Simon Cowell is risking his place in the modern pantheon of Britishness
The unceremonious firing of Cheryl Cole from the American X Factor knocked even Barack Obama off the front pages last week. Our Geordie princess, wounded heroine of a thousand tabloid kiss-and-tell melodramas, was given the boot as American audiences struggled to comprehend her dulcet, regional tones. According to one Sunday newspaper a focus group brought in to pass judgment on the early rushes of American X Factor, asked TV bosses the killer question – ‘Why doesn’t she sound like Kate Middleton?’ It seems that the much famed US soft spot for all things British does not extend far beyond those of us whose accents have been molded into the clear, accent-less RP taught by public schools and RADA alike.
No doubt Cheryl will recover from this latest blow to her dignity. After all, she has forged her career on her ability to pick herself up from one humiliating blow after another. But the repercussions of her dismissal will be felt for far longer. The end of Simon Cowell’s love affair with Cheryl Cole could well mark the end of Britain’s love affair with him.
Cowell’s success in capturing the British imagination is not to be underestimated. In the course of researching my forthcoming report on patriotism in modern Britain, Cowell’s name and his brands were mentioned to me time and again by Brits looking for things to be proud of. His shows are a national religion. His personality (or persona) is now so established that he was identified by our focus groups as key to how the world judges and understands Britain – ranking higher than David Cameron and only marginally lower than William Shakespeare. And his efforts, deserving of praise, to spread a kind of popular patriotism through his shows have developed in us a sense that he and his protégés really do embody (as he so often claims) ‘the best of British’. British people, in short, have not just bought Cowell’s products and watched his shows they have adopted him as a symbol of modern Britain – an ambassador of sorts for Britishness.
But I fear that, in allowing Cheryl to be dumped so unkindly, Cowell may just have thrown it all away. Partly this is because leaving her to the dogs undermines part of his perceived use. As one of our focus group participants told us – ‘I suppose he does represent Britain, but also he introduces British stars to the rest of the world, like he’s doing with Cheryl Cole’. No longer can he so easily cast himself as the protector and advocate of all things wholesome and British, having chosen the unmistakably American Paula Abdul over the nation’s sweetheart. What is worse, Cowell’s behaviour has offended a key component of Britain’s sense of itself – the idea that we abide by a vague but powerful notion of ‘fair play’. By luring Cheryl with the promise of his protection and support, then breaking ignobly those promises, Simon has offended our national sense of what’s cricket. Finally, Cowell has danced dangerously with the still-powerful anxiousness about class than remains deep in the British soul. We are less proud of our class than once was the case but we are no less alive to discrimination on its basis. Rumours that Cheryl Cole was encouraged to imitate the clipped RP that Americans wanted to hear inspire two-fold anger in us; one, that she should be so treated simply because of her origin and two, that she should be asked to pretend. We may no longer take great pride from our class origins but the British still loathe pretension and self-invention almost more than any other social sin.
Simon Cowell has, unknowingly, trodden on a great many modern British sensibilities in his abandonment of Cole. When coupled with a natural desire to see chivalry done – especially when the done-too is a young woman of renowned vulnerability – he has entered truly dangerous territory. Cowell’s shows are successful, in part, because of his personality and his narrative: He embodied the firm but fair British approach and his success overseas displayed something of ourselves to the world. His shows both reinforce our shared social fabric by bringing us together and they inspire a sense of patriotism by appearing to promote the good we see in ourselves. By dumping Cheryl to impress foreign friends Simon Cowell is not merely jeopardising his place in her heart – he’s risking all of our affection too.