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'They just wanted a chance at stardom': It only ran for one series - but Popstars certainly wasn't short on drama

We take a look at the good, bad and the bizarre of Ireland’s TV past every Wednesday in The Tube.

Six contestants made it to the band.
Six contestants made it to the band.

IT HAS BEEN 19 years since Louis Walsh, Linda Martin and Bill Hughes entered our lives in the search for Ireland’s next big thing. 

The trio of judges fronted Popstars in 2001, the nationwide search that would see 5,000 hopefuls audition at venues across the country, with contestants eventually whittled down to fill just half a dozen places in the final band.

The final product? The short-lived ‘Six’ (groups with numbers in the title were quite a thing back in the late ’90s and early-2000s, you may recall). 

The show ran for just one series, as did its UK equivalent which would introduce Hear’Say to the world. News reports from the time describe the Irish production, which ran on RTÉ One, as a “ratings hit”, attracting almost 900,000 viewers, and commanding a 60% overall share of the views on the night it aired. 

In a time before the X Factor and the ‘Got Talent’ phenomena, it delivered some of the most memorable of Irish reality TV moments – not least the passport controversy that surrounded Girls Aloud’s Nadine Coyle or the unsuccessful audition of The Saturday’s Una Healy. 

But what was it that made such a new concept to Irish TV audiences so appealing? 

“It was just a really exciting thing to do with the young people of Ireland. It was a case of pointing the camera out there and just saying ‘is there anyone out there?’, and Jesus, there was so many out there,” former Popstars judge Bill Hughes explained to TheJournal.ie

“They showed up and we had to put corrals out. It’s what you see now on X Factor and stuff like that only we were doing it in big hotels around the country and they were queueing down the street and in the rain, they just wanted a chance at stardom.”

The show would only last for one 13-episode series and would be replaced the following year with the You’re A Star format that brought winners Mickey Joe Harte, Chris Doran, and Donna and Joe to the Eurovision contest. 

The modern day equivalents of the Popstars format are, of course, the X factor, Britain’s Got Talent, and The Voice. 

“They’ve all learned from it, this was the start. Popstars had one season in the UK and then one season here so nobody had learned any lessons, had any formulas, or nobody knew what the next thing to do was,” says Hughes. 

Everybody was making it up as we went along. The guy who had made the format came from Australia, it was Screen Time in Australia, he came and he just watched what was going on and he was delighted with what was going on. 

“The big thing was that Linda Martin and I could hear a bum note from a hundred yards so we just quickly got through it and there was no point in having any kids who couldn’t hold a note.” 

Hughes was recognisable figure in the music industry in Ireland at the time and notably directed most of Boyzone’s music videos. 

Following several knock out rounds based on solo performances, group harmonies, and choreography workshops, Sinéad Sheppard, Emma O’Driscoll, Sarah Keating, Andy Orr, Kyle Anderson and Liam McKenna were the six contestants to secure a place in the band. 

Sarah Keating, of course, made the cut only after Nadine Coyle was dropped from the band when it was discovered she was 16 years old at the time, while contestants were required to be over 18. 

Source: sixirishpopstars/YouTube

The band would go on to have two Irish chart number 1 singles with There’s a Whole Lot of Loving Going On and Let Me Be The One, before disbanding shortly after. Most of the popstars would eventually leave music behind them for careers in television and other professions. 

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“15/06/85 making me a Gemini”

But while the band didn’t achieve the level of success or longevity it had hoped for, the legacy of the show, for better or worse, has lived on in the iconic passport scene and exchange between judge and Eurovision winner Linda Martin and Nadine Coyle.

Coyle accidentally revealed her real date of birth was 15 June, 1985 and not 1983 which she had first claimed. 

Source: mipuri/YouTube

In a confrontation with Linda Martin, she doubles down and insists she is 18 before she admits off-camera that she is in fact 16. 

Said Hughes: “Strangely enough it was falling to me to go and tell her, I had to go and challenge her in the house but I was away on holidays and in America… they called me on the phone [...] and they told me about Nadine and the age and they were going to have to go to her. So I said ‘you’re going to have to get Linda’.” 

In a teary exchange between Martin and Coyle, the 16-year-old eventually admitted she had lied and that sealed her fate with the band. 

In interviews since, Coyle has claimed she wasn’t aware there was an age requirement to be in the band initially and has admitted being naive about how serious producers would be about it.

The Derry girl would go on to secure a place in Girls Aloud in the UK’s Popstars: The Rivals series, and to tremendous success but to this day, she is still being asked in interviews about her time on the Irish show. 

“She really had the last laugh, didn’t she,” says Hughes. “If she’d still been in Six, she wouldn’t have qualified to get into Girls Aloud and if she didn’t have Girls Aloud, she would have the life she has. She wouldn’t have had the career she’s had with, what, 20 hit singles in the UK.”

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