Pop CultureApril 24, 2024

‘It was my Eras tour’: Meet the world’s biggest TrueBliss fans


For a few months at the turn of the millennium, TrueBliss burned bright as the biggest pop stars in the country. Alex Casey chats to two superfans who still hold the flame. 

During a humble backyard wedding in Nelson, 1999, one of the cordially invited guests had to excuse themselves from the festivities. Nicola Pugh was just 12 years old, but had informed the gracious hosts that she had very important business to attend to in the downstairs lounge. “I had to disappear for an hour, but I was back in time for dessert” she laughs. “Everyone at the time understood – you couldn’t fight with a Popstars fan.”

At the time, Popstars was one of the biggest shows in the country, following five New Zealand girls as they formed the pop group TrueBliss. It aired every week at 7.30pm after Shortland Street, and Pugh was one of the many hundreds of thousands hooked by the groundbreaking reality show. “The wedding must have been planned before the show was released,” says Pugh, “because otherwise they just wouldn’t have scheduled the clash with it.” 

Slightly further up the country in Naenae, Lower Hutt, Aaron Hailwood was 17 years old and similarly clearing his calendar, and the home phone line, to devour new episodes of Popstars each week. “I think it’s important that we remind people what television was like back then,” he says. “You’d be sitting around waiting for it to start at 7.30pm every week, and then, as soon as the ads came on, you would ring your friends to talk about what you just watched.” 

Pugh is now 37 and has a seven-year-old daughter of her own, but still remembers exactly how it felt to be a young pop fan at the turn of the millennium. “The whole moment just felt so girl-oriented,” she explains. “The Spice Girls were a couple of years old by then, Britney Spears was just coming into the picture with ‘Baby One More Time’, and then TrueBliss arrived at the perfect time – except this time they were normal local girls just like us.” 

“Look, I was a gay child born in 1982 who was obsessed with Kylie Minogue, Madonna, the Spice Girls and Steps,” says Hailwood of his own pop passion. “Most of my friends tended to be girls and we were really into 5ive and the Backstreet Boys, so we would get together and watch Top of the Pops and learn all the dance routines.” When a local pop group began forming on TV before his eyes, he remembers feeling like he was witnessing something totally new. 

“We hadn’t really had anything like that before. It was just amazing that suddenly not only did we now have our own pop group, but that we could also watch them being made.” 

After just one episode of nationwide auditions, the five original members of TrueBliss – Joe Cotton, Megan Alatini, Erika Takacs, Keri Harper and Carly Binding – were selected. “They struck gold with the cast,” says Hailwood, who, although he always felt like Joe Cotton could have been his best friend, still has a soft spot for Carly Binding. “I just liked her attitude, she always seemed so fierce,” he says, citing her infamous refusal to wear sneakers onstage.   

Pugh preferred Keri Harper, the youngest and blondest in the group. “I loved Baby Spice, and in one of the episodes they referred to Keri as Baby Bliss, so I always held a soft spot for her.”

As the audience picked their favourites, the series followed the girls adjusting to pop star life – getting makeovers, rehearsing choreography and recording an album in just one week. All the while, TrueBliss mania was spreading to every corner of the country. “Three weeks ago, you had no idea who any of these people were, and then suddenly they were everywhere,” says Hailwood. “It really felt like a sort of celebrity that New Zealand hadn’t ever seen before.” 

When their first single ‘Tonight’ went to number one, their ubiquity reached another level. “It was on the radio, it was on TV, the Sounds windows were blacked out with TrueBliss posters,” recalls Pugh, who bought the single on cassette. “I just remember spending hours with my Walkman,” she says. “Three minutes of joy, to then spend another 90 seconds rewinding it back.” Hailwood bought every TrueBliss release on cassette and CD, the day of release. 

Next came the nationwide ‘Number One’ tour, which saw the band visit 17 locations across the country, where they were met with so much demand that they added matinee shows to most dates. “My very first thought was, ‘little kids will be easier to push past, so let’s go to the four o’clock show’,” recalls Aaron, who went to the show at Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre. “I was wrong – those little kids were vicious. I just remember a lot of pushing and a lot of Pinky bars.”  

TrueBliss live in Wellington. (Photos: Chris Triall)

Pugh won tickets to the Nelson leg of the tour through her local radio station’s daily TrueBliss trivia competition. Much like the backyard wedding, she excused herself from class on the day of the Nelson concert and lined up outside the Trafalgar Centre at lunchtime for the evening show. “I got right to the front with all the other 10-16 year old girls, and I just remember turning back and seeing all the Mums and Dads scattered in the background.” 

She can also recall the moment that TrueBliss walked out on stage wearing their Fifth Element-inspired holographic outfits from the music video for their second single, ‘Number One’. “The crowd just went crazy and it was definitely very, very loud,” she says. “I just remember seeing them for the first time and thinking to myself: This is it. This is the reason. This is what life is all about. It was my first live music experience and, man, it really set the bar high.” 

After the concert, Pugh was so desperate to meet the band that she hung around the back doors of the Trafalgar Centre for “hours and hours and hours” but they never showed up. “The next day I was crying having breakfast because it was all over and I didn’t get to meet them.” She made a clip art presentation for her parents explaining why she should be allowed to travel the country alone to attend the remaining concerts. “They declined for some reason.” 

