Popular Mechanics

The WB's Popular is so pop it's almost Japanese. It stars hair-pulling, popular blond sophomores pitted full-tilt against unpopular brunettes. Girls call each other Abercrombie & Bitches; a plot can turn on an issue of Seventeen recommending aggression and the perfect shade of plum lip gloss to make a man happy; and house party doors are worked like Web site launches, complete with headset and guest list. Beverly Hills, 90210 is over, and it's time to meet the new class, one that's prettier, richer, skinnier and more teenaged than any before on television. And it knows it. Popular is pastel-colored like Saved by the Bell but dark like Heathers. Instead of 90210's earnest moralizing, it's a smart send-up of e-generation ambition and the teen crusade for popularity, acceptance and clear skin. "It had to be something you've never seen before," explains Ryan Murphy, one of the show's creators. "That's why I decided to make it really fucked-up and dark and crazy. I never pitched it as a teen show."

The most popular girl at Santa Monica's fictitious Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy High is Gwyneth Paltrow, who is mentioned in every episode like something out of a dorm room drinking game. She is adored; her flawless skin cherished. "I've always been obsessed with her," says Murphy, 34. "Every generation has a style icon, and she is certainly the one for these young girls. She represents the idea of perfection, of artifice and style." He pauses to acknowledge Paltrow's talents should the sunny day arrive when she would be available for a cameo. "It's fucking hard work to be popular in high school. I found it very debilitating and draining."

Accordingly, Nicole, the blonde pit bull; Mary Cherry, a striking composite of Portia de Rossi and Delta Burke (who, not incidentally, plays Mary's mother, Cherry Cherry); Poppy Fresh (Anel Lopez Gorham), the cheerleading Glamazon of color; and Brooke McQueen, played by cover girl Leslie Bibb, are Murphy's class pets. Brooke is Popular's blond antiheroine, a cheerleading captain who juggles four AP classes, is a perfect size two and until episode six has never had a stress zit. "She's the most popular girl in high school, and she feels like the biggest loser," says Bibb, 26. "She's in this battle between her heart and her fear of the social order of high school." Adds Murphy, "When I was writing the pilot, they wanted me to have the popular people be evil and the unpopulars be good. I said it's more interesting to make the lead popular girl very vulnerable so that you like her and understand the struggle."

That struggle includes the efforts of her sometime rival Sam McPherson, played with brunette-Sherilyn-Fenn-beauty by 19-year-old Carly Pope. Their single parents fall in love and move in together, facilitating dinner table vitriol and squabbling over bathroom sinks. "She's not in the popular crowd, and as much as she wants to believe that she chose not to be part of it, she didn't make it," says Pope of her character, who doesn't simply resent being the underdog (instead of celebrating it 90's style), "she's fed up with it and gets caught up."


A mention of women's designer Katayone Adeli in an upcoming episode has Ryan Murphy excited. If the Chanel-quilted tampon dispenser in the high school bathroom is any indication, Popular follows through on the notion that conspicuous consumption is the most outrageous thing going these gold rush days - which helps explain what is so Liberace about Puff Daddy. Murphy calls it out himself. "Mary Cherry is pretty much a drag queen," he says. "No 17-year-old girl in the world is like her."

A role created specifically for 29-year-old actress Leslie Grossman, Mary Cherry is a Texan fundamentalist with a taste for braided gold lame headbands, Bob Mackie and a determined admiration for overachievers Tiffani-Amber Thiessen and Oksana Baiul. She wears fur in summer, drives a Hummer and shows up for morning tai chi in full-on wooden-sandled geisha drag. The biology-test flash cards she makes are telling, including "paramecium," which no one can answer, and "Tom Ford," which is met by the correct response: "Gay, fabulously successful head designer for Gucci."

Tammy Lynn Michaels plays Nicole as hilariously superficial and smart. She requests 400-thread-count sheets at sleepovers. In the holiday episode, she goes through a personalized Christmas Carol, waking up to reunite with her loved ones - a pashmina and a pair of Jimmy Choos.

Like the new teenagers they are, Mary Cherry and Nicole are fixated on designers, hopped up on buying power and hormones. Labels are the It references of the day, assuming the novelty of Welcome Back, Kotter lunch boxes and Gary Coleman stunt casting. Murphy, who has never seen 90210, is careful to add, "Popular does not have a camp sensibility, because to me camp is something that takes itself seriously. I wanted to do a show about ambition."

In the girl's bathroom, Mr. Calorie the talking scale is introducing itself to Nicole, Mary Cherry and Poppy Fresh. "I know this company," Nicole gushes. "It's a diet company targeted specifically at unhappy teenage girls. I saw it on a talk show." The three are in a contest to see who can lose the most weight, which ends with Mary Cherry pulling from her mink purse a laxative so strong that only the FBI and elephant wranglers know the formula.

Nothing feels as honest as the shared secret of an eating disorder, particularly when an entire cast of characters is somehow body-image obsessed to the point of thinking aloud, in unison, "I hate my body." Everybody hurts. Quarterback Josh (Bryce Johnson) has locker room jitters talking to his pretty fly white-guy best friend, Sugar (Ron Lester). "Sugar, am I fat?" he asks, voicing concern for his faded abs and flabby ass, wondering if Brooke, his ex-girlfriend, will take him back if he gets in shape. Brooke has already asked out Harrison (Christopher Gorham), a romantic in a ball bearing necklace who works out so much for the big date that he's too sore to move. Another plot thread has the school's activist, Lily (Tamara Mello), conducting a "Be Something, Eat Something" campaign when Nicole challenges her to a battle of inner versus outer beauty. Lily's prize is recasting the Glamazons' reclining mud-flap silhouette insignia with Janet Reno's figure; if Nicole wins, it remains "triumphantly cadaverous." It's so well written that there's not even an ounce of fat on the episode.

