Katie Underwood has certainly had quite the ride in the music industry. She was happily writing dance music and performing in a jazz band when a friend insisted that she audition for a TV reality show in 1999. Soon, 2.5 million Australians were watching her every week on ‘Popstars’ as one fifth of Bardot.
After leaving the band following their first album, Katie went on to have the most music-related solo success of the girls, particularly in 2002 with the Disco Montego collaboration ‘Beautiful’.
Katie recently had a fascinating chat with Brad where she discussed the Bardot and Disco Montego years in depth, getting drunk with Rene from Aqua and what it would take for the girls to reunite.
Let’s start by flashing back to 1999. Katie was one of 2,500 young women from around the country who showed up to audition for a new girl group. However, she tells us that although she auditioned, she didn’t intend to get in. “Yeah, it was an accident,” Katie laughs. “It was only because a friend of mine rang me up and told me about it. I told her, ‘Well, I don’t want to be in a pop band, I HATE pop music!’ and she said ‘Yeah but it would be a great experience, you should go and audition anyway’, so I did.”
Despite having no dance training, Katie quickly found herself in a house with Belinda Chapple, Sally Polihronas, Sophie Monk and Chantelle Barry as the chosen members of the band. Not only did she now have to live with four strangers, but also the show’s cameramen, who were constantly trailing her.
“They’d really just try and be there at the annoying times you wouldn’t want them to be there,” Katie reveals. “Literally, they’d have a camera lens stuck inside the door of your vocal booth whilst you’re recording… first thing in the morning, running late, at the gym. Basically they want to catch you when you’re raw and that’s when they get the best footage.”
Once Tiffani Woods completed the lineup, following the highly publicised and highly controversial departure of Chantelle from the band, it was time to promote their first single ‘Poison’ and self-titled debut album. The girls’ schedule was exhaustive.
“We would wake up, go to the gym, maybe do interviews from 9am until three or four in the afternoon, dinner with record company people, go back to the hotel, get ready to do a gig that night, perform, perhaps go out with some meet and greet fans or something after the gig, get home at 11pm, sleep, repeat.”
Six to seven hours of talking about yourself may not seem that bad, but Katie reminds us that it’s not quite that simple. “What you’re being asked about is not your true self. You’re being asked about that persona that’s projected, so you’re only talking about 5% of yourself repeatedly, but the remaining 95% remains unspoken of.”
The use of exaggerated personas in girl groups was particularly common at the time given the success of the Spice Girls and the way they were marketed as five distinct packages. Katie is aware that she too was given a role when she was picked for the band.
“It wasn’t a false persona; it was very much a true part of me.” Katie explains. “For instance, I took on the persona of, for lack of a better term, this sci-fi/anime/fetish character, and all of those aspects were real to me. It was really easy for me to amplify that and take it even further, wilder and wackier. You know, dye my hair blue, that whole attitude. When you’re a popstar, you can go to extremes image wise and people not only enjoy it, but they expect it.”
That being said, the band always knew that, at its heart, ‘Popstars’ was a family show and thus, “parents were going to be taking their children to the in-store performances and the album signings, so it was really important that we honored that by being a safe band that mum and dad could approve of and encourage their children to become borderline obsessive about. We were aware of that, sensitive to that and respectful of that. I might have pushed the limit by going a little more fetish, but then it sort of became obvious that the other girls might have been catching the mum and dad market.”
As we discussed recently with Rien from Mercury4 (HERE), there are always egos involved when it comes to recording the songs themselves. Was it the same for Katie? “Yes and that’s part of the reason I left,” she tells us exclusively. The cracks started to show when ‘I Should Have Never Let You Go’, a song Katie sang predominantly solo, was picked to be the band’s second single.
“The girls always hated performing that song,” she admits. “The fact that it ended up being a single shat them off no end. We got over that with some clever choreography that meant we all got to be at front of the stage!”
The issue reared its end in again when it came to recording the band’s second album, 2001’s ‘Play It Like That’, in Europe. “The directive that was given to all of the producers on the first album was that the girls were to be given equal parts.” Katie clarifies. “On the second album, we started recording with producers that were not given any such directive. The directive they were given was ‘make the best possible song that you can out of the five girls that we give you’. I only got to sing two songs, but I was pretty much all over those two songs and that didn’t go down very well.”
It was at this point where it was suggested to Katie that she audition for an ill-fated national arena tour of the musical ‘Hair’. “It all fell apart very quickly after that. I realized I couldn’t actually do what I love whilst in Bardot, which was sing to the very best of my ability and to be appreciated for it.”
Though Katie was devastated when the ‘Hair’ tour was cancelled, fate was still on her side. By coincidence, the guys in charge of erasing Katie’s vocals from the second Bardot album were Dennis and Darren Dowlut, the boys behind dance outfit Disco Montego. “They called me up and said ‘we’ve been listening to your voice all day, we’ve been ripping you out of the Bardot tracks’ and my thoughts were, ‘thanks for rubbing it in’. But they said, ‘that’s not why we’re calling; we’ve got this other project. We think you’d be great for it!’”
