Robin Antin Built a Girl Group Empire with The Pussycat Dolls. But Does the Formula Still Work?
Photo by James Hickey
[Update June 4, 2015: According to Billboard, G.R.L. announced they were breaking up after this story went to press. More details below.]
The light-filled rooftop garden of West Hollywood's Soho House, the international members-only club serving A-list clientele, feels as it's supposed to feel: dramatic and exclusive. A mature olive tree, one of several growing in the center of the dining area, is clearly older than the club, which has been around for only five years. Turns out management had it transplanted here, fully grown.
Robin Antin strolls in a few minutes late, dressed in snug, ripped leggings paired with a T-shirt and a rich-looking navy jacket with brass buttons — a combination of sloth and posh. Antin, founder of The Pussycat Dolls and a handful of other girl groups, is a member of Soho House and clearly relishes that fact. But having grown up in Van Nuys, the West Hollywood resident also is quick to acknowledge her roots.
"They say, 'I'm from Valley Village,'" she notes of the people who now live in her old neighborhood. "I'm like, 'No, there's no such thing.' It's some weird, made-up thing people do instead of saying Van Nuys."
"Oh, Robin, you have the best body of anyone here!" gushes an acquaintance who bumps into Antin on her way through the dining room. Antin grins, shrugs and accepts the compliment. At 53, her religious devotion to daily dance classes has clearly paid off, physically and literally: As creator, choreographer and mogul in chief of her girl-group empire, Antin is reported to have a net worth of $4 million.
The Pussycat Dolls, her most successful creation, are known for the song "Don't Cha" but better known for skimpy outfits and sultry poses. They disbanded in 2010 after a hugely successful run, which included sales of 54 million records, a line of lingerie, a Vegas show and two reality TV series. Now Antin is developing a third series about her present challenge: trying to create a repeat performance with her new concoction, G.R.L., a girl group with equally skimpy outfits but no hits yet in the United States.
"Die-hard fans of The Pussycat Dolls said it will never happen again," Antin acknowledges. "But there's a lot of talented girls out there, and I love creating groups. I'm getting a second chance to create an empire like The Pussycat Dolls. But to put lightning in a bottle twice is really hard."
At first, Antin intended for the new group to keep the Pussycat Dolls name. But after a lengthy audition process, she put together a team of girls worthy of their own identity: Emmalyn Estrada, Paula van Oppen, Lauren Bennett, Natasha Slayton and Simone Battle. In the summer of 2014, the group's single "Ugly Heart" was making the charts; it hit No. 2 in Australia. G.R.L. was building steam.
Then, in September, Battle was found hanging from a closet rod in her West Hollywood home. The 25-year-old had committed suicide.
At that point, the question was no longer whether Antin could have another success but whether she could continue at all.
For the all-female groups who define the modern pop paradigm — the Spice Girls, Destiny's Child — music was ostensibly the main event. But it was Antin who fused girl group with girlie show, unapologetically putting sex appeal front and center. In fact, when The Pussycat Dolls started, they weren't a musical group at all.
The Dolls were the product of the Hollywood club scene circa 1995. Antin, who was rooming with actress Christina Applegate at the time, had a vision of bringing back a classic burlesque show. Not just strippers — L.A. had plenty of those — but real dancers with serious training, like Antin herself, who's been dancing professionally since the age of 12.
"None of us went to college," Antin says of herself and her three brothers: Neil, who's marketing vitamin energy shots; Jonathan, a high-priced Beverly Hills hairstylist and a judge on Bravo's Shear Genius; and Steve, an actor-turned-filmmaker best known for writing and directing the 2010 film Burlesque.
In past interviews, Steve Antin has described his family upbringing as "working-class." But the Antins seem to have always flirted with celebrity. Steve Antin started acting in movies at age 9. Their mother once worked as a model and had also been a dancer, though not professionally.
"She had black bangs, short hair," Robin Antin says. "She always wore black little motorcycle jackets, which is why I have 500 in my closet." Today, both parents have relocated to Malibu and are partners in a successful furniture and interior design business with a celebrity clientele.
Robin Antin made a name for herself in music videos of the 1980s and '90s, first as a dancer, later as a choreographer, working on everything from Academy Awards dance numbers to directing Paris Hilton and Hannah Ferguson in the infamous "That's hot" Carl's Jr. burger ads.
Aided by Applegate's star power, The Pussycat Dolls became a hot ticket at the Viper Room, back when Johnny Depp was still running things nightly — and when Rat Pack–era retro, as immortalized in Swingers, was all the rage. During their first seven-week residency, the Dolls performed choreographed routines in costumes Antin sewed, dancing to vintage smokers such as "Big Spender" and "Fever." Depp was so pleased, Antin says, that one night after the show he told her, "This is the whole reason I opened a club."
