Why the Popstars can’t be popstars

'ITV's Popstars made the Spice Girls look like the most original thing since Dylan.'

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

Like many others, I was a bit snotty about the Spice Girls when they first hit the world stage, back in 1996. They couldn’t sing or dance that well, they weren’t too pretty, and above all they were a manufactured band – pah!

But that was before ITV’s Popstars – now known as Hear’Say – made it to Number One.

The Popstars docusoap came to an end as their single topped the UK charts on 18 March 2001. As if to fill the couch-potato void created by Hear’Say’s sudden musical fame, the following Wednesday ITV showed Raw Spice – footage of the Spice Girls in their pre-celebrity days, and interviews with those who helped make them what they are.

Suddenly, the Spice Girls came to look like the greatest, most original thing since Dylan (or Springsteen, or The Beatles, or whoever your own personal great-and-original-thing happens to be).

True, the Spice Girls were a manufactured band; true, they couldn’t sing or dance that well. But having got through their audition with a young, little-known wannabe manager, they spent about a year living off income support in a grotty semi-detached house in Maidenhead (posh but dull commuter town; the main thing going for it is that it’s not Slough). They were given a chance to succeed but no guarantees. They weren’t even given a contract – something their manager would come to regret bitterly, when they dumped him on the cusp of their fame.

The Popstars, by contrast, were guaranteed at least five minutes of fame by auditioning, in the full glare of the UK TV cameras. The successful five were moved into a plush secret location with the kind of kitchen oiks like us can only dream about; from the word go they were cosseted and counselled, indulged and admired. Okay, so they worked hard; okay, so they had to spend all that time with the hideous Nige. But their success as a band was incidental. They were famous just for being them.

I’m not having a pop at the Popstars for this. It took only a couple of programmes to get me hooked on the story, and inexplicably fond of the nascent band; and now their single ‘Pure and Simple’ is on the radio I can’t stop singing it. But because of the docusoap, these Popstars will never really be popstars. And that, in a way, is quite sad.

The only thing that made Raw Spice interesting was that the Spice Girls had already made it. This glimpse at life ‘before they were famous’ showed a bunch of scruffy, skint and spotty teenagers, with nothing going for them but a bit of talent and a lot of ambition, transform themselves into the not-beautiful-but-bolshy butterflies that were the Spice Girls.

‘They were always on diets’, chuckled one of their various mentors, while the guy who gave them a contract and launched them as the Spice Girls recalled how Geri persuaded him to take the group on by wearing ‘very little…and it was a very cold day’.

Here were ordinary girls who pushed to make themselves extraordinary (note: I don’t mean good. I mean extraordinary). Of course, once they’d made it, they played the ‘we’re so ordinary really’ card, but that was just marketing. Another aspect of the marketing was their transformation into the cartoon characters Ginger, Scary, Posh, Sporty and Baby – which was nothing if not peculiar.

The Popstars, by contrast, will always be ordinary. Maybe they once stood a chance as celebrities; but once they got on that docusoap, their eternal ordinariness was guaranteed. We know that these popstars wear glasses at night and that they object to being told to lose weight. We know the colour of their parents’ wallpaper and what they look like without make-up.

Of course, we don’t really know them – like all docusoaps, this one was played carefully to camera. But their whole selling point is the ‘before they were famous’ bit – now they are famous, we expect them to carry on being ordinary, hapless, insecure teenagers. They are not Hear’Say, but the Popstars we know and love; they could never be anything but Kym, Myleene, Danny, Noel and Suzanne.

As a result, they can get away without dieting (and clearly do). They will be forgiven if they screw up their acts, and nobody will castigate them for wanting to spend more time with their families (which, except for Kym, means mummy and daddy). But who ever wanted to be a popstar so that fans could celebrate their essential ordinariness? It’s just not normal.
Read on:
Jennie Bristow’s review of If Only, Geri Halliwell’s autobiography
Safe Spice by Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics


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