07/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Simon Cowell: A True Friend

I want to be clear, I don't know television's Simon Cowell and don't interact with him but I do occasionally watch him on TV. I also watch Gordon Ramsay and BBC's The Hotel Inspectorand The Apprentice: UK. I don't enjoy the entirety of many of these shows, just the moments of raw, honest feedback. I like the moments that make others uncomfortable and, mostly, the moments that make me feel uncomfortable. I like the moments of truth.

The background to me sharing this with you now is that I was recently leading a meeting where a participant was complaining about an absent peer's workplace behavior. "Did you tell them how this affects you?" I asked. "No. They're a friend and I don't want to turn them into an enemy at work," they said.

I allowed myself a little bit of mock drama as I reacted to that statement. "In my mind," I said, "friends are the ones who tell me the truth. Enemies are the ones who lie to me." What followed was a discussion with the group members of how to have one opinion and keep the peace at work while not hurting anyone's feelings, causing conflict, etc. A true friend, I held, is one who will tell you the truth whether or not you want to hear it, whether it might endanger the status quo of the friendship or not. How do they stand a chance of changing if you're not willing to speak to your co-workers, peers and friends?

Now back to Simon Cowell. On the TV phenomenon American Idol, Simon Cowell is known for "calling it as he sees it" and not sparing contestants' feelings. They compete to be the Idol and gain a recording career and Cowell's feedback is based on his years as a successful and profitable producer. For someone who is so frequently mocked for the size of his ego he has an unusually low need for approval in those instances and would rather tell the truth and be booed than beat around the proverbial bush.

On the same judging panel, Paula Abdul, pop star and choreographer, can watch a contestant fumble through a performance and find something consolable in it and can speak such drivel that she's rumored to be "of diminished capacity" when judging. Simon, on the other hand, will say, "I don't know what the hell she just said," while the rest of the judges (and most of the TV viewers) are only thinking it. Simon, by critiquing on what the contestant could do better for next time, and therefore grow and possibly continue on in the competition, is being a true friend and Paula -- well, she's something else.

I'm not arguing for calling people names and hurting their feelings unnecessarily as world-famous chef Gordon Ramsay is known to do, but I do like his honesty. In one episode of his show, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, he confronts a co-owner of a restaurant and point blank lets him know that he, the co-owner, is the restaurant's biggest obstacle to success. The co-owner is a hulking weight lifter with a demonstrated hot temper and it seems to all that a fight is about to break out. Yet in the next moment, this object of criticism is admitting that Ramsay was only telling him what everyone else was afraid to. Ramsay had become his true friend and now at least he has a chance to make the adjustments that would lead to a better hope for the future.

The Hotel Inspector and The Apprentice: UK hold another type of fascination, but they also deal with the truth and the difficulty people have accepting it. Both shows start with the results of an actual business or challenge and it is uncanny how, in the face of those factual results, people still look to blame others, the circumstances, the economy, the weather, the "bitchiness" or some other failing of their partners or teammates. It seems that here is another group of people who are not used to the truth, possibly because they haven't had many true friends, including themselves.

So, here's to all of you true friends who tell people, "Dude, you don't sing that great" or "That sounded like a cat in a blender" and keep the rest of us from grimacing as our less than talented friends torture a song on a guitar, unaware that their mothers were using a
"love filter" when they told them how talented they were and how they should pursue a professional music career.

Thanks to the Gordon Ramsays of the world, who tell people that the reason their restaurant is having financial hard times is because the food tastes terrible, or an hotelier who tells people that having black mold in a shower stall does not count toward the aesthetic of live plants in a room. Thanks to the friends who tell you your dress is too short, your rouge is too red, you're putting on weight or you shouldn't smoke or drink so much. Those true friends are the ones who would rather have you healthy and alive than preserve a falsely held "liking contest" and call it friendship.

It's not always easy and it's not often fun and there is truth in the saying: "The truth hurts."

But there is also a popular saying that speaks to the payoff of it all: "The truth will set you free."

By the way, Simon Cowell: the t-shirts you constantly wear are not flattering. Buy a shirt next season, okay? You can afford a few.

Want to share some truths with me? Visit me at, email me at, or post a comment below.