too.
Cowell I said it, Ellen, and I promise you, no one is going to throw a cat off the Empire State Building. And I’ll take full responsibility for it if they do.
DeGeneres Then it’s too late, Simon.
EW: Ellen, you’re known for your infectious dancing, whereas Simon always sits motionless in his chair. Will you be able to get him to dance during performances this season?
Cowell You tried to get me to dance on your show once. I was too embarrassed.
DeGeneres I like a challenge.
Cowell Guys over the age of 40, they just can’t. I’m going to end up like Dad at a wedding. It horrifies me.
DeGeneres Why don’t you take some lessons from a choreographer from So You Think You Can Dance and surprise people? That would be great.
Cowell Oh, Ellen, just the thought is making my blood turn cold. Seriously, I’m quite shy.
DeGeneres I’ll talk him into it. He’ll dance.