Amid all the coverage of whatever X Factor plot twist is the drama du jour, there’s one point that anchors The X Factor more firmly in New Zealand than any other imported television format: we started it. Popstars was a New Zealand show, which begat the Australian Popstars, which begat the UK Popstars, which begat Pop Idol, which begat The X Factor and that’s where we are today, bootcamps, mentors, deadlocks and all.
It got me thinking about the original New Zealand Popstars TV series. NZ On Screen have the full first episode and excerpts from the other eight episodes online, so I figured it was time to revisit this groundbreaking series from 1999.
Five girls and all the Lycra the ’90s could fit
One big difference is the format. Popstars is a fly-on-the-wall documentary. The camera films the goings-on and there’s little sense that anything has been engineered for the cameras. A calm voiceover fills in a few gaps – and it’s that voiceover style is something that is still part of The X Factor (along the lines of “It’s day three of the auditions and so far the judges are not impressed.”)
Band manager Peter Urlich and label rep Mark Tierney supervise the auditions (they’re not even called judges) and are very nice to the contestants. After each girl auditions, the men thank them politely. There are no Cowell-like declarations of someone being horrible – even when the limits of talent are obvious. Of course, when the girls are out of the room, this doesn’t stop Tierney from making comments like, “Great personality, great body and can sing.”
There are a few crazy auditionees, but they’re not fussed over too much. The best is a girl who declares, “I said to them I’d be prepared to have my teeth straightened and breast implants if that’s what it takes.” I doubt the show’s budget would have stretched that far, meaning finding good singers who were pretty and had good personalities was the cheaper option.
Urlich and Tierney get serious over the stationery
Rather than a dramatic pow-wow over a table full of glossy headshots, the two men have a scribbled list on a bit of lined refill. They review the taped auditions, again with the blunt comments (“She’s relatively short, isn’t she?”)
The 500 auditionees are whittled down to a shortlist of 15. First up, they all go out to dinner to check out compatibility. Then it’s a proto-bootcamp. But rather than the tense, multi-day ordeal of The X Factor bootcamp, this is a workshop in a sunny church hall. The girls sing together and individually, are spied on at lunch to see how they get on (Carly freaks everyone out by sharing a friend’s birth story). They also do some dancing, but the voice over says this was an idea of the girls, rather than something the producers thought up. That’s right, they’re all making it up as they go along, even the contestants.
Eventually the final five have been selected. Most of them have the news broken to them by Urlich phoning them at home, with the moment captured by the camera crew. There’s none of the double-negative tricks (“I’m really sorry but it’s time to go home… and pack your bags because you’re through!”) that The X Factor uses to torture both viewers and contestants.
The girls are introduced with Urlich idly observing that Erika is “the only girl in the group who isn’t from a single-parent home”. This would never happen in The X Factor. Rather than just being an idle comment from a judge, it would be a feature where the other four talked about their brave solo mums.
Ok, so that’s the process of audition to final selection. In The X Factor, that action makes up the first part of the series – auditions, bootcamp, judges retreats – with a talent show tacked on the end for the second part. In Popstars, all that is shown in just the first episode and a little bit of the second one.
TrueBliss look to successful overseas pop groups for a lesson in the power of merchandising
The rest of Popstars was about turning these five girls into TrueBliss – rehearsing, recording, makeovers, media, videos, public appearances, etc. The X Factor has a few behind-the-scenes clips but what we see is carefully planned. But by the time the live shows come along, the X Factor is mainly about performance.
Popstars really gets gritty, showing a full-on row between group members, and the tension when the first record detail falls through, leaving Urlich with no label and no songs. This stuff is entirely avoided by The X Factor.
Popstars shows that it’s really hard for a pop band to make it in New Zealand. The five girls all have day jobs to keep them afloat in the shaky early days, and corners are cut, favours are done in every direction. Sony’s managing director points out that even a hugely successful pop act doesn’t make a lot of money due to the relatively small size of New Zealand’s market. While Popstars openly acknowledged the uncertain fate that awaited TrueBliss, the X Factor‘s narrative hinges on the idea that the series winner will be huge star. Hey, they could end up like American The X Factor alumnus Cris Renee – a number one single and two top-40 hits in New Zealand, but never charting higher than #100 in his home country.
By the way, were TrueBliss a failure? Well, their pop dreams might not have lasted as long as they wanted, but compare them to other acts who were in the charts at the same time, like these guys, this trio, this fellow or this group. They’re all doing well compared to their peers. And no one’s on the dole.
The transformation from Popstars to X Factor was gradual but definite. The Australian version of Popstars tightened things up, making it appealing enough to attract the attention of ITV executive Nigel Lythgoe. By the time Popstars launched in the UK, the format was similar but the drama was intensified, with Nigel pioneering the “Mr Nasty” judging style.
The big moment came when Spice Girls manager Simon Fuller saw the appeal of Popstars and combined it with the traditional television talent show format to create Pop Idol. This also starred his pal Simon Cowell, who took Mr Nasty judging to a whole nother level.
Pop Idol added live performances and eliminations, as well as the allure of audience voting. Unlike Popstars, the selection of the winner (and it was just one person rather than a pop group) was chosen by the audience.
While American Idol has been running for 12 series, there were only ever two series of Pop Idol. UK Popstars similarly had two series, with the second series expanded into Popstars: The Rivals (a boy band versus a girl group) and – inspired by Pop Idol – the group members were chosen by a public vote.
Both Pop Idol and Popstars were soon swept away in favour of The X Factor. Pop Idol judge Simon Cowell decided he wanted his own series so retooled the format into The X Factor. The point of difference being that The X Factor allowed groups to enter and the judges also served as mentors for the contestants. It also meant that less-than-amazing singers could be selected for the final 12, with the idea being that the show would polish them into fine performers.
Fine feathered fiends
The X Factor actually seems a lot harder for contestants than traditional TV talent shows. In the olden talent show days, performers got to sing songs of their own choice, tunes they were very comfortable with. With The X Factor, contestants are given songs to sing and are also critiqued on their appearance and personality.
Whenever a talented singer with little personality is voted off The X Factor in favour of a less talented but charisma-filled act, that’s the legacy of Popstars. Only in Popstars, they were much more open about the need for personality and appearance as well as singing talent.
But while The X Factor format is the current hot thing, it turns out there’s still a sneaky place within it for the old Popstars format. In the seventh series of The X Factor UK, a five-piece pop group was assembled by the judges from rejected soloists. A year later, ITV screened a documentary looking at this group’s life after The X Factor, dealing with the adventure being a few pop group, recording, videos, fame, the media fans – all standard themes from the original Popstars series. The group was (you might have already guessed) One Direction, a secret Popstars-style band within The X Factor.
While the live shows of The X Factor are brilliantly entertaining (especially the nailbiting elimination episodes) and are a million times better than the awkward talents show of New Zealand’s television history, I miss the warts-and-all behind-the-scenes glimpses of the difficult world of pop that the original Popstars offered. The bad dye jobs, the fighting, the dodgy deals, the dubious wardrobe and the true moments of bliss.