Simon Cowell is feeling better than ever after getting through a grueling recovery from back surgery.
The America's Got Talent judge and executive producer, 61, broke his back in August after falling off his electric bike, and was immediately taken to the hospital for a 5-hour surgery. Cowell spent the following months recovering and missed season 15 of the show, but he's now feeling "much better" and is ready to go for the new season, he told PEOPLE in a Zoom interview with fellow judge Sofia Vergara.
"I've got to be honest with you, it wasn't that bad actually breaking your back," he said. "I mean it wasn't great for 3-4 weeks but after that you get through it. I had to do so much exercise now. I actually feel better than I did before the accident."
Cowell then joked that "if you want to feel healthier, break your back," and that the America's Got Talent cast "had a better time without me."
But Vergara disagreed with that claim, joking that she was very upset he was gone.
"For me I had nightmares, it was heartbreaking to me not to have Simon my first season," she said. "I thought I needed him to back me up and teach me, to guide me. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, I lost like 6 lbs., I cried myself to sleep."
Her comments left Cowell impressed. "I got to hand it to you Sofia, that was great acting," he said.
All jokes aside, Cowell's injury was severe. He told Extra on Wednesday that it was nearly "a lot worse."
"When I saw the X-ray, I really nearly could have smashed my spine to pieces, so I literally wouldn't have been able to walk," he said.
Cowell, who had been testing out his new electric bike at his home in Malibu when he fell, said he "knew I'd broken my back the minute I landed. It was really, really kind of sudden and it hurt."
He knew that he should have stayed still to avoid further injury, but instead crawled into the house to get to his partner, Lauren Silverman. "I'm lying there and I'm kind of passing out," he said. "It was surreal."
After surgery, Cowell's main concern was how their 7-year-old son Eric would react.
"I was so embarrassed about coming home looking about 100 [years old] because I couldn't walk, and I have these metal rods in my back and these screws," he recalled. "I said, 'Lauren, I just don't know how to explain it to [Eric].' She obviously said something to him because he came in… and I was lying in bed and he said, 'Daddy, you're like Ironman,' and I thought that was the sweetest thing and it meant a lot."
And Cowell struggled with the "helplessness" he felt during the recovery process.
"I've never been in this situation in my life where you literally can't move. The pain was off the charts," he said. "But you've got to stay positive… I made a promise to myself I'd be fitter than I was before I had the accident. Sure enough, that's what happened."
Virtual auditions for season 16 of America's Got Talent begin soon, and the "Last Chance Audition" will be held virtually on March 6th, with the best acts going on to perform for judges Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum, Sofia Vergara and Howie Mandel as well as host Terry Crews.
- With reporting by KAREN MIZOGUCHI
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