The Pussycat Dolls Present could have been the defining hate-watch of the millennial generation. Why wasn’t it?

The Pussycat Dolls, circa 2006

For a short period in the mid-2000s, the Pussycat Dolls were seemingly inescapable.

By all historic accounts, the Dolls’ domination (this would eventually become the name of their second album) was short-lived. They first hit the scene with the release of their unoriginally titled album PCD and the smash single “Don’tcha.” By 2009, a year after the release of their second album and the single “When I Grow Up,” the Dolls, having already gone through a lineup change, were a pop culture footnote.

Timeline-wise, it might not seem different than the rise and fall of any other female-fronted pop act; Jessica Simpson clung to relevance for much longer and Avril Lavigne made it to at least three albums before her former target demographic aged out of her music and style. But the Dolls’ journey, steered by the ambitious and utterly confounding Robin Antin, came at a time when it mattered. All-girl pop acts, and even solo acts, had been on the downturn. The Spice Girls had been essentially defunct for half a decade, but not before drowning competition from the likes of All Saints, Nobody’s Angel and other toothy create-a-groups. Britney and Christina had proven the most resilient of the former teen idols, although the former’s public breakdown occurred partway through the Dolls’ industry victory lap and suddenly the perky, pigtailed girl who bopped around in a school uniform and did backhandsprings in front of a high school was just too darn depressing for public consumption.

That’s the thing about the Dolls: they were fun. They were certainly more oversexed than the then-dominant sound of the day — angsty, Hot Topic-trenched teen bop that positioned itself as Johnny Rotten for white, suburban mallrats — but they were unapologetic about it. They were midriffs. They were hot pants. They were stilettos. They were an embodiment of all that was feminine, without any of the precocious, self-infantilizing cutesiness that femininity had previously been served with. And, most frustrating and fascinating about the Dolls was a remarkable sense of self-awareness. Their videos were seemingly parodies of themselves, and criticism from panicking moral guardians only made them more powerful. The Dolls never attempted to peddle a more sexless, conservative version of themselves. That was seemingly driven by Antin, who doesn’t just lean into her brand of hypersexual cinnamon bubblegum; she is it. Much like the hot girl in school who shrugs and defiantly asks “so what?” when you point out that she has a C-average, Antin and, by extension, the Dolls knew that they weren’t considered respectable virtuosities. But they knew they made money. As recently as 2015, Antin bragged to the LA Times that every woman secretly wants to be “a Doll.” Whether or not she’s right, her confidence is admirable.

One of the most frequent joking points about the Dolls was how many of them there were; with six members it was greater than the unspoken-yet-established maximum of five. There was even more of a lampshade on the number of members because they were seemingly personality-free. Lead singer Nicole Sherzinger was usually the only vocalist to ever carry the lead lines, while most fans would have been hard-pressed to name the other five without some degree of hesitation. So it was not only a surprise, but also a punchline on the most exhausting joke in the universe, when the Dolls launched a reality show to find their seventh member.

The Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll was part American Idol, part America’s Next Top Model, part The Bad Girls Club. It premiered on March 6, 2007 on the CW. In it, 12 (immediately narrowed down to nine) multi-talented young women compete to become the seventh Doll. They sung, they danced, they cried, they screamed (my god, they screamed) with weekly eliminations in between. On April 24, Asia Nitollano was crowned the sixth Doll and, as an added punchline, performed only once with the group (at the CW Upfronts one month later) and opted to not accept the contract offered to her. The series premise was moot, but that didn’t stop prodco 10x10 Entertainment from launching a second iteration of The Pussycat Dolls Present in 2008, this time to form a whole new group. Similar format: the girls went through a clumsy audition process, moved into a house together and cat-fought their ways to the final episode, with middling results in between. Girlicious, the final group, saw only marginal success and one lineup change before disbanding in 2011.

I’d only ever known how to enjoy things sincerely before, to find joy in the joy of others and to sympathize with their downfalls. But there was such a dirty, sad catharsis in watching these women go through the paces in cheaply bedazzled corsets, crumbling into clumsy catfights over things that did not matter. Still, to this day, when I am having a bad day, it is one of the most absurdly uplifting things I can turn to — there are entire episodes on YouTube that are not at all hard to find.

I’d only ever known how to enjoy things sincerely before, to find joy in the joy of others and to sympathize with their downfalls. But there was such a dirty, sad catharsis in watching these women go through the paces in cheaply bedazzled corsets, crumbling into clumsy catfights over things that did not matter. Still, to this day, when I am having a bad day, it is one of the most absurdly uplifting things I can turn to — there are entire episodes on YouTube that are not at all hard to find.

