First, a primer on Popstars, for those of you without 11-year-old daughters. In the first couple of episodes, the panel of experts (a record-label executive, a talent-agency type and a choreographer) weeded out the fat, the clumsy, the tone-deaf, the homely. Successive auditions culled the sassboxes, the spotlight-huggers, the Big Personalities. In the final rounds, they eliminated a plucky former foster child and the best singer of the bunch, an electrifying young African-American woman from East St. Louis. Soon the program became less like a talent show and more like a weird hybrid of beauty pageant and boot camp, as the Popstars (now christened Eden's Crush) prepared for the various challenges ahead: their first video, their first single, their first photo shoot. Clearly the corporate masterminds at The WB were basing their decisions not only on talent and physical appeal but on a particular personality type, one suited to endure the months of torture ahead.
The final five -- Ivette Sosa, Ana Maria Lombo, Maile Misajon, Nicole Scherzinger and Rosanna Tavarez -- were whisked off to a house in California, where they were sequestered for two months, forbidden from visiting their families, going out in public and (we're guessing) ingesting carbohydrates. Instead, they were roused before dawn and subjected to marathon videotaping and recording sessions, fitness training, rehearsals with the choreographer, makeovers/general sluttification and regular bawl-outs from drill sergeant/hitmaker David Foster (whom we can thank for the careers of Celine Dion, Whitney Houston and Michael Bolton). All this drudgery made us yearn for the halcyon days of the Monkees, when prefab TV bands got to goof off, solve mysteries and caper around fake-looking sets without a care in the world.
Unlike Making the Band, Popstars offered very little in the way of interpersonal drama. Sure, there was that time Nicole lost her voice and couldn't hit the high notes, the time one of the girls used a curse word and offended one of the others, the time Rosanna got all chesty because she wasn't getting to sing lead often enough. Most of the time, though, the women (all in their early to mid-20s) were relentlessly professional. Surprise, surprise: Ivette (our favorite member of Eden's Crush because of her naturally curly hair and her endearing tendency to cry during video shoots) is ridiculously nice. She's a lot of fun to chat with, but she's unfailingly upbeat and fails to divulge any juicy gossip (e.g., "David Foster likes to dress up like a girl and spank us!" "Nicole is actually a cyborg!"). In addition to being a sweet, religious girl, Ivette is the consummate professional. She's not the kind to bite the hand that feeds her or to say anything that might alienate her legions of preteen fans and their credit-card-wielding parents.
Instead, she says, with utmost sincerity, all the things you'd expect a woman in her position to say: that David Foster might come off like a hard-ass but he's really a "big teddy bear" and they all feel lucky when he criticizes them because "it betters our chances of doing well"; that "it's really great to be able to touch people's lives, just to think that being ourselves is something that people want to watch"; that although people assume she's stuck-up, she's still "the same person," "totally myself," a "human being with good days and bad days," even though it's hard because "everyone's paying so much attention to how you react to things." Sigh. Sometimes nice people can be a real pain in the ass.
Everyone who watched Popstars screamed "fraud" at their TV sets a few times -- which is not to take anything away from Ivette's and her bandmates' considerable talents, of course. When asked about the selection process, Ivette agrees that it was all very mysterious (indeed, mystical!): "To be honest, I had no idea who was going to be in the group. When we got into that workshop in LA, there were so many talented girls -- and I've been to a lot of auditions, and there is a certain cattiness that can go on -- but I assure you that when we got into the audition, we all knew that, boy, this is really going to be a tough decision, and they can go anywhere with it. There was always the chance that one of us was going to go home that day. We knew that it wasn't because of talent -- it was just being at the right place at the right time, and we just took it one day at a time. Honestly, when I left, being one of the 10 to go home with the contract, I left with the attitude that I had a really great experience and I knew that if they took me, I would do the best that I can and bring as much as I can to the group, and if they didn't pick me, it was because it wasn't meant to be, because I was meant to be doing something else or it just wasn't the right time."
A similar sunny fatalism informs her discussion of the also-rans, including East St. Louis native Shaunda Johnston, who lost out in the very last round of auditions. "Shaunda has a beautiful, beautiful God-given voice. I think she would have been good in the group as well. I think God intended different things for her. I mean, she was great. I have to tell you, there was no animosity. She was always helping people out. She made us cry when she sang. I think she's working on her own thing right now, on her solo career."
At the moment, Ivette, who once performed at La Scala in West Side Story, is focusing on Eden's Crush. (She'd better, because the captains of industry who made her can just as easily take her down.) Like a boot-camp recruit or a cult member, she's working her ass off on practically no sleep, surrounded by the same faces day after day. "We left this morning, from Virginia, at 4:40 a.m.," she says wearily. "We stopped in Cincinnati, and we got to San Diego, and we're here now, and we have to go to makeup, and sometimes you just don't want to. I don't wear makeup to begin with, so I just don't want to. I want to perform the way I am, but you just can't, because you're onstage and all that. It's definitely hard. But you know what? I feel lucky to be involved with the girls I'm involved with. Don't get me wrong: We've had our ups and downs -- it's not perfect. But I think that in any situation, if you're going to be working with whomever, you want to make sure that you maintain a relationship, that you can have your downs but then, at the end of the day, say, 'I'm sorry; I was wrong.'"
Obviously the industry brainiacs chose their Popstars wisely. They're comely, hardworking, cooperative and attitude-free, the ideal subjects for this costly experiment in corporate ratfuckery. They can sing, they can dance and they look really good in tight hip-huggers. Scoff at them all you like, you boho romantics, with your wide-eyed delusions of creative integrity and dues paid in basements and dive bars, but the little girls understand. They'll be singing along to every song, waving their arms in the air, screaming hysterically, begging their parents to buy them stuff at the merchandise tables. In a few years, they'll outgrow Eden's Crush and deny they ever liked them; for now, indulge the little moppets, moms and dads. Before you know it, they'll be piercing their nipples, popping ecstasy and rolling all night in decrepit warehouses.