NEW YORK ― “Piers Makes Enemy of Madonna.” That’s the newspaper headline that’s pinned above Piers Morgan’s desk, as if it were an inspirational quote from the Dalai Lama.
“I’ve said that Madonna can only come on my show if she gets on bended knee in Times Square and makes a public apology to me for crimes against humanity,” explains Morgan, grinning.
Sitting in his office, which looks out over the Manhattan skyline, the silver-haired, sharply dressed Brit is here at CNN’s New York offices to discuss his new talk show “Piers Morgan Tonight,” which takes over Larry King’s old time slot on Monday. He will be the first British interviewer to host a prime-time talk show in the United States since David Frost (1969-72), and he’s already lined up an all-star list of guests, including Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney, Howard Stern, Kim and Kourtney Kardashian, and Condoleezza Rice.
But Morgan’s just as eager to talk about the first guest he’s banned from the show: The Queen of Pop. He first clashed with Madonna during the mid-’90s, when he worked as the editor of the U.K.’s Daily Mirror, but he’s reignited the feud just in time for his press tour, telling reporters that Madonna is “boring” and “too vegan for TV,” calling her older and less talented than Lady Gaga.
“You have to be fairly shameless in this business,” admits Morgan, who’s best known in the United States as the mean judge on “America’s Got Talent.” “And you also have to be cheeky. That’s not a phrase you have in America, but it means having the (guts) to say something other people won’t.”
Having interviewed public figures for more than two decades in print and on television, Morgan knows the power of a salacious quote. British politician Nick Clegg once acknowledged to Morgan that he’d slept with “no more than 30” women. Helen Mirren revealed to him that she’d been date raped. On the British talk show “Piers Morgan’s Life Stores,” Morgan pressed his good friend Simon Cowell about the death of his father until the brutish “American Idol” judge cried on television ― a coup that Morgan believes scored him the CNN gig. Now, Morgan will tell anyone who listens that he’s ready to “fill Larry King’s suspenders.”
Donald Trump, a good friend of Morgan’s and King’s, agrees. “Larry King was one of the great interviewers, so you need a great interviewer to replace him, and that’s Piers,” says Trump, who crowned Morgan the winner of “Celebrity Apprentice” three years ago and will soon appear on “Piers Morgan Tonight.” “He’s going to be more caustic than Larry. He’ll be able to get things out of people that few are able to do.”
It’s no wonder that, after pre-recording her episode of “Piers Morgan Tonight,” Oprah told a crowd at a Television Critics Association panel in Los Angeles that it was “one of the toughest interviews I’ve had in 20 years.”
Morgan says he’s learned a lot about technique from Barbara Walters, whose book he still keeps in his office for reference. “The best way of assessing someone’s character is to get them emotional,” he says, citing one of Walters’ tricks. “Oprah went through the full range of emotion: anger, hurt, tears, laughter.”
He got Winfrey to talk about how she deals with depression and how many times she’d been in love. “Oprah said to me, ‘When I ask someone a question and they don’t really want to answer it, I let it go, but you just ask it three different ways.’ I’ll keep returning to the same question in an ever more devious and outrageous way until the person would rather answer the original question.”
Anderson Cooper, he isn’t. Morgan may be a little more tabloid-friendly than CNN viewers are used to.
In an upcoming interview with Colin Firth, he asks “The King’s Speech” star what it’s like for Firth’s wife to watch his sex scenes with “Girl With a Pearl Earring” co-star Scarlett Johansson. He once delved so far into the private life of British journalist Jeremy Clarkson that Clarkson punched him in the face ― three times.
Back in September, when CNN announced that it had chosen Morgan to take over for King, some critics suggested that the network was championing entertainment over news as a ratings ploy: Last year, CNN lagged way behind Fox News, watched MSNBC trump its prime-time viewership for the first time, and according to a study by media analyst Brad Adgate, lost more viewers than any other cable channel.
Does he worry that continuing to judge “America’s Got Talent” while hosting this new talk show will hurt his credibility? “No, I think it’s funny,” he says, lightening up a little. “One day I’ll be judging a piano-playing pig, the next I’ll be interviewing Nelson Mandela.”
One day, when that piano-playing pig can fly, he’ll be interviewing Madonna. By the way, Madge’s response to all of Morgan’s badgering? According to a statement her rep Liz Rosenberg gave to Popeater.com, “Madonna doesn’t know who Piers Morgan is.”
Of course, if you want Americans to remember your name, getting Madonna to denounce it is a good way to do it. And if you want to lure one of the world’s most famous women onto your show, there’s no better way than to tell her you’re not interested.