Popstars was one of the embryonic reality TV shows, that ushered in the new millennium, it preceded American Idol, UK’s Pop Idol, X Factor, the Voice, Australia’s Got Talent, and even Big Brother, but the formula for success had been proven many years before. The Monkees had been assembled in 1966 after an exhaustive audition process involving 400 applicants and enjoyed chart success as the “Pre-Fab Four” in the 1960’s. Don Kirshner had substituted the comic strip characters Archie, Jughead, Reggie, Veronica and Betty for real musicians- Ron Dante, Andy Kim, and Toni Wine- to form the virtual band The Archies who had megahits with Sugar, Sugar and Jingle Jangle in 1969.
Virtual groups had also proliferated throughout the bubblegum music era of the 1970’s where numerous virtual bands who never really existed outside the session musicians who recorded the songs, dominated the charts. The two most prolific of these performers were Brit Tony Burrows (below) who was simultaneously lead singer of Edison Lighthouse, White Plains, The Brotherhood of Man, First Class, The Flowerpot Men, and The Pipkins.
In the US Joey Levine fronted Ohio Express, Shadows of Knight and The Kasenatz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus, with his distinctive punky whine on such hits as Yummy, Yummy , Quick Joey Small, and Chewy, Chewy.
The Spice Girls, created by Simon Cowell in 1997 were arguably the archetypical manufactured girl group, who had torn up the charts in the 1990’s and by 2000 were breaking up and going solo, so the time was ripe for an Antipodean version of the original girl power group.
A New Zealand TV series called Popstars had already aired and the winners, the all-girl, multicultural True Bliss, had briefly flashed across the pop firmament, but Channel Seven in association with Warner Music were convinced that the Spice Girls fanbase of adolescent girls, would support the show locally, and they were right. Sponsors Austereo Radio and New Idea magazine came on board, and in 1999 over 2,500 hopefuls turned up for auditions around the country, in front of the judges, who were radio announcer Jackie O, Warner Music executive Chris Moss and Michael Napthali of Grant Thomas Management. Following an extensive elimination process, during which each episode attracted 2.6 million viewers, the final five successful contestants were chosen, Sophie Monk suggested the group name Bardot, and all the girls relocated to Sydney to live in a share house and cut their debut record. Below Scary, Posh, Baby, Sporty and Ginger.
Where the Spice Girls (above) were Sporty, Ginger, Baby, Posh and Scary, the five girls originally conscripted into Bardot were Katie Underwood (Kooky), Sally Polihronas (Maternal), Sophie Monk (Genuine), Chantelle Barry (Quiet) and Belinda Chapple (Hyperactive) – the Channel 7 marketing team must have all been at a long lunch when the nicknames were chosen!
Subsequently the group members became more identifiable as Cyborg Ginger Spice (Katie), Marilyn Monroe Impersonator Spice (Sophie), Cowboy Hat Spice (Tiffani), Posh Spice but With Vocals (Belinda), and Good At Delivering The Cool Middle 8s’ in Songs Spice (Sally).
Despite the clunky sobriquets and the fact that one of the original group members, Chantelle Barry (above), the Quiet One, was sacked before things really got rolling because of an indiscretion, after she admitted stealing from her fellow group members, and was replaced by Tiffani Wood, the show however was a great success.
Their debut song would be their biggest hit, Poison was a slinky, slithery, sexy, slice of new millennium pop, certainly reminiscent of the Spice Girls earlier hit Say You’ll Be There, with its faltering beat, killer bass line, and the teasing hidden menace in the lyrics “don’t you treat me bad/ don’t you make me sad…”. Stuttering percussion underpins the hooky lyrics, as the girls sinuously sashay their way through the vocals, singing solo inserts and bringing the song home together on the chorus in true Spice Girls fashion, with the liberal application of auto-tuning. In the outro Sally pointedly delivers the spoken word warning to any wayward suitors “Don’t give empty reasons baby/Cause I don’t want your lies/Don’t think you can deceive/This poison deep inside.”
