The surprisingly soft side of Simon Cowell! The talent show tyrant’s big brother reveals to JENNY JOHNSTON the star’s elation at being a father, how he fought to get him the best cancer care – and even offered him an eye lift for his birthday!
Somewhere in the wilds of Scotland there is a square metre of land that belongs to Simon Cowell. His brother and sister-in-law bought it for him for his 50th birthday and are still thrilled with themselves because, frankly, he’s a nightmare to buy for.
‘Mostly we don’t do presents any more because what do you buy a man who can have whatever he wants?’ asks Simon’s brother Tony, who, at 73, is ten years his senior.
His wife Emma, 46, nods. ‘Over the years we’ve done all those charity things, sponsoring a polar bear or a penguin in his name. For his 50th, we felt we had to mark it, so we named a star after him but we also bought this metre of land in Scotland, which gave him the right to call himself a laird.
‘It came with camping rights, which wasn’t exciting for him, but he was very happy to call himself laird of this metre-square bit of dirt. He went round the house shouting ‘Mum, I’m a laird!’. Mum had Scottish heritage, you see.’
What sort of gifts does Simon give in return? He’s famous for his lavish presents. The brothers’ late mum Julie — who still seems to be chieftain of the Cowell clan, even though she died in 2015 — once told me that she asked Simon for a duvet cover for Christmas. He bought her a car.
Tony Cowell, age 14, pictured with his mother Julie and father Tony Cowell, and brother Eric, 3, (left) and Simon, 4 (right)
Tony and Emma politely decline to tell me what he bought them for a wedding present (‘yes, it is a cheeky question’) but fall about laughing as they recall another example of Simon’s largesse.
‘Remember for one birthday he wanted you to see someone he knew for eye surgery?’ Emma says to Tony. ‘He said you could have your under-eyes done.’ Tony very much remembers. ‘And I said no.’
You haven’t dabbled with cosmetic surgery? ‘No! I just use good creams,’ he says. His wife confirms this. ‘He’s got his mother’s skin, which is maddening. He hasn’t had a single thing done, not even a vial of Botox.’
If there are challenges in having Simon Cowell as your little brother, Tony could write the book on it (he sort of did, once co-authoring Simon’s autobiography).
Technically the pair are half-brothers. Tony’s biological father was dancer Bertram Scrase, something of a rogue character who had a far-from-ideal relationship with Julie before she met and married property developer and record executive Eric Cowell.
Tony and his full brother Michael had previously had a disjointed childhood, living with their grandparents while Julie worked in London during the week, but everything changed when Julie and Eric got together.
The Cowell household, in Hertfordshire, was a glamorous place full of showbiz parties. Liz Taylor and Gregory Peck were dinner party guests. Simon once said that his most treasured memory was of sitting on Bette Davis’s knee. Tony, who was then about 15, mostly remembers ‘pouring drinks for everyone, and getting to help myself’.
While everyone got a taste for the showbiz life, Tony came to idolise his stepfather and, in turn, his half-brothers Simon and Nicholas. ‘I called him Dad. We became very close. He never treated me any differently.’
Tony and Simon pictured together in 2004
Eric Cowell died suddenly in 1999, devastating the whole family but in particular Simon, then a record company executive, who had phoned home that very day, excited to share life-changing news. The band he was responsible for, Westlife, had just gone to number one in the charts.
His mother was unable to tell him, in that conversation, that his father — his idol in so many ways — had died.
Phone calls bringing bad family news have had to be handled carefully since, it seems. ‘Simon was devastated that he was away. He had to get a special plane home and only made it back about half an hour before the funeral,’ says Tony.
He refers to this when telling me how he agonised about how, last year, he had to tell Simon — who was in Los Angeles — that he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer. He was still reeling himself at the suddenness of it.
A day after returning from a trip to Greece with Emma, a novelist who was researching her latest book, he was alarmed to discover blood in his urine.
‘My GP said the C-word immediately, which Emma was a bit cross about — how could she possibly know, without tests — but it turns out the GP was right. Within days I was looking at this black mark on a scan and thinking ‘this could kill me’. The next thing you think is, ‘how can I tell my family?’.’
There is a family history of keeping such things under wraps. When Julie Cowell was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 50s, she kept it from her younger children, opting to go to all her chemo sessions alone, to spare them the worry.
‘She told me eventually because I was older,’ recalls Tony. ‘But she wanted to protect the kids.’
Now it was Tony’s turn to tell his younger brother his own news. ‘And, yes, I do consider my role as being a protective big brother. I also know what he’s like. Simon doesn’t like bad news and he doesn’t like death or anything to do with death, so I had to say it quickly and follow it up with ‘but I’m not going to die’.’
Simon and Tony pictured with their wives, Lauren and Emma, on Tony and Emma’s wedding day
The news was imparted on the phone — Tony was at his home in Cornwall; Simon in Los Angeles.
Unsurprisingly, Simon was upset. Also unsurprisingly, he immediately offered to move heaven and earth to get Tony the best cancer treatment and surgeons money can buy. ‘His first question was, ‘do you want to come up to London and we’ll sort something out?’.’ Meaning Simon would pay for private treatment? ‘That was his intention, yes. Simon is very generous and he wouldn’t care about the money. But I had to explain that I already had a brilliant NHS consultant and everything was moving fast.
‘Then he asked if he could speak to the consultant. I don’t know if he didn’t believe me when I said I wasn’t going to die.’
This was how an NHS oncologist came to take a call from Simon Cowell, who had clearly been googling Grade 2 bladder cancer and knew all the questions to ask. Tony allows himself a giggle at the strangeness of it.
