Simon Fuller is no professional singer. He does not dance, and he doesn't play an instrument. Yet, there he is - collecting a fortune at the top of the pop charts.
As creator of the "American Idol" franchise, Fuller manages every aspect of the careers of Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard, Kelly Clarkson and all other instant "Idol" celebrities.
But Fuller earns far more than the typical 15 to 20 percent that most managers keep from their clients' gross earnings. As the "American Idol" hit series launches its third season Monday on Fox/5, Fuller's franchise is raising questions about exploitation and the price of fame.
Fuller says that as the primary imaginative force behind these artists and the one with the connections to transform Clarkson from struggling Texas waitress to pop diva, he deserves a larger percentage of their earnings.
"If you think of Andrew Lloyd Webber, if he creates 'Phantom of the Opera,' he owns it. He hires Michael Crawford to take the lead.
"Crawford doesn't get a cut of 'Phantom of the Opera,' and no one questions about that," Fuller says. "My deals are the best in the world. I create 'Phantom of the Opera' and then say to Michael Crawford, 'Let's be 50-50 partners, or 60-40' - whatever the deal is." Fuller, a 43-year-old British music mogul, is the longtime manager of Annie Lennox and former manager of the Spice Girls, whose world-conquering girl power image he takes credit for creating. Fuller first launched the "Idol" concept in Britain, where it was known as "Pop Idol" (and co-developed with "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell) and then transformed the franchise into a worldwide phenomenon.
In an interview in the summer, he described many of his "Idol" relationships as "partnerships" in which he receives from 25 to 50 percent of all earnings. The Sunday Times of London estimated that Fuller earned about $44 million in 2002 and $60 million in 2003, second to Paul McCartney's $67 million on last year's list of highest-paid entertainment figures.
It's unclear how much the "American Idol" stars have taken home for their work. But in 2002, the first "Pop Idol" winner, Will Young, collected an estimated $750,000, according to the Sunday Times.
Fuller's company, 19 Entertainment, oversees not just the recording deal for "American Idol" stars but also controls merchandising, touring, sponsorship and movie deals.
Fuller promises top "American Idol" contestants a management contract with 19 Entertainment and a prearranged recording contract: with RCA Records in the case of Clarkson and Aiken, and J Records for Studdard. Both RCA and J are Bertelsmann Music Group companies run by Clive Davis, an industry legend who engineered the creation of Whitney Houston, the Grammy-winning comeback of Santana and the breakthrough of Alicia Keys, among others.
"Most artists working on the old-fashioned model, how do you keep track of your publisher, your record company, your merchandise, your sponsorship agent, your touring agent? There could be 10 different people dealing with different areas of your life," Fuller says. "This is one-stop shopping." But Gary Fine, a Los Angeles-based entertainment attorney, advised one client not to participate in the first "Idol" series after examining the contestant's contract. Fine does not condemn Fuller's deals but said he would not recommend them for everyone.
"If I had an artist whose music was quirky and might take time to develop, then Simon's organization is not the one I would recommend getting involved with," he says. "On the other hand, if I have a client whose primary interest is fame and fortune, then Simon's organization is certainly worth considering." The deal Fine saw also required "Idol" winners to participate against their international counterparts in the "World Idol" show - for $1,400.
Another section of the "American Idol" contract Fine disclosed described the aggressive image manipulation the performers must agree to, stating that the sh