Mr. Cowell eases back into action with a grey sweater and a $5 million twinkle in his eye

By Annie Barrett
Updated September 22, 2011 at 06:06 AM EDT
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The X Factor

S1 E1
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The U.S. version of The X Factor is finally here! So proclaimed its fantastic-looking British host and underwear model Steve Jones, who introduced the show while riding shotgun in an enormous trailer truck. Don’t worry, grunted this tremendous rig as it chugged across America. He’s not that foreign. But then Stevie None-der had to plant himself in front of palm trees and announce that he was in “Los Ange-leeeeees” and totally ruin it.

This isn’t American Idol — auditions take place in arenas, in front of thousands — but for the next few weeks of audition episodes, you know the drill: delusional beasts mingling with real talent in “a sea of humanity” featuring tears, anger, and lots and lots of montages. Hopefully no more nudity. But if they must: Seriously, find someone better.

I’m disappointed we won’t get to see any more of Cheryl Cole, whom Simon sacked after the first round of auditions because she seemed “bewildered.” Whatever, Simon. I thought Cheryl was a marvel in Los Angelees. I got chills when her hair suddenly developed even more volume during Terrell Carter‘s tryout — plus, she doesn’t speak in a baby voice and it wasn’t her birthday. That’s three huge pluses for Cheryl over her eventual replacement Nicole Scherzinger right there. Cheryl even played it safe with her initial comments to Prince’s nothin’-but-net little sister Siameze Floyd. “Do I absolutely love this and think it’s genius, or is this kind of weird?” she stalled. “I don’t really know what the answer is.” Nice try. The answer is you’re fired. Of course Siameze Floyd should get through to boot camp. This is a singing competition, and that wacko can execute at least 40 types of splits. God, Cheryl, get in the game!

We certainly saw our fair share of “joke” auditions during the premiere. There were elderly Nevadians Dan and Vanita, who will continue to “have a feisty life” (L.A. Reid!) with or without The X Factor‘s gristly five-dollar hot dogs. Your crazy old French teacher Jessa — I mean Linda Ostrofsky — disturbingly reminded you it’s never too late to touch yourself. Or too early. Good morning. Later on, a shiny-suited creeper named Geo Godley sang an original tune while disrobing, lending a new and possibly grotesque meaning to the lyric, “Some are stuck up, others are not.” Whatever was under that big red ‘X’ caused Paula to scamper away and fake-hurl, but she soon came back and bravely drank a small bottle of water with two hands.

NEXT: Six promising acts make it through to boot camp Rachel Crow, 13, kicked off the show on a feel-good note by “bay-gen” Simon and the rest of ’em for mercy in her Duffy cover. Right away I thought her two first long notes went kind of flat, but at least her voice was…powerful? I can see why this kid might be exciting. Rachel’s personality and back story (“So…my family has, like no money.”) might take her farther than her voice. And she’s 13! “We’ve spent a long time, deliberating how low we took the age. You are the reason we were right,” said Simon, taking care to keep the focus on his own achievement as usual. Just like on Idol, I loved watching the families watch their desperate hopefuls backstage, this time in the company of a lanky Seacrest decoy. It’s impossible to not at least consider crying at that crucial point when mom’s face twitches and suddenly it’s THE MOMENT EVERYTHING IS CHANGING for the entire family. Granny was about to pop out of her pink polo in anticipation.

USC student Simone Battle, 21, is getting into the self-proclaimed “pop idol” business for the right reasons: “I want millions of screaming fans who ask me to sign their baby.” This intent bathroom-poser characterized herself as a rare breed of “a cheerleader, a hipster, and a drag queen,” but all of those sound too superlative to me. She’s an energetic girl who looks good in hot pants. I cheered when L.A. Reid brought everyone back down to earth with a curt “completely disagree,” but then Simon (who probably just liked that her name contains his) condescendingly reminded L.A. that it’s not about who these street urchins are today; it’s about what they can be molded into by their coaches tomorrow. “I understand. I just don’t believe it,” L.A. shot back. Yes! Fight!

