Before the reign of American Idol and The Voice, there was Star Search. Realty competition shows may be a dime a dozen today, but in 1983, Star Search’s (admittedly cheesey) brand of earnest brought in millions of viewers. However, the thing that makes the original 12 year run of Star Search remain relevant today is the shockingly large number of indisputably huge stars that got their first shot at a national audience on the show. Here’s how Star Search got started and to whom it gave massive starts.
In 1940, Al Masini was a ten-year-old working in a Tootsie Roll factory because his father had died and his family needed the money. By the 1960s, he was a Korean War veteran, a college graduate, and an experienced TV sales rep. Masini turned his attention toward programming for independent stations in the 1970s, co-founding a group called Operation Prime Time. It enabled indie stations to pool resources and produce big-budget programs that might compete with the fare offered by the major networks. As a producer, Masini was responsible for creating 1980s staples like Entertainment Tonight, Solid Gold, Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous, and Star Search.
Talent programs were nothing new, but Star Search was built in a completely different way. Contestants competed in their chosen category (most frequently: Male Vocalist, Female Vocalist, Junior/Teen Vocalist, Vocal Group, Spokesmodel, Comedy, Dance, and Junior/Teen Dance, though some seasons had other categories, like Acting). If a contestant won the vote from the panel of judges, they would return the following week; contestants that won a certain number of times (which varied by season) would advance to the semifinals to compete to be champion of the season. At the hosting helm was Ed McMahon, the much-loved sidekick of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and then co-host (with Dick Clark) of TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes. When Star Search started hitting the syndicated airwaves on May 31, 1983, McMahon was a big part of the initial draw.
While no acts were guaranteed any kind of record deal or contract coming out of the first season, winners Sam Harris (Male Vocalist), Sawyer Brown (Vocal Group), Tracey Ross (Spokesmodel), and Brad Garrett (Comedy) were quickly signed to deals or experienced major career movement. Harris signed with Motown while Sawyer Brown signed with Capitol. Harris became a multi-hyphenate performer with hits on the Hot 100, TV and Broadway roles, production credits, and critically acclaimed books. Sawyer Brown has hit the Country Charts more than 50 times in an ongoing career that includes three Country number ones. Ross joined the cast of Ryan’s Hope after Star Search and spent nine years on NBC’s Passions. And Garrett, only 23 at the time, quickly made the biggest booking a young stand-up could make in 1983: appearing on Carson’s Tonight Show. Garrett was immediately opening for the likes of Sinatra in Vegas and on the way to an acclaimed career that included nine seasons on Everybody Loves Raymond, during which he won three Emmys.
And while that’s a solid starting roster, it merely sets the stage for a number of further talented winners. In the Comedy category, 1985 winner John Kassir found fame as a voice actor, both as the Crypt Keeper on HBO’s Tales from the Crypt and as Disney’s official Scrooge McDuck since 2016. Jenny Jones won for Comedy in 1986 and notably hosted her own eponymous talk show for 12 years. Winners got even bigger in the Junior Vocalist category, which saw victories for future pop star Shanice (1984) and LeAnn Rimes (1991); Rimes would go on to win both the Best New Artist Grammy and Best Female Country Vocal Performance for her smash hit “Blue” in 1997.
While some of the season winners had notable careers, Star Search has become legendary for how massive some of the non-winners became. Among the comedians to take their turns on the stage were Dave Chappelle, Ray Romano, Adam Sandler, Conan O’Brien, Dennis Miller, Dana Gould, Bill Engvall, Carlos Mencia, Drew Carey, Steve Oedekerk, Sinbad, Kevin James, Rosie O’Donnell, Norm Macdonald, and Martin Lawrence. That’s a frankly incredible line-up of a comedic talent, and not one was a season champion. In the Spokesmodel and Acting categories, the show saw a number of contestants build lengthy IMDB pages. Those talents included Joe Lando (Sully from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman), Mitzi Kapture (Silk Stalkings; Baywatch), Eva LaRue (All My Children; CSI: Miami), Garcelle Beauvais (The Jamie Foxx Show; NYPD Blue; Spider-Man: Homecoming), and, oh yeah, Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct; Casino).
The musical also-rans consisted of an even more shockingly seismic group of entertainers. Many of them appeared on national TV for the first time on the show in the Junior/Teen categories and they would leave indelible marks on the pop charts in the years that followed. In 1985, Tiffany performed on the show; the following year she signed with MCA and in 1987 took her cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” to #1 in the U.S. Alanis Morissette, years before making the turn to the darker alternative rock that would see win seven Grammys and sell 75 million records, appeared in 1988. A then ten year-old Aaliyah competed in 1989 long before she became the Princess of R&B. Superstar Usher appeared in 1991, and Mr. Worldwide himself, Pitbull, performed under his given name of Armando Perez in 1994.
Star Search was also the staging ground for the late ’90s teen pop explosion. Between 1990 and 1993, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and Justin Timberlake (credited as Justin Randall) all appeared. Aguilera was just eight when she showcased her already-present vocal power. The Backstreet Boys, featuring the same five members that comprise the group today (Brian Littrell, Nick Carter, AJ McLean, Kevin Richardson, Howie Dorough), actually made the show in the same year that they formed. Spears was 10 when she performed, and Timberlake (sporting a huge cowboy hat) was twelve. Soon after, Aguilera, Spears, and Timberlake would all land on the revival of The Mickey Mouse Club alongside JC Chasez, Ryan Gosling, and Keri Russell. By the turn of the decade, they’d all be huge stars. Aguilera, Spears, Timberlake (alone and with *NSYNC) and Backstreet have sold a combined 310 million albums worldwide.
And yet, that collective still isn’t the biggest star to emerge from Star Search defeat. In 1993, a group called Girl’s Tyme made their debut on the show. The six members were sisters Nina and Nikki Taylor, Támar Davis, LaTavia Roberson, Kelly Rowland, and, as you may have guessed by now, Beyoncé Knowles. Over time, Beyoncé has ascribed the group’s Star Search loss to the fact that the girls rapped instead of sang. After the show, her father, Mathew, took on management duties, and her mother, Tina, began designed their outfits. Mathew Knowles replaced the Taylor sisters and Davis with LeToya Luckett. In 1996, the girls took the name Destiny’s Child, and they charted for the first time the following year. By 2000, the iconic trio of Beyoncé, Kelly, and Michelle Williams was set. The group would go on to sell 60 million albums.
But then Beyoncé became a phenomenon unto herself. In terms of Grammys, MTV Video Music Awards, Soul Train Music Awards, BET Awards, and NAACP Image Awards, she has more of each than any other artist. She has 31 Top Ten singles between her solo work and Destiny’s Child. According to Billboard, she is the most successful Black touring artist ever and the highest-earning Black artist in history, selling over 200 million records. And she didn’t even make it out of the first round.
Star Search was briefly revived in 2003 and 2004 during the glut of reality competition shows that blew up in the wake of American Idol. And while successful singers like Tori Kelly passed through, very few had the impact of the stars born from the original series. The thing that made Star Search unique, apart from a single enthusiastic host in McMahon and a focus on acts over celebrity judges, was its willingness to take on so many different types of talent in one show. Regardless of whether some future stars won or lost, Star Search did what it set out to do: the show found stars, even if they judges didn’t know them all at the time.
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