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The lovely thing about the internet is how easy it is to stumble upon greatness by accident. You type with clammy hands on the keyboard, not really thinking about what you’re doing, the endorphins from your sad wank ebbing away like a mephedrone high, and suddenly the internet spits out a life-changing moment. Stairway to Stardom, the public-access American TV show from the 1980s, is one such example of unprecedented greatness, thrust upon you as you search YouTube for snuff clips or haul videos or whatever your particular time-wasting niche is. The show aired in the state of New York from the late seventies to the early nineties, showcasing the dubious (ergo, spectacular) talents of members of the public. The snippets of it that exist online give me yet another reason to wish I had been a teenager during the Cold War in a time of whitewashed racism and mainstream homophobia.
The premise of Stairway to Stardom is as follows: a bunch of weirdos from a diverse age range clatter about on stage until they get tired. At this point, their showbiz face usually drops into a vacant expression and the show’s host, the sinister Frank Masi, congratulates them for their endeavour, the same way your parents told you your shitty school play was a life-changing tour de force. One of the reasons that it makes such great viewing three decades later is because the performers completely lack the inbuilt knack for public relations that we expect from our reality TV contestants today. There are no self-contained sentences or “My grandma raped me” sob stories: the whole show is one big blooper reel that winds up looking more authentic than Shayne Ward panting out a jazz number on Big Band week. Here are some examples of the best Stairway to Stardom performances on YouTube:
Gloria Huddle – Operator
With the exception of Christopher Maloney, talent shows nowadays don’t invite potential serial killers onto their stage. Stairway to Stardom must not have had any qualms about this. I’m pretty sure Gloria Huddle would have beaten Aileen Wuornos in becoming America’s first female serial killer if she’d had the chance. From her bizarre interpretation of a Cockney accent to her guttural, squirming calls of ‘Thank you! Oh yes! Give me Jesus!’, everything about her performance screams ‘Kathy Bates in Misery lopping off your legs with a meat cleaver’.
After stooping and staggering through an original dance piece, Michelle Sutlovich is asked by Frank Masi if her mother taught her the steps. Sutlovich answers obliquely, “Well no. She tells me what to do and I do.” Valid answer. It’s amazing her bouffant of hair isn’t drenched in sweat by the time she’s finished hurtling around like a cyber goth on her 18th birthday after one too many VK Apples.
Out of all the performers on Stairway to Stardom, I like to imagine Precious Taft would have been the one to actually make it to the top of the stairway. And then maybe she’d tumble over the other side into a Beverley Hills lifestyle of diet pills, fading glamour and anorexic, unloved stepchildren. Her dramatic monologue makes Meryl Streep looks like MirandaSings88. You can tell Precious is a serious theatrical practitioner by her overblown shriek at the climax: “I would have bashed his head into the GODDAMN RADIATOR!” Frank Masi leers at her and says, “That was beautiful, Precious,” and truly, Precious, wherever you are now, it was.
Some people (mostly my Dad’s friends) say the eighties was the best period for pop music. Cataldo’s snappily named song ‘Hairdresser’ proves this right. It’s one of the best things I have ever heard in my whole life including the time my boyfriend said ‘I love you.’ As she manages to make the lyrics ‘Keep the ringlets/Get the top a little wet’ rhyme, Cataldo pre-empts most of The Saturdays’ musical output by about twenty-five years. Two minutes in, she even starts singing a completely different song. Overwhelming. Her final squeaks of ‘Tease ma/Tease ma hair’ rewrite music completely and leave the listener stunned into an otherworldly state of alienation. But that could just be the sheer black jumpsuit she’s wearing.