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.
She has an undeniable gift for finding and polishing perky groups that project a wholesome, blue-eyed, blond-haired innocence. Her choreography is a flashy, music video-influenced combination of high-stepping Vegas stage techniques and the kind of gymnastic moves that show hard, young bodies in their best light. Most are done to punchy, keyboard-heavy dance music. Renn's costume designs tend toward baggy but stylish Cossack numbers that are easy to move around in but jazzy enough to catch the judge's eye. Onstage, all these elements coalesce into a short but sparkling whole. In essence, this soft-spoken, modest perfectionist is a kinder, gentler starmaker.
"In a general way, I know they are looking for something that's entertaining and not just cute," Renn says. "And it's got to be entertaining to somebody who isn't a professional, who's just the average person who turns on the TV and says, `Wow, these guys are fun and exciting, they flipped and they turned and hey, they're really cute, too.'"
It is a measure of Renn's success that in some categories her groups compete against each other. In the first round, the eventual junior dance champs 4 Boys and a Babe knocked out another Renn entry, Mixed and Matched. The master teacher says the kids take these kinds of situations well. It's the parents who freak out.
"When two of my groups go up against each other, it gets tense," Renn says. "Some of the parents get so competitive and nervous, they end up biting their fingers off. I've learned that when we get to the studio, the parents and kids have to be separated. The parents are definitely worse than the kids."
The reasons she got involved with Star Search to begin with are what keep her coming back. "It's not the only competition, but it's the only nationally televised one. The only one where you get to strut your stuff in front of a lot of people. It's a good steppingstone for the kids and it keeps them inspired. Plus, you get paid."
Star Search flies all its contestants to L.A., pays for room and board and even kicks in spending money. On top of that, contestants are paid each time they appear. Renn's dance group got $400 per person per show. Bands get $500 per person per show. The grand prize is $20,000 for the teen and junior categories, and $100,000 in the adult slots.
When Renn's dance group Personality Plus became last year's teen dance grand champs, Renn shared evenly in the group's $20,000 prize. She also charges the parents for the rehearsal time, the costumes and the artist-management work.
That's not all. A win on Star Search can open doors. This year's junior dance champ 4 Boys and a Babe has already been on the Arsenio Hall Show, Regis and Kathie Lee, and the Wide World of Kids. Last week they performed for President George Bush as a part of Arnold Schwarzenegger's annual White House workout session. Personality Plus has appeared on both American and Italian television.
Like her groups, Renn is taking advantage of the spin-offs. Business at her three dance studios has picked up and she has been contacted about choreographing a show in Las Vegas. She is also serving as artistic manager for many of her groups. For that she takes the standard fee of 15 percent.
Another local group that has prospered from the exposure gained on Star Search is Brian Page and the Next. A straightahead rock band that's a regular on the Tempe club scene, Page's group also worked its way up to the show's May 18 finale. Because Star Search is a union show, the band was paid its first union scale, $500 per member per show. The band has also received several calls about bookings, management deals and recording.
Getting to the big bucks and big exposure, however, is a long and arduous journey. First, you have to beat out a bewildering number of applicants--the show estimates 20,000 in all for 1991. Of that number, only 168 made it to the stage. If you are one of the lucky few to make the cut, the taping schedule can be brutal. All in all, the acts can compete six different times in five days. And each performance has to be a different dance number. Renn has six dance routines rehearsed and six sets of costumes ready for each act before any one of them goes to L.A.
And then there are legal hurdles. The show is very particular about music. A song can be performed only a single time, no matter how many groups have it in their repertoire. The show must be able to purchase rights to all music. If buying the rights costs too much, the show insists performers choose another tune.
Brian Page and the Next used its own music, so there were no problems with copyrights. The band was asked to take its five best songs and edit them down to two minutes. The instrumental parts were then prerecorded here in Phoenix. Onstage, Page sang live over the playback.
"Hey, it's TV, what can I tell you," Page says about his band's fake playing. "In the big picture, it was a real positive thing. What have you got to lose? All the exposure you get is amazing. I mean, eighteen million people are watching."
That magic number--eighteen million--is one that everyone associated with the show knows by heart. It rolls off Julie Renn's tongue several times.
Now that the Valley is awash in Star Search veterans, what is the magic that separates the stars from the show-biz asteroids, the winners from the also-rans?
Citing Tiffany and Sinbad as stars who made it despite losing in the finals, McMahon says winning is not the key.
"Really, just being on the show is the key," he says. "You don't have to win for your career to take off."
For Brian Page, the judging was unpredictable and so, he reasons, fair.
"The show is really subjective. I guess it all depends on the judge's personality," Page says. "I watched acts that I knew were going to win and they lost. We didn't even expect to win, let alone become stars out of it."
Busy readying six new groups for the 1992 edition of the show, Julie Renn has become an old hand at taking Star Search in stride.
"It takes a lot of hard work and then a little luck," she says. "And I've learned that the best doesn't always win."
Phoenix has the bizarre distinction of being the world's most fertile region for Star Search talent.
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Mayor Paul Johnson has declared May 13 Star Search Day.
The best-loved part of the show among Star Search addicts is the campy TV spokesmodel category.
She has an undeniable gift for finding and polishing perky groups that project a wholesome, blue-eyed, blond-haired innocence.
"Hey, it's TV, what can I tell you," he says about his band's fake playing.