How Simon Cowell tried to destroy Britney Spears’ career before it even started

Oh baby, baby!

It’s pretty much impossible to imagine the words that launched Britney Spears into music superstardom on her 1999 No. 1 hit “… Baby One More Time” being originally sung by anyone else.

But if pop impresario Simon Cowell had gotten his way, those infamous lyrics would have been delivered by one of his former UK boy bands — and not One Direction, either.

“I had a boy band at the time called Five, who I’d put together; we were just on the verge of breaking them [in] America,” Cowell told his “America’s Got Talent” co-star Howie Mandel on his podcast “Howie Mandel Does Stuff.” “Someone phones me from America and says, ‘I’ve just been played this song. It was written for TLC.’”

But after the “No Scrubs” trio passed on “… Baby One More Time,” Cowell knew that the song was a hit that could take Five all the way to the top in the US. “[I] was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to have this song,’” he said.

Britney Spears and Max Martin
Britney Spears with “… Baby One More Time” writer-producer Max Martin in 2017.

Only problem was that Max Martin — the legendary hitmaker who wrote and produced the song — had already promised it to a then-unknown artist named Britney Spears. 

“He went, ‘No, I’ve promised to somebody else,’” said Cowell. “And I said, ‘Who?’ And he went, ‘Britney Spears.’ And I said, ‘Max, let me give you some advice — no one is going to have a hit with the name Britney Spears.’ She wasn’t even known.”

Cowell even offered to sweeten the deal with the sweetest of rides for the Swedish songsmith. “I said, ‘Well, I’ll send you a Mercedes 500 SL if I can have the song,’” he said.

The cover of Britney Spears' debut album "...Baby One More Time."
“… Baby One More Time,” the title song of the album that launched Britney Spears into pop superstardom, almost went to boy band Five.

To his credit, Martin — who went on to produce other Spears hits such as “Oops! … I Did It Again,” “Stronger” and “Till the World Ends” — didn’t have time for the former “American Idol” judge’s music industry machinations. “He’s honorable,” said Cowell. “He promised the song, and he wasn’t going to break the promise. And look — he made the right decision.”

And from it all, there grew a record-biz bond between him and Martin.

“We’re still good friends now,” said Cowell. “Listen, I would have taken the car! And don’t forget, no one had heard of this girl before, so he was not going to break his promise. So I missed out on that, but that’s how we met and became friends.”