He’s been judging televised talent competitions for more than a decade, but Cowell, who turns 54 on Oct. 7, is still coming up with ways to tell people they can’t sing. Even with the third season of the U.S. version of The X Factor under way and a much-buzzed-about baby due soon, he found a moment to talk with TIME.
TIME: I saw on Twitter that you were recently on a plane deciding between watching a Batman movie and Seabiscuit. Which did you pick?
Cowell: Seabiscuit. I’ve probably seen the movie about three times so I didn’t get all the way through it, but I love that movie.
You must spend a lot of time on airplanes.
And I actually hate traveling. I get bored the second I walk on. I’m slightly claustrophobic and I hate the air, so I’m just willing it to end the second I get on.
Does watching a movie help?
Yeah, and because I charter planes I can smoke and I can have a few drinks. So…
That makes it a little bit easier!
A little bit easier.
Do you pay attention at all to what people say to you on Twitter? I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people just asking for a follow…
I do get a lot of that. I’m always curious to see what they say, particularly when the show’s running. I kind of watch Twitter at the same time. It tells me who they like, who they don’t like, and it’s a really good barometer for what’s happening. It might make me look at a contestant in a different way, whether [my followers] hate them or love them.
You actually did a little singing yourself on The X Factor already this season…
If someone saw the clip without the part that came before it and they thought I really sang like that, that wouldn’t be great.
So is your actual voice pretty decent?
It’s okay. I have done back-up vocals on tracks before but it’s not something I feel that confident about.
Did you ever have any desire to be the one singing rather than judging?
When I had my first electric guitar when I was 12 years old, maybe for five minutes. Then I realized I couldn’t play it and that was the end of that. But a lot of my family friends were TV producers, film producers, and I kind of wanted to be a film producer more than anything else. Then I found myself in television and music—and now I did actually get to make my first movie this year, and that was always a lifelong ambition, which was the One Direction movie. I think the night I turned up at the premiere in London, it really was one of my favorite nights I’ve ever had.
What would you say to yourself if you came to audition on X Factor?
I would say ‘stick to your day job, you’re doing fine.’
Do you think of one-liners in advance ever?
No, but I’ve worked with people who’ve done that before. There was one guy who wrote a whole book of one-liners and I always remember this ghastly audition where he was so desperate to say something funny that he was flipping through all these pages trying to find a funny thing that actually wasn’t funny. It was excruciating. You have to go into an audition with a very, very open mind. Then whatever pops into your mind, I think it’s best to refer to it that way. That way you really can relate, I hope, to what people are thinking at home.
The X Factor is one of three major singing-competition shows that are airing this season. Are there too many?
Does that mean if you came up with an idea for a new talent competition you wouldn’t move forward with it?
That’s a good question. We’ve got a new show—and I won’t say what it is for the moment because I’m very protective about it—but interestingly, we’re launching the show in France and Italy before the UK and America, so that we can road-test it in a slightly different way. I think it’ll be interesting to get a more European perspective on a show rather than what we’ve done before. So maybe that’s the way to go. And in the mean time, you have to make changes on your current shows so that it doesn’t look the same as last year.
How will you change up The X Factor this year?
Every show has what we normally call a boot camp or a Vegas week or whatever whatever. We decided to try something different, from our Holland show. We cut the 200 who make it through down to 10 in each category—the boys, girls, over-25s and the groups—so there’s 10 in each, and each group of 10 have to compete for 4 chairs. We’d never done it before and we did it in front of 3,500 people and it was like a Roman coliseum. When we’d kick one person out of a chair we literally nearly had a riot on our hands, the audience stood up booing and wouldn’t let us continue filming…
Does that mean it worked or it didn’t?
I thought it was brilliant. I’ve never seen anything like it on American TV. Basically what it does is it sorts out the weak from the strong very, very quickly. It was a fun show to make.
It’s like musical chairs, literally.
You’re absolutely right. It’s musical chairs for singing.
What do you think of the fact that Idol’s ratings have been declining in recent seasons, since you left?
It’s not down to the show, I don’t think. I think it’s down to what we just discussed. There’s a constant overload and there’s only so many shows you can watch. I think we’re lucky we’ve got America’s Got Talent because it’s a variety show and it’s quite difficult for anyone to compete with that. I was just doing music shows it would be a problem.
How has your judging style evolved over the years?
I find the bad auditions funnier now. When they’re literally tone deaf and they think they’re going to be the next Mariah Carey, I shouldn’t laugh but it cracks me up.
Do you have any interest in competitions that aren’t talent competitions?
Not really. Now I’ve had my first taste of making a film, we’ll definitely make more films going forward. Then I’m working on a big show for next year, which if we pull it off will be the biggest thing we’ve done—but it’s going to take a lot of prep to make it happen.
Which new music is on your radar right now?
I think the new Katy Perry song is just a brilliant, brilliant record. When you run a record label if one of those walks in your front door you just grab it because it’s a smash. And watching Miley Cyrus develop into an artist at the moment is very interesting. I think she’s very smart, this girl. Where she was and where she is now — you kind of have to hand it to her. This girl’s got real steel in her eyes. She knows what she’s doing.
I have to ask you about your personal life. When’s the baby due?
Has anyone given you good advice about being a dad?
Everyone. I’ve had about 20 people wanting to be the godfather or godmother. All my friends, they’ve got families, and because they never thought I would do it they’ve been really happy. And when I got used to the idea I was really happy about it. When I saw the scan for the first time it affected me in a way I never, ever thought I would be affected. You know, you become instantly paternal. And because I like kids and I’m good with them, I’m looking forward to it now.
What about bad advice?
To change nappies. I couldn’t.
No diapers ever?
Forget it. But I’ll teach him how to drive a racing car when he’s the right age and do all the things I love doing.
What are you going to do if your child can sing?
If he’s good he can do whatever he wants.
What do you think of what the singer Sinitta’s been saying recently about your relationship, that you and she conceived once but she decided to terminate the pregnancy?
That’s something I wouldn’t want to comment on. It’s something which I believe is private and should have stayed private and I can’t say any more than that.