Deborah Cicurel chats to Hollywood’s top creative director Brian Friedman, who has changed the shape of TV dance shows…
If you’re only even slightly interested in popular culture, be that music, celebrity or dance, you will have come across 37-year-old Brian Friedman. From the snake-wielding dances of Britney Spears to the bonkers routines of contestants on The X Factor, one man has been behind them – and he’s bold, bright and more influential than ever.
The American star is creative director of The X Factor UK, The X Factor USA and America’s Got Talent, and can be easily spotted during these shows offering brutally honest words of wisdom and delivering candid verdicts on contestants. But how did he start working on The X Factor? “I took a meeting in 2006 with Simon Cowell to be a judge on his show Grease is the Word. I ended up getting the job and, while I was judging, received an offer to be a judge on The X Factor 2007. I of course jumped at the opportunity.”
However, it was not to be, as Cowell replaced Friedman with Louis Walsh after just one city of auditions. But Friedman is no quitter – displaying the tenacious attitude that has helped him scale new peaks in his career, he says: “Although I was sad to switch positions, I was very excited to have a new role created for me, the first of its kind in reality TV. Every entertainment reality show now has a person in the position that I, in essence, created – it’s very humbling.”
The X Factor has seen so many contestants, from the forgettable to the downright peculiar, come and go and Friedman loves that our weird contestants are a particularly British phenomenon. “My favourite acts have always been the ‘colourful’ ones!” he laughs. “I enjoy creating the bonkers moments on the show that people love to hate. This is something that the great American public does not necessarily have the right sense of humour for.” And which acts are his favourites? “I loved Jedward, Stevi Ritchie, Wagner and Rhydian,” he says.
“My favourites to work with have been One Direction, Fleur East, Olly Murs, and Alexandra Burke.”
Friedman has helped to shape the careers of these stars from their early auditions – but it’s not all rose-tinted glasses. For instance, he’s not so fond of “contestants who think after being on a reality show for two weeks they’ve become a director, creative director and stylist. In other words, the ones who turn into diva monsters!” I beg him to tell me who but professionally he insists: “They shall remain nameless.”
However, life is not all reality singing competitions for Friedman – he has worked with the biggest names in the music business, from Cher to Beyoncé and from to Prince to Mariah Carey. “Michael Jackson made a huge impact on me when I was a child growing up, so having the chance to work for and with him was something I will never forget,” Friedman says.
“He was a true perfectionist and I took note of that at a young age. I’ve learned a lot from the icons with whom I’ve had the opportunity to work.”
Yet Friedman’s admiration was not one of watching Michael Jackson from afar – he cites the craziest moment of his career as when he danced with Janet Jackson at the MTV Video Music Awards as a tribute after Michael’s death. “Madonna introduced us and as we rose to the stage level from below Michael was playing on the screen behind us. All I saw in front of me was a sea of superstars screaming. It was exhilarating!”
So, it seems, stars get starstruck too. And despite these legendary on-stage moments, Friedman is also a key player behind the scenes, setting up dance routines like Britney Spears’ I’m a Slave 4 U, also at the VMAs. “This is when she had the albino python around her neck,” Friedman recalls. “It is to date one of the most iconic moments to happen on stage and that is what you want as an artist… to create memorable moments.”
But, I wonder, after these incredible highs of such a career, is Friedman friends with these icons, or do they just function as business partners? “It’s different with everyone,”
Friedman says. “Some are normal and others act like ‘celebrities’. I learned at a young age you cannot put too much weight on those relationships. If they’re meant to blossom into more, they will.” Friedman is clearly talented in several areas, not only prolific in the world of dance but also in fashion, with his own clothing and shoe line. “If I hadn’t stayed in dance and choreography, I would have gone to fashion school,” Friedman says. “I got to the point where I wanted to take the risk and try it out. It’s something that I had been doing for years as a creative director, designing looks for artists and dancers for their performances but these looks were never accessible to the public. Seeing my clothes on people in the ‘real world’ has just been simply amazing!”
However, Friedman would never again try a singing career after previously being part of a group. He laughs at the mere suggestion: “Absolutely not! It was not my calling and I believe in being the absolute best at what you do.” Friedman is a fighter, something he attributes to his Jewish upbringing. “I do consider it to be an important part of my identity,” he says. “It is how I was raised. I believe our people have a certain spirit to them… we are fighters and lovers who are passionate and I take that into my movement for sure.”
Perfectionist, passionate, hardworking, Friedman has scaled the peaks of dancing heaven, and he loves every minute. Most of all, he is, thankfully, something refreshing in the fickle world of celebrity. He sums it all up: “The fact that I get to do what I love for a living is the most exciting thing I could ever have asked for.”