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paradiso, lost: unpacking history’s most complicated albumless girl group

the year is 2005 — north korea has officially announced nuclear weapons capabilities, the trial of saddam hussein has begun, will smith is leading one million live 8 concertgoers in a fresh prince of bel-air theme song singalong, and musical-rachel-zoe robin antin is busy managing the pussycat dolls through the surprise success of don’t cha.

meanwhile, in france, season 5 of star academy — “star ac”, if you’re a fan — is about to air. the show’s concept was somewhere between big brother, american idol, and 1982’s glee-prequel fame; twenty or so budding musicians are sequestered in the titular star academy for three or four months to hone their craft and receive instruction from a revolving cast of professionals.

star ac left no opportunity for learning untouched, instructing students in image management, slam poetry, singing in english, scenic expression … and, naturally, yoga. enter aria “sexy claire underwood” crescendo, a energetic french personality employed that year as star ac’s head dean professor of yoga. though the show may have been intended as a launchpad for the students’ careers, it was aria herself who would attract the attention of interscope boss jimmy iovine and inspire him to create around her europe’s answer to the pussycat dolls: the paradiso girls.

the aria crescendo-headed band aimed for an image somewhere between “youthful pussycat dolls” and “girlicious if they were spies”, and iovine’s work to recruit bandmates for aria promptly began in london. a successful search saw to the addition of lauren bennett (later featured in LMFAO’s party rock anthem), kelly beckett, and shar mae amor. stateside, unsuccessful contestants on robin antin’s pussycat dolls present: the search for the next doll were shuffled into the mix, and chelsea korka, mariela arteaga, brittany diiorio, sisely treasure, and rashon graves made the paradiso girls nine.

if only for a brief moment, that is — mariela, brittany, sisely, and rashon were summarily let go after a few promo appearances, bringing the number back down to five: lauren, kelly, shar mae, chelsea, and aria. with the roster chosen, the paradiso girls could finally get to work, and the hype machine began to roll:

“the band doesn’t have a lead singer!”
(a kind lie, we knew it was aria)

“each girl represents a different country!”
(half-true, but aria really did speak french)

“part of interscope’s electronic music strategy!”
(well, alright)

before we knew it, the rollout of the girls’ first album cycle had begun. to be titled crazy horse (after the famous strip club in france, where aria is from), the girls had allegedly recorded more than fifty tracks for the album. leading the pack was the synth-y, chanting patrón tequila, a song from 2009 that sounds like a song from 2009. with a hook built around threatening the listener (“by the end of the night i’ma have you drunk and throwing up”), the track was a natural fit for brand placement from iovine’s own beats headphones and features from eve and lil’ jon as well.

the accompanying video proves the girls are as much storytellers as they are musicians with the video’s storyboard going something like:

1. guy buys beats headphones
2. aria flirts with the guy on a bus
3. chelsea flirts with the guy at a gas station
4. lauren flirts with the guy in a shop
5. kelly flirts with the guy in front of a cooler
6. shar mae flirts with the guy at a bus stop

the featured artists make their contribution after joining the girls in in a nightclub — eve throws words together to make a partytime mad-lib (“caramel pink drink, it’s your fave”) and lil’ jon is your boozy uncle interrupting the girls while they sing (“i’m already drunk!”)

the song charted third on billboard’s hot dance clubs chart proving that the the patrón tequila magic worked and that the market was receptive to the girls. as a next step, robin, jimmy, and the girls had their pick of the pack with the forty-nine other songs recorded for the album each a contender to act as single two…

…and if patrón tequila was an appetizer, their second (and final) single who’s my bitch — a manic, taunting three minute and thirty-three second run featuring an opera verse from lauren — acted as entrée, dessert, and digestif at once. in between a melody sampled from bizet’s carmen and some hard knock life-style “mm mm mm mm”s, the song’s lyrical themes run the gamut of cheeky references from “faking it” (i know what it is) to “boy, you can kiss my oo” (i know what her oo is).

stranger yet is the video: while it begins like a normal robin antin-adjacent pop video with the girls pretending they’re at a dance rehearsal, one of the orphan annie “mm mm mm mm” bits in the middle of the song acts as cue for the girls to suddenly change into short black wigs and harnesses (in aria’s case, some carefully-placed tape) in order finish the song doing choreographed crawling and army marches. i truly cannot emphasize enough how jarring this transition is (now available in 1080p); before tik tok memes tricked us with christmas songs that turn into khia’s my neck, my back, there was this.

alas, though it took five years for aria to make it from star academy yoga-proffing to the black wig and boob tape outfit, it only took a couple of months to fall apart. interscope was not at all pleased that who’s my bitch failed to chart and their attention to the band dried up overnight. rumours began to circulate, and in an era when we still tweeted by sending text messages to twitter’s shortcode, the band’s unravelling was one of the first to be documented live on the microblogging platform.

to a fan, chelsea tweeted:

JUST SO EVERYBODY KNOWS!!!!! Paradiso Girls as I know of it is STILL A GROUP!!!!! YES we are all working on other projects and working … towards the future, but we are still a group!!!!

to which a straight-shooting aria replied:

why you confusing the fans ????????? u know the troth Chealsea so stop pretending……be truthful to ur hart for once

and, later on:

interscope don t want the group anymore and that s the trooth Chealsea know it too she is just a bit confused i guess:) oh no she didn t but keep teling u that the gorup steal going when is not and she know it…..but u guys beliv who ever u want i have nothing to prouve i give love to people that love me and i am honest to myself. now have to get back to work but i steal belive that the trooht will com out soon anough;) keep smiling;) ill be aiiiiiiiiight;)

the troth, the whole trooht, and nothing but the trooth, straight from the crazy horse’s mouth!

the album was never released. if you’re doing the math, that’s fifty tracks recorded, minus two released, leaving forty-eight or so paradiso picks locked in an interscope vault somewhere. with patrónbitch, and a few leaked demos to go off of, what else they came up with is left only to the imagination. from here, the timeline gets less clear. chelsea and lauren continued in music, kelly became a tv host named “fuzzy”, and shar mae continued to work as a model, choreographer, and cast member of hot girls on the beach.

as for aria, a return to her roots led her to meet a guy named gus who she now makes premium yoga videos with branded as “ari-us” — get it? in between writing king-sized motivational captions for her instagram posts, she is still a recording artist, still releasing music videos, and even finds time to tweet here and there.

a decade removed from the girls’ beats-ad-cum-music video and pop-opera fever dreams, there has never been a better time to look back to what we once briefly loved and lost. in what other era could a star academy yoga professor become a pop star? in what other timeline could five girls “who each represent a different country” threaten to steal our girlfriends? the paradiso girls were a different breed of horse, and there is a case to be made that they remain the most fascinating girl group without an album the world has ever seen.

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