By Julie K.L. Dam
Updated July 08, 2002 12:00 PM

Simon Cowell‘s pals insist there’s another side to the heartless American Idol judge. “We were driving along the King’s Road [in London], and Simon saw a man kicking his dog,” claims his best friend, Jackie St. Clair. “Simon screeched to a halt, leapt out of the car and kicked the man.” And this reveals…what, exactly? “Underneath it all, he’s a big softy,” says St. Clair, a former model. “He’s a really sensitive, kind man.”

Tell that to the 5,000 aspiring pop stars who have been dissed and dismissed from the FOX summer hit, a Star Search-meets-Survivor contest that will net the lucky winner a recording contract. If the show’s British version, Pop Idol, is any indication, the winner—who will be chosen by viewers and named on Sept. 4—will also have a fair shot at fame: The top two U.K. finishers both scored No. 1 songs on the British charts.

The losers’ parting gift? Getting told by Cowell, 42, that their vocals were “rubbish,” “pathetic” or sounded “like a train going off the rails.” He urged one candidate to sue her voice coach and told another, “You will never, ever, ever have a career in singing.”

“He tried to embarrass me on national TV,” says Tamika Bush, 23, who was told she needed singing lessons after her performance of “Greatest Love of All.” “I truly believe he enjoys getting people upset.”

Cowell’s approach doesn’t bother fellow judge and record producer Randy Jackson, but it does rankle the other person on the panel, dancer-singer Paula Abdul. “To say, ‘You suck and you’ll never make it,’ I have a problem with that,” says Abdul, 40. “There needs to be some respect. There are days when Simon and I just want to rip each other’s throats out.”

All of which has prompted speculation that Cowell is too bad to be true. “Simon is the villain of American Idol,” says ex-contestant Jules Sanchez, 24, who was told he was “a loser” by Cowell. “I think it’s an act.”

For his part, Cowell insists he’s just being honest. “Is it more hurtful being cruel to someone when they’ve sung badly,” he asks, “or giving them false hope?” Although he will admit to occasional pangs of conscience (“When you’ve really cut down someone and they come up to you an hour later and shake your hand, you feel about the size of a matchstick”), he says he mostly finds the furor “amusing.”

And not unfamiliar. The older of two sons of Eric Cowell, a music executive who died three years ago, and his wife, Julie, 76, a former dancer, Cowell grew up in a London suburb in a brood that included four half-siblings. “I was really badly behaved and bored,” he says. “I had teachers say to me, ‘Simon, because of your attitude, you’ll never ever be a success.’ ”

He nearly proved them right. After bouncing from school to school, Cowell dropped out at 17 and went to work in the mailroom of his father’s firm. At 22, he and a partner started a music-publishing company that tanked. Working at a small record label five years later, he met a successful music producer, Pete Waterman, who called Cowell’s tactics “absolutely useless.” Though stung, Cowell says he followed Waterman around “like a dog” for three years, learning the ropes and building a stable of pop stars.

He learned well: Since 1997 Cowell’s acts have sold more than 25 million albums in the U.K. and charted 17 No. 1 singles. In 2001 he and a partner dreamed up Pop Idol as a showcase for amateurs. But the real star of Pop Idol turned out to be Cowell. He says he knew the show was a hit when a woman berated him in a London department store. “She went through a gauntlet of insults—I shatter dreams, I’m rude, obnoxious. Then she said, ‘I’ve watched every episode.’ ”

Despite his TV persona, Cowell has plenty of dates. But he lives alone in a four-bedroom home in London’s tony Holland Park (he rents in Beverly Hills while taping). His closet “looks like an Armani store,” he says, “rows and rows of identical trousers and sweaters—same color, black or gray.”

Which fits Cowell’s black-hat image. “To me,” says the ousted (and still seething) Bush, “he will always be an ass.” Cowell shrugs. “My only objective is to find a great singer who is going to sell millions of records for my label,” he says. “If you get called a few names, well—tough luck, you know? I’ll live with that.”

Julie K.L Dam

Alexis Chiu in Los Angeles