Twenty years ago, TV made TrueBliss into New Zealand’s biggest girl band. In this piece, first published in 2019 by AudioCulture, Gabe McDonnell tracks the rise and fall of the country’s first made-for-TV popstars.
“Our image is kind of like naughty but nice.”
Once upon a time in 1999 Peter Urlich sat sipping wine in one of Auckland’s “better establishments”. Sitting next to him were five young women whose (here we hear a voiceover) lives were about to change. Joe Cotton, Megan Cassie (later Alatini), Keri Harper, Erika Takacs and Carly Binding still hadn’t come down from the thrill of hearing that they had made it; they had been chosen from crowds of hopefuls to become a new girl group and record some songs and probably be world famous.
Now they had met each other it felt like they had known each other forever – well, for hours and hours. And it felt right. And here they were, sitting in one of Auckland’s better establishments with a bona fide rock star playing their TV manager and they weren’t paying for lunch. (Or was it just drinks? They hadn’t read the run sheet yet, too exciting!) They were going to be famous. Well, famous in New Zealand. The world would come later, right?
“One of the things we’ve got to do is come up with a great name,” said Peter.
Erika took a chance. She had emerged early on as a natural leader of the group. The issue of their name had been quietly occupying her mind from just before she auditioned, weeks ago. Earlier on in the episode Peter commented that she had the air of a real professional. Of course she did, she had been a member of that all singing, all dancing 1990s Wellington institution The Beat Girls: she could hold a room.
“What about something like … Spank?”
“What?” said Peter.
Keri Harper smiled. She could see SPANK lit up with lights. “Sounds good,” she said.
Peter looked noncommittal. “I like it,” he said, softly. “S.P.A.N.K.?”
Joe Cotton leaned back. “You skanky ho,” she said approvingly, to Peter, to all of them. To life!
Peter got enthused. He was an entertainer and Spank was proving good entertainment.
“My idea is SPANK.”
Erika’s smile was warm steel.
“I retain all the rights to that,” she said, stabbing her straw into her drink. With that bit of business concluded, it was back to the joy of being there.
“Can you do this?” said Megan, sitting dead still and slightly wiggling her ears.
“Spank” didn’t last the distance. The band was deep into recording their album before Joe, Megan, Keri, Erika, Megan and Carly became TrueBliss: New Zealand and then the world’s very first post-Monkees “made for TV” pop group. Carly had nailed the name. The girls had really wanted to be “Bliss” but as their Sony representative Malcolm Black, pointed out there were at least 17 bands already using that name.
“What about …”, said Carly, with the icy accuracy one episode ahead of her new TrueBliss hairstyle, a sharp auburn bob that radio host Marcus Lush (wearing a hi-vis vest for some reason) would later unkindly describe as a “helmet”.
“How about using a two-word name and using Bliss in that, maybe something like TrueBliss.”
“I think TrueBliss is a great name,” said Malcolm.
When episode one of Popstars aired in autumn 1999 TVNZ knew they had a winner. But the state broadcaster were ho-hum backers pre-production. The series that would become a global TV phenomenon came from Bill Toepfer, an editor and director who had once hired a band called The Paua Fritters to entertain at his daughter’s seventh birthday party. Something interesting happened.
“The girls ended up pushing the band out of the way, grabbing the mic and singing Spice Girls songs. I thought ‘Oh my god, what’s happening to the music industry? Can anyone be a pop star now?’”
Toepfer later relayed his party story to his producer friend, Jonathan Dowling. Dowling jumped on board right away and together they pitched it to TVNZ. They signed Pepsi on as a sponsor and the wheels were in motion but for a “measly” amount of money. Fast forward to 2019 when Anika Moa – singer, songwriter, and now newly minted TV superstar – is on her holy mission to get the band back together for a 20 year reunion and she asks Joe Cotton how it felt, being “guinea pigs”. Joe mentions watching their Australian doppelgangers, Bardot, take their Popstar journey.