That other project was the dance pop single ‘Beautiful’, which peaked at No.10 and saw Katie achieve mainstream success in her own right. She was soon recruited to co-host the short-lived TV show ‘Undercover Angels’ and reunited with Disco Montego for the top 30 single ‘Magic’. Sadly, a similar power struggle over vocals occurred between her and the boys.
“I started getting all this attention. The song was referred to as the Katie Underwood song ‘Beautiful’; it wasn’t referred to as Disco Montego. Their name was sort of secondary and they didn’t like that.”
The boys, who had previously fronted the R&B group Kaylan, returned to the forefront on their third single ‘U Talkin’ To Me’. “I loved that song, but it became obvious that the boys wanted to be front men again which went against everything they told me when I joined the band. I understood it, but at the time it made it very difficult to continue and, after a few years of that, I stopped doing gigs with them because it wasn’t fun anymore.”
Instead she released her first solo single ‘Danger’ in 2003, and was preparing the release of a follow up when the record company she had signed with, Transistor Music, collapsed. “I kind of gave up for a while after that, I really just lost my mojo and thought ‘Oh what’s the point, I’m creating my guts out over here. Meanwhile my fate’s in the hands of a guy who can’t decide whether to run a record label or not’.”
Katie was once again faced with rebuilding her career, as well as herself. “I was dealing for the first time with ‘I’ve been trying to be a pop star for the last six years and now clearly that’s over. How can I reclaim who I was before I started this crazy game?’ and that did take some time, but I eventually realized that I am far more than a popstar.
“That was only five percent of myself and I started to remember who I was the other 95% of the time and what my goals were in life. And it was more than just singing and dancing.” She didn’t retire completely though, appearing an musicals as well as releasing a dance single in 2006 (‘Be Together’) and a jazz album in 2009 (‘Ain’t Nobody’s Baby’).
Katie is still quite proud of her time in the band and, in particular, performing for the troops in East Timor. Some of her other memories were a bit more… scandalous (yes, pun intended). Since the other Bardot girls weren’t big partiers, she sometimes found fellow popstar drinking buddies. “I once got really drunk on vodka with the guy from Aqua (Rene). We got smashed out of our minds in some hotel in Singapore. He was a party animal and we got absolutely racked! I ’m pretty sure he tried to come on to me that night!”
Whilst Katie didn’t get too friendly with ‘Dr.Jones’ himself, she did become platonic friends with some of Bardot’s fans. “There was a group of girls that followed us just about everywhere. At the time, they actually became friends of mine for a few years. I got used to them and I realized that if I tried to shoo them away, they’d be mean to you!” Katie laughs.
“All they really wanted was attention from us and, in the end, friendship. There’s probably only one person who I am still friends with, and have been getting better friends with. He ran my very first fan site in Tasmania. Same sort of thing, he came to all of the events and just slowly he became so much a part of my sphere that we became friends and I said ‘look Martin, you do realize you’re not a fan anymore. I hope you think that we’re friends’ and now we are!”
Speaking of friends, Katie tells us she’s still in touch with the Bardot girls and even had a mini reunion in 2010 (Sophie was living in LA at the time and couldn’t attend). Sadly, as Katie was the only one who drank that night, they did not break out into an impromptu rendition of ‘Poison’, but she tells us that a full-blown reunion could be on the cards one day if there’s ever enough interest! “We already tried to put that on the table a couple of times,” Katie tells us exclusively.
“Sally actually put together a proper proposal of how it might work and how we could manage ourselves, but the major block was always that no one would be interested in having a Bardot reunion without Sophie. We knew for a fact that Sophie had absolutely no interest in coming back to Bardot and I completely understood that.”
This is where we got creative and wondered aloud if, say, Sophie wanted the girls to reunite for her 2Day FM radio show, Katie would consider finding the nearest latex catsuit. “If I was living in Sydney and it was a car ride away and if I had nothing better to do, then I might jump into the studio and maybe we would quickly bash out an old tune or something.”
Katie is now a devoted mother of twin girls Charlotte and Zoe. We couldn’t help but ask when the best time is to show them the Bardot videos. “I don’t know!” Katie laughs. “It’s never occurred to me to show them. Whenever I’m with them, I’m mummy. I don’t think of myself as a singer or, heaven forbid, a popstar when I’m hanging out with my girls.”
What if they eventually Google her? “It will probably be like that. Until they find out of their own volition or if they develop an interest in it, they won’t need me to show them anything. It will all be there for the viewing on the internet!”
It turns out that it might not be long until we see another Underwood in the music scene, with Charlotte already showing some rock star ability. What if she wants to audition for a reality show like ‘The Voice’ or ‘The X Factor’ when she’s older? “Well I’ll sit her down and tell her the reality about reality shows and she can make her own decision!”