LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - He began as "Mr. Nasty," morphed into one of the most beloved (and richest) stars of U.S. pop culture, and ushered in a brutal style of reality TV.
Simon "I don't mean to be rude, but.." Cowell bids farewell to "American Idol" next week, leaving a litany of stinging put-downs, an assortment of black and white T-shirts and big shoes to fill on what began in 2002 as a summer talent contest and became America's most watched TV show.
"Simon's departure is the end of an era on 'Idol.' Everybody knows the show is going to lose something big and irreplaceable when he goes," said Todd Gold, managing editor of Fancast.com.
Cowell's exit as a judge from "American Idol" is more an "au revoir" than an "adieu" for American TV viewers. (He plans to return with his own "X-Factor" show in late 2011).
But the abrasive Briton and his one-liners have established a trend that has been widely imitated on U.S. television.
"We had seen nasty people on TV both in fiction and nonfiction. But we had never seen anything quite like him before," said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.
"It was almost when you put a panel together, you had to have certain types and one of those included the Simon character," said Thompson, recalling the arrival on U.S. shores of Brits Piers Morgan ("America's Got Talent") and celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay ("Hell's Kitchen"), and Italian choreographer Bruno Tonioli ("Dancing With the Stars").
Whether he was rolling his eyes in exasperation, mocking fellow judge Paula Abdul, or introducing Americans to curious British expressions like "ghastly," or "a bit wet," 50-year-old Cowell was a breath of fresh air in the tried-and-true talent show formula, media watchers say.
He quickly became known simply as Simon, inspired a wave of T-shirts with slogans like "Simon Said I Was Good," and made "karaoke" a dreaded epithet.
"Simon dragged us into the reality that not every wannabe singer should be told to follow their dreams...It was a refreshing point of view that needed to be heard on U.S. television," said Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak.
Gold said that in previous American TV talent shows, the criticism was either polite, or camouflaged in comedy. Cowell was direct, personal and funny, and said what many viewers secretly thought.
What's more, his unscripted, jaw-dropping comments helped revive a tradition of live "anything can happen" entertainment at a time when packaged broadcasting had become the norm.
In a 2003 autobiography, "I Don't Mean to Be Rude, But..." Cowell said he produced his first insult at the age of four. He told his mother bluntly that she looked like a poodle.
By 2009, the man who started out as a talent scout for a British record company, had parlayed his success on "Idol" into a career as a TV producer on both sides of the Atlantic, launched his own record label, Syco, and turned singers Susan Boyle, Leona Lewis and Il Divo into international stars.
He was named by Forbes.com as the top-earning man on prime time U.S. television with an estimated haul of $75 million in 2009, and topped the 2009 Hollywood Reporter list of the 50 most powerful people in reality television.
This ninth season on "Idol" however has seen a milder Cowell, often relying on a menu of stock insults like "cruise ship," or "worst I've ever heard," Idol watchers said.
Audiences have also slipped some 9 percent this year.
"He does seem a little checked out this season. I think he's already dreaming about his new love," said Slezak, referring to Cowell's planned U.S. version of "The X-Factor".
But that doesn't make the job of filling his "Idol" seat next year any easier.
"Replacing Simon Cowell could be good for 'American Idol'", said Thompson, noting the show's age and shrinking audience.
"But it is probably the most difficult casting decision to come along in American television in a long, long time."
Editing by Dean Goodman