Losing to Win: Remembering the Real Stars of 'Star Search' - Rolling Stone
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Losing to Win: Remembering the Real Stars of ‘Star Search’

Ten years ago this month, “Star Search” went off the air for good. The pioneering TV talent competition, which had its heyday during its Ed McMahon years from 1983 to 1995, underwent an Arsenio Hall-hosted reboot in 2003, but by that time, a little show called “American Idol” had come along and stolen its thunder.

But truth be told, no talent show, not even “Idol,” ever spawned as many superstars as “Star Search” did. Many hugely successful singers got their start on the charmingly cheesy show (including future Idols David Archuleta, Diana DeGarmo, and Kimberly Caldwell; current “Voice” contestant Josh Kaufman; and two “Voice” coaches, Christina Aguilera and Usher). Interestingly, many of these singers didn’t win. But that obviously didn’t slow them down.

Thanks to the magic of old-school VHS technology and advances in new-school digitization, the Internet is awesomely awash in grainy, incriminating “Star Search” footage. Here are the best clips from the series’ most notable losers and/or future stars:

Justin Timberlake (aka Justin Randall)

In 1992, long before he was wearing a suit and tie, 11-year-old Justin opted for a cowboy look (and sound). He wasn’t exactly bringing sexy back, but he sure was a cute kid. Justin lost out to a precocious baby diva named Anna Nardona, who later went back to having a normal childhood; Anna didn’t even realize that she’d won over the Justin Timberlake until VH1 contacted her years later for a “Star Search” flashback special.

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Destiny’s Child (aka Girls Tyme)

Beyoncé once told Yahoo Music that this 1993 incarnation of what Ed McMahon awkwardly called her “hip-hop rappin'” group was going for a TLC vibe, although there were shades of Kris Kross and the “Living Single” theme song here, too. Surprisingly, the hype girl in this group actually managed to outshine baby Bey onstage… but when Girls Tyme lost out to hairy rock band Skeleton Crew’s perfect score, that might have been a sign that it was time to change direction, and soon she was gone. An audio clip of this “Star Search” performance amusingly opens Beyoncé’s recent hit, “Flawless.” Skeleton Crew, who were shocked that they won, recently told People, “[We’ve] always said that Skeleton Crew will remain a footnote in the career of Beyoncé… This is Beyoncé’s story, and obviously our ‘destiny’ was to play a part in it. If that experience helped to shape her and make her into what she is now, then what more can we ask?”

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Britney Spears

Britney gets a lot of flak for lip-synching these days, but she sounded surprisingly strong when she sang live on “Star Search” at age 11, back in ’92. However, the judges thought her round two opponent, Marty Thomas, was slightly stronger, giving him a perfect four stars (Britney got a score of 3.75). “I remember walking offstage thinking, ‘She’s going to beat me,'” Marty told ABC News years later, admitting that he was “shocked out of [his] mind” when he actually won.

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Christina Aguilera

Nine-year-old Xtina slayed some Etta James on a 1990 “Star Search” episode, but still lost to a 12-year-old named Christopher Eason. Adding insult to injury, Ed McMahon didn’t even pronounce her name properly. But Christina got her revenge, obviously, and 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. As for Christopher, he grew up to be an Oklahoma City barista, although he is still pursuing music. “Sometimes things just don’t work out the way that you planned,” he recently told “Inside Edition.”

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Alanis Morissette (aka Alanis Nadine)

Isn’t it ironic? Before she was winning Grammys, the 14-year-old Alanis was losing on “Star Search.” Maybe she tapped into some rage stemming from that humiliating 1990 incident when she went into the studio to record her angst-ridden future hit, “You Oughta Know,” five years later.

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Aaliyah (aka Aaliyah Haughton)

In 1989, a 10-year-old Aaliyah competed in “Star Search’s” Junior Vocalist division, bravely taking on the mature standard “My Funny Valentine” and actually doing it justice. She lost to 11-year-old Katrina Abrams, who went on to have a respectable pop/dance career — but it was Aaliyah, who signed with Jive Records just two years after her “Star Search” loss, who became a superstar.

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LeAnn Rimes

In 1991, at the age of 8, country prodigy LeAnn won her first “Star Search” round against Levi Garrett — but she didn’t make it all the way to the finale. Six years later, she did make it all the way to the Grammy Awards, when she became the youngest person to ever win a Grammy, for Best New Artist and Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

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Usher (aka Usher Raymond IV)

Thirteen-year-old Usher lost on “Star Search,” but his appearance — which featured the longest sustained note ever held by a child on the show, at 12 seconds — caught the attention of an A&R representative for LaFace Records. The rep introduced Usher to LaFace’s L.A. Reid, and the rest was history. 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 Web), other adorable local talent show footage from the era, along with L.A. Reid’s commentary, surfaced in Usher’s “Behind the Music” special for VH1.

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Tiffany (aka Tiffany Renee)

Tiffany made it to second place on “Star Search” in 1985, eventually losing to Melissa Moultrie’s perfect score. Two years later, Tiffany dropped the “Renee,” released her debut album, became a shopping-mall sensation, and went quadruple-platinum.

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Bobbie wasn’t a singer — she competed in the show’s “Spokesmodel” category (and, unlike the contestants listed above, actually won multiple times). But she forever has a place in rock ‘n’ roll history as the star of Warrant’s iconic “Cherry Pie” video, ex-wife of Warrant’s Jani Lane, ex-fiancée of Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee, author of the memoir “Dirty Rocker Boys: Love and Lust on the Sunset Strip,” and current cast member of Fuse’s “Ex-Wives of Rock.” And to think, it all started with “Star Search!”

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