It’s been 22 years since Popstars changed reality television forever. Alex Casey chats to the people who were there, and those involved in rebooting the format for a new generation.
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 the series spawned a format that would change the shape of reality television across the world for the next two decades. Now, in 2021, Popstars is returning to the place it all began – a new series premiered on Monday night, controversially simulcast on both TVNZ 1 and 2. So what has changed and what lessons have been learned?
POPSTARS IN 1999
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.”
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 that 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 in 2021, when fourth wall-breaking has become commonplace. 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.”
Following an intensive daylong 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 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.
Alatini admits in hindsight 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 birthed the pop group Bardot, before the format travelled to the UK with Hear’Say and the rest of Europe. The Popstars format was eventually sold in over 50 countries.
“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 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” reaction 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,” he says. “When the rest of the world says ‘we’ve got to have this’, you know you’ve done something special.”
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POPSTARS IN 2021
Philly de Lacey, CEO of Screentime, is breaking up on our three-way call with producer Tony Manson. They are in the middle of shooting Popstars (2021) and only have 15 minutes to talk. “It’s like a freight train, this show. I don’t think anyone can believe it, it’s an absolute beast.” De Lacey was in her early 20s and just starting out at Screentime when Popstars (1999) was in production. “I was a runner on commercials at the time and was too young to really understand what it meant to the television business, or what a phenomenon it was going to be.”
Producer Tony Manson was also working in television in 1999, and remembers watching the original Popstars go to air. “I think the thing everyone forgets is how it really did change everything. It may not look like it now retrospectively, but it was exceptional. It really broke the mould for reality TV.” Without it, he says, there may not have been the likes of X Factor, Got Talent, even Dancing With the Stars and other talent shows. “There’s something about them that just captivates people, you see that in the viral clips – they’re also big business for TV.”
Two decades on, Screentime has rebooted Popstars for a new generation of performers, in a reality TV climate and music industry that is almost unrecognisable from that of 1999. “At the very beginning, we pulled apart everything it takes to be a successful pop singer and songwriter in 2021,” says Manson. “We looked at all those different elements and focused on how we could represent them authentically in a reality show, while also keeping it competitive.” With a prize of $100,000 for the industry-selected winner, it’s far from the TrueBliss days of borrowing Mum’s credit card to order a pizza.
Most crucially, the new Popstars is not looking to assemble or manufacture a group, but has an emphasis on finding unique talent and original music. “The original shape of Popstars had the auditions, and the final, and sandwiched in between that is what we’d call the workshop phase,” says Manson. “What we’ve done with the reboot is supersized the workshop phase – it’s all about learning your craft as a musician, an artist, a performer. We wanted to create an environment where everyone comes out a better musician, whether they win the prize or not.”
Part of that workshop phase includes mentoring from guest musicians such as Kings, Jeremy Redmore and Tami Neilson, as well as the core panel of Kimbra, Nathan King and Vince Harder. But Popstars hasn’t forgotten its roots entirely – the first episode features Urlich in a surprise cameo role as Kimbra’s advice-dispensing driver. “It’s a completely different world now,” says Urlich. “Even though there’s a lot more cynicism in the audience, if you’ve got talented individuals with good songs, Popstars is a formula that we know works and I don’t doubt will work again.”
TrueBliss were also invited to be involved in the new series, with their episodes set to appear in the near future. They weren’t allowed to talk specifics, but by all accounts were impressed with the new direction. “It’s cool to see this version of the series is more about promoting the artistry and the seriousness of the performers and their craft,” says Takacs. “We had a lot less control from our side, whereas they have a lot more opportunity to showcase who they are as artists.” They noticed some budget improvements too. “We showed up to set and they’ve got 10 cameras instead of one? And all this catering?” laughs Alatini.
“We did stand there and say ‘do you guys know how lucky you are? We helped make this happen, OK?!’”
So, what other advice did the 1999 Popstars give to the 2021 Popstars? “We did warn them to be protective of themselves,” says Alatini. “Social media gives people the opportunity to tell you how much they love you, but also how much they hate you.” Online backlash wasn’t something TrueBliss had to deal with, but they still came up against a fair bit of negativity from the public and the media. “Everyone’s got ideas about a group of five young girls, so there was a lot of doubt around our talent, our intelligence and our level of creativity,” says Takacs.
Screentime is all too aware that the 2021 Popstars, many of whom are still teenagers, will be engaging with the audience feedback online, both positive and negative. “We have a very strong duty of care policy across all of our productions, and a big part of that is helping our artists to understand what is going to happen when the show goes to air and what to expect from comments,” says De Lacey. Many of the artists have already got an engaged fanbase on social media, says Mason, so in that respect they aren’t “total rookies”.
Beyond that, Takacs and Alatini hope the new generation has been made to feel like they can speak up for themselves as they navigate the industry. “We were a force to be reckoned with as TrueBliss, but we were also very young, very green and very naive to the whole thing,” says Alatini. “We didn’t even know how to ask the right questions or what the process should be, so we had to just trust the people we had there to look after those things. These days, we just want to tell people to be smart, be business savvy and keep their best interests at heart.
“You just have to be prepared – because your life and your world is about to change overnight.”
Popstars continues tonight on TVNZ2 at 7.30pm
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