Inside Adam Lambert's Relationship With Simon Cowell

In 2009, Adam Lambert took American Idol by firestorm, bringing his once-in-a-generation voice and classic-rock edge to the hit show's eighth season. Though Lambert came in second place to the charming, but more conventional singer Kris Allen, he's certainly been a winner in the music industry ever since. The star — who tours with Queen, put out multiple successful albums, and even opened the 2019 Oscars — was declared Idol's highest-earning alum in 2015, bringing home $10 million pre-tax, per Forbes. That's an impressive feat.

Lambert, who is openly gay, came out publicly in June 2009, a month after his Idol season wrapped. "I don't think it should be a surprise for anyone to hear that I'm gay," he told Rolling Stone. "'Come out' is so funny to me because I've never been in," he also told ABC News at the time. He's since paved the way for other openly gay artists in the music biz.

While it's easy to look back and think Lambert would eventually become a star, his flamboyant style rubbed Idol judge Simon Cowell the wrong way at first. So let's see where they stand now. Here's a peek inside Adam Lambert's relationship with Simon Cowell.

Adam Lambert said Simon Cowell gave him a 'real hard time' on 'American Idol'

Adam Lambert and Simon Cowell's relationship has sometimes been... iffy. In a June 2018 interview with NME, Lambert said he felt mistreated by Simon on Idol because of his identity. And he wasn't the only one. "Up until my season, anytime someone came on the show that was perceived to be gay or it was obvious enough that they were gay, they were a joke; They were made fun of," Lambert said. "Simon would make fun of them."

Lambert singled out another singer: Danny Noriega, who competed in the seventh season and placed in the semi-finals. During the show, Cowell called one of Noriega's performances "grotesque." The criticism reduced Noriega to tears at the time, but the performer kept singing, becoming famous drag queen Adore Delano, who, as of this writing, has over 2.1 million Instagram followers

Since then, times have changed and Lambert and Cowell are on better terms. "I did the finale the year before last, and it was the first time I had seen him in 10 years. He was sweet. He said, 'Good to see you — good job,'" Lambert told NME, adding, "He sort of wised up on that angle and he realized quickly that is not acceptable anymore." Lambert's somewhat direct criticism of Cowell, however, was a bit of a left turn from his remarks in the past.  

Simon Cowell learned to love Adam Lambert

Simon Cowell and Adam Lambert first met each other during his American Idol audition when he performed Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." While Lambert was belting his heart out, Cowell cut the audition off with a simple, "Okay." After Paula Abdul called Lambert a "great singer," Cowell chimed in. "I'm going to give you my opinion for what it's worth," Cowell said. "I think you are... theatrical." Not exactly a ringing endorsement. When asked by his fellow judges if he thought Lambert was a good singer, Cowell replied, "Yeah, but...," before other voices at the judges table took over the conversation. In the end, Cowell voted him through.

However, Lambert's talent and star quality quickly showed through. During an interview with Splash News, Cowell was asked who his favorite contestant on the 8th season of American Idol was so far, he replied, "I think this guy Adam." By the time the finals rolled around, Cowell predicted Lambert would win the whole thing. "He's got swagger," he told Oprah (via Billboard). He told Ellen Degeneres something similar, citing Lambert's "originality" and "worldwide appeal." Cowell further praised Lambert to the daytime host by saying the young star was "unique" and "fearless." 

Lambert, of course, did not win Idol, but it didn't matter. He went on to great success, proving that Cowell knows a star when he sees one.

Adam Lambert congratulated Simon Cowell on his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Simon Cowell received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Aug. 22, 2018. In typical Cowell fashion, he kept his speech as real as possible. "Why has this taken so long?" he asked (via Variety). "If anyone says fame is a bad thing, I don't know what you're talking about. It's the best thing in the world."

The first winner of American Idol, Kelly Clarkson, was on hand to celebrate with her former mentor. During her remarks at the event, she went so far as to describe how Cowell's  bluntly "honest" yet "supportive" approach makes him "the best friend you can ever have" in the music industry. She did joke, however, that she's still waiting to experience "the mean" Simon.

Adam Lambert, who was also in attendance, thanked the legendary American Idol judge on his big day. He tweeted: "Congrats on your Walk of Fame Star @SimonCowell! Thank you for your honesty and for helping kickstart my career in the music industry!!"

Adam Lambert said American Idol lost 'really honest criticism' when Simon Cowell left

On Jan. 11, 2010, Simon Cowell announced that his ninth season as a judge on American Idol would be his last. "I want to leave Idol this year bigger and better than it was in the past," he said during the Television Critics Association press tour about his decision to leave the show to launch the American version of The X Factor (via CNN). "[I] didn't think it was right to do two shows in America at the same time, so [I] decided to leave one and start another."

Cowell leaving the show he made a cultural touchstone left a void that could never be filled. In an interview with Oprah, Adam Lambert explained why. "The audience will definitely miss Simon," he told the iconic talk show host (via People). "The contestants will miss out on, like, really honest criticism. Sometimes it can be a little personal, and I know other contestants took it to heart sometimes and got really stressed out about what he would say. But I think that that's important to making you a better performer ... You've got to hear the good and the bad." 

Adam Lambert credits Simon Cowell for giving him the 'tough love' he needed

In a 2002 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Simon Cowell explained his American Idol judging style at a time when Americans were discovering the new reality television villain. "I am not there to stop someone from chasing their dream," he said, adding, "If they believe they are great, good luck to them. But if they come to our audition and they want to be told the truth, they will be told." History can't argue with that.

Adam Lambert credited Simon's truths for preparing for the music industry and fame. "Simon really supported me, he was amazing. I mean, he even gave me the tough love that I needed as well. Simon is known as Mr Nasty, he is the guy that is going to tell you the truth," he told The Sun in 2018. "He wants to see if you can hang as an artist, as this industry is brutal, and the public is even worse." Speaking with Oprah in 2012, Lambert even recalled getting "choked up" when Cowell told him live on the show that he had "emerged as a star." As for why Cowell's endorsement meant so much in that moment, Lambert said, "I felt like I could trust him, because he is so hard on the contestants."

The 'Idol' judges have since become more supportive of LGBTQ+ contestants

It seems American Idol has come a long way since Simon Cowell and Adam Lambert graced our screens. During Lambert's season, his home life wasn't proudly displayed like newlywed Kris Allen's and Danny Gokey's during cutaways, per Rolling Stone. But in 2020, according to New York Post, Idol found its first openly gay winner in Samantha Diaz, who goes by the stage name Just Sam. Yes, it took 18 seasons. "I am a child of God, so that's always gonna be first..." she told New York Post. "But I like what I like, and that's just that, you know? And it's not men. Like, at all."

As the judges' chairs have shuffled, the treatment of LGTBQ+ finalists has changed for the better, like with the first drag queen finalist Ada Vox. Vox made it to the top 10 in 2018 even without securing enough votes, as the judges — with particular encouragement from Katy Perry — pushed her through to the next round, per Billboard. "I think we do know talent when we see it," said Perry, who joined Idol in its 16th season.

"I must say that Katy Perry was one that I kind of had to convince from the beginning that I was more than just some schtick or gimmick," Vox told Billboard. "The fact that she came around so really meant a lot to me." Thankfully, it seems the show has become more accepting and supportive, especially with LGBTQ+ contestants.