‘I had to explain who my brother was and ask if he’d mind speaking to him. My consultant was quite blasé about it. He spent half an hour on the phone to him and afterwards said Simon had asked every question it was possible to ask. He obviously calmed him down, but Simon said to him: ‘The thing about Tony is that he worries a lot’.’
Pot meets kettle, presumably? ‘Yeah. That was a very Simon thing to say. But of course I was worrying then. I had cancer!’
Families, even complicated ones with members on different continents, often rally at such times, and the Cowell brothers did.
‘They kept me afloat with their constant checking in,’ says Emma. ‘I’d update Simon and the others after every chemo session and they gave emotional support, which allowed me to have a small weep from time to time without exposing it to Tony.’
The treatment — surgery, then aggressive chemo — was successful and on the day he got the all-clear, Tony messaged his brother. ‘I got one back saying ‘BRILLIANT, BRILLIANT, BRILLIANT, BRILLIANT NEWS’, so I think he was pleased.’
It is now all change in this particular Cowell household. Tony and Emma have decided to sell their house and are planning a forever move to Greece.
Emma, a former actress who only started writing fiction in lockdown, has just signed a book deal for two more novels — which has impressed her famous brother-in-law, who is also writing a children’s book.
‘I’ve beaten him to it,’ she says. ‘But he did read mine and said I could test him on it.’
Simon, notoriously impatient, has the patience to read? ‘He loves reading. In lockdown he read all Jeffrey Archer’s books and even asked him for an advance copy of his latest. He said no. Jeffrey Archer is one of the few people who can say no to Simon!’
Tony’s wife Emma has just published her most recent book The House In The Olive Grove
The picture that emerges from these two of life in clan Cowell is a vivid one. Emma’s induction came 16 years ago when, having met Tony at a charity function, she was introduced to The Family. First up: The Mother.
‘Julie actually called herself The Mother,’ she reveals. ‘She’d sign all her cards The Mother.’
Emma says she received the mother-in-law seal of approval on her first visit. ‘I think being a former actress helped. Tony went upstairs and when he came down and found Julie and me tap-dancing in the kitchen, he realised it would be OK.’
The youngest Cowell brother, Nicholas, introduced himself in suitably theatrical style. ‘He came in, flung himself on the floor and said ‘welcome to the family’.’
And Simon? ‘I met him when he came for lunch. His first words were ‘Oh you are young’. It was strange because I already knew what he looked like from the TV.’
And he looked like Tony! (All the Cowell brothers share a look). ‘They all sound alike too, to the point where they would play practical jokes on me, calling up and pretending to be Tony, saying suggestive things. I never knew whether I was speaking to Tony or Nicholas or Simon.
‘But this was them all over. When they get together they love practical jokes. They are all like schoolboys.’
Tony nods at this. ‘Simon is still a big kid at heart. It’s why he has such a lovely relationship with Eric.’
This Eric, of course, is Simon’s nine-year-old son — the child no one in the family ever thought he would have. The child even Simon didn’t expect to have (he famously said he didn’t think fatherhood was for him). That Simon seems finally to have a settled home life is something they say is ‘an utter joy’.
They were as gobsmacked as anyone when they discovered there was to be a mini-Simon.
‘Lauren called me first,’ says Emma. ‘She said she was so excited and just had to tell someone. My jaw was on the floor. When Simon called Tony and said ‘I have news you won’t believe’, Tony said ‘I know already because I overheard Emma and Lauren talking’.’
Simon showed them an early scan during a family holiday in the South of France. He was practically doing a jig. ‘He asked us to guess the gender. It’s all boys in the family so I said ‘a girl, please’ but he said ‘no, it’s a boy’. He was beaming.’ Tony nods. ‘Beaming’.
They don’t make much of it, but in fact this must have been a terribly difficult time for Tony and Emma, who were then in the middle of their own fertility nightmare journey.
Although Tony has a son, Luke, from his first marriage and is now a grandfather twice over, he and Emma desperately wanted children of their own. There were several devastating miscarriages, one of which happened while Lauren was carrying Eric.
‘Obviously I was delighted for them and I love Eric to bits, but alongside that you have your own disappointments.’ They have since had three courses of IVF, none of which has been successful, and Emma seems to have concluded that the door is now closed there.
‘Which is sad, but you have to accept it and just treasure all your nieces and nephews. I have lots of godchildren, too, so I am blessed,’ she says.
The Cowell clan rarely get together these days (‘but when we do it’s roast dinners. I don’t like poncey restaurants but Simon doesn’t either,’ says Tony). But they did see Simon and Lauren at a charity ball recently, and helped celebrate Eric’s most recent birthday at a football match.
Each time they meet him, they see a more relaxed Simon, they insist. ‘He’s genuinely a changed person,’ says Emma.
‘He was so driven before. When X Factor was at its zenith, it must have been difficult for him. How do you match that success, year on year? But he has calmed down massively since.’
But Tony says: ‘Having Eric and Lauren has given him something in his life other than work. You can have a meal with him these days and actually have a conversation rather than him rushing off to take a call.
‘And his accident (when Simon fell off an electric bike and needed back surgery) really changed everything. It made him realise how close he had come. Another millimetre and he’d have been in a wheelchair, if not dead.’
When’s the wedding, though? Weren’t Simon and Lauren supposed to marry last year?
‘We read that, too,’ says Tony, raising an eyebrow. Emma says she actually texted her congratulations on the date-setting to Lauren, who replied that if there was a wedding planned, the happy couple themselves didn’t know.
‘Let them take their time,’ says Tony, while Emma points out that the Cowell boys aren’t known for their speed to rush down the aisle. ‘We were engaged for eight years and why was that, Tony?’ she asks playfully, as he shrugs.
‘So they have some time yet before they beat our record.’
- The House In The Olive Grove by Emma Cowell is published by Harper Collins at £8.99.
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