A long time ago, in an "American Idol" season far, far away ... Simon Cowell was the most controversial judge, if not the most controversial element of the show.
"When the network saw the first episode, everybody went, 'My goodness! He can't say that,' " Co-Executive Producer Ken Warwick reminisced.
Oh, how times have changed.
Simon, once the most feared arbiter on "American Idol," is now the contestants' darling, with five of the 12 finalists calling him their favorite judge. (Two choose Randy Jackson and the rest said all three.) And those ruthless critiques, things only fellow Brit and "The Weakest Link" host Anne Robinson had said on TV before, are now considered advantageous.
"I have a lot of respect for Simon," said Anthony Fedorov, a frequent beneficiary of Cowell's scorn. "Everybody looks at him as this menace, but in reality, if you take what he's saying in the right way and if you filter out all the silly comments he makes and focus on the meaning of the comments, that can help you out a lot."
Fedorov even credits Cowell for getting him to the finals (see "Anthony Fedorov Says Simon's Cruel Criticism Was Helpful"). "During the Hollywood week, I didn't push myself very hard because I thought I would get through, and when we had our group day I didn't perform very well," he recalled. "Afterward, Simon told me he was really disappointed, and that really hit me because you should really be pushing yourself."
While Jackson and Abdul tend to only speak highly of a good portion of the performances, or focus on the pitch or the key of the song, Cowell often offers suggestions — albeit layered within insulting analogies — about showmanship, wardrobe and overall image.
"Simon is very real with what he says, and he seems not to be affected by people giving him backlash for what he says," Anwar Robinson explained. "And that's a lot to respect because the man's been in the business for a long time and he knows what he's talking about."
Singers on the show know Cowell is preparing them for the real music world after hearing confirmation from Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken and other past contestants.
"I have tough skin because of him and I'm thankful for that," Fedorov said.
"He is building us up, especially the girls," added Lindsey Cardinale, the first of the final 12 to be eliminated. "We're going to take things more to heart, we're more sensitive, and he's building us as stronger musicians. He's showing us what the music industry is going to be about."
Celena Rae, who was eliminated in the semifinals after Cowell said she was better fit for a hotel lounge, admits the comment hurt her feelings, "but it only gives me more confidence and more drive and desire to prove him wrong," she said.
Although he's been accused of grandstanding with his bitter remarks ("hideous" is often used), Cowell says he's really just trying to coach the contestants. After all, the better their careers go after the show, the better the show looks.
"It's a competition really worth winning, and you've just got to be as honest as you can and not be swayed by just someone with a good voice," Cowell said. "You need to find somebody who's got personality, who's got longevity."
Warwick believes Cowell has had a massive influence in American pop culture.
"The American sensibility up until when we started, it was never to tell a 16-year-old kid that they suck, no matter what, it just wasn't the de rigueur," the co-executive producer said. "Now, as we've found, the truth, no matter even if it hurts, is a good thing."