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Simon Cowell on One Direction’s Secret History

In a never-before-published 2012 interview, Simon Cowell looked back at the birth of One Direction

Simon Cowell with One Direction (from left: Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, and Niall Horan) at a press conference for 'The X Factor' in London

Yui Mok/PA Wire/AP

For a few moments back in 2010, Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, and Louis Tomlinson were failed talent-show contestants. But the U.K.’s The X Factor couldn’t let them go, and they instantly re-entered the competition as a group, which turned out to be a pretty smart idea, even if One Direction didn’t actually win (a singer-songwriter named Matt Cardle somehow beat them). For a potential 2012 Rolling Stone cover story on One Direction that never ran, Simon Cowell — a judge on The X Factor, as well as the show’s creator, and the head of 1D’s U.K. label, Syco Records — looked back on the group’s genesis. The interview is published here for the first time (we’ve also posted our 2012 conversation with Styles and Horan).

Just to go back to the very beginning: These are all talented guys. But someone as charismatic and talented as Harry alone, how did he not get through as a solo act?
It’s a good question. He did a great first audition, and then we have a second stage of the competition where we have to narrow the numbers down to 32 from, say, 200, and for whatever reason, all five of them screwed up a section of that particular part of the competition. With him, I think we put it down to his age, etc., and that’s why he didn’t go though, but, at the same time, as we said no to them, there was a part of me going, “We can’t lose them, we gotta do something with them.”

Was it, in fact, Nicole Scherzinger who had the idea of putting them together?
No, it was my idea. [Scherzinger has said that she came up with it.]

It was her who suggested it on the show …
Well, we’ll find the tapes; it was definitely me. I may have asked her to say it, but it was definitely my idea. Yes, I’m sure we got it on tape somewhere where I actually say, “You should say it.”

So what did you see in these five people?
A combination of everything: some particular people who I didn’t want to lose — Harry being one of them; the fact that the groups that year were actually pretty bad; there was actually a gap in the market for a group like them at that particular moment; and then doing what I always do since I’ve run a record label — you have to rely on your gut instinct sometimes to make this decision. And I’ve done this many times and had a lot of success putting groups together. When the five of them walked out onstage I had to make the decision: “Do I bring four back? Do I bring five back?” And it literally took me 15 minutes to get it sorted.

It’s interesting that they didn’t actually win.
Yeah. It was a bummer because I actually thought they were gonna win, because every time that they appeared on the show the energy level was incredible — you could feel them getting more popular. But on The X Factor in the U.K., there’s an awful lot of women over the age of 30 who vote, and in that particular year they voted for who they liked. But it didn’t make any difference because I was gonna sign them anyway.

Even when I look back at American Idol, you’ve always kept teen heartthrobs in the mix even when some older people didn’t like them as much.
Yeah. Like I said, because I’ve done this for so many years, certain times a group like that may not work, but this particular year it felt like the right thing to do, and we were just lucky that we had these five guys, all with different strengths. I didn’t realize at the time quite how different they all were and what role they would play. What was interesting was that they had about a six-week gap from when we said to them that particular night, “OK, you’re in a group …” They had another stage of the competition they had to come along to next, so they had to get to know each other, and they had to work on a couple of songs, and they had about six weeks to do it. And they came back six weeks later, and you would’ve thought they had been in a band for a year or two by that point; the chemistry was incredible.

That was when they went to your house and sang for you?
Yeah. But they were really, really good and there was absolutely no doubt in my mind at that point that they were gonna be chosen.

And, honestly, at that point could you see a glimmer of all that’s happened since, or was that beyond your wildest prediction?
I’m always optimistic when you’ve got something good. A lot of times when we’ve had something good from the U.K., I’ve seen it spread all over the world. I didn’t have some sort of master plan, I just thought, “We got something brilliant here and we gotta look after these guys, because they could be huge.”

How do you strike a balance between giving them full creative control versus guiding them?
That’s a good question. When you make these kinds of decisions it’s who the individuals are, and it was quite interesting, because when I was working with them on the show and we were choosing songs on a week-by-week basis and discussing certain things, I always enjoyed talking to them and discussing things with them. I thought they were very switched on, and I thought they had good taste and a good understanding of the market. So when we came to make the record, we never forced them to do anything they didn’t want. When we were recording a song they didn’t like, we would drop it immediately. So we had a lot of respect for each other. They would listen to us, I would listen to them. But we were always pretty much on the same page. I can’t remember one particular moment where we fell out; we always seem to agree on the same things.

It seems that there’s an element of long-term thinking there on your part.
Yeah. I mean, they are special. Normally, we touched on that, most of these relationships go wrong if the group does feel they’re not being respected, or treated like puppets. Or the other alternative is that you get a group in that are very strong-minded and make dreadful decisions — I’ve seen this happen so many times. But we don’t have that relationship. There’s not a barrier between the management and us, the record label — it’s like a tripartite agreement. We all work together and we want what’s right for the group.

