Jennifer Armstrong
January 10, 2005 AT 05:00 AM EST

Thirteen young things sit in the VIP balcony above New York City’s packed Club Deep, surrounded by empty champagne bottles and dressed in strenuously cool miniskirts, skullcaps, and sunglasses. They hardly warrant the very important part of VIP, and yet they’re displaying celebrity-level boredom with their hip surroundings, bobbing their heads almost imperceptibly to Missy Elliott’s ”Hot Boyz”… until a camera crew scurries over, and the wannabes spark to life. Everyone starts moving to the beat, rapping along and drowning out Elliott’s voice booming out of the speakers. Then the camera leaves, and the anonymous VIPs return to their unchoreographed sitting around.

These kids have to save their energy for the cameras — or, more to the point, for Elliott. They’re competing for $100,000 and a contract with the rap star’s record label on — what else? — her new reality show, UPN’s The Road to Stardom. And this is no sing-your-lungs-out-for-audience-votes contest, so strategy, especially on this first night of shooting, is key. ”I’ve seen the business, the backstabbing and the bulls—,” explains contestant Eddie Clark, a New Orleans construction worker/rapper. ”Now is the time to smile and do your best.”

That will get tougher as Road crams them into a filthy, dilapidated tour bus and pushes them into performance challenges as they follow Elliott on her tour. ”I want viewers to feel like they’re on the bus with these people,” Elliott says. ”We see BET and MTV, the glamour and the glitz of being a star — not the hard work. Hopefully bootleggers will see it and understand.” If you’re thinking it sounds like America’s Next Top Model for aspiring hip-hoppers, so did UPN: The network placed Road (which debuted Jan. 5) in Model‘s prime Wednesday-at-8 time slot for its 10-episode run. Says Dawn Ostroff, UPN’s president of entertainment, ”In many ways, it’s Top Model meets American Idol.”

As far as reality series go, that comparison sets some pretty high expectations, but Road could very well meet them: It has a respected hyphenate as its star and a colorful panel of industry bigwigs as judges: Elliott’s take-no-crap manager Mona Scott (the show’s cocreator), brutally honest producer Dallas Austin, and the laid-back R&B star Teena Marie. It features impressive celeb cameos: Busta Rhymes, Jermaine Dupri, and, oh yes, Madonna. (Which is either really great news for the show or very sad news for Madonna.) And of course, it’s got a bunch of talented upstarts who have a comically inflated sense of their own abilities (”On top of me just looking so good,” says writer Jessica Betts, ”I can sing as well as I can rap as well as I can dance”). Each week, they’ll compete in on-the-spot challenges, like freestyling after just three hours of sleep and performing on New York streets for money. Or, adds Elliott, ”I might say ‘You wanna roll to the Usher party or stay home and write your record?’ We might be walking in a mall and I might ask to see the dance moves to [my video] ‘Gossip Folks.”’

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