‘Bacon, lettuce, tomato – it’s true bliss’ (Photos: Aaron Hailwood)

Without social media to follow the band’s every move and connect with other fans, both Pugh and Hailwood had to find alternative means to keep their passion for TrueBliss alive. “I always bought all the magazines and pulled out every TrueBliss article and poster, and I had a few penpals that would send me stuff from the local papers as the girls went through their towns,” says Pugh, who only recently threw out “a couple of decent sized containers” of TrueBliss clippings. 

Hailwood, who was slightly older at the time, established a TrueBliss Geocities fan site, and was an active member on the TrueBliss message board on the Sony website. When Pepsi ran promotional TrueBliss collector cards, he struck gold on the job at The Warehouse when he found a giant sack of Megan Alatini cards in a dusty back cupboard. He offered them up on the message board, sent them around the world, and even arranged to gift them to fellow fans IRL. 

These were the primitive days of the internet, when meeting up with online strangers was yet to become an everyday occurrence. “I remember meeting up with one guy in Wellington from the message board,” says Hailwood. “He was absolutely terrified that I was going to be an axe murderer, but he also just really, really wanted that Megan Alatini collector card.” They had a coffee, got chatting, and have been best friends ever since. 

While the fans hoarded collector cards, Burger King posters and $2 shop stickers that were so hastily printed that they mistook Erika for Carly, TrueBliss’ third single ‘Freedom’ failed to make the top 50. “I think that’s when the backlash really started,” says Hailwood. “The focus became all about how they fell off the charts, and not about how their album went double platinum in its first week, making it the fastest-selling New Zealand-made album of all time.” 

The dawn of a new millennium saw New Zealand be the first to survive the Y2K panic, but TrueBliss faced their own set of challenges. Carly Binding left the band, citing creative differences, and the Popstars format launched in Australia. “There was a bit of heartbreak there, because everyone thought that’s when TrueBliss was going to take on the world,” says Pugh, “but then it turned out that it was just the format that would take on the world.” 

Their trans-Tasman counterparts Bardot featured husky-voiced superstar Sophie Monk, and even shinier PVC outfits. ‘Poison’, their first single, debuted at number one in New Zealand, and local pop fans had their allegiances firmly tested. “I definitely jumped on the Bardot bandwagon pretty hard,” recalls Pugh. “I had family in Sydney who would send me all the articles, and my Nana sent me the album before it came out here so I was pretty powerful at school.” 

Hailwood “hated” Bardot for taking TrueBliss’ place in the spotlight, but couldn’t resist going to see them perform live at North City mall. “I wore my TrueBliss T-shirt when I went up to get my CD signed,” he laughs. “They were nice enough, but I vividly remember Sally looking at my T-shirt and pulling a face at me.” Later that year, a four-piece TrueBliss would have a national anthem sing-off against Bardot before a Bledisloe Cup test in Wellington. It would be their last public performance for years.

“Everything sort of moved on,” says Hailwood. “Keri moved away, Erika started doing RTR, Joe did M2, Megan was on The Tribe, and it felt like the TrueBliss ship had sailed a bit.” His attention turned to following the Popstars format as it formed similarly manufactured pop groups around the world. “It was literally in 50 countries. People don’t realise just how big it went around the world – sure, it did one season here but it did 12 seasons in Germany.” 

In the years that followed, Pugh says her love for TrueBliss never waned. “The flame kept burning in the background, maybe not necessarily as bright continuously, but it was always there.” The creation of Facebook brought about a new platform for fans to connect and reminisce, with Hailwood starting a TrueBliss fan page in 2010 and eventually connecting with members of the band via the thrill of an accepted friend request. 

TrueBliss released a charity single ‘One Minute of One Day’ in 2012, performing it once live at Northern Mystics netball game, and then reunited onstage at Toast Martinborough in 2015. “I went along to that wearing my TrueBliss T-shirt from 1999, and I got talking to them there,” says Hailwood. “I asked Megan ‘how much would it cost to get you girls together for my 40th?’ and she’s like ‘just get us down there, get us a hotel, and we’ll do it.’”

Enlisting a friend to dress up as ‘Number One’ era Carly Binding, Hailwood has treasured memories of TrueBliss performing at his 40th birthday party. “Everyone seemed to really enjoy it,” he says. “And thankfully most of the people in the room got the reference.” 

From L-R, Pugh and Truebliss in 2024, Hailwood and TrueBliss in 2015 and 2024, and TrueBliss at Hailwood’s 40th birthday party.

Hailwood has now found himself as TrueBliss’s unofficial band manager – he runs their social media accounts and is organising new merchandise drops and a re-release of Dream on vinyl. “It’s about trying to preserve a bit of their legacy,” he says. “I think it’s important that we recognise this pop culture moment for what it was – our culture can’t just be knowing who won the Rugby World Cup in 2003, there should be a place for all of it.”

The band’s appearance on Anika Moa Unleashed, the Popstars reboot in 2021 and members popping up on Celebrity Treasure Island have all seen renewed interest in the band, but it took this year’s 25th anniversary for TrueBliss to put on the reunion concert Pugh had been waiting for since her clip art presentation back in 1999. “I’m an adult with my own money now so I did everything I wanted to do back then – I flew up, I got a T-shirt printed… it was my Eras tour.” 

Seeing her favourite childhood band back together was “brilliant” says Pugh. “It felt like a reward for me holding them in my heart for 25 years,” she says. And, in a lifelong dream that had been a quarter century in the making, she was finally able to meet the band after the show. “I don’t think I made a whole lot of sense, because I was just a wreck,” laughs Pugh. “I just wish I could tell that 12- year-old girl crying the day after the concert that it was going to be OK.” 

“You’ll see them again – it’s just going to take 25 years.”

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