How do you keep this from just being a one-year phenomenon? How do you keep it from burning itself out?
I’ve always believed that you’ve got to make great records, and you’ve got to make better records than the competition, and you’ve got to make a better album than the album that you’ve just put out, because the music is always the driving force behind all of this. And don’t compromise the band, respect the band. We’re in an age now where you can break the rules that were set down previously in the record business. I mean, this band were broken, not by a record label, but by fan power, and that’s what broke them in America, so the rules are already changing. You treat them like human beings, you don’t overwork them, you make it enjoyable for them, you try to teach them how the business works, and, this is the most important point, you got to have killer songs. When you listen to Monkees records today, they are brilliant, brilliant songs, and the same applies to ‘NSync — they had some of the best writers in the world writing for them.

Do you remember when you first heard “What Makes You Beautiful”?
Yeah. It came in and it was always supposed to be one of the first singles. It’s one of those songs that the first time you hear it, it’s a good record, second time you hear it, it’s a great record, and then the third time you hear it, it’s a fantastic record. And it was a unanimous decision that it was gonna be the first single. It’s just a fantastically good pop record, and it typified what the group were all about; it’s quirky, it’s fun, and we couldn’t have wished for a better first record.

There seems to be much less of a focus of trying to project some kind of supersqueaky-clean image of them than with past boy bands.
Well, times change. When I met them, I said, “Look, within reason, you’ve got to have a great time.” I’m not a believer in these ghastly Svengali figures deciding what guys at this age can do and what they can’t do; I think I’m pretty levelheaded. If things get slightly out of control, I’m always there, or the management, to go, “You may have a crossed a line here.” And they’re decent guys, but they also want to have fun. If I were their age in this group, I’d want to have a good time. I think if you start making it boring, that you can’t do this and you can’t do that, you’re lying to the fans, it doesn’t work. They’re all good-looking guys and they all like girls — of course it’s gonna happen. And it would be insane of me to try to put these rules up. And even if I did, they’d break them — and quite rightly so.

The degree of U.K. tabloid interest in their personal lives has been quite extraordinary.
Yeah. That was an indication that this group had something extra, because there are a lot of groups around over the last few years and, genuinely, I couldn’t spot one of them in a lineup, it’s just so anonymous. But these guys all have very distinct personalities and that’s why we put them in the group in the first place; they weren’t there to make up the numbers, they were all there for a specific reason.

Let’s talk about the individual members. What struck you about Zayn?
I have an interesting relationship with him, because during the second phase of the competition, there was one element where they had to work with a dance instructor, and he was too embarrassed to do it. He’d walked off the stage and effectively walked off the competition, and I found him in the back of the theater sitting on his own, and I said to him, “You just have to do this.” And he said, “I can’t, I’m embarrassed.” And I said, “You gotta just deal with this. It’s not the end of the world, and if you can deal with this, you can deal with anything. But if you walk away you’re gonna potentially miss out on something.” I didn’t realize at that point that he was gonna end up in One Direction, I just felt for him as a kid. He never knew how good he was, he had a real confidence issue. We got really lucky, because every one of these guys does play an important role.

What do you remember about your initial reaction to Harry?
I can remember everything about his first audition: What he said, what he was saying he did for a job. I liked him instantly, and I thought, “This kid’s got everything: he’s really confident, he’s got unbelievable charisma, and he’s a good singer.” He wasn’t a great singer on his first audition, but he was a good singer and everyone gravitated towards him. He was exactly what you’re looking for when you make one of these shows: memorable and a natural frontman.

What do you see in Louis?
He’s got great taste. Always dressed well, always knew what the right fashion was, loves music, always aware of trends. And it’s crucial that you have somebody with great taste in a band like this. Crucial.

How about Niall?
I just really liked him from the very first time he auditioned for us; he’s a really sweet kid. He loves the whole business. When he wasn’t performing on the show, he would be backstage watching the other contestants; he just loved the whole process he was going through, and he lights up the room.

And Liam?
Well, I’d auditioned him before on The X Factor, when he was 14, and he didn’t make it. Funnily enough, he didn’t have much support from the other judges, but I’d always backed him. And then he didn’t quite make it because he was too young the first time. And then when he came back the second time, I was really proud of him because he really made an effort and he wanted to prove a point — and he was good when he came back and did his audition. And then I was gutted during the phase I described earlier on, when he just fell apart on this particular song. But I always knew that with confidence he would be a valuable member of this band, so I had no hesitation in bringing him back.

It’s kind of amazing that they’re booked well into 2013. Is that at all risky? I’ve never seen arena shows sold quite so far ahead.
It’s just the demand. We could do a lot more than that. Everybody wants a part of them now. This is what they want to do. They’re gonna make another record, they’re probably gonna make a movie, and these are all things they want to do. Like I said earlier on, it’s their decision as much as ours. What they are, they are hard workers, and they’ve got to put on a show now — and they will.