When Diego Gomes was 13 years old, some well-meaning adults suggested that he could be the next Justin Bieber.
Just a few months after Bieber released his cataclysmic song “Baby” in 2010, judges on the YTV reality show The Next Star crowned Gomes Canada’s newest tween heartthrob.
The self-proclaimed “pretty boy” was the third winner of the popular show, which followed under-15 contestants as they broke into the entertainment industry, learned choreography, recorded original songs, filmed high-budget music videos, and got mentored by established Canadian musicians. Similar to American Idol or The X-Factor, viewers voted for who they thought deserved the title, and as the votes piled up, Canadians tuned in to a live tally online.
Not only did winning the show come with a considerable amount of fame and clout, especially for a teenager, but the assumption that winning the competition meant becoming the show’s namesake—a star.
But after the lights dimmed, the confetti fell, and the show’s theme song “Let’s Go” by judge Suzie McNeil played, Gomes’s brush with fame didn’t last. “Every day after (the finale) I was slowly becoming less and less famous,” Gomes told me one afternoon in his downtown Toronto Airbnb.
For a short while Gomes was recognized everywhere he went, and was once swarmed outside a movie theatre by adoring fans. But after releasing two songs with Universal Music Canada, which was part of the winner’s prize, Gomes was dropped by both the label and his management. Like all the contestants over The Next Star’s seven seasons, Gomes was faced with the reality of transitioning back to childhood.
“There were a few years after The Next Star where I was getting depressed,” he said of the disorienting transition out of Bieber’s shadow. “I couldn’t even sleep at night because I kept thinking, ‘Yo, I can’t sleep until this video hits a certain amount of views or until I make this much money from my song on iTunes!’ I just wanted to be successful.”
“It's a big expectation to put on any kid, the idea that he's somehow going to be able to replicate the success of someone who became an international pop star as Justin Bieber did,” said Christopher Ward, a judge for The Next Star’s first four seasons.
Despite the fact Gomes won a season that he judged, Ward says he does not remember Gomes at all.
When developing the show, Ward says that producers were conscious of the vulnerability of the young contestants. “A topic of conversation among us at the time was, you know, 'God, these kids are awfully young to be thrust into the limelight.' And it's probably one of the reasons why we didn't have any winners under 12,” said Ward.
Although no one forces someone to be on reality television, former participants of The Next Star say they didn’t fully grasp what they were getting themselves into when they were under the age of 15. While some of the tween stars went on to find success in the music industry, others wrestled with drugs, alcohol, and their own self-image.
Though he was never compared to Bieber, Jaden MacPhee experienced a similar disconnect from the version of himself he saw on TV. “I remember them forcing me to do a lot and I was just like, ‘OK, it’s just for the camera…who cares?” he recalled.
MacPhee was 14 years old when he appeared in the show’s sixth season in 2013. During a day off of taping the show, he said he escaped from the hotel where the contestants stayed, angering the producers. “I called up my friends to come pick me up from the hotel and we found a party,” he said, grinning. “I just had to get away from that uptight structure.”
When MacPhee transitioned back into life after the show, he resisted the young and innocent archetype created by The Next Star. “Instead of hanging out with people, I spent a lot of time alone and experimented with alcohol and drugs, and partying,” said MacPhee. “I was struggling a lot, and I was trying to overcompensate for who I was portrayed to be on the show. I was trying to be me, but I also felt truly lost in who I truly was.”
Reality television builds up a character for each contestant, and at the end of the season abruptly abandons them. They are then faced with navigating two identities: the one that they entered with and the one that is publicly known.
U.K. media regulator Ofcom requires broadcasters to “provide due care, and to avoid unnecessary distress or anxiety, for participants who are under 18” in order to “protect minors before, during and after production” under its Broadcasting Code. The code also “gives recourse to people appearing in programmes to object to an unfair portrayal, or to an unwarranted infringement of their privacy.” In July 2019, Ofcom proposed two more rules to the existing code that would protect the dignity of reality show participants, and ensuring contestants are not “caused unjustified distress or anxiety by taking part in programmes or by the broadcast of those programmes.”
Currently, no regulation similar to Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code, which would have protected people like MacPhee, exists under Canada’s broadcasting laws. When reached for comment, a representative from Corus Entertainment, the company YTV is a subsidiary of, told VICE that the team that produced and scheduled The Next Star is no longer with the company.
While most of the contestants were challenged with the reality of their fleeting fame, not all of them stumbled out of the limelight after the show.
Around the same time Gomes was dropped from his label, his runner-up castmate Victoria Duffield was ascending the Canadian charts. She entered the show at 15, equipped with a talent agent and experience headlining shows in her hometown Abbotsford, British Columbia. “I had even recorded a mini music video before being on the show, so I was fully prepared to take on the situations on the show. I was ready in all aspects; it was right up my alley,” she said.
