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Simon Fuller: the Svengali behind 'American Idol'

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

By Anthony Breznican , The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- Simon Fuller is no professional singer. He does not dance, and he doesn't play an instrument. Yet there he is -- collecting a fortune at the top of the pop charts.

As creator of the "American Idol" franchise, Fuller manages every aspect of the careers of Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard, Kelly Clarkson and all other instant "Idol" celebrities.

But Fuller earns far more than the typical 15 percent to 20 percent that most managers keep from their clients' gross earnings. As the "American Idol" phenomenon begins its third season on Fox, Fuller's franchise is raising questions about exploitation and the price of fame.

Fuller says that as the primary imaginative force behind these artists, and the one with the connections to transform Clarkson from struggling Texas waitress to pop diva, he deserves a larger percentage of the earnings.

"If you think of Andrew Lloyd Webber, if he creates 'Phantom of the Opera' he owns it. He hires Michael Crawford to take the lead. Crawford doesn't get a cut of 'Phantom of the Opera,' and no one questions that," Fuller said. "My deals are the best in the world. I create 'Phantom of the Opera' and then say to Michael Crawford, 'Let's be 50-50 partners, or 60-40 -- whatever the deal is.' "

Fuller, a 43-year-old British music mogul, is the longtime manager of Annie Lennox and former manager of the Spice Girls, whose world-conquering "girl power" image he takes credit for creating. Fuller first started the "Idol" concept in Britain, where it was known as "Pop Idol," and then transformed the franchise into a worldwide phenomenon.

In an interview last summer, he described many of his "Idol" relationships as "partnerships" in which he receives between 25 percent and 50 percent of all earnings. The Sunday Times of London estimated that Fuller earned about $44 million in 2002 and $60 million in 2003.

It's unclear how much the "American Idol" stars have taken home for their work. But in 2002, the first "Pop Idol" winner, Will Young, collected an estimated $750,000, according to the Sunday Times.

Fuller's company, 19 Entertainment, oversees not only the recording deal for "American Idol" stars, but also controls merchandising, touring, sponsorship and movie deals.

Fuller promises top "American Idol" contestants a management contract with 19 Entertainment and a prearranged recording contract: with RCA Records in the case of Clarkson and Aiken, and J Records for Studdard. Both RCA and J are Bertelsmann Music Group companies run by Clive Davis, an industry legend who engineered the creation of Whitney Houston, the Grammy-winning comeback of Santana and the breakthrough of Alicia Keys, among others.

"Most artists working on the old-fashioned model, how do you keep track of your publisher, your record company, your merchandise, your sponsorship agent, your touring agent? There could be 10 different people dealing with different areas of your life," Fuller said. "This is one-stop shopping."

But Gary Fine, a Los Angeles-based entertainment lawyer, advised one client not to participate in the first "Idol" series after examining the contestant's contract. Fine does not condemn Fuller's deals but said he would not recommend them for everyone.

"If I had an artist whose music was quirky and might take time to develop, then Simon's organization is not the one I would recommend getting involved with," he said. "On the other hand, if I have a client whose primary interest is fame and fortune, then Simon's organization is certainly worth considering."

The deal Fine saw also required "Idol" winners to participate against their international counterparts in the "World Idol" show -- for $1,400.

Another section of the "American Idol" contract Fine disclosed described the aggressive image manipulation the performers must agree to, stating that the show "may reveal and/or relate information about me of a personal, private, intimate, surprising, defamatory, disparaging, embarrassing or unfavorable nature, that may be factual and/or fictional."

More independent-minded performers might balk at the way Fuller fashions a performer's image (such as Aiken's metamorphosis from geeky gawker to slim slickster). Fuller also tells them what to perform and where, like Clarkson's and "Idol" runner-up Justin Guarini's movie flop, "From Justin to Kelly." (That film, like 1997's "Spice World," was written by Fuller's brother, Kim.)

And stardom is not guaranteed: Guarini's album sold poorly and he was subsequently dropped by RCA.

The final contracts between Fuller and his current batch of "Idol" stars have not been disclosed, and he refused to discuss specific details of the arrangements. He said performers are free to hire their own lawyers to oversee the deals.

Fine isn't sure that would make much difference. The contract he saw was non-negotiable and "gave so much power and control to Simon and his organizations that there would be little a lawyer could do to prevent certain things from happening."

Is there a way for the performers to get better deals? Maybe. They could work their way up through small clubs, make contact with talent scouts and spend years trying to get the attention of managers who have far less clout than Fuller.

Yet when a manager takes such a huge piece of a novice performer's earnings, it's hard for some not to view that deal with skepticism.

"It unfortunately takes two for exploitation," said Jayne Wallace, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. "And in the U.S. music business, people are so desperate to get in, they're willing to sign everything away."

She would not comment specifically on Fuller's practices, but said that generally "most artists would sign a bad deal to get the break."

When it came to the Spice Girls, Fuller saw himself as the one holding the short end of the stick, insisting that his work made them a success.

The Spice Girls broke in 1996 after being recruited by an audition ad that read, "No singing or dancing experience necessary." Fuller was fired in late 1997 amid a power struggle with the singers. Six months later, the group fell apart.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say there was an element of satisfaction about it," Fuller says now. He has made peace, however, with Emma "Baby Spice" Bunton and Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham, who have rejoined with his management firm for their solo careers.

The "partnerships" he forges with talent now, he said, prevent him from being dumped.

Ruben Studdard said last summer that he had no complaints with Fuller and described him as a helpful career-shaping force who watched out for his well-being.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, however, Studdard wondered if "American Idol" had taken advantage of the contestants, citing commercials they filmed for free as part of the broadcast.

"Without the show, we wouldn't be recording artists," he said. "But we did a lot of commercials. ... We were exploited but not exploited. It just taught us a lot about the business. 'American Idol' is what we like to call a crash course on the entertainment industry."

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