15 years ago, ‘Rock Star: Supernova’ rocked reality television

Gillby Clarke, 'Rock Star: Supernova' winmer Lukas Rossi, Tommy Lee, and Jason Newsted in 2006.  (Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Gillby Clarke, ‘Rock Star: Supernova’ winmer Lukas Rossi, Tommy Lee, and Jason Newsted in 2006. (Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Before David Cook became the first rock winner of American Idol or Adam Lambert made TV history with his game-changing, Jeff Buckley-esque “Ring of Fire” cover, there was CBS’s Rock Star: Supernova — a search for the lead singer for a new supergroup comprising Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee, ex-Metallica bassist Jason Newsted, and ex-Guns N’ Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke. (Lambert even credited Rock Star: Supernova runner-up Dilana’s “Ring of Fire” performance as an inspiration for his Idol arrangement.) 

The Dave Navarro-cohosted talent show, which premiered 15 years ago on July 5, 2006, was an “anti-Idol” of course, featuring covers of songs by Nirvana, the Verve, Hole, Radiohead, the Killers, Dramarama, Pink Floyd, R.E.M., Depeche Mode, the Kinks, Living Colour, Failure, Franz Ferdinand, the Police, Talking Heads, Cheap Trick, Bob Dylan, Soul Asylum, Stone Temple Pilots, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, and even the actual Jeff Buckley — at a time when that was unheard-of on all other singing competitions.

“It was real. It wasn’t like karaoke with somebody up there just singing some dumb s***. It was real music,” Lee tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I really think [Rock Star: Supernova executive producer] Mark Burnett was way ahead of his time in wanting to deliver that kind of thing to prime-time America. Like, ‘Here’s some real s***. These guys are going to look for a singer. They’re going to make a record. They’re going to go on tour.’ … It totally was ahead of its time.”

The blueprint for Rock Star: Supernova was arguably created a year earlier with Rock Star: INXS, a questionable and somewhat distasteful reality show set up by Burnett and the surviving members of Australian pop-rock band INXS to replace late INXS frontman Michael Hutchence. (Another future American Idol rock trailblazer, Chris Daughtry, actually unsuccessfully auditioned for that show.) Canadian glam-rocker Lukas Rossi eventually won Rock Star: Supernova after performing his self-penned original power ballad “Headspin” on the finale (which, again, was not typical for reality shows of the era), but he tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume that when his friend suggested he try out for Burnett’s new Rock Star spinoff, he balked — because initially, Rock Star Season 2 was going to be a search for the replacement singer of another big, established rock group, not for the singer of a brand-new band.

“My life seemed pretty grim at that point. I was in Montreal, going from friends’ to friends’ houses and trying to get my band, Rise Electric, off the ground. I was literally in minus-40-degree weather, living in an abandoned bowling alley and covering myself up with newspaper just to keep warm. I got a call out of the blue from a friend of mine, [EMI Music Publishing executive] Barb Sedun, and she was like, ‘Hey, there’s this show and they’re looking for a singer.’ And she mentioned another band. I was like, ‘I can’t replace that singer! That’s just not right!’ … It was Van Halen — that’s what she said to me. And I was like, ‘Absolutely not. I don’t want to pretend to be their new singer.’ I mean, I love Van Halen, but that’s just not my persona. I’d be lying to the fans and their fans and to myself.”

Rossi was homeless and destitute after leaving his home base of Toronto following a breakup with a cheating girlfriend, and he had focused all his energy on the fledgling Rise Electric. “I put all my eggs into one basket, because I’m a firm believer. My daddy used to say, ‘Whaddya got for plan B, after all this music s***?’ And I’m like, ‘If you need a plan B, that means your plan A is pretty s***ty, dude.’ So, I didn’t have a plan B. Or a plan C.” Still, Rossi admits that he was tempted to try out for what he believed was going to be Rock Star: Van Halen. “It was a hard freakin’ pill to swallow, because I was frickin’ broke, dude. I had nothing.”

However, a week later Sedun phoned Rossi again to let him know that Rock Star had changed direction, and its second season would instead center on a new hard-rock supergroup featuring A-list musicians, with superstar producer Butch Walker set to record their album. “I was like, ‘Hell yeah, dude! That’s what I was like!’” When Rossi had no way of affording a trip to the nearest audition city, Vancouver, Canada, Sedun footed the bill. “She’s like, ‘I’ll pay for you to get there. Just go and kick ass. I know you can do this. I believe in you.’ I packed up my backpack — I had all my belongings in a backpack — and I went there, terrified.”

Rossi confesses that he “drank a few too many pints” before he tried out with “Headspin” (which he’d written just a week earlier) and Live’s “Lightning Crashes,” and he initially thought he’d ruined his chances. “I was so nervous. I walk in, and there’s this dark room. It’s like really weird, like this little stage lit up with one light and the rest is this empty theater,” he recalls. “And then halfway through that I hear, ‘Why are you sweating so much?’ I was like, ‘Who said that?’ I’m looking around, and then I see Jason Newsted through the darkness. And I said, ‘Oh, hey, dude. I just had a couple of pints and it’s hot as s*** in here. That light above me is hot, dude!’”

Apparently the skunk-haired Rossi’s rock ‘n’ roll attitude — which likely would not have impressed the stuffier powers-that-be on, say, Idol or America’s Got Talent in 2006 — was an asset on Rock Star: Supernova. “There was a chuckle in the darkness,” Rossi remembers. Moments after he left that audition and started walking down the street with his guitar case in hand, a casting agent from the show chased him down and invited him to return the next day. And even later, when Rossi got on the show and botched his live, televised performance of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin” — when his “brain took a big dookie” and he forgot the words — that rawness and authenticity worked in his favor. “When you take your life too seriously, man, that only goes so far. That’s, like, a real person. [Rock musicians] trip over things once in a while. We do things wrong. You have to be yourself,” Rossi shrugs. 

