Former Daily Mirror editor Peter Willis died on Friday aged 54 (Image: MDM)
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As a cub reporter on a pop column, Peter Willis would often field calls from A&R men trying to promote their artists.
Little did he know at the time that one such call – from an unknown, floppy-haired music exec called Simon Cowell plugging Zig and Zag – would mark the beginning of a 30-year friendship.
“It feels like we’ve been friends for as long as I’ve been doing my job,” Simon says. “I used to phone up trying to get my acts or shows publicity and he was just always so charming.
"He’s been like that ever since.”
As Peter’s career took off with a move to the Mirror in 1997 where he later rose up to editor, Simon’s took an equally impressive path.
Pop Idol, X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent all followed, with Peter reporting Simon’s moves every step of the way.
In the sometimes cut-throat world of tabloid journalism, celebrity egos can sometimes become bruised along the way.
But the two men never fought…although they sailed close to the wind at times.
A Pride of Britain Judging panel, including Peter Willis and Simon Cowell
(Image: The Daily Mirror)
“We never fell out, but he was pretty relentless, let’s put it that way,” Simon laughs. “He would not let go. He was one of those journalists who would call and it would be, ‘God, here we go’.
“But you always forgave him as he was so charming, and he was fair to be honest with you, and didn’t do anything out of malice or spite.
“He was dedicated to his cause, deeply passionate, he had very strong views. And we saw with Pride of Britain, he had a huge heart.”
Simon was left in awe of his stewardship of the Mirror’s famous awards show and often joked how he would love to have got his hands on it.
“I used to kid him about it because it was such a great show,” Simon smiles, “Let’s say there was a was a very friendly competitiveness between us.”
Simon Cowell and Peter shared a friendship spanning three decades
(Image: NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Peter’s powers of persuasion in convincing celebrities to take part in the show was legendary. Put simply, they didn’t have a choice.
“You didn’t get an invite, you were told to go, basically, that’s what he was like,” he says. “And it was like, fine, I’ll clear the diary. Whatever happens… I’ll be there.”
He adds: “Peter would tell me stories about people who initially said no, but he would not give up.
“It was quite amazing. We used to laugh about it and I would say to him, ‘How the hell did you do this again?’”
Simon became a regular fixture at the ceremony, often presenting awards, or just taking the time to pose for hundreds of selfies.
Often he would glance at Peter running wildly among the tables during the ceremony to ensure everything was going smoothly.
Mr Cowell was a floppy-haired music exec when he first met Peter
“I used to watch him – he was everywhere. He was in the gallery. He was on the floor. He was backstage.
"If I was giving out one of the awards, he would come up with me and tell me more about the person who was getting the award.
"By the end he had that look of being absolutely exhausted, but so proud to have pulled it off yet again.”
His energy as he bounded from table to table was “not in the least surprising”, Simon says, who was also regularly on the sometimes rather “heated” judging panel.
He adds: “At the end of the day, this wasn’t somebody who was doing something just to get a show that rated well, this was something he was deeply, deeply, deeply passionate about.
“I couldn’t do that. I mean, it takes someone with real, real, real drive. You’ve got to be relentless. And he managed it every single year, it was incredible.
“He didn’t have a huge team doing it with him. I mean, this was his baby.”
'Heart of the Daily Mirror' and Pride of Britain founder Peter Willis dies aged 54
Hundreds of the world’s biggest stars have attended the ceremony over the years from Jon Bon Jovi to Dame Shirley Bassey.
Paul McCartney famously once got chatting to Heather Mills, which led to the first Pride of Britain wedding, and subsequent divorce. For many – if not all – it was the only awards show in town.
“It meant more than going to the Brits, or anything like that. That pales in comparison. This was the one that counted,” Simon says.
“He knew every single person. The respect he had from the royals who attended, the politicians who attended, the celebrities. But I think, importantly, you could see, particularly with the families who attended, how well they’ve got to know him too.”
Peter’s career took off with a move to the Mirror in 1997 where he later rose up to editor
(Image: Daily Mirror)
Even political differences were cast aside.
“You would see the leader of the Conservative Party with the leader of the Labour Party, and everybody else sitting in one room. And during those two hours, actually, everything was forgotten,” Simon says.
“Instead, everyone’s focus, quite rightly, was on what the awards was about, which was just very, very, very special people who under normal circumstances wouldn’t get an award like this.”
Three decades on, and that unlikely relationship between the former cub reporter and A&R man has come to a sad end with Peter’s death aged 54.
The news left Simon heartbroken. He is not surprised by the outpouring of tributes from Ant and Dec to political heavyweights Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer and Tony Blair.
“I’ve got to be honest… I’ve known Peter for a long, long, long time. And this really hit me,” he says.
“We all have our own amazing memories of Peter. He was a real character, dedicated to doing his best and someone who touched so many people’s lives.
“I was in awe of him and the legacy that he leaves behind is enormous.”
Prince Charles hails 'deep compassion'
Prince Charles has paid tribute to Pride of Britain founder Peter Willis, hailing his “deep compassion” in celebrating the achievements of youngsters helped by his Prince’s Trust charity.
The Prince of Wales was “saddened” to hear the news of the sudden passing of the former Mirror editor, saying: “Over the many years I knew Peter, I was always struck by his deep compassion for the young people helped by my Trust.
“As The Pride of Britain became an established event, celebrating the great people of this country, Peter always insisted one of my Trust’s young people was included.
Prince Charles meets Peter Willis at the Pride of Britain Awards at St James Palace on July 16, 2015
(Image: Daily Mirror)
“He never shied away from telling the difficult stories of young people who had struggled with drugs, homelessness, imprisonment or mental health issues and managed to turn their lives around.
“The positive impact of telling their stories will be a significant part of his legacy.
“My deepest and heartfelt condolences go to his family and friends.”
Peter, who died suddenly last Friday at the age of 54, was remembered this week as an exceptional journalist who spent 23 years at the Mirror throughout a stellar career, first starting at the Manchester Evening News and The Sun.
Peter at a reception for the Prince's Trust 'Ambassadors', hosted by Prince Charles
(Image: The Daily Mirror)
Married with two children who he adored, he also served as editor of the Sunday Mirror and Sunday People before becoming executive director of the Mirror titles.
His legacy will remain the founding of the Pride of Britain awards in 1999, watched by millions of people every year to celebrate everyday heroes, including creating a special award category for the Prince’s Trust.
Peter on the Pride of Britain 2016 judging panel at the Grosvenor House hotel in central London
(Image: Daily Mirror)
Reach editor-in-chief Lloyd Embley this week paid tribute to Peter’s “enormous” contribution to the company, saying: “His contribution to the Mirror and the wider group was enormous but his crowning achievement was to conceive, launch and establish the Pride of Britain Awards.
“Without his drive, creativity and tenacity, Pride of Britain would never have become the national institution it is today.”