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Actors You Forgot Showed Up On Star Search And Lost

Long before the TV talent competition landscape was flooded by the likes of "American Idol," "The Voice," and "America's Got Talent," the syndicated series, "Star Search," was providing viewers with a chance to get their first glimpse at the potential celebrities of tomorrow. Created by producer Al Masini, who was behind some of the most highbrow programs of the 1970s and 1980s ("Smiley's People") and some of those decade's guilty pleasures ("Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous"), "Star Search" ran from 1983 to 1995 with Ed McMahon as its congenial host (a short-lived revival with Arsenio Hall ran from 2003 to 2004).

True to its intention, the series did provide national exposure to many future stars of TV and film, music, and comedy. Winners included Billy Porter, LeAnne Rimes, Brad Garrett, and "American Idol" finalist, David Archuleta, while there were a number of big-name contestants like Britney Spears, Alanis Morrissette, Conan O'Brien, Pitbull, the Backstreet Boys, Rosie O'Donnell, and Kevin James.

Those names are just a few of the many celebrities and hopefuls that performed on the "Star Search" stage. That included some of the most popular and award-winning actors of the last few decades, including a select number that failed to clinch the top prize. You might be surprised to read some of the names that are included in this list of actors who appeared on "Star Search" — and lost.

Justin Timberlake

Prior to holding down the high notes and harmony for the '90s pop vocal group, 'N SYNC, and long before his wildly successful careers as a solo performer and actor, Justin Timberlake was an 11-year-old kid in a 10-gallon cowboy hat who gave a remarkably mature performance on a 1993 episode of "Star Search." Billed as Justin Randall — which is his middle name — Timberlake sang and strutted with confidence through a cover of Alan Jackson's "Love's Got a Hold On You." The crowd was definitely behind Timberlake after his performance, but the judges thought otherwise and handed the win to 10-year-old Anna Nardona.

Two years later, Timberlake became a Mouseketeer on "The All-New Mickey Mouse Club," which also featured fellow aspiring singer JC Chasez, as well as Britney Spears — who was briefly his significant other years later — and future tourmate, Christina Aguilera. Timberlake and Chasez later formed 'N SYNC in 1995. After making his acting debut in the 2000 Disney TV movie, "Model Behavior," Timberlake became a confident leading man and supporting player in films like "The Social Network," "Friends with Benefits," and "Palmer."


In 2014, the members of the Detroit, Michigan-based band, Skeleton Crew, were surprised to discover that they were the subject of intense media scrutiny. The cause of all the attention: Beyoncé had released a single called "***Flawless" which featured an audio snippet from the 1993 episode of "Star Search" in which her vocal group, Girls Tyme — a forerunner of Destiny's Child — lost to Skeleton Crew. The experience clearly left a mark on the singer, who later said in a video interview (which accompanied the self-titled album on which "***Flawless" appeared) that she recalled the loss as a "defining moment of [her] childhood," adding, "You don't realize you could work super hard and give everything you have — and lose."

For Beyoncé, the loss spurred her to work even harder on her music career, including reorganizing and renaming the group Destiny's Child, which became an R&B juggernaut in the 1990s and led to Beyoncé's stratospheric career. For Skeleton Crew, the win was short-lived: they were eliminated in the semi-finals and returned home to record an album and open for many national groups that passed through Michigan.

As for the mention of Beyoncé's single, the band members appreciated the spotlight but understood that it shone more brightly on their former competitor. "We don't have any grand illusions," Skeleton Crew drummer Greg Tyler told People. "This is Beyoncé's story ad obviously, our 'destiny' was to play a part in it. If that experience helped to shape her and make her into what she is now, then what more can we ask?"

Dave Chappelle

Just 19 at the time of his first appearance on "Star Search" in 1993 — and according to Ed McMahon, the youngest comedian competitor in the history of the series — Dave Chappelle gave an extremely confident and hilarious performance that unseated his challenger, Kevin Brennan, a one-time "Saturday Night Live" writer best known as the caustic host of the Misery Loves Company podcast. Brennan's younger brother, Neal, later wrote for Chappelle and helped to co-create "Chappelle's Show" for Comedy Central.

