"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 at CNN's New York offices to discuss his new talk show Piers Morgan Tonight. 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 UK'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 US as the mean judge on America's Got Talent. "And you also have to be cheeky."
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 admitted 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".
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."
‘I think it's funny'
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 costar 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.
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.
Maybe Piers Morgan is cheekier than we think.
Interview with the interviewer
How are you different from Larry King?
Well, I'm 32 years younger and I've had six less wives. So far!
But seriously, I think that we come at interviews in a very different way. Larry prefers not to know too much about his guest so he can chat to them as if they are someone he just met in a bar, and that has worked brilliantly for him for so long.
I'm a journalist, so come at interviews in a more forensic way. I like to do a lot of research, and preparation, so wherever the guest goes, I can go with them. One thing we both have in common, is boundless curiosity. Larry and I have a fascination for people.
As an interviewer, will you maintain your bullish style?
Of course! I like being pretty direct, and I don't suffer fools or people trying to pull the wool over my eyes. My guests will get the experience their behaviour deserves, if they're smart and friendly, it will all go fine. If they're dumb and hostile, well — not so fine!
You have said you prefer to air a pre-recorded interview rather than live. What's the difference between a more theatrical, entertainment interview (pre-recorded) and a hard news one (live) that makes you think like this?
A pre-recorded interview can be just as "hard news" as a live one. If not more so. The interview is the same, you just have more time to market and promote the content across all media. As you've all seen with Oprah, we've managed to get so much stuff out there that the whole world knows about it, and there's a terrific buzz as a result.
Who would you rather interview — Susan Boyle or Barack Obama and why?
I'd like to interview both, maybe at the same time. After all, both are living the American dream, and both are human beings with the same vital organs as the rest of us.
I like to think I am as easy talking to a king as a waiter. It's important never to be over-awed or under-awed by guests. A healthy enthusiasm is key to a great interview, even if you don't actually like the subject.
Is there anything you wouldn't ask?
No. Nobody has to answer a question, there's no gun to their head. But an interviewer should always be free to ask whatever they like.
What is your most memorable moment from your career as a newspaper journalist?
Winning Newspaper of the Year award at the British Press Awards in 2002 for our coverage of the 9/11 tragedy. It was the biggest news story of my lifetime, so it meant a lot to me professionally that our peers believed we reported it the best.
* Can't start the day without: Dunkin' Donut coffee.
* Favourite books: Love biographies — recently finished Snowball about Warren Buffet, the world's most successful businessman. It was brilliant, like him.
* What would you bring to a desert island? Scarlett Johansson.
* Role models: Rupert Murdoch, Simon Cowell, Donald Trump, Nelson Mandela.
* What's on your iPod? Amy Winehouse, Sinatra, 50 Cent, Stevie Wonder.
* iPad or book? Not sure yet, still prefer reading books in paper form, but suspect that will change as I love reading newspapers on my iPad.
I said to her things like, you know, how many times have you been properly in love? And that triggered the most extraordinary answer, where she revealed that she had actually had her heart broken by this guy when she was younger. And she's kept the letters that he sent her in her safety deposit box ever since. And we never knew about this guy or what he did.
And she — she laughed and said that when she dies, she's left instructions for Gayle King, her best friend, to run to the deposit box and destroy the letters.
So, quite a discovery, that.
I like to choose people that I think I'll have fun with. And it doesn't matter if they're a politician. For example, I interviewed Condoleezza Rice. And everyone said to me, she's very serious, you know, you've got to be very careful, you mustn't talk about anything naughty because she's Dr Rice and she'll take it all terribly seriously.
Well, it was fine. I did three segments on Iraq and Afghanistan and, you know, her time at the White House and all that stuff you would expect Condi Rice to be talking about. And then I just suddenly thought, let's just try and stir things up a bit. So I said, "Dr Rice, can I ask you, you've always been one of my favourite pin-ups from Washington and you've always remained unmarried. You're the great sort of ungot bachelorette in Washington. If I was to try and hypothetically seduce you, how would you recommend that I do that successfully?"
And there was like this moment of silence where I thought that the enormity of the question hit home. And then she burst out laughing and began to tell me. And, you know, I can give you a little clue. It involved fried chicken, a large bowl of gumbo and lots of football, which makes her almost the perfect woman, I would have thought.
I love Larry King. In fact, he just got on Twitter and wished me every success tonight with the new show, which is typically gracious of him.
He's a remarkably gracious guy. I met him in Los Angeles and he just wished me all the luck in the world. And there's no bigger fan of Larry King than me. I mean, the guy is preeminent in this kind of interview show.