Six months after the season three finale, Duffield was signed to Warner Music Canada, and in September 2011 her debut single “Shut Up and Dance” was released. The song was a commercial hit and peaked at number 12 on the Canadian Hot 100. Three months after its release, the song was awarded platinum status in Canada, which certifies the sale of over 80,000 units.
The success of the song led to more radio hits, three full-length studio albums, and an opening spot on international tours with the Backstreet Boys. She was hoisted by the show—not held down by it—partially because that was her plan from the beginning. “I understood that this was a moment in time and this fame is going to pass so I need to find out what I’m going to do next,” she said.
For season two winner Tianda Flegel, what came next was a host of new insecurities and a complicated relationship with the spotlight. Flegel said after the show she grew far more conscious of her appearance; every day, she wore makeup, straightened her hair, and refrained from smiling with her teeth.
“I used to have like spaces between all of my front teeth, and (people online) would constantly say ‘fix your teeth’ and ‘kill yourself’ nonstop. It was pretty life-changing to hear all the things that are wrong with me,” she said. “Suddenly hundreds of people were commenting all over my photos and YouTube videos that I'm ugly, or that I can't sing, or that I suck at music, telling me I should quit.”
At 13, Flegel won the show as a country-pop singer, and the winning single “Liar Liar” remains one of the most popular songs from the show. Her identity as an artist was solidified in thousands of her supporters as a country-pop singer, which even led to her fronting a country band called The Township in 2015. But Flegel is adamant that she never meant to become a country artist—it was forced on her by producers who wanted to brand her “as the new Taylor Swift.”
“There were times when I’d be trying to perform on stage and I couldn’t even walk because I simply was not wearing shoes I was ready to walk in. I was singing songs I wasn’t able to pick, and I had been writing songs that I wasn’t in love with,” she said.
In 2017, Flegel wiped clean all of her social media accounts, abandoning thousands of followers, leaving nothing but an inactive Vimeo account.
Dunnery Bond, The Next Star’s first season winner, knows the legacy of the show will continue to follow him whether he likes it or not. When he first returned to his hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia, at 14, his first priority was transitioning to a new school. He still played shows, and would occasionally be stopped on the street, but he decided against making music on someone else’s terms.
“I didn’t want to cough out an album that someone wrote all the songs for, that someone picked the album art for, that someone dressed me in all the clothes for,” he said. “When I was 14, that is exactly what would have happened, and a part of me knew that upon winning.”
Bond says everything he does today is on his own merit, reasoning he “can’t piggyback off a show from 10 years ago.” He studied vocal performance in university, and upon graduating moved back to Halifax to work as a vocal coach where he still remains today.
When season two of the show started filming, Bond reached out to the new batch of contestants to offer advice and prepare them for the show’s process. (This was later banned by producers.) Flegel was one of the people he spoke to, and they’ve stayed in touch. To this day many castmates have remained close friends, even as they’ve struggled, released new music, found new careers away from the limelight, and come to terms with their time in front of the cameras.
At the end of 2019, Tianda Flegel resurrected her social media accounts and self-released her first solo pop material since the tracks she recorded with the show. Victoria Duffield now represents herself without a label or manager, and coaches other musicians on their stage presence. In the midst of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s popularity, Jaden MacPhee started to experiment with drag under the name The Virgo Queen. As he refined his drag aesthetic and improved his makeup skills, that experiment eventually turned into a full-time job, allowing him to live off performing five days a week in Toronto’s gay village.
When I met Diego Gomes in 2019, he wore a metallic puffer coat, flashy chains, and a freshly faded haircut. Today Gomes works at a major beverage factory, and directs music videos, mostly his own, in his spare time.
When asked about his self-released music, Gomes said he isn’t proud of everything that’s out there. “That stuff I was doing was cringy,” Gomes said of a streak of hip-hop videos mostly featuring grinding girls in a dimly lit apartment. (He’s since shifted genres to Latin-pop.) “When you’re an artist it’s hard for you to analyze yourself. You have to go through phases, you have to grow up, you have to mature to find out your true self and a sound that works for you. That took me a while to learn.”
As Gomes and I sat on the couch in the apartment scattered with remnants of the party he hosted the night before, we turned on the TV to stream a clip of his performance of “My Best Friend’s Girl” at the show’s finale. He watched pridefully, amused by the myriad of girls donning “I heart Diego” T-shirts and irrepressibly screaming while snapping photos on their point-and-shoots, moments before he was announced as the winner.
Despite everything he went through, Gomes said he has no regrets, and would do the show over again if given the opportunity.
“I’m always going to be Diego from The Next Star and I’ve accepted that reality and it doesn’t bother me because I’m proud of what I did,” he said, then pausing reminiscently. “I’ve already experienced fame. At least I can say I did it: I lived my dream.”
Follow Nathan Sing on Twitter.