Dancer Jane Smith, who performed in the Dolls' early burlesque shows — and asked L.A. Weekly not to use her real name, because "the dance world is so small and Robin is so powerful" — recalls, "Back in the mid-'90s, when the dance world in L.A. wasn't as saturated, you could really pinpoint who was a video star. A couple girls were being used all the time, and Robin was one of them."
The Viper Room show "really was a homegrown scenario," Smith says, with Antin and the girls showing up early to do everything from sewing costumes to hanging lights. "She was choreographing on trained dancers — that's why it wasn't just that we were vamping. We were really dancing, really sweating, really kicking our legs."
Antin says the moment she knew she had something big on her hands was when Christina Aguilera showed up and asked if she could not only perform with the troupe but also sing on all of the show's songs. When that happened, Antin says in her Valley girl lilt, "I was like, wow. I knew that it was special — you could feel something happening, something changing."
The show later moved to the Roxy, Smith says, "which is pretty much when everything exploded."
The Pussycat Dolls were Robin Antin’s most successful creation.
Photo by Ken McKay/REX/Newscom
Steve Antin filmed the show, and his sister presented the footage to different record companies. "We were going to sell it like a Broadway show soundtrack," she says. She first imagined scaling the show up as a splashy, Bob Fosse–inspired revue.
Gwen Stefani, another celebrity fan, invited Interscope/A&M executives Jimmy Iovine and Ron Fair to the Roxy, and they convinced Antin that the way to go was to turn her burlesque show into a mainstream pop group. Soon the Dolls were connected with songwriters, stylists, producers. Suddenly "there were 5 million people involved," Antin says.
"It wasn't a sellout," Smith says. "It was a sell up."
Antin describes The Pussycat Dolls' image as empowering to women, but some feminist thinkers disagree. In particular, the unintentionally ironic video for the song "I Don't Need a Man" practically begs to be lampooned.
"It quickly becomes obvious that there is a jarring contradiction between the lyrics of the song, which claim complete independence from men, and the dance moves and gestures of the women in the video," writes feminist scholar Linda Besigiroha, noting that the video's leg-shaving, toenail-painting, blow-drying antics add up to a blatant attempt to court male attention.
But Antin doesn't see it that way. "Any smart person in this world will understand that what I'm doing is putting out there what every woman wants to be on the inside. I always say inside every woman is a Pussycat Doll. Every single woman."
She looks around the dining room at the Soho House, pointing. "Just like you do. Just like she does. Just like she does. Everywhere. Even in the Middle East, with women that have to cover their face and walk behind men. We are that animal. And we want to be celebrated. Not everybody's going to talk about it, not everybody's going to make it a business. But my business is the business of being sexy — in a way that's relatable to women."
Or at least some women.
Antin proceeds to rattle off a list of performers who are idolized by many but don't necessarily lead the same kind of life as their fans. "There's a reason that all of these amazing women that are so inspiring, like Gwen Stefani, Charlize Theron, Fergie, Scarlett Johansson, Pink, Christina Applegate, Christina Aguilera, Kim Kardashian, Eva Longoria, that all of them have been a part of Pussycat Dolls as a guest. We all have that alter ego ... everybody would love to say for one day, 'I'm a dancer. I'm a sexy dancer.'"
In the two Pussycat Dolls reality shows, The Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll and The Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious, an air of yearning, tinged with a sense of desperation, is palpable. Watching these shows, which aired on The CW in 2007 and 2008, is like watching RuPaul's Drag Race with all of the self-aware humor surgically removed, replaced by frantic, late-teens, my-life-is-about-to-be-over anxiety.
It's a given that beauty pageants are a passé bastion of outdated values. But audiences haven't grown so sophisticated that they're above elimination shows featuring girls in skimpy clothing. A reality show such as The Search for the Next Pussycat Doll is cut from nearly the same satiny cloth as the Miss America pageant — but there's no scholarship at the end, just a potential career as a pop star.
Like many reality shows, The Pussycat Dolls' seem edited to highlight women at their worst — petty, gossipy, backbiting. A scene in the season closer of Search, for example, features the last two contestants having dinner together, nerves frayed as they near the end of an exhausting gauntlet of competition and catfights. Transparently pushing them into one last bitch session, Antin encourages them at the meal to "get it all off your chest." But when they take the bait, Mikey Minden, the show's choreographer, haughtily chastises them for feuding.
