Some would call it stardom, Shaunda Johnston thought it sounded more like indentured servitude. Johnston was one of the five finalists not chosen to be part of the singing group on Popstars, the WB's relentlessly upbeat, unscripted series that for the last seven weeks has followed the nationwide talent search for five young female singers being offered the chance to “live out a dream” as recording artists. (The show airs at 8:30 p.m. Fridays on the WB.)
For Johnston, 22, the end of that particular dream came with conflicting emotions of disappointment and relief. Disappointment at not getting a sure-thing shot at pop stardom. Relief at escaping the control of a production company she said wanted to own a piece of her career for the rest of her life.
During weeks of pressure-cooker auditions, rehearsals, and workshops with Popstars'. choreographers and vocal coaches - scenes captured by the show's camera crews during production last fall and then edited into emotional story arcs over 13 episodes - Johnston, a native of East St. Louis, Ill., hung in, one of hundreds of hopefuls winnowed down to a group of 26 and then to 10.
Then, just before the final group members were selected, it became clear to Johnston, and, she said, to two other finalists who chose to walk away from the show, that the price of Popstars stardom was perhaps too high.
The 10 finalists, all unknowns in their late teens or early 20s, were handed lengthy contracts with a warning from producers that “they were in no way negotiable,” said Johnston. The women were given only a weekend to consult family members or their own attorneys before the contracts were to be signed.
Johnston said the contract was exploitative and restrictive, with the financial arrangements much less lucrative than she'd expected.
Like ABC's Making the Band, which last year launched the hit boy-band O-Town, the Popstars series, a spin-off of a hit show from New Zealand, is supposed to be just the beginning for the singers chosen for its all-girl group. In March the Popstars quintet will release a music video and CD, written and produced by 14-time Grammy-winner David Foster, who's launched hits for Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion, and 'N Sync. The final episode of the season will feature the group in their first live concert.
For the first year of performing on tour and in the recording studio, said Johnston, the singers were offered modest five-figure salaries, plus some living expenses, less overall than the low-ball deal offered to the Making the Band guys.
The Popstars contract included only minimal compensation for appearing on the 13-week TV series, which has turned into a hit for the WB. (By comparison, even second-tier stars of half-hour sitcoms make between $10,000 and $50,000 per episode.)
Most troubling to Johnston was a clause giving Stone Stanley Productions, which owns the show, a percentage of any money the singers might earn later singly or as members of other groups.
“You'd be in indentured servitude,” said Johnston, who's been belting R&B since she was a child. “It would be a while before you'd be able to stand on your own. And the reason they wanted a piece of the girls is that they feel we'd owe them for whatever stardom we achieved, even if the group flopped.”
Popstars executive producer David G. Stanley wouldn't discuss specifics of the contracts, saying only that Stone Stanley Productions “used as a model exactly how it was done in New Zealand.”
Shaunda Johnston said the producers handed the 10 women their contracts with an ultimatum: sign or walk away. Two of the finalists who also happened to be two of the best singers, Margaux Yap and Kerrie Roberts, took themselves out of the running and went home. Johnston stuck it out, willing to compromise for the chance to break into the record business with a major-league producer like Foster.
Viewers didn't see this version of the behind-the-scenes drama on Popstars. Instead, the show focused on Foster's verdict that too many of the eight remaining singers were not strong enough vocally. At the 11th hour he called for more auditions. Three more finalists were named. One of them, 24-year-old Maile Misajon, made it into the group.
No one associated with the show ever told Shaunda Johnston exactly why she wasn't picked.
“They told other girls what they needed to work on, but nothing was ever said to me,” said Johnston. “I can take criticism. But they never really gave me any. I was the shoulder the other girls cried on. They came to me for help with vocals and choreography.”
Johnston said it was obvious to her that Foster had a specific image in mind for the group, one that she didn't match. He wanted slim, vaguely ethnic-looking women who could hit high notes like Christina Aguilera and bump and grind like Britney Spears.
The chosen five - Ivette Sosa, Rosanna Tavarez, Ana Maria Lombo, Nicole Scherzinger, and Misajon - fit those requirements. They all are very thin brunette singer-dancers with the exotic look of Jennifer Lopez and the same generic-sounding teen-pop vocal styles.
“I can't say I felt betrayed. I understood exactly what they were doing. If I were a part of the group, it would have been a totally different flavor. I can't do that bubblegum thing,” said Johnston. “When it came down to it, David Foster put his last word on the image. They did a lot of typecasting. That's fine, but they shouldn't have played it as an open audition. They didn't put a white girl or a black girl in the group.”
David Stanley insists there was no ethnic “type” desired. “For there to be this much focus on how they look is pathetic,” he said. “Each of these girls brings something unique and special to the group and that comes from their voice, their dancing, how bright they are, and how well they blend and mix as a group.”
After the Popstars taping ended last fall, Johnston had a few months to reflect on the experience, while at the same time keeping the secret of who did and did not make it.
She saw herself become a strong viewer favorite from episode one, when she was seen being plucked from the first auditions held in Atlanta. On the Popstars Web site, fans gave her a 70 percent chance of ending up in the final group. Since last week's announcement of the group choices, the show's online message boards have posted hundreds of protests about Johnston's rejection.
“A lot of people were kinda upset. I have a whole bunch of fans who feel as though I was robbed,” said Johnston. “But I'm not unhappy.”
She's already received calls from several record producers who saw her on Popstars, including Grammy-nominated All-Star, wanting to meet and discuss possible deals. She's cut a demo CD and started her own Web site, www.shaundaj.com.
“I have a chance to be the entertainer I've always wanted to be and the public has already had a chance to see me. I plan on using that to my advantage,” Johnston said.
However critical she is of the Popstars production, she has no bitter feeling toward the five girls who got the nod. She's still in touch with many of her former co-stars. She said the group members, who share a house and have just started to make press rounds, are starting to feel the pressure of being the pre-fab five.
“When they speak to me, they try not to let anything negative come out,” said Johnston. “They try to keep any unhappiness under wraps. The producers wouldn't like it. Their biggest concern is always, `How are we going to keep the world in love with these girls?'”