And yet, more than a decade later, few of my friends seem to remember this show even existing. Granted, we were out-of-market — U.S. reality shows of this genre tended to go to specialty networks like MuchMusic and W — but considering the Dolls themselves had been just as much of a part of the Canadian zeitgeist, I’ve had to work very hard to trigger the memories of most of my friends. At best, some were aware of the show’s existence, but can’t even remember watching past a single episode. The show, somehow, didn’t even make the mid-2000s time capsule, and apparently has not been considered important enough for the CW lawyers to snatch the illegal uploads down from YouTube.

So why wasn’t The Pussycat Dolls Present the defining hate-watch of a generation that, by all definition, loves to hate-watch things?

It fit the bill in many ways. Reality television is famously inexpensive to produce, but this show was the epitome of the word “cheap.” Whereas Top Model attracted sponsors such as CoverGirl (and the entire P&G family of health and beauty brands), Lee Jeans and Seventeen, ensuring that the contestants were always provided with endless supplies of low-end luxury, the closest thing to a sponsored challenge was a second-season fake red carpet event sponsored by In Touch Weekly. Hilariously, the winner was not even awarded a spread, a profile or any tangible swag to take home with her; she merely won because the judge “could see her” being in the magazine and then was given immunity for the week.

The performances also fit the bill for “cheap.” Shot in the dank, windowless Pussycat Dolls Lounge on the Sunset Strip, likely during the day, filled with minimal shots of the insignificant audience and featuring laughable audio quality, the girls appeared outfitted in polyester costume pieces that appeared pieced together from sale racks at Claire’s, La Senza and PacSun. The styling, while peak-2007 (unlined, overly slick lips with neatly pinned back-combs and stick-straight extensions), was also shockingly amateurish and shoddy. While choreographer Mikey Minden was clearly meant to be Antin’s breakaway star sidekick, this show lacked its version of the plucky and surprisingly competent Jay Manuel (both in terms of being a likeable, useful mentor figure and an actual good makeup artist). The makeup appeared completely unblended and non-complementary to each girl’s skin tone, that it invokes images the contestants fighting over a single palette of one-shade-fits-all Wet ’n’ Wild bronzer and trading frosty Bonnebell glosses in a humid backstage changing area, awkwardly awaiting any sense of direction.

Still, there’s generally joy — and lots of it — that one can derive from watching a production that is, by all accounts, in shambles. It’s why we still love The Room to this day. But even though the ramshackle production that was The Pussycat Dolls Present had no self-awareness, perhaps it wasn’t the six-feet-past-rock-bottom level required to truly remove one’s self from a reality (a reality where quality matters).

So maybe there’s charm in the talent factor. Talent competition formats had been mainstream in North America for just shy of a decade, and although it had been long accepted by the viewing public that many Idol and SYTYCD hopefuls would never be household names again, it was never difficult to derive joy and elation from the surprising and raw artistic talents of some of these contestants. But among these contestants, despite all the correct archetypes being present, was there but a single Travis Wall or a Fantasia? Even the crop on Top Model had delightful moments of brilliance from stunning models like Nik Pace, Brittany Hatch and Fatima Siad. It could be inspiring, even if it were decidedly escapist.

On the other hand, The Pussycat Dolls Present lacked an abundance of true talent. While the snappy, accented choreography was likely a challenge for the girls, it was nothing beyond what most industry backup dancers learn on a weekly basis — which is not to say anyone could do it, but rather that it lacked anything truly aspirational. Antin, who was a dancer first, seemed to prefer contestants who were serviceable as dancers but not necessarily as singers, noting that one can create a singer, but a dancer is born. So much so that certain contestants — like season one’s Mariela Artega, or season two’s Cassandra Porter and Jamie Lee Ruiz — could showcase muscular, flexible, legs for days, but could carry a tune so precariously, that they would have merely been folded into the montages of first-round Idol rejects. Few had talent that was otherworldly, particularly in vocals. Chelsea Korka was pushed as one of the powerhouse vocalists of the first season, but true trained ears would be hard-pressed to find anything impressive about her performance.