Chappelle defended his title on a subsequent episode of "Star Search" before losing to Lester Barrie, a comic and licensed minister. He forged ahead, scoring minor roles in "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" and "The Nutty Professor" before teaming with Brennan to write the cult favorite, "Half-Baked," and later launching "Chappelle's Show" in 2003. After abruptly departing the series in 2005, Chappelle slowly worked his way back to regular stand-up appearances, and remains one of the most popular, if occasionally polarizing figures in comedy.

Sharon Stone

Though "Star Search" is perhaps best remembered for its vocal, dance, and comedy categories, the series also featured a modeling competition during its original TV run and in the first season of its 2003 revival. Actress Tracey Ross was the first winner in what was known as the spokesmodel category; other competitors included actress-turned-journalist Cynthia Gouw and actresses Garcelle Beauvais and Julie McCullough ("Growing Pains"). However, the best-known and most accomplished spokesmodel competitor was never actually seen by the viewing audience.

Emmy winner and Oscar and Golden Globe nominee, Sharon Stone, who began her career as a model, was featured in the spokesmodel competition for the pilot episode of "Star Search." But Stone's appearance — for which she sported brunette hair instead of her trademark blonde locks — went unseen because the pilot never made it to television. But according to the Tampa Bay Times, a select few have seen Stone's "Star Search" episode because the series used it as part of a promotional video as late as 2005.

Ray Romano

In a 2023 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Emmy-winning actor and comedian, Ray Romano, recalled that he was actually relieved that he was defeated in his first and only "Star Search" appearance in the 1990-1991 season. "My wife was pregnant with our first child and due probably four weeks later," he recalled. "I was supposed to stay in LA for another two days with my manager, but I was so deflated [by the loss] that I just went home. My wife's water broke that day, and she had the baby 24 hours later."

No video of Romano's appearance exists, but he was reportedly defeated by Geechy Guy, a comic who appeared 10 times on "Star Search" and later reportedly set a record for telling the most jokes (676) in a single hour. Guy isn't Romano's only connection to "Star Search," though. His co-star in all nine seasons of "Everybody Loves Raymond" was fellow Emmy winner Brad Garrett, who was also the first winner in the show's comedy category.

"We had the grand champion and the first-time loser on the same successful sitcom," Romano said. For a losing contestant, Romano has gone on to considerable success, including appearances in Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman" and "The Big Sick," and HBO's "Made for Love." He also made his directorial debut in 2023 with the comedy, "Somewhere in Queens."

Lauren Ambrose

Though she's best known as an actress in series like "Six Feet Under," "Servant," and "Yellowjackets," Emmy nominee Lauren Ambrose has also been singing from a very early age, and in recent years, has parlayed her vocal talents in a variety of formats, including Broadway theater. Between performances with a church choir in her hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, and classical training at Tanglewood, Ambrose also appeared as a contestant on "Star Search" in 1990.

Just 11 years old at the time of her appearance, Ambrose belted up a brisk cover of the R&B classic, "Dancing in the Streets," though as she told Ryan Seacrest and guest host Lionel Ritchie during a 2023 appearance on "Live with Kelly and Ryan," the tune wasn't her first choice.

"They made me the other song that I didn't want to sing," she explained. "The girl that was coming back was singing the ballad" (returning winner Katrina Adams). Adams may have won their matchup, but Ambrose has gone on to sing in movies (the cult favorite, "Psycho Beach Party") and netted both Tony and Grammy nominations for her performance in a 2018 Broadway revival of "My Fair Lady."

Drew Carey

The national audience generated by "Star Search" served as the first major exposure for many stand-up comedians, including Drew Carey, who competed in the series in 1988. In his first appearance, Carey — sporting the signature flattop haircut he adopted while serving in the U.S. Marines and the horn rim glasses he wore during his early career — unseated returning champion Drake Sather, who went on to co-write "Zoolander" and co-produce shows like "NewsRadio" and "Ed." But Carey was upended — by three-quarters of a point — in his second appearance by Boston-based comic, Joe Yannetty.

A 2001 story by ABC News quoted Carey, who said that Yannetty threw some serious shade moments before he went on stage. "He said, 'Hey, that's a nice suit. A nice suit to lose in.'" Yannetty acknowledged his own hubris in a later (and slightly incorrect) comment to Carey, which he echoed in the same story. "I beat you by half a star, and you beat me by half a billion dollars," he said.

