What's Up With Simon And Ryan's Tension On 'American Idol'? Expert Weighs In

Cowell and Seacrest went toe-to-toe twice this week; our human-behavior expert gives their relationship a closer look.

Aside from the whole singing-for-a-shot-at-stardom part of the show, "American Idol" has long featured a parallel story line chronicling the sometimes awkward, schoolyard-bully relationship between top-dog judge Simon Cowell and host Ryan Seacrest.

Over the years, that battle for supremacy between arguably the most important person on the show, established TV/music mogul Cowell, and Seacrest, who has his own ever-expanding media empire, has featured insults, vaguely sexual jibes and a whiff of condescension from Cowell amid a general sense of friendly rivalry.

But this week, that tension boiled over not once but twice during the live programs in two incidents at the top of the shows that human-behavior expert Patrick Wanis said revealed a lot about the uneasy dynamic between the men.

On Tuesday night, after Cowell told Michael Lynche that his performance sounded good but was a bit corny and desperate, Seacrest asked the judge what it was about the personal trainer's dancing (with a throwaway mocking line about "Dance Party USA Cowell") or other parts of the performance that felt desperate to him. Cowell looked away, clearly annoyed, and gestured firmly with his hand at Seacrest, asking, "Do you want me to talk to you or talk to Mike?" Unexpectedly, Seacrest then walked with purpose down the steps directly up to Cowell with a serious look on his face, put his hands on the judges' table and leaned in menacingly and said in a serious, vaguely threatening tone, "I'm actually trying to help him out a little bit, buddy, because I want him to stay on the show. You all right with that?"

As Seacrest said this with a stern look on his face, Cowell pointedly rolled his chair back from the table and laughed. "This is getting very uncomfortable," he said, then pointed his two hands at Seacrest and repeatedly told him, "Back on the stage! Please go back on the stage." After Cowell joked that they could sort things out in his trailer afterward, Seacrest went back onstage and stood with his arms crossed looking very uncomfortable.

What was that about?

"This is a guy [Cowell] with a very powerful ego, a narcissist, who has this outward confidence that is really arrogance that comes in the form of 'I'm better than you,' but underneath is stoked by insecurity and the feeling, 'I'm not enough,' " said Wanis, a life coach and relationship expert who has written about celebrity behavior for Cosmopolitan magazine and the New York Observer and appeared on Fox News, MSNBC and "The Montel Williams Show."

"When Ryan approaches him, this is the first time you see Simon become smaller," he said of the judge's reaction to being confronted on live TV. "He pushes his chair back and tells Ryan he's getting too close and he's moving away form him rather than standing up to him. If that was me and you were getting in my face, I would stand up and say, 'Beg your pardon?' "

Watching the tape again, Wanis said in addition to the long-standing friction between the co-workers, there was an added layer of tension he suspected came from how similar they are. "They're both very strong people who are open with their words," he said. "Ryan gives the sense that he really cares and Simon doesn't. But they're both very powerful people in the media, with Ryan setting himself up as the next Dick Clark as his power is building. With power comes confidence and wider boundaries. That's why he feels he can approach Simon Cowell now."

Tuesday night's confrontation definitely felt like a power play by Seacrest, said Wanis, who was unsure if it was a staged bit or a spontaneous show of muscle flexing.

While introducing the panel on Wednesday, Seacrest described his rival as "the very sweet Simon Cowell."

"You want to get the eyeballing out of the way?" Cowell asked Seacrest before the results show got started in earnest, faulting him for his "aggressive behavior" the previous night.

"I just thought that you needed to be a bit more constructive with them," Ryan said sweetly.

"Do you want my job?" Simon asked testily, leveling a serious stare at Seacrest as he spoke to the host over his shoulder.

"No, I'm comfortable with mine," said Seacrest, who suddenly appeared a bit nervous while shaking his head.

"Because it felt like an audition. Can we agree that we don't cross the line?" Cowell asked him. "The eyeballing, the aggressive behavior?"

"No, I love it," Seacrest replied, nervously asking Cowell to stop staring at him.

"It was uncomfortable," Cowell told him again.

"So is this," Seacrest responded before finally moving on.

"We're friends, right?" Simon said, continuing to reassert his prominence by adding, "Just don't ever do it again."

Wanis said the question about auditioning was a typical display of male ego, a suggestion by Cowell to Seacrest saying, "If you think you can do this better than me, go ahead and try." But he also saw it as a tacit acknowledgement by Cowell that, although he's leaving the show at season's end, he is confident no one will ever be able to truly replace him.

"He knows there will never be another Simon Cowell," Wanis said. "So it's his way of mocking [Seacrest]. A way to say, 'You can't do what I do, because you're not as good as me.' "

Either way, it was good television, because it became a topic of discussion the next day, even though it also derailed the show from its ostensible point, which is the singing competition.

"Ryan held his gaze on Simon for some time, and Simon is not used to anyone standing up to him," Wanis said, noting that Cowell made a point to say he was uncomfortable both times, perhaps acknowledging the novelty of someone talking back to him so aggressively. "The first time, he was stunned and pushed his chair back because Ryan was being very condescending and he was in control and telling Simon what to do. But the second time, Simon doesn't push back but turns his body away as if to say, 'I don't want to connect with you.' That time, Ryan walked away because Simon got him. In that moment, Seacrest has been cut down as if to say, 'You've just made a fool of me.' "

What did you think of the back-and-forth between Simon and Ryan? Do you think it distracts from the singers? Let us know in the comments!

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