X Factor finally debuts tonight, and Paula Abdul explains what’s changed

The X Factor debuts tonight, more than a year and a half since Simon Cowell officially announced that he was leaving American Idol to bring his singing competition to the United States. From epic previews to endless drama, including the firing of judge Cheryl Cole.

The two-hour premiere starts at 8 p.m. ET, going head-to-head with Survivor South Pacific, and will undoubtedly draw an audience interested in seeing Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul back together again. Will it be able to sustain interest or differentiate itself, becoming more than just America’s Got Talent plus American Idol?

To find out the answers, I asked Paula Abdul this summer, at a Fox event for TV critics. As always, she had a lot of insight. I asked how she and Simon were different than they were when we last saw them together, in 2009:

“Older. Wiser. Slightly tone deaf. You have to be if you’re going to stay in this competition. You can’t put a price tag on wisdom and experience, and I’ve gain a lot of wisdom through the experience I’ve had working with him. He actually ended up being one of my best teachers. And I always tell people, ‘Be grateful to all your teachers. Some of them don’t come in the prettiest of packages.’ But he really taught me an inner strength that–I’ve always known I’m a strong woman, but he really taught me strength that I. I just was, at the end of the day, proud to have been a student.”

Previews we saw for X Factor showed them fighting angrily, so I asked her if that was just for TV:

“From what I understand, a relationship as unique as the one we have doesn’t come along quite often. What you see is why you get. There are times when we get along famously, and there are times we want to literally punch each other out. He gets under my skin in a very, very toxic way, and I do the same to him, but it always ends up where we start crackin’ up. We are surprising ourselves how we are agreeing and disagreeing on the same page, and we end up doing this, double-takes, what’s happening here? He claims that he really understands me now, through the really crazy, weird performers that have been coming on stage. He now gets them thanks to me, whatever that means.”

My friend Amber Ray of Metro then asked Paula if this show represented her comeback. Paula said,

“To me, he is one of the funniest people I know. He is one of the craziest, funniest people I know. Honestly, we crack each other up. We just do. We’re having a lot of fun. But it’s a love-hate relationship that’s authentic, it’s transparent, it is what it is.”

Amber asked again if this was her comeback, and Paula seemed to have listened to the question this time:

“You mean my third comeback, as he says? You mean the one that he says that I would understand as he really champions and cheerleads the third comeback? I don’t know what he’s talking about, but I love him.”

We don’t know what you’re talking about either, Paula, but we love you, too.

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