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PT Barnum assesses Simon Cowell


The freak factor

I honestly did not say it, but it is a sentiment which is supposed to have filled my coffers and is doing much the same for Simon Cowell more than a century later. "There's a sucker born every minute." As damn true now as it was then.

Suckers spend a lot of bucks, not always wisely. Is it wrong to take their money without improving their lot or sharpening their minds? I didn't have a conscience about it and if Cowell's hiding any guilt it must be under those hitched up pants, because it sure don't show on his face. Every sucker on the planet has a right to be amused and I've never come across one that finds Shakespeare a laugh. Barnum and Cowell give them what they want. The Greatest Show on Earth. Uncomplicated amusement. No thinking hats required. Where's the harm in that?

I can't make up my mind whether Simon and I are criticised because we serve people with what they like or because we somehow infected the general public with a lack of discernment, as if that's some kind of tuberculosis of the mind. I wasn't clever or devious enough to do that and I doubt Simon is either. We rely on the freak factor to draw people in, I admit it, though Simon might not. What we don't do is introduce the freak factor into anybody's life. It's already there. Everybody is fascinated by freaks. The majority will happily raise their hands to that. A minority will deny it - the type that covers their eyes but sneaks a looks through the cracks in their fingers. They never visited my museums, circuses, aquariums or rogues galleries. Not without their homburgs pulled right down over their faces, anyway. The same applies today. No one claiming more than a dozen brain cells owns up to an addiction to 'Pop idol', 'X factor' or '(Some country)'s got talent'. They dispute that with a  conviction which would've made Judas proud.


Modern ego:

Simon Cowell


Prima ego:

P T Barnum




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You can trace a lot of Simon's ideas back to me. Take just a couple.

1. From my General Tom Thumb, it's no giant leap to the Cheeky Monkeys and all the other child acts Cowell's given screen time. Children acting like grown-ups has always wowed the audiences. It doesn't take genius to spot that. You'll say it's exploitation but I say talk to little Charlie Stratton  about the life Phineas Taylor Barnum gave him. The Cheeky Monkeys will say something similar.

2. I gave you the 'Feejee' mermaid, the traditional Native American dancer, fu-Hum-Me. the Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng, and Commodore Nutt. Not dissimilar to Stavros Flatley, Jedward, Brenda isaacs and Edelweiss Warby, which have been among Simon's more remarkable contributions to international culture.

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When you take a man's dollar or dime, you should always look at both sides of the coin.

What would the suckers have missed without PT Barnum and SP Cowell? Jenny Lind and Susan Boyle are the obvious answers (but not the only ones). Who would have believed sixty thousand culture shy New Yorkers would have turned out to greet an unpretentious, shy, and devout Swedish nightingale with a wistfully clear soprano voice? PT Barnum, that's who. It's no less incredible that Simon Cowell is behind the unpretentious, shy, and devout Scottish nightingale with a wistfully clear soprano voice, Susan Boyle. And that you feel the better for it. Neither of us were making suckers of you then, were we?

The more I look at Simon, the more I see of myself. He doesn't keep all his money to himself any more than I did. Tufts University wouldn't be where it is today without my help. If you doubt that, don't ask why Tufts students are known as Jumbos (could it have anything to do with the very famous elephant shown to the world by the Barnum and Bailey Circus?). Simon is doing his bit for hospices and animal welfare. Neither of us are trying to buy a place in heaven that we don't deserve.

What I applaud most of all is that Simon tells it like it is. When people put themselves forward for stardom on his shows, he doesn't hold back. I like the cruel humour of rebukes like:

“If your lifeguard duties were as good as your singing, a lot of people would be drowning.”

I wasn't that different in spite of being crowned 'Prince of Humbugs'. There's a gulf between hype and fraud which I never crossed. I ran my life according to two principles.

1. “Without promotion something terrible happens... Nothing!"

2. “Money is a terrible master but an excellent servant.”

Simon Cowell wouldn't argue, would he?


PT Barnum’s opinion was interpreted by Will Coe, Mar 2011

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Image attribution

Photo: PT Barnum, Wikipedia Commons

Photo: Simon Cowell Wikipedia Commons

Photo: Jenny Lind, Wikipedia ommons

Photo: Susan Boyle, Wikipedia Commons

PT Barnum Simon Cowell Jenny Lind Susan Boyle

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Jenny Lind, Swedish nightingale

Susan Boyle. Scottish songbird