“They had apartments, they had cars … I had to bus out to [CD retail store] Sounds Manukau every day.”
Popstars aired on TV2 for nine weeks in 1999, with a format that’s since become very familiar. As Brian White noted in his 2013 AudioCulture band profile, the Popstars concept “changed the way pop music was discovered and delivered to the world”. TrueBliss were the originals and did it hard. Whatever they were given to live off clearly wasn’t much. While Joe worked at the Sounds CD store, Keri Harper (the youngest of the group and the one who had blasted the sound recordist’s headphones off with her audition number ‘I Will Always Love You’) had returned to an old part-time gig singing Grease numbers at local fairs with Gary’s Karaoke. Maybe he’s still running it. In Popstars there’s a shot of Keri belting ‘You’re the One That I Want’ with Gary (of course) in front of a smattering of relaxed North Aucklanders. Keri had a smile like the sun and worked hard for the money. This was the moment in the Cinderella story when it felt like the Ball would never happen. Excellent TV fodder.
Episode six is when the girls wake up to this new reality. It’s also a fascinating glimpse at the New Zealand media machine when getting the cover of Woman’s Weekly meant more than it ever would again. It’s the episode in which they receive media training from editor Wendyl Nissen (who cites a “prepped to Africa” Monica Lewinsky as a guide for how to deflect unwelcome or tricky questions) and stifle yawns in the studios of breakfast radio shows. It’s the episode in which the girls realise that New Zealanders already felt like they knew them. No band in New Zealand’s history have ever had such a warm-up period:, the TV series had made the girls stars weeks before the music was released. But would they follow through and buy the music?
“Oooh yeah. It’s gonna be huge. The kids are hanging for it.”
It was episode seven and a gum-chewing Sounds CD store manager was stickering up a towering pile of ‘Tonight’ CD singles. The New Zealand public was ready and waiting. ‘Tonight’ entered the charts at No. 1, went instantly platinum and debut album Dreams sold double platinum in less than a week. TrueBliss made the fastest selling New Zealand album of all time, a massive achievement. The ‘Tonight’ video took five girls in asexual cargo pants and white trainers and turned them into assured stars. Whatever you think of the song, the music video succeeds on its own terms: it’s playful, moody, Vaseline-tinted and heartfelt. Who wouldn’t want to claim these young women as their country’s own? Who wouldn’t want to run down a city street in slow motion in a ball gown? TrueBliss rode the high, their national tour sold out overnight and more dates were added. During Anika Moa’s one-on-one interview, Jo admitted to imbibing before matinee performances. “I treated the tour like, ‘I am a 70s rock god.’”
In the interview, she said she was ticked off by the other girls who said she should save such behaviour “for the next tour” – and then promptly rolled her eyes. Joe always did seem like the woman who could read the room.
The sugar hit didn’t last long. Second single ‘Number One’ reached No. 12 on the charts, no higher. Their next single, a cover of the Wham! song ‘Freedom’, didn’t chart. The band split in February 2000 and Carly Binding (who said, memorably, “maybe my performing means more to me than my f***ing tooth”) set off from the blocks early, ending the TrueBliss marriage by citing “personal differences” and pursuing a solo career.
In 2003 Binding released her first single ‘Alright With Me’, a song any fan of Sheryl Crow could appreciate, a sound that ticked the adult contemporary box, with a video featuring her strumming an acoustic guitar on the back of a hay-strewn truck. The “helmet” hair was gone, the bizarre shiny pants and boob tubes flung back at the stylists. “I’m taking it easy,” she sang. Her debut album Passenger peaked at a very respectable No. 6 on the charts. Her second album So Radiate was released in 2006 and in 2007 she travelled to America to sing at SXSW. Good to her word, she really did care about her performance.
The Kiwi entertainment scene absorbed the ex-band mates. Megan Cassie became Megan Alatini and joined her little sisters Meryl and Monique to become a triple threat, singing together. She starred in the young adult series The Tribe, had a stint as a judge for NZ Idol and another as a contestant in that giant, celebrity boot camp Dancing with the Stars.