It had girl power assertiveness stamped all over it, and a more confident vocal performance from a group on its debut single would be hard to imagine, Bardot were hot and took their debut self-titled album to #1 here and in NZ and #2 in Singapore, with total album sales in excess of 200,000 copies.
Co-composer and producer Michael Szumowski of Alberts Records brought his considerable skills to the production, and the single also went straight to #1 and stayed there for two weeks, it was also a #1 hit in NZ, climbed to #45 in the UK and sold over 150,000 copies. Bardot would be the first local group to take both their debut single and album to #1.
The girls became hot property and their lives changed dramatically, jam-packed shopping mall performances, record launches, recording sessions, modelling Bardot merchandise and apparel which included leather, snakeskin print, scarf tops, asymmetrical dresses and Wood’s signature cowgirl hat – all very new millennium. Bardot below after Katie Underwood departed – L-R Sophie Monk, Sally Polihronos, Tiffani Wood, Belinda Chapple.
The promo video for Poison portrayed the girls as manufactured dolls or androids, being controlled by others, it was a classic case of art imitating life. The five girls were featured in separate locations to apparently underscore their different personalities – Tiffani in a hotel suite, Sophie in a fairy garden, Sally in a bamboo room, Katie in a futuristic bright red room, and Belinda in a disco with shiny mirror balls – go figure! A press shot of the robotic Bardot members (below) is notable for a seated Katie Underwood holding the leash of K-9, a robot dog, but many interpreted this shot to be Underwood urinating on the dog, in what was an unfortunate misrepresentation.
In 2001 Katie Underwood was offered a part in a new production of the stage musical Hair and left the group but the show was cancelled, and she ultimately formed Disco Montage with the Dowlut brothers Dennis and Darren and had a top ten hit with the disco dance song Beautiful in 2002.
The four remaining girls followed up with their second album Play It Like That in 2001 which climbed to #19 locally but only charted for 4 weeks, and they also had several other glossy, radio-friendly pop confections which charted creditably in 2000 – I Should’ve Never Left You (#12) and These Days (#15), and they continued to chart into 2001 with ASAP (#9) and I Need Somebody (#6).
Commercially Bardot generated approx. $30 million from concerts, records, and sales of merchandise in their first six months, but once the show folded and Channel 7 pulled the pin on future promotion of the group, their chart success ebbed away, and despite the efforts of Wood and Chapple to keep the act alive, they disbanded in 2002. At the height of their fame the girls were receiving the paltry amount of $25 per day and locked into a one-sided contract, they departed Bardot wiser but no wealthier, a story that would be repeated by many starry-eyed talent show alumni in the future.
Sophie Monk segued to a solo career and charted with Inside Out, #9 in 2002, and Get the Music On, #11 and her debut album Calendar Girl #40, both in 2003, in 2005 she relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film and television. Over several years she had minor parts in a number of movies that stalled at the box office – Spring Breakdown, The Hills Ran Red, and Blood Feast, and upon her return to Australia she sought to re-establish herself via appearances in several reality shows including Australia’s Got Talent, Celebrity Apprentice, The Bachelorette Australia, and The Masked Singer. Musically her career has stuttered to a halt, the hits dried up some time ago, and at the age of 42 she has become more famous as a tabloid personality on the fringes of the entertainment industry, as the gossip magazines breathlessly report her latest fling with Benji Madden, Jason Statham, Kevin Connolly, or Sam Worthington.
The other girls have all gone their separate ways too, Katie Underwood (46) is a therapist and lives in Melbourne with her twin daughters, Belinda Chapple (46) relocated to Singapore and has opened her own interior design business, Sally Polihronos (45) is a mother of one and works behind-the-scenes in TV production, and Tiffani Wood (44) has six children and runs Popstarz, her own children’s entertainment academy in Brisbane, and while there has been talk of a possible reunion in 2020, apparently Sophie Monk has not been supportive.