Newsweek - Who Wants To Be A Pop Star?
May 22, 2001

For Anybody Who Thought That Making It In Showbiz Took Talent And Hard Work, Here's How Britain's Latest Hit Band Rose To Fame.

Overnight success stories just aren't what they used to be. Take Hear'Say, the British band that is currently No. 1 in the country's charts. Their single, "Pure and Simple," is the nation's best-selling debut recording ever, beating the previous record set by Britney Spears and selling more than half a million copies in British stores in its first week.

But this isn't about a bunch of high school friends finally getting their big break after slogging it out on a circuit of seedy gigs. In fact, this is about as artificial as it gets.

Three months ago, Hear'Say members Kym, Danny, Suzanne, Noel and Myleene didn't even know each other. Instead, they were just five hopeful applicants among thousands of 18- to 24-year-olds responding to the ITV network's ad to create the perfect pop band for a program called "Popstars."

The formula is hardly new. Similar shows in Australia and Japan have spawned big-selling groups. In the U.S., the WB and ABC also have create-a-band shows that are hot among young viewers. In Britain, though, the show quickly became a "Survivor"-style obsession throughout the nation. For five weeks, millions of U.K. viewers tuned in to watch the prime-time auditions. The selection process was the talk of the water cooler, in the pub and around the country's dinner tables. Bets were taken on who would make it into the final five. Viewer ratings soared to 13 million the night the three judges-one from a record company, one from the TV network and one from the PR company that would promote the band-announced the winners.

It was grueling stuff. The rejects sobbed in front of the camera as their families rallied round, looking equally disappointed at the news. Then the camera cut to the living room of one of the chosen five, as their relatives screamed in delight and Granny got teary-eyed in the background.

One of successes, Kym Marsh, said she'd dreamed about being a pop star "ever since I was born. This is what I've always, always wanted to do." Her new bandmate Suzanne Shaw confessed: "I wanted to go to Hollywood when I was 3."

That kind of reaction was exactly what the sponsors wanted. Buoyed by the success of reality TV, the tagline to the "Popstars" ad noted: "Everyone wants to be a pop star." And the millions who can't seem happy to live their dreams through the success of Hear'Say. At their first public signing session at a London record store, thousands of fans mobbed the band. When the members performed their debut single live on stage, the audience almost drowned out the singing.

Their music? Nobody would call Hear'Say an artistic phenomenon. Their music is safe and feel-good. They aren't glamorous model types and have even been labeled the "porky pop stars." Yet the British seem taken with their Cinderella stories. One was a cleaner; another was a daffodil in a drag act. Kym, 24, confided after her selection that she was a single mother with two young kids.

Even after the talent contest ended, British viewers stayed tuned. For another five weeks, they were hypnotized by the second TV series called "Making the Band." The now-famous five were put up in a spacious London house where they shared bedrooms, meals and secrets for a fly-on-the-wall documentary. It's estimated that more than $2 million was spent grooming and preparing Hear'Say for stardom. Experienced producers were hired and the band spent a week in Norway working on their first album, due out March 26.

The makeovers were apparent as the band emerged for their photo ops. Fashion consultants had dressed them in tight T shirts and baggy pants. Kim and Myleene had their hair streaked, Suzanne was sporting blond extensions and the guys had evidently been sent to the gym to buff up their bods.

The band is now also flexing its marketing muscle. Hear'Say are set to make hefty fortunes from advertising deals. Corporations from car manufacturers to mobile-phone networks are trying to sign them up. A clothes retailer has paid more than $140,000 for a single photo shoot. On their official Web site and in stores nationwide, band merchandise for sale includes miniature dolls of the five stars. Right now, Hear'Say are on a tough schedule of publicity engagements around the country to promote their debut album.

The hype and publicity have worked so far, partly thanks to the band's prime-time promotional TV slot. With the end of their television series last Sunday, the pop stars will now have to rely more on their own record-selling abilities for further fame. Can they do it? British bookmakers think there's a chance--they're offering odds of 6-1 that Hear'Say will still be topping the charts at Christmas.