For the past 20 years, American audiences have come to accept the notion that a singer can emerge from obscurity to stardom through that now-ubiquitous vehicle, the reality show. What many might not realize is that a familiar artist who continues to perform today broke out via what we’d now call a reality show 40 years ago. She went on to become a huge pop star in the 1980s and 1990s and continued on into film, TV, Broadway, Vegas residencies, and more. That star is Sheena Easton. Here’s how one audition and a journey of filmed uncertainty led to a career that’s lasted four decades and counting.
Born in Scotland in 1959, Sheena Orr earned a scholarship to attend the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. While taking classes from 1975 to 1979, she sang at night with a band. She was married for a short time in 1979; though she divorced her husband, she decided to keep her new last name, Easton. A tutor suggested that she audition for Esther Rantzen, who produced The Big Time for the BBC. The Big Time took people with potential in a particular area and helped them try to achieve fame or make a career while a camera crew documented their lives; earlier subjects had included a gymnast aspiring to be a trapeze artist, a comedian, and a prospective professional wrestler. Easton took a shot, and was chosen for the show.
The episode “Sheena Easton – Pop Singer” first aired on July 2, 1980. Easton was only 19 when the crew started shadowing her efforts to break into the business. The program set her up in meetings with established stars like Lulu and Dusty Springfield. Easton eventually got a deal with EMI and recorded two potential singles, “Modern Girl” and “9 to 5” (not to be confused with the Dolly Parton song). “Modern Girl” was released in the UK in February of 1980, ahead of the Big Time episode; it initially hit #58 on the UK chart, but the airing of the show drove it to the Top Ten. “9 to 5” benefitted even more from the bump, going to #3 and putting both songs in the Top Ten at the same time. By year’s end, Easton was piling up accolades, including being named “Best British Female Singer” by The Daily Mirror.
Plans were made to release “9 to 5” in the U.S., but the title was modified to “Morning Train (9 to 5)” because of the Parton song. For the May 2 and May 9, 1981, Billboard issues, “Morning Train (9 to 5)” was the #1 song on the Hot 100. “Modern Girl” hit U.S. radio while “Morning Train (9 to 5)” was still at the top of the charts, and that song went to #18. As luck would have it, Easton’s rise in the UK had landed her the plum assignment of recording the title song for the next James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only. Released in June of 1981, the song went to #4 in the States, #8 in the UK, and eventually earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. In just over a year, Easton had burst into worldwide success and earned the Best New Artist Grammy at the 1982 ceremony.
The next ten years saw Easton maintain a regular presence on the charts as she made a number of bold and inspired choices, including smart collaborations and efforts to show her versatility. In 1983, she had a crossover country #1 by dueting with Kenny Rogers on “We’ve Got Tonight.” That same year, her song “Telefone (Long Distance Love Affair)” went Top 10 and earned a Grammy nod for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Ballad “Almost Over You” was Top 40 Pop, #4 Adult Contemporary, and extremely popular around the world. Another duet, “Me Gustas Tal Como Eres” with Luis Miguel, resulted in a Grammy for Best Mexican-American Performance.
In 1984, Easton began a transition to a more dance-pop style coupled with a sexier image. That move only continued her success in the U.S. “Strut” was yet another Top Ten hit. Near the end of the year, Easton released the Prince-penned “Sugar Walls.” The suggestive tune found her swept up in the controversy generated by Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center; “Sugar Walls” was put on the PMRC’s “Filthy Fifteen” list alongside Prince’s own “Darling Nikki,” Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop,” and others. Televangelists criticized it, and some outlets wouldn’t play the (frankly, not remotely explicit) music video because of the lyrics. Almost predictably as a result, “Sugar Walls” went Top Ten Pop, and #1 on both the R&B and Dance/Club charts. The success of “Sugar Walls” gave her an unmatched distinction; she remains the only artist to have a #1 hit on each of Billboard’s five principal charts (Pop, Adult Contemporary, Country, R&B, and Dance).
Easton continued to collaborate with Prince, resulting in the #2 duet “U Got the Look” in 1987, for which she also appeared in his concert film Sign o’ the Times, and the Top 40 duet “The Arms of Orion” from 1989’s Batman soundtrack. It was during this period that Easton took a detour into acting, playing Sonny Crockett’s singer (and eventually doomed) wife Caitlin in a five-episode arc on Miami Vice. She took “The Lover in Me” to #2 in 1988, and notched her last American Top 40 hit in 1991 with “What Comes Naturally.” Easton’s move from the pop spotlight was partially of her own choosing. In her continued efforts to stretch her music, she recorded some critically acclaimed jazz standards. She also adopted two children in the mid-’90s, and shifted her schedules around motherhood. Easton was married four times, but split from her fourth husband in 2003.
Easton, much like the persona she took on in the mid-’80s, does what she wants. She’s been in Man of La Mancha and Grease (as Rizzo, of course) on Broadway, 42nd Street on the West End, and maintained Vegas residencies. She’s continued to act, appearing in a number of TV series, and lent her voice acting talents to everything from Phineas and Ferb to Scooby-Doo! and the Curse of the Loch Ness Monster. Easton will be performing live at New York’s Reimagined State Fair (with COVID protocols) later this summer.
At four decades and counting with 20 million records sold, Easton is certainly one of the most successful artists to ever launch from a reality TV platform. She did try to tell us that all the way back in 1981. It’s right there in “Modern Girl”: She is free to be, what she wants to be, ‘N all what she wants to be, is a modern girl. Mission accomplished, Ms. Easton.
Featured image: Sheena Easton in 2009. (Photo by djnaquin67; Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)
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