The women Antin has worked with, however, describe her as anything but divisive. Anjelia Pelay, a contestant on the first series, who's gone on to become a solo country artist, calls Antin "a real girl's girl — chicks before dicks." Natascha Bessez, another veteran of the first reality series, who now has a charting solo career, says that during the competition Antin "would get super emotional every time a girl would get cut. You could tell she kinda looked out for all of the girls she was working with."
But don't The Pussycat Dolls still pose a problem for women concerned about a one-dimensional portrayal of womanhood, where sex appeal is all that matters?
"No," Antin says. "Aren't I living proof of that?"
In a way, she is. Antin is one of the world's few female shot-callers behind a notable pop group. While her groups outwardly reinforce the nothing-if-not-hot view of womanhood, Antin's behind-the-scenes career offers a contrasting narrative: the success story of a savvy, scrappy, self-made woman in a male-dominated industry. And if she has her way, the behind-the-scenes woman soon will become a lot more visible.
Antin wants her next reality show to be different. She would like to work with a different production company. Less ginned-up drama. Fewer catfights. More about how the members of her newest group, G.R.L., are relatable, just people trying to make it in the business and "really, truly good girls."
G.R.L. was created in The Pussycat Dolls’ image, updated for today.
Photo by Alexander Eggebeen
It would be an opportunity to build G.R.L.'s fan base, too, giving America a chance to get to know the group Antin assembled after a lengthy, international search for talent: Lauren Bennett, a British singer-dancer-model formerly of short-lived Antin group Paradiso Girls; Paula van Oppen, once on So You Think You Can Dance; dancer-actress Natasha Slayton; and Emmalyn Estrada, whom Antin first spied on YouTube and had flown in from Canada.
Antin is ready for her close-up, too. In her previous series, she floated in here and there as judge and string-puller but largely remained out of the fray. Next time, she wants to be more of an active participant — and the role of surrogate mother seems a good fit for Antin, who dotes on her brothers' children. (She has been in a long-term on-again, off-again relationship but never married or had children.)
Antin is a close friend of fellow den mother Kris Jenner, popping up on the Kardashians' show from time to time. The two are reported to be brainstorming ideas for new shows together.
"We all look at the Kardashian model and see what those kind of shows can do for a brand, for anyone that wants to grow their career," Antin says. "It's a commercial every day to put your product out there. That's what the Kardashians do. ... I respect it."
While The Pussycat Dolls started as a club act, an early incarnation of G.R.L. (spelled that way, says Antin, "because there's no 'I' in team!") debuted during the 2012 Super Bowl; the group's members were stars of a GoDaddy commercial. When G.R.L.'s second single, "Ugly Heart," dropped, it seemed as if Antin might indeed be on her way to bottling that second lightning bolt.
Then she got a phone call.
Antin was about to get in her car to meet the girls for rehearsal when her phone rang. It was the group's manager, Larry Rudolph — whose clients include Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus. "I need to tell you something," Rudolph said.
Antin braced for bad news. Maybe one of the girls wanted to leave the group, go solo, the kind of thing she'd heard many times before.
But this was worse than she could have imagined. Just three months after the release of "Ugly Heart," Simone Battle had killed herself.
"We have to tell the girls," Antin told Rudolph. So she made four phone calls, saying to each, "Get in the car right now and come to my house."
When they arrived, everyone just sat, held hands and cried. "I saw four girls that were like babies," Antin says. "They had to be nurtured, because they didn't know how to deal with it."
Antin's reaction was one of total disbelief. "No one saw this coming," she says. "I mean no one. It was so sudden. We were rehearsing, she was singing and dancing her ass off the day before, and the girls went to lunch...." She trails off. "It's so hard for me to say much about it."
She believes that Battle held her pain inside, instead dancing and wearing a smile. "She never seemed like she had trouble with anything. Everything was moving fast, fast, fast. We were working all the time."
Shortly after Battle's suicide, TMZ reported that the singer "was depressed over money issues." According to court documents filed by her mother, Donna Morgan, and obtained by TMZ, she had only about $6,000 saved at the time of her death.
Considered in the context of The Pussycat Dolls' mega-platinum success, the notion that an heir to the throne could have financial troubles might seem hard to believe. But in the hyper-competitive world of pop music, newcomers often struggle.
"A lot of people stress about money," says Chelsea Korka, a former member of another of Antin's groups, Paradiso Girls, which had only modest success on the charts. "Everybody thinks that if you're in a girl group, you're making all this money. God, you don't make money in a girl group unless you're The Pussycat Dolls and sell a million copies of an album. You're an employee. You really are. And money is tight at times."
