TrueBliss (Image: Tina Tiller)
TrueBliss (Image: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureApril 22, 2024

How Popstars and TrueBliss changed reality television forever

TrueBliss (Image: Tina Tiller)
TrueBliss (Image: Tina Tiller)

This week we’re celebrating 25 years since the first episode of Popstars, a series that cemented TrueBliss in our pop culture history and created a new genre of reality television. Today, Alex Casey looks back at the origin story of Popstars and its impact. 

It could have been our own “day the music died”. A small regional Air New Zealand plane, flying back to Auckland from Whangārei, suddenly caught in the middle of a severe late night thunderstorm. Inside the plane: Jo Cotton, Megan Alatini, Erika Takacs, Keri Harper, Carly Binding and Peter Urlich. “I really thought we were going to die,” said Urlich. “Everybody was crying and holding hands and the plane was being thrown around like a piece of paper. I’ll never forget the moment we landed – I walked in and kissed the ground.”

The year was 1999, and TrueBliss had been flying high, bar one near-death experience. They were the biggest band in New Zealand thanks to Popstars, the reality show that sought to manufacture our own homegrown girl group and get them to number one. Not only did they succeed in that, but Popstars spawned a format that would go on to be sold in over 50 countries, inspire juggernauts such as Pop Idol and X Factor, and single-handedly change the shape of reality television across the world for the next two decades. So, how did it all happen? 

Former Th’ Dudes frontman Peter Urlich was working for George FM when he was approached by Popstars creator Jonathan Dowling in 1999. “We sat down for a coffee and he just threw this huge idea out at me.” The concept was to manufacture a local girl group, get them to number one, and film the whole thing. “I saw the exciting potential, but also the massive risk – people could see the whole thing as a contrivance and not what Kiwis were about.” There was little reality television around then, recalls Urlich – “certainly nothing close to what he was pitching”. 

Urlich agreed to take on the role of band manager, which would see him involved in decision-making on and off the screen, from choosing candidates from auditions, to the final edit, to touring with the band. On the first day of shooting in Auckland’s town hall, thousands of young women turned up to audition. “When I first saw that giant line snaking around the block, I just thought ‘wow, we’re onto something here’. You could feel the excitement in the air, it was like the girls could smell the opportunity.” 

At the end of the first shoot day, Urlich remembers sitting down in their downtown Auckland headquarters with the small production crew of five, and everyone staring at each other in disbelief. “We knew that what we were making was about to go off.”

Peter Urlich in the first episode of Popstars (Photo: Youtube)

After the first round of auditions came the shortlist of 25 girls. This included Megan Alatini, a 22-year-old RnB fanatic with a taste for talent shows, and Erika Takacs, a 20-year-old musical theatre kid who sang in a 60s cover group. “We were so green, we knew nothing about reality television,” says Takacs. Her soon-to-be bandmate Alatini had done a small amount of work on Xena and Shortland Street, but felt similarly unprepared. “You’re catapulted into this world with a camera in your face all day every day, and you have no idea how you’re coming across.”

In the first episode of Popstars, available on NZ On Screen, their fellow auditionees have no qualms confronting Urlich and Dowling on camera about the expectations of the reality genre. “I hear these rumours that you’ll want us to fail and therefore it will be all dramatic and stuff,” says one of the girls. “Does the fact that you are doing this for TV affect what you are looking for?” Jo Cotton, soon-to-be member of TrueBliss, puts it more bluntly. “Are you guys looking for girls that are going to get along and never have arguments, or do you want us to be real?” 

It’s a moment of self-awareness that we might expect from reality TV nowadays, when fourth wall-breaking has become commonplace. But Urlich says back then, Popstars was just doing what felt right. “The best quality of the show was its authenticity. We didn’t really do any second takes, we never asked the girls to put a slant on things.” Alatini sees it as one of the ways the series was ahead of its time. “It just shows the foresight that both the girls and the producers had. That question could have easily gone unspoken, and could have easily been cut.”

TrueBliss in rehearsal in Popstars. Image: Youtube

Following an intensive day-long workshop in an old Auckland church, the group of 25 was whittled down to five – Jo Cotton, Megan Alatini, Erika Takacs, Keri Harper and Carly Binding. The shoot schedule was brutal as the band worked to find their brand and record their first album in a few short weeks. “There was a very loose timeline, but in between those moments anything could happen,” says Urlich. “People could be storming out, changing their mind, we just didn’t know what was coming.” A bespoke process, as Alatini diplomatically phrases it. 

Each night after filming, Urlich would return to the Popstars headquarters in downtown Auckland with Dowling to review the day’s footage. “I remember watching it all back and feeling like we were creating something really vital. Jonathan and I would be watching situations that happened that day, and then spend the night shaping it into the best possible story that we could so people wouldn’t tune out.” As we know now, the story they were shaping turned out to be a pretty good one – a number one album, a sellout tour, and a smash hit new reality format. 

Being at the centre of it all, it took a while for the members of TrueBliss to realise the impact that Popstars would have on the rest of the world. “On a national level, we could see that the format worked really well and that we were the product of that,” recalls Takacs. “But the first we heard about it moving internationally was when it went to Australia – we actually read about it in the newspaper while we were on tour in Christchurch.” They had been talking about moving into the Australian market, and were excited to see what this would mean for the future of TrueBliss. 

The five women who made up TrueBliss, twenty five years ago. (Photo: Supplied)

Alatini admits they may have been naive to assume that TrueBliss would continue to be involved in the international Popstars universe. “We really thought it meant that our version of the show would be screened in Australia to showcase the format and showcase us, and then they would create their own band. That ended up not happening.” Popstars Australia created the pop group Bardot, Popstars UK launched Hear’Say, runner-ups Liberty X and, in future seasons, Girls Aloud. Then came Europe, Uganda, Kenya, India, Malaysia, Brazil, Mexico, and dozens more. 

“As soon as the European and American market had it, it was just crazy,” says Alatini. The series would go on to inspire Simon Fuller’s Pop Idol, which would send the talent show genre to another stratosphere for the next two decades. “You’d sit at home watching American Idol or X Factor or whatever and just pinch yourself thinking about how we were the first. And then seeing all the money and sponsorships that would follow a format like that, we’d go ‘oh, what! We should have waited a few years, guys! Let’s do another one, I want a car!’”

Urlich remembers his “jaw on the floor” when he saw that the format had reached the European market. “I did have a moment to myself thinking ‘maybe they’ll want to bring the New Zealand manager guy over’ but of course they didn’t.” And what of the creator, Jonathan Dowling? He didn’t want to be interviewed, and hasn’t spoken publicly about Popstars for years. “I suspect that he didn’t get what he should have for such an innovative idea,” says Urlich. “I don’t know exactly what happened, but I do know that this was a multi-million-dollar concept.”

“You’d suspect that Popstars was a global watershed moment,” Urlich adds. “When the rest of the world says ‘we’ve got to have this’, you know you’ve done something really special.”

An earlier version of this article appeared on The Spinoff in 2021.

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