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The acts will take centre stage this year ..not us; X FACTOR EXCLUSIVE.

Byline: By CLARE RAYMOND

IT STARTED out as a good-natured TV talent contest, but became a vicious battleground of back-biting and bitchiness.

There were angry rows, hysterics, threats and accusations of dirty tricks - and that was just among the judges.

So this year the X Factor team has called a truce and promised to play nicely.

And that comes straight from Simon Cowell, who ought to know...

The first series of the ITV1 show last autumn was overshadowed by the bickering of Simon and fellow judges Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh.

"Our egos got in the way of the contestants last year," admits Simon, 46. "There was too much bickering and stupidity.

"So we sat down, made a truce and agreed that we are all happy for X Factor II to concentrate on finding a good singer.

"We've made a lot of money and we all have good careers. It's not fair to let our vanity overshadow why people are entering the competition. This time there is more interest in the contestants."

B UT despite Simon's protestations, there have been more than a few tense moments.

Two weeks ago, he was furious when one of his groups, Addictiv Ladies, lost the vote - and Louis gloated mercilessly.

And the same thing happened last Saturday when boyband 4Tune was eliminated. As Louis tried to persuade Sharon to axe 4Tune rather than his own singer Chenai, Simon snapped: "Shut up, Louis."

"I was p****d off with him because he was so smug. We had a couple of words after the show, but nothing too serious.

"I told him: 'I hate you. The entire country hates you. I wouldn't go out in public for a week if I were you'.

"He just laughed. I'll get over it - but he does get on my nerves. Now I'm looking forward to wiping the smile off his face and seeing one of his acts in the bottom two."

Previously there was the moment during auditions when Sharon threw a drink over Louis because of the way he criticised a 16-year-old girl.

"It was boiling up over two or three days where Louis was getting on Sharon's nerves," says Simon. "The little girl incident pushed her over the edge. If you are working with people in close proximity, there are bound to be arguments."

In this series, it seems Louis is stealing the Mr Nasty mantle from Simon.

"We are beginning to see the real Louis and I think that is because he is more confident now," says Simon. "I've always liked him. I've loved working with him for years. He's a very canny, wise manager with a great sense of humour.

"But I never thought, previously, that the viewers had seen the Louis I know, cracking jokes and taking the piss out of me."

He says he has healed his rift with Sharon Osbourne after a rocky relationship last series.

He called her daughter Kelly "fat and talentless" and suggested her husband Ozzy's near-death quadbike accident was a publicity stunt.

In return Sharon suspected Cowell of fixing the show in favour of his acts and launched a bitter attack on Simon's winning act, Steve Brookstein.

"I think Sharon would admit that she was very suspicious about me," says Simon. "But I wasn't doing any of that stuff - it's a public vote.

"It took me a while to gain her trust, but I think I've done that now."

R ELATIONS between them were so bad at the end of the first series that neither wanted to work together again.

"But when I thought about it I realised we'd hired Sharon because she's outspoken and I couldn't condemn her for it," says Simon. "And who could you replace her with?"

Even Ozzy has warmed to him.

"I think he likes me now and I really like him," says Simon. "I think he's a very nice guy.

"We are beginning to socialise and quite happily go out for dinner together. And I'm even relaxed with Kelly."

But there is one member of the Osbourne clan who still has an intense loathing for his mother's rival. Youngest son Jack.

"He was more upset about what I said about Ozzy than the others," says Simon.

"There's still a little bit of tension and I can understand that. He's going to support his mum."

Simon has a passion for reality TV, but is appalled at the idea of being a contestant himself.

"Not in a million years," he says. "I received a request to appear on Celebrity Big Brother, but the idea of sitting in a jungle or in a house, or - God forbid - dancing, would be my worst nightmare.

"It would mean I wanted to be a celebrity, but I'm 'well known' - and there's a big difference."

-The X Factor, Saturdays, ITV1
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 24, 2005
Words:801
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