Joe Cotton (or the “down to earth” one, i.e. she ate food, hated exercise and could laugh about herself) put her mouth to work, becoming a radio DJ and TV presenter and fronting covers band The Mermaids. Erika presented Coke RTR Top 20 and became the face for Video Ezy before setting up a stunt-coordination business with her husband. Keri sang at Christmas in the Park in 2002 and 2005 and returned to musical theatre. They all found partners, some had children, some broke up and partnered again. In 2012 TrueBliss (minus Binding) reunited and released a single for the New Zealand Child Cancer Foundation.
And every other day since 1999 someone would stop them in the street and ask, “Hey aren’t you…?”
Getting the band back together
Whose brilliant idea was it to mark the 20 years since TrueBliss entered our consciousness with a two-part episode on Anika Moa Unleashed? It was like a Kiwi pop-culture summit. The girls from 1999 are now in their early 40s. Things look different from that floor. All the hype and machinery behind the experiment that was TrueBliss looks quaint and clunky from this distance. This is a group of older, experienced, pleasantly jaded women in way better clothes. Anika visits Joe first and they get on like a house on fire which is no surprise, both women are cut from the same clashing leopard print cloth. Gags about Botox and boobs zip by, Joe describes her 1999 self as a “chubba” and there is mutual recognition that they are essentially the same person.
“I’m only good at two things – singing and talking out my arse.”
Anika wrestles herself into Joe’s infamous, unforgiving TrueBliss latex pants and they attempt some dance moves. TV gold.
Next stop was Remuera. Anika remarked approvingly on the “flash” cars parked outside Erika’s. Erika was as elegant and assured as ever – and pregnant with her fourth child. This gave me pause. How cool is it to watch a pregnant pop star interview a pregnant ex-pop star? Pretty cool. Anika asked a revealing question. What did the younger Erika think of herself when she watched the first episode of Popstars?
“I thought I had to watch my language a bit. My mum wouldn’t have been happy.”
Hard to remove the “mum” hat, hard to watch yourself at 20 without being both mum and daughter. Anika’s interview with Megan flowed easily. Megan brought another angle to the mum theme, she was the original teenage mum, and before TrueBliss burst into her life she thought she had blown her chances at success. Megan was open, philosophical and happy to claim all the memories she had of being in a TV experiment – except now she was more than ready to express what she wanted. No more going with the flow, now she knew her “own worth”.
When Keri, still baby blonde but now looking like 1999 Keri’s mum or aunty (hands up, Gen X-er’s) jumped in the limo Anika had gathered for her posse. Here they were, TrueBliss survivors. The group interview brought the biggest zinger of the show.
Anika: It’s elephant in the room time now.
Joe: I feel offended.
Anika had been out-Anika-ed. The women fell about laughing. The Carly question was addressed first by Megan (“she’s kindly declined … to be fair we’ve been a foursome for the longest time”) and Joe. That’s when my respect for TrueBliss grew even more. Here are four women nudging middle age who lived through a unique experience and the only way to look back on past baggage is to see yourself as that 20 year-old. And forgive yourself and them. Who knew Keri was nearly as funny as Joe? When Anika took her place next to her “new band mates” at the mic, she asked if they could all go on tour and quick and Keri quipped “we’ll have to change our name to True Bro”. This was the woman who blew a sound recordist’s headphones off.
At the end of the interview a beautiful thing happened. TrueBliss and Anika revisited ‘Tonight’. The silver-haired piano player stroked the familiar chords and each woman sang their part. Keri, Joe, Erika and Megan could always sing, they sang before Popstars happened, they sang after it ended, and what some considered a plastic, ham-and-cheese dance track with awful lyrics (I forgive myself now) turns out to be a soulful ode to letting yourself be open to life. Anika delivered Carly’s lines in her own distinctive way and the women’s voices became one. It was there in their voices: lived in, a bit weary, but still excited to have been picked.