For those of us old enough to remember 1999, the name TrueBliss brings about a wave of nostalgia. I must’ve been 10 when I lined up at the door of the Rotorua Sportsdrome, feverish with excitement at the prospect of seeing my new favourite band. I’d watched them on TV, I had their CD and before the end of the night, I had a T-shirt with their faces emblazoned across the front, which I’m sure I wore proudly to school the next day.
Not many people know that New Zealand was responsible for the advent of the reality TV music show. American Idol and Britain’s Got Talent may have co-opted the glory (if you can call it that) but it was our very own Popstars that kicked off the talent show craze, harnessing the power of television to propel a group of young Kiwi women from obscurity to overnight fame.
But what was it like being part of it? To celebrate New Zealand Music Month, we decided to find out more about that girl band that, for a short period of time, took the country by storm. So we asked Joe Cotton to share a few memories with us.
Villainesse: Why did you decide to apply to be on Popstars?
Joe Cotton: I had left school at 16 to study music at Whitireia Polytechnic, and after doing the 3-year diploma course I really wasn't sure what to do next. I had joined a covers band during my first year that was bringing in work in the weekends. But I was a bit lost… and poor!
So I started working at a music store. After nearly a year there an ad started playing on TV basically asking for female singers between a certain age group to audition for a musical project. There was no mention of a TV show at the time.
My Dad pretty much forced me into auditioning. And I figured… what did I have to lose?
What was the experience of being on a reality talent show like?
My whole world was turned upside down. I left my friends, my job, and my family to move to a different part of the country. I had NO idea what was going to happen, where I would live, how I would make money, whether I would get along with the other girls…
We would show up to film everyday, sometimes we were just rehearsing, or learning dance, sometimes we were recording at the studio or getting heinous makeovers.
At first it was odd that there were camera people around and we were asked to repeat certain “moments” that had happened because they hadn't caught it the first time, which felt really awkward, but after a while we forgot they were there.
It took a couple of months before the show actually went to air so we were just in this weird little bubble. Most of us were still working part time as well so it was kind of just like having a second job, the TV thing didn’t really factor into it.
After the first 2 episodes screened, that’s when it really hit home. Suddenly it felt like all eyes were on us. We couldn't go anywhere without being approached or followed. Everything we wore, everything we said, every time we were all together, people were talking about it. It was bizarre. And exciting. And terrifying.
And we were all very unprepared.
What were the best parts? And the worst?
The best parts were pretty much everything. At 20 years old, being signed by Sony, performing at events where 10 minutes earlier Neil Finn had performed, shooting videos (as hilarious as they are to watch back now), touring the country. It was amazing and exciting, and someone else was doing all the organising! Sweet.
And the girls. We may have fought like cats and dogs at times, but we could not have gone through that without each other. Thanks to that experience those girls are my family. Still. Forever.
The worst parts were that someone else was doing all of the organising. There were definitely times when it felt like we were a commodity rather than a group of young girls. We didn't really have anyone looking out for our best interests in the business sense. We felt lucky for the opportunity. We were told we were lucky for the opportunity and it felt like we were being ungrateful when we asked questions about money or rights to anything.
So we didn't for a long time. And when we did. Several things imploded.
Also editing. But anyone who does reality TV will tell you that. I got off easy most of the time but other girls did not and for that they were vilified.
Did the success of Tonight surprise you?
The success of the show, the success Tonight, the success of the tour. It was all too good to be true. Like a Dream. But it was all happening so fast I’m not sure we had the opportunity to really take a lot of it on board.
Were there any pearls of wisdom that you learnt from the whole experience?
Try to live in the moment, because you never know how long something is gonna last.
Silver lycra does not look good on ANYONE.
Make sure you pay attention to what’s going on with your business. Get a good accountant and make sure you have a manager that isn’t a massive rip off artist.
Do people recognise you from your time in TrueBliss? If so, what’s that like?
I would say I mostly get recognised for TrueBliss. I think it’s nice. It’s cool to think that it made that much of an impact that 18 years later people still remember it.
Do you miss TrueBliss?
Every couple of years four of us get back together and perform (Keri, Megan Erika) and we love it. It’s amazing being together and having all of those memories we share. Only now we’re older and wiser (well, they are) and we don’t fight about who’s got the coolest outfit. (Much.)
If I miss it, I just call the girls up and we organise a wine night and then I end up putting our album on. Mostly to piss off the bagpipe player across the street who insists on practicing for 3 hours a night. But also because of the nostalgia.
You reunited last year and performed at the Auckland Pride Parade. Did it bring back a flood of memories?
It is always amazing performing with the girls. The crowd was massive and so supportive. It did remind me of being on tour back in the day.
You’re with the Mermaids Dance Band now, and it seems like you guys have a great time. Do girl bands have more fun?
I have always been more comfortable performing in a group, and for whatever reason it’s mainly been girls.
I love it. They are my best friends. And sure, just like TrueBliss, sometimes there’s a drama over outfits, but the bond that I share with my Merms is amazing. We support each other, both on stage and in life.
Whether boybands are like that?? I dunno… It would be cool to think that Ronan Keating invites his Boyzone bros over and they put on their albums. Or that he drunk dials them when he’s having relationship troubles.
When did you start singing? Was music a big part of your childhood?
My parents were singers. They would do performances for church when I was growing up. My brother was also fully into music and was part of quite a popular Christian group called “The Lads”, so it was all around me as a child.
They were always trying to get me to sing, but I legit sucked until I was about 12. All of a sudden my voice just kind of… worked... and I’ve been singing in church choirs, school choirs and bands pretty much since then.
What drives you as a musician?
I just love music. I love the effect it has on people. The emotions it can conjure up, from pure elation to utter cry-your-face-off sadness. And I love that I can make people experience that. Or at least I can try.
Plus I suck at maths and science and PE… so what else was I gonna do?
What Kiwi songs are you listening to this NZ Music Month?
I have heard Brooke Fraser’s Therapy like a million times and I still can’t get enough.
Theia’s new song Treat You is awesome.
Ciaran McMeeken is both attractive and his latest song makes me feel chipper.
And Greenlight has been drunk danced to at my house more times than I care to admit.