Unfortunately, the Rossi-fronted band that formed after the show’s finale was not nearly as successful as the show itself. First, there was a branding issue when the new group, which was supposed to be called Supernova, had to officially change its name to the clunkier Rock Star Supernova (minus the TV series title’s colon), after an established Orange County pop-punk trio named Supernova sued and was granted an injunction. (One key piece of evidence was a Myspace message from Butch Walker noting that Burnett Productions, CBS, Lee, Newsted, and Clarke had been informed that another Supernova already existed, but they had proceeded anyway.) 

The hastily renamed Rock Star Supernova’s surprisingly solid, Walker-produced self-titled album, which included “Headspin” as a single and featured Rossi’s writing credits on four other cuts, debuted at No. 4 in Rossi’s native Canada, where it eventually went platinum. (Check out two circa-2006 performances by the band at Yahoo’s studio below.) But in the U.S., the album stalled at No. 101 on the Billboard 200 and received virtually no radio airplay. It was likely that the reality-television stigma hurt Rock Star Supernova’s chances of being taken seriously in the hard rock world, despite the project’s A-list pedigree.

“I think a lot of people think it’s baggage, like it is not ‘authentic’ or whatever, like it’s the ‘Hollywood TV version’ of something,” Walker, who also appeared as a guest judge on the show, tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume. “But that being said, I mean, that’s what people sign up for when they watch.”

“We toured everywhere, all the way to Australia and back, but I’m a firm believer that timing is everything, you know?” muses Rossi. “And honestly, I don’t know, because I went out there every single night and gave it my all, dude. Me and Tommy were hungry, but maybe the rest of them — I’m not gonna mention people — but maybe somebody wanted Dilana to win instead of me. We’ll just leave it at that.”

Dilana, who toured as Rock Star Supernova’s opening act in 2007, was actually happy and relieved to place second on the show, as she ultimately didn’t think she was the right fit for the supergroup’s music. “I wanted to get as far as I could, but after I heard their first original, I was kind of bummed,” she confesses to Yahoo Entertainment. “That was exactly when I knew: ‘I don’t want to be the singer in this band.’ I’m not dissing them — I mean, they’re great songs, and Butch Walker is a fantastic, amazing, creative artist — but they’re just not me. They picked me to be the first [contestant] to sing an original on the show, and it was a challenge for me. After that, I knew there was no way I would be in this band, singing this material. And I made the mistake by actually informing some people about it the night before the finale.

“Someone posed the question, ‘What are you going to say [if you win]? What’s your little speech going to be?’ And, I said, ‘Well, if I win it, I’m going to decline it,’” Dilana continues. “Everyone knew it was either Lukas or I, so I said, ‘Lukas, you’re going to get it.’ And I think they were videotaping us at that point. So, I have a sneaky suspicion that somehow the producers got word to the band, and maybe they decided to make sure that I didn’t get picked. … Maybe they told the band and the band was like, ‘We’re not going to get humiliated like that.’ But, maybe the TV people were like, ‘Oh, this would be great television!’ Who knows what happened? But everyone also knew that Lukas was definitely Tommy’s favorite from day one, so it worked out perfectly for me. I didn’t have to embarrass anybody, I didn’t have to get kind of nervous if I had won, and I got exactly what I wanted. I wanted the exposure, and that’s what I got.”

“There was a lot of people involved. There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Everybody had their own manager. I mean, you can just see how that’s going to go,” sighs Walker. “There were a lot of people trying to get squeezed through the same rathole with all of their ideas. But they were all great people. I really enjoyed the experience, and Mark Burnett is awesome.”

Rossi was disappointed when Rock Star Supernova lasted only one album/touring cycle, but like Dilana, he used the exposure to further his solo career, and he and Lee remain buddies to this day. (“He’s the best dude. He’s like my tall, skinny daddy. I love that dude,” Rossi gushes.) Most recently, Rossi sang two tracks on Lee’s 2020 solo album Andro, the original “You Dancy” and a cover of Prince’s “When You Were Mine.” And Rock Star: Supernova changed Rossi’s life in a more important and lasting way: Shortly after the show, Lee and Navarro fixed him up with their friend, former adult film actress Kendra Jade. “We met up at Barney’s Beanery and literally spent the next two whole weeks in bed. It was mental,” Rossi laughingly recalls of their first date. Lukas and Kendra eloped in 2007; adopted a son, Bryden, in 2015; and now happily reside in Nashville. 

“The music was secondary [to the Rock Star: Supernova experience]. Everybody I’ve met through that whole journey was so awesome,” Rossi adds. “Like I was telling you, I was on the street, I had nothing, and all of a sudden I get thrown into meeting all these wonderful people. … We were all there to do what we love most. Plus, we got to have free drinks and be on television and make a bunch of wonderful, wonderful fans. I mean, God, it was the best time of my life.”

Tommy Lee and Lukas Rossi  (Photo: Jordan Strauss/WireImage)

Tommy Lee and Lukas Rossi (Photo: Jordan Strauss/WireImage)

“That’s all it ever was to be — it was a great experience,” says Lee. Rossi does wish that Burnett had continued focusing on rock ‘n’ roll reality shows instead of moving on to the more mainstream and less rockin’ NBC show The Voice (“Why? That’s like McDonald’s cutting off their Big Macs,” he quips), but Lee does believe that Rock Star: Supernova changed music television 15 years ago, attesting: “I think it paved the way for a lot of the shows that are here today, definitely.”

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This above Luke Rossi and Butch Walker interviews are taken from their appearances on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of those conversations are available via the SiriusXM app.

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