The Cat's Meow: Give the Dolls Their Due

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 2006

The subtext of the Pussycat Dolls' mega-single "Don't Cha" is clearly "don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like them ."

Which makes sense for a group founded on the basis of how hot its six members were -- putting the sex back into sextet, as it were.

In the much-exposed video for "Don't Cha," the multiculti crew vamps in barely there miniskirts and bare midriffs, shaking their collective booties and strutting their assets with delicious abandon.

Which makes even more sense when you realize the Pussycat Dolls started as a neo-burlesque troupe.

Now, of course, they do sing, though that responsibility falls mostly to Nicole Scherzinger, the 27-year-old Hawaiian-Russian-Filipino beauty who soulfully handles lead vocals and who has become the group's breakout star. She's the one who sings, "Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me/Don't cha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me/Don't cha wish your girlfriend was raw like me/Don't cha wish your girlfriend was fun like me."

(For the record, the answer, in men's circles at least, are yes, yes, yes and sure.)

Scherzinger first saw the original Pussycat Dolls four years ago on David Letterman's late-night show, where they mostly gyrated while Carmen Electra sang "Big Spender." (The troupe was then best known for its bump-and-grind revival and celebrity guests.)

"I remember thinking, 'Well, what is this ? Who are these girls?' " Scherzinger says. "They were doing 'Big Spender' [from the musical 'Sweet Charity'], and it had a cabaret vibe. It caught my eye because I'd played Velma Kelly in 'Chicago' in college. I thought it was something different: These girls are hot, it's a little raw, it's theatrical.

"And I thought, ' I can do that.' When you grow up being a performer and a singer, you watch people and say, 'I can do that,' right? But I had no idea that I'd audition and that one day I'd be fronting the group."

Which is what she'll be doing when the group opens for the Black Eyed Peas on Saturday at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

The Pussycat Dolls date to 1993 when choreographer Robin Antin and her housemate, actress Christina Applegate, invited some girlfriends who had danced in music videos and on concert tours to their garage-converted-to-a-dance-studio. The idea was to experiment with Antin's notion of classic Las Vegas-style burlesque given a more contemporary spin. The Dolls' saucy, soft-core revue debuted in 1995, and for six years they were the Thursday night opening act at Johnny Depp's Los Angeles club, the Viper Room. The delighted Depp reportedly said, " This is why I opened a club" as he put the strip back on Sunset Strip.

The Dolls' risque rep began to get bigger in 2000, when No Doubt's Gwen Stefani asked to sit in -- dancing and singing -- on "Big Spender" (the old Dolls' go-to anthem). The troupe moved a few blocks over to the larger Roxy, and pretty soon the list of celebrity Dolls included Electra, Christina Aguilera, Brittany Murphy, Charlize Theron, Nikka Costa, Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton and Scarlett Johansson, all unpaid and aboard in their fishnet stockings, bustiers and boas simply for the giggle.

When Stefani brought her Interscope bosses Jimmy Iovine and Ron Fair to see the show at the Roxy, Antin realized it might be time to expand the concept and find some singers. Before auditions she told Rolling Stone: "We're looking for really, really hot girls -- insanely beautiful girls with beautiful voices. We're looking for a triple threat, or at least a double. They have to really, really sing and really, really dance."

Meet the Pussycat Dolls:

· Carmit Bachar, 31, the only burlesque-era Doll to make the transition.

· Jessica Sutta, 23, a former Miami Heat dancer.

· Kimberly Wyatt, 23, a dancer spotted by Antin at a Nick Lachey video shoot.

· Ashley Roberts, 23, daughter of a Pilates instructor and a former drummer for The Mamas & The Papas.

· Melody Thornton, 20, whose grandmother sang in Mariachi bands and whose mother was a folkloric dancer.

Finally, there's Scherzinger, whose mother was a hula dancer and grandmother a singer in Polynesian shows in Honolulu. (The family moved to Louisville, Ky., when she was 6.) Scherzinger has been on a star track for some time: She graduated from a performing arts high school, majored in theater and minored in dance at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and was a backing vocalist for the rock band Days of the New. She even had a first whiff of stardom five years ago with Eden's Crush, a female quintet put together on the WB reality series "Popstars." Eden's Crush disbanded after a year, and as she was pursuing a solo career and taking small parts in films and television shows, Scherzinger heard that the Pussycat Dolls were looking for a real singer to front the group.

