When You Wish Upon a Starlet

"I hope Jaime Pressly doesn't lick off my foundation!" Michelynne preps for a key scene
The WB

When did "starlet" become a desirable job title? The term was once reserved for the beaming blond nobodies who were squired to award shows by guys like Don Johnson. These clone armies of Nicole Eggerts and Joey Heathertons were so low on the C-list that they faced academic probation (and a brisk paddling from Scott Baio). The word "starlet" itself is a diminutive of "star"; being a starlet is like gnawing a corndog at the children's table while the grown-up celebrities dine on châteaubriand at a more dignified altitude.

And so I was surprised to see 10 young women vying for starlet status on the WB's much-hyped new series, called (what else?) The Starlet. Watching this show, you'd think "starlet" means "respected actress," rather than "ambitious cock swallower." Maybe these days it does.

Structurally, The Starlet rips off America's Next Top Model so shamelessly that I expected to see Tyra Banks's stupid "Bankable Productions" logo capping the credits. (I didn't.) Ten aspiring actresses shack up in a Spanish-style pad that once belonged to Marilyn Monroe (soothing barbiturates not included). Each week, the contestants take acting classes and undergo screen tests opposite such top-shelf thespians as Jaime Pressly and David Gallagher. The screen tests are then viewed and analyzed by celebrity judges Faye Dunaway, Vivica A. Fox, and casting agent Joseph Middleton.

The actress who exhibits the least potential is dismissed with one of those annoying taglines popularized by The Apprentice: "Don't call us, we'll call you." (Somewhere, the lead singer from Sugarloaf is calling his attorney.) The last starlet standing receives a management contract, a talent deal with the WB, and a "career-launching" role on One Tree Hill.

The would-be starlets are a puzzling smorgasbord of former models, pretentious character actresses, and clueless pageant queens. There's Andi, the token plain girl, who predictably gets jettisoned after the first episode. (I have to mention that while Andi is homely by Los Angeles standards, she'd be considered a stone fox in a flyover state.) There's Andria, a vapid blond Texan who calls herself "the complete package." In keeping with the package metaphor, I picture Andria's brain as a lone Styrofoam peanut suspended in a gallon jar of cranial fluid.

Katie, a Stanislavsky disciple, has already earned my scorn for continuing to bawl after her crying scenes are over. Donna is a successful model with an advanced case of chronic bitchface. Lauren is an Eva Longoria-esque babe who buckles under pressure but looks divine mid-choke. Mercedes, an early favorite to win, is an intense, full-lipped brunette with definite screen presence. Personally, I'm rooting for Michelynne, an adorable but acne-prone waif from Minneapolis. She wears lots of caftans and turquoise jewelry, which means she's spontaneous and artistic and will probably be sent home soon.

In the tradition of America's Next Top Model and American Idol, the judges take pleasure in heaping disdain upon their sniveling charges. Many complaints are of the shallow variety. For instance, Andi is dissed for not looking like a conventional starlet (was she cast merely for sport, then?) and Vivica A. Fox mocks Lauren for not blending her eye shadow properly. (I could point out that Vivica's new breasts don't blend very well with her sternum, but I won't.)

Faye Dunaway turns out to be the most unforgiving judge, doling out brutal criticism with as much emotion as her stretched, reptilian face can muster. With two out of three judges exhibiting visible plastic surgery, I'm surprised the contestants didn't ditch The Starlet and hightail it over to The Swan for immediate alterations. Dunaway delivers the chilling "Don't call us" line at the close of each episode, and does so with relish. I suspect she and Fox secretly enjoy the symbolic act of dismissing younger, hungrier actresses from the Hollywood ecosystem. Indeed, only Joseph Middleton, the no-name judge, seems affectionate toward the contestants.

Despite (or because of) its limitless potential for snark, The Starlet is addictive television. Like Idol, it creates intrigue in the knowledge that the winner will receive further exposure after the competition has ended. Speaking of which, I'm curious as to what the producers of this show mean by "a career-launching role." Is the winner going to get a legitimate part on One Tree Hill, or play Sophia Bush's mute, attractive cousin for two episodes?

The next installment promises to be even pulpier than the premiere, with the wannabe starlets reenacting a lesbian kiss from the defunct Fox drama Fastlane. From relative class to full-on ass in the space of one episode--that's got to be some kind of record for a WB series! What could be more fun than watching the more serious contestants being forced to abandon their craft and submit to the Tiffani Thiessen Method? Ladies, set your make-up guns on "whore" and prepare to swap spit with Jaime Pressly--after all, getting secondhand Kid Rock cooties is a rite of passage for many an aspiring starlet.

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