When there were moments of banal brilliance, it was rarely rewarded in a way that felt equitable or sensical. In the season finale of Girlicious, contestant Charlye, who had proven herself to be among the most deserving to be folded into a group of faceless, cheer-pop dancers who just happened to sing as well, was assigned a solo performance of the ballad “What About Love” — and rocked it. Tough call for even some of the most polished vocalists. Charlye’s competitor and rival Natalie, who had struggled with feedback on her vocals throughout the entire competition and at one point had stormed out of a rehearsal session, was assigned the Nelly Furtado single “Say it Right” — a repetitive R&B diddie showcasing little range or even a sense of dynamism or excitement. Guess which one made the group?

So the show was tacky, but not tacky enough, and showcased talent, but not enough talent. But was there another factor that prohibited The Pussycat Dolls Present from being a true experience of cringe and catharsis?

Consider, if you will, a trip down Instagram lane to see for yourself what some of the former contestants are doing now.

Mariela Artega has had a few bit parts in soap operas and has the occasional dance part in a commercial. Chelsea Korka, who stayed within the Robin Antin family of musical acts for several years, identifies as a singer/songwriter/producer/script doctor/general entertainment industry hustler, although her social media presence consists mainly of solo selfies and moody scenic pics drenched in bisexual lighting. Winner Asia Nitolanno’s life seems happy, but she is no longer in the entertainment industry. Girlicious winner and subsequent castoff Tiffanie Anderson is perhaps the highest-profile alumni, but is better known for her painting career than music.

But perhaps the most sobering Instagram creep of all is that of Search for the Next Doll middle finisher Anastacia McPherson. McPherson was the fifth eliminated in the original search; up until her elimination, the statuesque singer was praised for a “goddess” physique and a radiant presence. She demonstrated consummate professionalism in the studio and recording booth, but was ultimately eliminated for — in the judges’ words — standing out too much. McPherson, like some of her fellow cast members, now works generally throughout the industry in small acting and modeling gigs, and looks radiant as ever. She also has a beautiful baby boy with her wife, Brooke.

Last year, McPherson posted a throwback picture of herself in her Search for the Next Doll cast corset. She lamented that during that time, she was “young, completely broke, closeted, desperate but determined. I want to give her a hug and a hundred dollars.”

Never mind the intense sadness that comes from remembering just how incredibly heterosexual the PCD era was — while not outright homophobic, it possessed the same pro-hegemonic naivety with which Marge Simpson insisted, “Girls, Lisa, boys kiss girls.” Being closeted isn’t fun for anyone. Being closeted in a world that is shaped entirely by the male gaze is even harder.

But zero in on another word McPherson used: “Desperate.”

Everything about the PCD series’ two iterations was best summed up as an exercise in performative desperation. Reality TV series that force cohabitation of contestants usually feature people whose decisions are influenced by horribly unnatural situations. Add onto that the baggage of the fameseeker genre, coupled with the context of a mid-2000s Los Angeles and position the show as a hypersexual, hyperheterosexual entryway into the music industry.

None of these girls seemed all that sincere about wanting to be part of the Pussycat Dolls, or a readymade offshoot. One contestant was fresh out of a punk band. One contestant broke down at the eleventh hour because of how the image of the Pussycat Dolls conflicted with her Catholic faith and traditional upbringing (she’s since quit the entertainment industry and, reportedly, become a more devout Catholic). More than one girl competed on at least one other televised “make-a-band” TV show. Despite standard talking-head interviews from each of the girls about how much the Pussycat Dolls — a band that had been in the mainstream for about 18 months at the time of filming — meant to them, it seems clear looking back that few of these girls, perhaps least of all Nitolanno herself (having declined the entry into the Dolls that she was rewarded), cared at all about the prize with which they were rewarded. Rather, it was about fame, any fame, and the self-destruction one is apparently willing to endure in order to achieve that fame.

And so, enjoying The Pussycat Dolls Present on an ironic level feels far too condescending, far too privileged, far too cruelly voyeuristic. And yet, as Susan Sontag famously defined in Notes on “Camp,” there needs to be sincerity behind the art in order to delight in it. The sincere emotions behind what makes The Pussycat Dolls Present were indeed ugly, unflattering emotions. They are perhaps not the most inherently relatable, as fameseeking is not one of the most natural human motivations — but after years of Idol, X-Factor and So You Think You Can Dance, we’re all too familiar with the selling of souls, the weaponizing of sob stories, the readiness to abandon one’s self for just a small taste of success. And when you add just enough bronzer and a long enough feather boa, apparently you have finally found the point at which it becomes difficult to watch.

I have a lot of feelings about movies and TV shows that would be embarrassing if it weren’t 2020.

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