"That's what they brought me in for," she says. "When Jimmy Iovine chose me, he said, ' That's your lead girl right there.' "

And, just like that, the most important piece was in place, the Pussycat Dolls reduced from the dozen in the burlesque version to six for the pop group, five of them essentially dancing eye candy. (Scherzinger also did all the backing vocals on the album.)

"I knew by the people who were involved, the machine behind it, that this was going to be something," Scherzinger says. "Where we are today, it's kind of unbelievable to think about, that in a year we'd have two No. 1 hits, been No. 1 in 11 countries. But that's why I signed on to the project, because I felt it was going to be big; I just didn't know how big."

Or exactly what the Pussycat Dolls -- motto: sassy and classy -- would sound like. Executive-produced by Fair (Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne), with contributions from such producers as Cee-Lo Green, Timbaland, will. I. am. of the Black Eyed Peas and others, their debut album was two years in the making.

"To be honest, at the beginning we didn't know what we were looking for or what our sound was going to be," Scherzinger says. "What hit it off is when we found 'Don't Cha' and realized we had a spark, an essence, something different, something raw that represented the Pussycat Dolls. And we just took off from there."

Written and produced by Cee-Lo Green of Goodie Mob and featuring a reprise of the hook from Sir Mix-a-Lot's 1988 hit "Swass" and an introductory rap from Busta Rhymes, the album climbed to the top of Billboard's Hot 100 last summer, not long after its hot-hot-hot video started airing. "Don't Cha" has both fans and haters, the latter put off by its predatory man-eater verses, even though the chorus is "Fight the feeling/Leave it alone/'Cause if it ain't love/It just ain't enough to leave a happy home."

"It gets both crowds," Scherzinger says. "People loved the beat of the song, and it's a lot of fun and flirtatious. When they got to see the video, they saw these are real girls having fun, not taking themselves too seriously. It actually turned out to be a huge summer female anthem."

She adds that "occasionally we get the skeptical people, but we go, 'Give us a chance.' We came out with [sentimental love song] 'Stickwitu' as our second single, and that was a really strong move for us, as opposed to coming out with 'Beep' for our second single." Produced by will. I. am., "Beep" makes hilarious use of the pretend censors' "beep," and, like "Stickwitu," it hit No. 1.

The Pussycat Dolls are opening for the Black Eyed Peas, even as their own brand is rapidly expanding. A year ago, well before "Don't Cha" became a hit, Antin and company opened a Pussycat Dolls Lounge at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, inaugurated by "Desperate Housewives' " Eva Longoria, and more are in the planning stage. They had a makeup line with Stila, and are now in talks with cosmetic companies MAC and Estée Lauder. Also ready to launch are a line of Pussycat Dolls dolls (aimed at 6- to 9-year-olds), perfume and a fashion line heavy on lingerie. (You can already get sweat suits, hoodies and tank tops.) There's also talk of a reality television show.

"It's crazy," Scherzinger admits. "We're just getting started and it's amazing."

The Dolls recently finished shooting the video for their next single, "Buttons," with Snoop Dog, and, according to Scherzinger, "there's a couple more singles we want to squeeze out of this album."

Pre-Dolls, Scherzinger was being groomed for a solo career (her cover of UB40's "Breakfast in Bed" appears on the 2004 soundtrack for "50 First Dates"), and there are rumors she may not be long for the group. But, Scherzinger insists, "we're a pretty tight family, the Pussycat Dolls, and we don't usually talk about solo careers. All of us have our dreams and aspirations that eventually we want to go off and do, but we'll always be able to come back to our home base of the Pussycat Dolls. It's kind of taken off so much right now we're staying focused on that."

The Pussycat Dolls Opening for the Black Eyed Peas Saturday at Merriweather Post Pavilion Sounds like: Sexy choreography meets R&B and pop with an urban twist.

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