By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
By Derek Askey
It used to be that people would joke with Julie Renn about her winning ways on Star Search. "What, are you having an affair with someone on the show? Are you buying your way in?" they would say.
Since 1984, when she began training dancers to perform on the now-eight-year-old syndicated TV show, Renn has had astonishing success. Last year Renn had two grand champions. This year she has one champion already and another vying for the crown in the finals to be broadcast May 18 on Channel 3.
Lately, even the show's producers have begun joking about giving her a private parking place at the studio and putting her on the payroll.
But success comes at a price. Last year, after two Renn-coached dance groups won grand prizes, the jokes took on an envious edge. This year, with 4 Boys and a Babe already crowned as 1991 junior dance champs and the teen dance group Perfectly Matched still in the hunt, that envy has curdled into open hostility.
"Everybody in Arizona hates me," Renn says. "The show isn't going to try and ban me for being too successful, but the other studios in town might."
With Renn as its most visible and successful starmaker, Phoenix has the bizarre distinction of being the world's most fertile region for Star Search talent. Phoenix has finalists in three out of the ten categories.
"Our eighth season could be called `Phoenixville,'" the show's host Ed McMahon says by phone from his Los Angeles office. "Never in the history of this program has there been such a predominance of talent, winning talent, from one spot."
Although Julie Renn accounts for most of the Arizona talent, she is not alone. She is, however, the choreographer and manager of five separate dance groups that made it onto the 1991 edition of the Saturday- night television show. The junior groups 4 Boys and a Babe and Mixed and Matched, the adult dance group Too Cool to Be Hot, and the teen dance groups Perfectly Matched and Basic Black all are 1991 Renn-coached Star Search entries.
A Christian dance studio in Tempe, Tempe Dance Academy, also saw two of its acts, Vital Signs and High Energy, make it onto the show. Two bands from Phoenix also appeared on Star Search, Brian Page and the Next, and Unity.
Phoenix's stairway to Star Search is so well trod that even elected officials have begun to recognize the Valley's prowess in TV talent. Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson has declared May 13 Star Search Day. A ceremony honoring the show and what its press people call its "success in discovering a wealth of Arizona talent," will be held at noon on Monday downtown at Arizona Center. Mayor Johnson and possibly Arizona Governor J. Fife Symington III will be on hand to present McMahon with a Star Search Day proclamation and a key to the city. McMahon's Star Search identity has come to rival that of his Tonight Show fame.
"It's becoming a bizarre experience for me," McMahon says. "Ten years ago most kids had never even heard of me. Today, I walk through airports and I'm mobbed by six-year-olds wanting autographs."
In case you've had something better to do on Saturdays at 6 p.m., Star Search is the old reliable talent-show format tailored to the peculiar show-biz skills of the Nineties.
Contestants perform in a variety of categories. Over the life of the show, the categories have grown until there are now ten: male vocalist, female vocalist, teen vocalist, junior vocalist, adult dance, junior dance, teen dance, comedy, TV spokesmodel and bands. Juniors are defined as children up to twelve years old and teens as thirteen through seventeen. There are two separate rounds in the competition. Finalists from round one eventually go head to head against the finalists from round two.
The show's biggest claims to fame include discovering bubble-gum-pop singer Tiffany, country band Sawyer Brown, and comedian-sitcom star Sinbad.
But the best-loved part of the show among Star Search addicts is the campy TV spokesmodel category. With the same T&A appeal as the Dallas Cowboys' cheerleader line, these shapely contestants--the 1991 favorite calls herself "Simba Smith"--compete through swimsuit videos and help-Ed-introduce-the-next-act live spots during the show. It's during these segments that the show's gracious host revs up the charm, flashing his unnaturally perfect teeth and kindly inquiring about career plans. During this toothy display, McMahon is either holding trembling hands or sliding a comforting arm around trim midsections.
The judges for each category are a revolving panel of entertainment- industry bigwigs who, according to McMahon, "are pros at choosing and handling talent." Taped in Los Angeles at the Aquarius Theatre from August to September, the show airs in the spring.
Renn, who owns three Julie's Jazz Pizzazz dance studios, is a Mesa native who began her search for the stars in 1984 but didn't have a winner until 1987.
"Star Search is the only place dancers have to show off what they do," she says.
Renn chooses her groups, usually two mixed pairs of dancers, from kids who are enrolled in classes at her studio. Once she finds the right chemistry, Renn chooses a group's stage name, choreographs its routines, selects the music and costumes, rehearses it and even coaches it in the nerve-racking art of cultivating a stage presence.