Korka, now solo and about to release a new album, pointedly titled Being Human, says that as a member of Paradiso Girls, "I was kind of like a puppet. When you're in a girl group, there is so much pressure about what they think you need to be, and it's a little stressful. But you have to work, you have to push yourself if that's what your dream truly is."
Bessez is also no stranger to the anxiety that comes with being a woman in the business. "It's super stressful, the pressure we have on getting our bodies together and having to look 100 percent perfect all of the time. We're human, and everyone's struggling. There isn't one person that isn't."
Bessez says young recording artists often have little stability. "And that can hurt you big-time, emotionally and mentally," she says. "I'm paid based on performances and royalties on songs, and you can make money one month, and no money for six months."
The music industry is "a tough, evil, awful, no-good business," Bessez adds, "and no matter where you are in your career, money is always going to be something you are struggling with."
But was the TMZ story true? Did Battle kill herself because she couldn't make ends meet?
"That is fucking ridiculous," Antin fumes. "A 25-year-old girl in this business, she's a smart girl. That's not the reason she took her life. That's insanity."
If Battle had money problems, Antin says, she would have known about them.
Korka, who has remained in The Pussycat Dolls' orbit and is close with members of G.R.L., says, "The only person who could tell us what was really going on with Simone is Simone. And we can never ask her."
After Battle's death, the remaining members of G.R.L. took a hiatus and went home to spend time with their families. There was no time line, no idea when or how to move forward. Antin says Battle's mother helped the group come to terms with their grief.
Donna Morgan, who could not be reached for comment, told Antin that moving forward was what Simone would have wanted, Antin recalls. G.R.L.'s first step forward was to create a tribute song.
Antin and the girls knew that they risked being accused of capitalizing on the tragedy, "absolutely." And the glossy production of the video for their song, the Dr. Luke–penned "Lighthouse," at first glance doesn't remotely resemble what most people visualize when they think of mourning.
"We did it the way we did it first and foremost for Simone," Antin says. "We wanted to embrace what happened and celebrate her life, and this was our way of doing it."
The video features images of Battle from home videos, intercut with images of her bandmates singing the song, frequently rubbing their arms as if to ward off a chill. At the end, the video shows a link to GiveAnHour.org, the site of a mental health awareness campaign.
"Listen, if we were capitalizing on it, you would be seeing what was happening on the set of that video," Antin says. "It was so emotional and so sad and so hard. You'd be seeing all that footage on TMZ. But that set was as closed as you could get. No phones, no nothing."
Through a representative from their label, RCA Records, the members of G.R.L. declined to comment.
G.R.L. just completed a tour of Australia as the opening act for Meghan Trainor, further boosting their profile there. The next goal, of course, is to build their audience in America. Antin sees reality TV as a potential centerpiece of that strategy — or at least something that could give the G.R.L. brand a boost, as it did for the Dolls back in 2008.
But that was eons ago in pop terms, and reality isn't what it used to be. Fox has just announced that American Idol's 15th season will be its last, and even the Kardashian clan has slipped in the ratings.
As one would expect, Antin says it's been tough to move forward after Battle's death. The G.R.L. world is still full of post-Simone firsts: There was the first rehearsal without her, the first studio session, the first show, the first tour. "We're literally going one day at a time, and it's just so hard doing it without Simone," she says.
But there's nothing for Antin to do after the tragedy but keep going. There's another reality show to plan, a clothing line to promote, tours to book and dance steps to rehearse. She needs to capture that lightning in a bottle again. Now more than ever, her girls are depending on it.
[Update (June 4, 2015): Late Tuesday, right before L.A. Weekly posted this story online, RCA Records, Kemosabe Records, Robin Antin and Larry Rudolph released a joint statement announcing that G.R.L. had decided to break up. The statement read in part: "Nearly 9 months following the tragic death of band member Simone Battle, girl group G.R.L. announces today that they are disbanding. We wish them continued success in each of their next creative endeavors."]
[Update (June 5, 2015): When L.A. Weekly asked Antin for a comment regarding G.R.L.'s breakup, she responded through her assistant with the following statement: "I wanted it to continue GRL more than anything, but the world of GRL changed when we lost our sister, Simone. I hope the loving and supportive fans understand. I am so thankful for the time I was able to spend with Simone, Lauren, Natasha, Paula, and Emmalyn. I have some of the most amazing memories with those girls that I am so thankful for and I will never forgot, and that is all I could ask for. I support all the girls on the journey of fulfilling their dreams."]
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