Seeing stars

The final hours with the final three contestants of “So You Want to Be a Star”

JUDGEMENT NIGHT <br>From left: Marisol, Boomer and Lisa Kelly take their positions as judges for the last episode of “So You Want to Be a Star.”

From left: Marisol, Boomer and Lisa Kelly take their positions as judges for the last episode of “So You Want to Be a Star.”

Photo By Mark Lore

The control room of the UPN 21 television studio resembles the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon—a small, cramped box with flickering control boards and a slight glow provided by a wall of TV monitors.

“So You Want to Be a Star” executive producer and creator Bob Condos greeted me and explained that the three finalists for the show’s final episode were about to be interviewed.

To be honest, I was vaguely familiar with the show—a local version of “American Idol” where contestants from all over Northern California are given a chance to flex their vocal prowess over pre-recorded Top 40 classics—but had never actually sat down and watched an episode.

But there I was. I looked at the rows of monitors, all flashing the same image of a small soundstage with an array of red leather furniture and an enormous Gold Country Casino logo in the background, as Condos and producer Ty Audronis relayed instructions to the stage manager through their headsets.

One at a time the finalists—Jeffrey Poppinga, Lou Evans and Kim Walker—walked on the stage and fielded questions about their experiences so far. All three agreed that their lives had taken quite an interesting turn over the past three months as they belted out a different song each week to avoid elimination at the hands of some faithful viewers and three feisty judges.

AND THEN THERE WERE THREE <br>Stylist Kristen Longstreet gets Kim Walker dolled up for the taping of the final show. The last episode was actually taped over three nights and Longstreet had the challenge of getting Walker’s hair to look the same for each shoot.

Photo By Mark Lore

And just like that, I went from being completely oblivious to “So You Want to Be a Star” to sitting in on the taping of the final show where the three finalists would be duking it out for $25,000 cash, 5,000 bucks-worth of furniture and an opportunity to sing the National Anthem at a Sacramento Kings game.

Like “The Morris Taylor Show,” there’s sort of a campy appeal to the “So You Want to Be a Star.” And whether by choice or sheer morbid curiosity, it’s safe to say a fair amount of viewers tune in every Sunday night.

“It was so ridiculous, I couldn’t change the channel,” commented one local DJ who had just caught one of the recent episodes.

I admit it was good fun. And being a live-audience member, I got to see all the behind-the-scenes action, like host Linda Regan—who sang in Dean Martin’s backup group “The Golddiggers” from 1977 to 1991—flubbing some of her lines or the stylist’s dismay with contestant Lou Evans’ wrinkled jacket before his final performance.

I also witnessed first-hand the friction between the performers and the panel of judges.

“Two of our judges make Simon Cowell look like an altar boy,” said Condos, referring to Marisol from Mix 95.1 and Club 96.7’s Boomer. “As producers we love it—you know; the more drama the better.”

Walker sings the final number after winning the competition.

Photo By Mark Lore

In fact Lisa Kelly, the easy going, longtime radio personality and current DJ at Thunder 100.7, seemed to be the only judge who avoided the wrath of viewers.

Condos said the show’s Web site received some 4,000 hits per day. And while the producers didn’t seem to mind when Marisol compared Poppinga to a bad Vegas act, viewers were quick to defend the performers on the forum after a rough night with the judges:“IT WAS OBVIOUS THAT MARISOL HAD SOMETHING PERSONAL AGAINST JEFF FROM THE VERY BEGINNING! HER COMMENTS TO HIM WEEK AFTER WEEK WERE SO RUDE AND ABSOLUTELY HIT WAY BELOW THE BELT!!!! BUT TO HER DISMAY, HIS TALENT AND CLASS OUT SHINED HER LAME COMMENTS! GOOD LUCK JEFF! GOD BLESS YOU! YOU ARE AWESOME!”

But God wouldn’t help Poppinga win this one. And Marisol’s sassy demeanor wouldn’t stop when the cameras did: “Online support is apparently important in this competition and that makes me really sad,” she quipped after the taping.

The three performers couldn’t have been more different, which I’m sure was part of the show’s appeal.

Poppinga, wearing his trademark blazer and beaded necklace, carries his casino circuit patois with him—confident, a little cheesy, but harmless—and is also the voice behind that catchy In Motion Fitness jingle. I don’t think his decision to perform .38 Special’s “Hold On Loosely” surprised anyone in the room.

Jeffrey Poppinga is all smiles and received a lot of support from online votes.

Photo By Mark Lore

Evans kept everyone loose, clowning around and taking his pro baseball swagger to the stage.

“My whole mindset was, ‘I’m going to win this thing,’” said Evans, who signed with Florida Marlins in 2001 before being released last year after an injury.

Kim Walker, on the other hand, said she blushed when a woman recognized her as “the singing lady” at the bank she works at in Redding. Walker was actually voted off the show before being brought back by the producers as a “wild card.”

The final night brought out a decent-sized crowd of family and friends—required to sign a form of secrecy to ensure nobody leaked the winner before the airing of the final episode. I certainly had my hunches.

With the finalists having already performed their final songs at an earlier taping (Walker had to take a belt of brandy before her final performance to help ease a cold), there was nothing left to do but wait. The producers played back the tape with the performances and bios, which were met with applause from the audience members, as was the heavy mention of the show’s sponsors—Gold Country Casino and Ashley Furniture.

Since there was only one chance to shoot the announcement of the winner (with buckets of confetti to be dropped on the contestants), the producers were a little tense.

Lou Evans takes the stage for his version of “The Letter” by The Boxtops.

Photo By Mark Lore

Condos gave the instructions and the tape started rolling. The envelope made its way into Regan’s hand and she ripped it open (not before cutting away to plug Michael Bolton’s upcoming performance at Gold Country).

The confetti fell; the final shot seamless.

Of course the winner is no secret by now. But I ended up looking like a genius since I had been bragging about how I knew who the winner was before it was announced. So what is Kim Walker going to do now?

“Recording, performing; go see the Kings, Disneyland and shopping.”

Of course.

I actually caught a glimpse of Walker on television during the Sacramento Kings game. And although I missed her rendition of the National Anthem, I saw the humble Walker chatting it up with Kings sideline reporter Jim Kozimor during the halftime show.

“It was such a rush of adrenaline,” she said. “It’s like a dream come true.”

Good for Kim. And her good fortune must have rubbed off on the Kings, too, as they smacked around the visiting Portland Trail Blazers for a 115-91 victory.