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‘Star Search’ Runner-Ups Who Made It Big: Aaliyah, Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, LeAnn Rimes and More
Credit: Ashlee Ivery
On any given day throughout the year for many-sided reasons, chart-topping singers Aaliyah, Beyoncé, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake remain on top of Twitter trending topic lists like a juicy red cherry sitting pretty on an Andre 3000 ice cold insanely delicious ice cream concoction.
Yet, back in the early 90s, the judges on the charmingly cheesy Star Search, a pioneering TV talent competition show, didn’t think they were “winners” at the time.
Ed McMahon, who for nearly 30 years was Johnny Carson’s affable second banana on The Tonight Show, introducing it with his ringing trademark line, “Heeeeere’s Johnny!,” hosted Star Search during its heyday from 1983 to 1995. The show originally filmed at the old Earl Carroll Theatre on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.
“I turned down the show [Star Search] three times,” McMahon confessed to the Television Academy. “But they convinced me we’d find stars.”
Many critics at the time were quite vocal about the frequent junior talent featured on the show: “too many cutesy pie” kid performers.
“But the audience loved to see the kids,” McMahon explained.
Star Search provided the traditional blueprint for TV singing competition shows of today. Two selected contestants would compete – a champion and a challenger. The challenger would usually perform first, while the champion performed second. All acts were judged by a panel of four judges, and each judge could award an act from one to four stars (later changed to five stars).
Credit: T.P.E. / Rysher Entertainment
Once both acts were complete, McMahon revealed the scores and the best average won. If there was a tie, a studio audience vote broke the tie, in which case the results were revealed at the end of the show.
No talent show, not even American Idol or America’s Got Talent, ever spawned as many superstars as Star Search. Plus, many hugely successful singers got their start on the program including two The Voice coaches, Christina Aguilera and Usher.
“We found some stars,” McMahon said.
Interestingly, all of the platinum-selling singers on this list didn’t win. Thanks to the magic of retro VHS technology and advances in new-school digitization, the internet is awesomely awash in grainy, incriminating Star Search footage. In alphabetical order, here are some of the most notable runner-ups who became household names.
“If at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again.” In 2000, Aaliyah shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 Chart with those rose-colored lyrics from her Romeo Must Die soundtrack single “Try Again” produced by frequent collaborator Timbaland and penned by Static Major.
“I was on Star Search when I was 10,” Aaliyah told Craig Kilborn on The Late Late Show. “I sang ‘My Funny Valentine.’”
Aaliyah lost on the show, however, she signed with Jive Records just two years later. Over the years, she releasedthree multi-platinum albums and starred in two movies before her death in 2001.
Credit: Maverick / Warner Bros.
In 1990, a 14-year-old Alanis Morissette performed the upbeat dance-pop record “One Bad Apple” and though she had more material prepared, she didn’t get to perform it because she lost in the first round. She wasn’t too upset about losing. In her self-titled biography, she explained “gaining exposure [Star Search] was the real goal.”
Afterwards, as part of a recording deal with Maverick Records, she moved to Los Angeles. In 1995, she released Jagged Little Pill, a more rock-oriented album which is one of the best-selling albums of all time.
Isn’t it ironic?
Credit: Ivy Park
In 1993, when she was 12 years old, Beyoncé Knowles took the Star Search stage with five other girls (Kelly, LaTavia, Nikki, Nina and Ashley) as part of the act Girl’s Tyme. Beyoncé once told Yahoo Music that the 1993 incarnation of what McMahon awkwardly called her “hip-hop rappin'” group was a TLC vibe with shades of Kris Kross.
They performed an original song with a high energy choreographed dance routine but lost to a much older all-male rock band. Normally the losing group wouldn’t make history, but this one was an exception. An audio clip of the Star Search performance amusingly opens Beyoncé’s Hit-Boy produced track “Flawless.” She has since referred to the experience as “a defining moment of her childhood,” according to People.
“At that time, you don’t realize you could work super hard and give everything you have and lose,” Beyoncé said.
Today, Beyoncé is one of the most powerful artists in the world.
Britney Spears sounded strong when she sang live on Star Search at age 11, back in 1992. She performed “Love Can Build a Bridge.” However, the judges thought her round two opponent was slightly stronger – she lost to 12-year-old Marty Thomas.
“I remember walking offstage thinking, ‘She’s going to beat me,'” Thomas told ABC News years later, admitting that he was “shocked out of his mind” when he actually won.
Although she didn’t win, her career catapulted to superstardom and she earned the title: pop princess.
It’s Britney, b*tch.
Credit: The Voice
Nine-year-old Christina Augilera delivered a goosebump-inducing rendition of “A Sunday Kind of Love” by Etta James on a 1990 Star Search episode. Although she didn’t win the round, she quickly became known as the little girl with a big voice.
As a coach on The Voice, she has often recounted the tale of her Star Search setback to encourage eliminated contestants to keep following their own dreams.
In 1992, long before he was wearing a suit and tie, 11-year-old Justin Timberlake opted for a cowboy look and country sound. The Memphis native, performing then as Justin Randall (first and middle name), belted out “Love’s Got a Hold on You” by Alan Jackson.
Justin’s hand-clapping boot scootin’ boogie performance did not come out on top, but soon thereafter he landed a gig on Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Club with fellow Star Search challengers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
The rest is boy band (NSYNC) and pop star (FutureSex/LoveSounds) history.
Credit: The X Factor
Kelly Rowland, one third of Destiny’s Child, confessed to Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg that the girls cried after their Star Search lost in 1993. The two founding members of Destiny’s Child performed with four other girls (LaTavia, Nikki, Nina and Ashley) as part of the act Girl’s Tyme.
“It was myself and Beyoncé,” Rowland added, “and we lost and we cried.”
Besides multiple Grammy, Soul Train Music, NAACP and Billboard Music awards, Kelly also served as a likeable judge on the eighth season of The X Factor UK in 2011 as well as the third season of The X Factor USA in 2013.
In 1991, at the age of 8, country prodigy LeAnn Rimes won her first Star Search round, but she didn’t make it to the finale after performing “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me” by Marty Robbins.
“It was my first lesson in losing,” Rimes told People TV. “I went back and I cried and I remember my godmother telling me she was going to take me to Disneyworld and I was fine.”
Six years after her defeat on Star Search, LeAnn made it all the way to the Grammy Awards. She became the youngest person to ever win a Grammy, for Best New Artist and Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
Credit: The Voice
You guessed it: Thirteen-year-old Usher lost on Star Search, too, but his appearance caught the attention of an A&R representative for LaFace Records.
Following the performance, — which featured the longest sustained note ever held by a child on the show, at 12 seconds — A.J. Alexander, who at the time was Bobby Brown’s bodyguard, arranged an audition for Usher with L.A. Reid, the co-founder of LaFace Records. Reid signed Usher on the spot to a contract with the record company after Usher sang “End of the Road” by Boyz II Men.
So, like Christina Aguilera, this Voice coach knows that winning a singing competition isn’t the end-all and be-all. While Usher’s actual Star Search performance seems to be lost forever (at least on the internet), other entertaining local talent show footage from the era, along with L.A. Reid’s commentary, surfaced in Usher’s “Behind the Music” special for VH1.
Kenneth Ware is a Texas native filled with a passion for writing, style, and a sense of humor. The Los Angeles-based writer’s credits include the New York Times, Houston Chronicle, and Washington Post.
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