"The boy stuff and the Brooke stuff I treat very straight, but with Nicole and Mary Cherry, I really satirize that girl obsession with weight," Murphy says. "At one point, Mary Cherry confesses that her dream measurements are 36-8-36." He shifts subjects to discuss Carmen, played by 22-year-old Sara Rue, a character determined to achieve popularity whatever her figure. "I really wanted to concentrate on empowering her," he says. "I know the character is important to a lot of young girls." Then Murphy reverts to his arch self. "At the end of the season, she's pregnant. For next year, my dream is to have a nine-months'-pregnant cheerleader doing splits. Which we will." Adds Bibb, "We have people who are superthin showing how they battle it. You have people who are heavier who battle it." In one episode, Brooke confesses to breaking a rib sneezing, the result of an emaciation campaign that skinnied her to 75 pounds. "And then you realize that everybody battles it," Bibb says.

Naturally, this issue processing is delivered by exceedingly handsome and charismatic actors, whose impeccable maintenance Murphy abets ("Glowing skin is very important to Popular"). He has the show's makeup artist give the cast regular facials and will gladly go $50,000 over budget to make costumes for a wedding - not to mention hairstyles evolving at speeds that would give Tori Spelling's hairdresser whiplash.

The formula is a hit. "We got a fan letter from Manolo Blahnik, which I cherish," Murphy says. Other fans are of the less famous variety. "Carly and I were shopping at Barneys, trying on shoes," says Bibb, "when this woman came up to us and said, 'I just want to say that I'm 32 years old, and I have all the mothers in my "Mommy and Me" class watching your show.'" The New York Post raved, "I almost projectile vomited."

If the show, in fact, has the youngest median viewer age for the WB's original programming lineup, it's also popular among gays. "Hugely popular," Murphy confirms. "It's really weird. I go to my gym and sometimes I'm treated like Madonna." Popular plays its issues straight and not-so-straight. Alley Mills, who played Kevin Arnold's mother on The Wonder Years, appears as Harrison's going-through-it lesbian mom. That's serious. A gay drama teacher caught stealing files in an International Male catsuit is not. The bisexual student Adam Rothchild shows up to challenge Nicole ("Tibetan prayer beads are over") and to lie about being related to Francesco Scavullo and Diane Von Furstenberg, all to get on the cheerleading squad. An episode about a transsexual even won the show a GLAAD award. That's quite a range. "It's really nice," says Pope, "because it was kind of the underdog show. No one was really expecting it to do very well and be anything dynamic. And it did."

Anyone who was around for NKOTB knows the bad feeling when sweet goes sour and desperate hormones spoil immaculate publicity campaigns. Someone feels the need to make art, or, this time around, big beat. Cynicism replaces inspiration for the artists and the media. When Beverly Hills, 90210 retired, an entire generation of adolescents minted by the Fox network held each other for a long moment before moving on to become computer analysts and investment bankers. Steve Sanders is a dad. "No way did I think that show would endure as long as it has," says Gabrielle Carteris, 90210's Andrea Zuckerman, calling from her home office in L.A. I mention that the "Electric Slide" episode was on F/X the other night and ask her about the future. "Isn't that funny! I think what you're going to have is a lot of teen stuff for the next couple of years, then a whole new baby boom generation will come up and it will happen all over again." Pop and so much more, Popular has the Stairmaster-buffed legs to straddle the upheaval.

Leslie Bibb photographed by Carlos Serrao * Styling by Timothy Reukauf * Hair by Darin Birchler/Beauty & Photo * Makeup by Kimbra/Sarah Laird Agency * Leslie wears a bikini by Tommy Jeans, sunglasses by Versace. *
The Cast of Popular photographed by Robert Fleischauer/Lamoine * Styling by Vincent Boucher * Hair by Alex Dijon/Next * Makeup by Charlotte Ostergreen/Artist * Photography Assistants: Joseph Kaiser and Jesse Tammy Lynn Michaels & Bryce Johnson * Tammy wears a sweater by Diesel Style Lab, top and swim skirt by Calvin Klein, choker from Jennifer Kaufman Los Angeles, shoes by Diavolina Los Angeles. Bryce wears a bikini by Dolce & Gabbana, sunglasses by Stussy. * Tamara Mello wears a top by Tommy Hilfiger, bikini by Ralph Lauren. * Sara Rue wears a sarong by Malatesta from American Rag Cie, necklace from Jennifer Kaufman Los Angeles.
Carly Pope * Styling by Miguel Arnau/artist and Michele Tomaszewsky. * Carly wears a top by Ferragamo, skirt by Emilio Pucci available at the Paper Bag Princess, belt by Costume National. Ron Lester & Christopher Gorham * Ron wears a t-shirt by Tommy Jeans, surf trunks by Newport Blue available at Rochester Big & Tall, hat by Tommy Hilfiger. christopher wears a top by Diesel, surf trunks by Stussy, sandals by Diesel.

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