Cue a Simon vs. L.A. “Eye of the Tiger” montage filled with the two alpha males arguing about what makes good music, at the end of which Simon dramatically slurped from his giant promotional cup to let us know this score had been settled once and for all. For where there’s Pepsi, there’s music. THE X FACTOR!

NEXT: “I don’t wanna die with this music in me, Simon.” Gag? Stacy Francis, a 42-year-old single mom, has felt old and untalented — mostly due to a horrible ex — for the last 12 years. Aw, thanks, Stacy. I’m 30 right now. The future looks brighter than ever. Anyway, Stacy belted out Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)” just like she does in her bathroom after the kids’ bedtime, and the judges went nuts. Simon gave her 4,304 yeses. Paula pounded the table! L.A., suddenly a team player, finally convinced his stubborn arm hair to rise up in recognition of a stirring TV moment. It really was. Cheryl Cole called it: “The whole room was willing you to win and you just won.” Later Cheryl. Don’t get me wrong — I like Stacy and I loved the way her mascara, sick of its host hogging the spotlight, went ahead and developed its own storyline. She gives great emotion; I’m just not totally convinced about her voice.

Marcus Canty, 20, got Paula and Nicole on their feet with his daring rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish.” Performance-wise, he’s very comfortable up there, dancing around and making eye contact with the riff raff. He felt so at home, in fact, that he made everyone wait around while he fell to the floor post-song and snuggled with the X Factor stage until Paula of all people roused him from near-unconsciousness with a snappy “Marcus. Sweetheart. Woop!” That’ll getcha going. L.A. Reid likened Marcus to Bobby Brown, whom he’d worked with in the ’80s, and Simon compared him to Usher. “My idol! My idol!” squeaked Marcus. Hush now, dear, sweet, powder blue-hooded boy. Don’t you say that nasty, nasty word.

Congratulations to Marcus for prompting the….

Best Seated Dance Move of the Night

This is L.A. Reid, excited.

Good thing Marcus made it through — his two-year window to succeed at singing is closing fast. Ugh, I get so annoyed when 20-year-olds act like anything is their “last chance.” Hey Marcus, my ultimate life goal is to build a 70,000-layer tiramisu mountain and then go live on it. But instead, I’m working. Doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

NEXT: Simon’s gonna try to make boy bands happenBoy band The Anser, who are already on my bad side for spelling it that way, sang a cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” with a bit of Britney Spears’ “Till the World Ends” cleverly mixed in. If their happy birthday “harmony” for stupid Nicole Scherzinger hadn’t been so god-awful, I might have liked this number a lot more. I honestly thought they were just okay. (Miss you, Randy!) I noticed that Simon waited until nearly the last note before twitching out one of his obligatory half-smiles. (Missed you, Simon.)

Speaking of groups, I had high hopes for The Sonnets — a group of girls who apparently suffered a debilitating obsession with Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” during a cold and lonely winter quarter back in the dorms — for about a second. They were indeed terrible.

I was a fan of Chris Rene, 28, as soon as he used the word “overture” in “Young Homie,” a rap he wrote himself that could easily be on the radio. L.A. Reid accompanied the song with what looks to be his second signature seated dance move of the season — head shifting back and forth while facial expression remains entirely serious. Another winner! “You are the truth,” L.A. insisted to Chris. You can already tell this guy will be a main character of the season. He’s got it all: In addition to having an adorable toddler son and being a trash collector, Chris is a drug and alcohol addict who’s only been 70 days sober. Yikes. Are we sure this is wise? What happens as soon as Chris gets cut from main character-dom? I worry that a crazy competition like this might not be the most stable environment for someone trying to get his life back together. But it’s possible I’m just overreacting because reality TV drives me to drink all the time.

What did you think of last night’s premiere? Are you as enamored by L.A. Reid as I am?

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The X Factor

Simon Cowell, Demi Lovato, Kelly Rowland, and Paulina Rubio judge Season 3.
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