Music, nostalgia, TV cameras…. but Paper Dolls is not the Bardot story

A new drama series flashes back to a time when TV talent shows often exploited reality discoveries desperate for fame.

New local drama Paper Dolls will time travel you back to the year 2000 when a TV phenomenon discovered a girlband in the eye of the public gaze and the emerging Reality TV genre.

It was PopStars which spawned chartbusting Bardot -and the career of Sophie Monk in the process- but it is former member Belinda Chapple’s memoir which is the basis of a new Paramount+ series.

“Belinda obviously wrote the book about her life in Bardot which was inspiration for the scripting and the story. It isn’t the story of Bardot, but we all know those 90s pop groups,” says newly-installed Head of Scripted at Paramount, Sophia Mogford.

“I’m English originally, but I’ve lived here for 20 years. I remember the Spice Girls, growing up. A lot of territories had those groups and the record companies and the TV shows that were behind them.

“It’s got so many touchstones for both the kids and the public who are around today, but also a slightly older demographic who remember the 90s pop groups and TV shows that used to discover those singers and groups. There’s music, fashion and nostalgia, so it was a really excellent fit, I think for Paramount.”

In the eight part series, the band is named Harlow (borrowing from screen siren Jean Harlow, rather than Brigitte Bardot), assembled through a fictional TV show, Pop Rush. But there is a dark commentary around the machine of pop and the disposability of talent by record executives.

“Each episode takes the story of one of the girls because they’re all going through their own stuff as they’re trying to be famous and follow a dream. But in the meantime, there’s also the layers of the record company and what’s going on there. Their boss Margot (Emma Booth) is trying to climb up a career path, but keeps getting pushed back down again.”

Production incorporated not just an intimacy co-ordinator for sensitive scenes but a psychologist so that its young cast could navigate some of the more exploitative elements of the storyline.

“That was really important throughout the process, right from the get go. They were given that support. The storylines were put through that lens as well to ensure that they were true to how reactions would play out, as opposed to just being made up,” Mogford explains.

“Their performances are heartfelt because the girls felt they were in a safe space. They could really let go.”

The cast includes Thomas Cocquerel (The Gilded Age) and Ditch Davey (Spartacus) while the fictional Harlow comprises actors Emalia (Australian Gangster), Naomi Sequeira (Evermoor Chronicles), Miah Madden (Redfern Now), Courtney Clarke (Last King of The Cross) and Courtney Monsma (Frozen the Musical).

“Some of the girls have more experience than others but none of them have a lot of experience, which is what we were looking for to play those five roles. They are difficult positions to fill, because they need to be able to sing, dance and act. But we didn’t want stage show kids, if that makes sense. We wanted that rawness where they don’t feel overproduced because they in those roles over the course of the series,” she continues.

“Ditch Davey, Thomas and Emma Booth just brought that level of experience, and seniority with their age, that made it all very believable. Ditch has a difficult role to play because of the story arc that goes through the series.”

Mogford, who worked on The X Factor when contestants were even expected to live together in a house for TV cameras, well remembers an era when Reality TV was digging deep for content at the expense of its participants. This is also explored in the series.

“I guess there’s a difference between being filmed overtly, being filmed covertly -and then being filmed overtly but feeling like that you have to do something. This is place where Paper Dolls is, where the camera is on them all the time,” she says.

“They’re expected to wear very brief outfits and behave sexualized dolls. But the series is also about the music and dance, the relationships that they have… the soundtrack for the services is excellent, so there’s joy amongst the darkness.”

Monster, the opening song for Paper Dolls, will also form part of a soundtrack to be released with pop tracks from the show. If it charts, will life imitate art? Will Harlow start performing in shopping centres just as Bardot did two decades ago?

Mogford would love the sweet irony.

“Except that the girls will choose what outfits they wear and how they’ll be presented. We’ll be enjoying the experience if that was the case!”

Paper Dolls screens weekly on Paramount+ from Sunday (and on 10 later in 2024).

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