Martin Lawrence

Comedian Jason Stuart was a three-time champ on "Star Search" when the time came to defend his title against a new challenger from Washington, D.C. named Martin Lawrence. Dressed in a tropical print suit shirt and slacks, Lawrence's set was polished and funny — a sentiment echoed by the judges, who awarded him a score of 3.75, besting Stuart by nearly a full point.

Upon hearing the news, Stuart spun on his heels and stomped off in what can be hoped was a comic snit (he's now a busy actor, writer, and comic). Lawrence was defeated in his next appearance, but the exposure afforded by "Star Search" led to an invitation to read for a role on the syndicated sitcom, "What's Happening Now!!," which became his first major acting project.

Lawrence rose quickly from a supporting player in films like "Do the Right Thing" and "Boomerang" to hosting HBO's "Def Comedy Jam" and starring in his own Fox sitcom, "Martin," from 1992 to 1997. Movie stardom in "Bad Boys," "Life," and "Big Momma's House" followed, though his career momentum was upended in the late 1990s due to various health and legal issues. Lawrence has maintained a peripatetic schedule in recent years, bouncing from films like "College Road Trip," and "Bad Boys" sequels to animated projects like "Open Season" and independent features including the 2022 thriller, "Mindcage."

Eva LaRue

No footage of "CSI: Miami" star and daytime soap vet Eva LaRue's appearance on a 1985 episode of "Star Search" appears available to the public, though a segment of MTV's "Basement Tapes" series from 1986 features a video of a California band called the El Caminos in which LaRue shows off her dancing skills. Co-host Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick notes that she was a competitor in the acting category on "Star Search," which is essentially all that exists of LaRue's early brush with TV fame.

Prior to "Star Search," LaRue competed in pageants and worked as a model and infomercial spokesperson before landing her Emmy-nominated role as Dr. Maria Santos Grey in "All My Children." TV movie appearances preceded her move to primetime TV with guest spots in "George Lopez" and her series regular work in "CSI: Miami" and "Fuller House." LaRue returned to daytime in 2019 with a role in "The Young and the Restless," and made headlines in 2022 when a man who stalked her and her daughter for more than a decade was sentenced to prison.

Norm Macdonald

Though much of the material in the late Norm Macdonald's 2016 book, Based on a True Story: A Memoir, is, let's say, loosely associated with real events, one anecdote which seems like a gag is actually 100% true. In the book (via Deadspin), Macdonald details his appearance on a 1990 special edition of the talent show devoted to giving contestants from other countries their first big break. Macdonald, whose Canadian heritage qualified him to compete, claimed in the book that he ran out of material after less than a minute, and that his gags drew no laughter from the crowd, but this clip tells a very different story.

What is true about Macdonald's "Star Search" appearance is that he lost to Lahai Fahnbulleh, a comedian from Liberia who performed under the stage moniker of "The Bushman." TMZ later tracked down Fahnbulleh in 2012 and found that he was still performing comedy in addition to cleaning apartments and taking the occasional babysitting gig. Macdonald, of course, rebounded by landing a five-year gig on "Saturday Night Live" before moving on to an eclectic career as an actor on television, as well as a talk show and podcast host before he sadly passed away from leukemia on September 14, 2021.

Roy Wood Jr.

Comedian and "The Daily Show" correspondent Roy Wood Jr., took on John Heffron and Alonzo Bodden in a 2003 episode of the revived "Star Search," and it did not go well. Not only did Wood lose to Bodden, who advanced to the finals after his win, but he also endured ego-bruising comments from guest judges Jarell "J-Boog" Houston and De'Mario "Raz-B" Thornton of the R&B boy band, B2K. During a stand-up performance on the Comedy Central series, "This is Not Happening" (which he later hosted), Wood recalled that the vocalists told him, "I would give you zero stars, but there ain't no button for that," before he was given just one star.

Wood confessed — jokingly, one hopes — that his planned response was to beat up the B2K members on national television, but was quietly discouraged by series host, Arsenio Hall. But Wood has rebounded spectacularly since his "Star Search" setback; the former news reporter and radio host is a staple of late-night talk shows and has appeared in guest roles on popular shows like "Only Murders in the Building." He also earned three stand-up specials on Comedy Central and issued four comedy CDs between 2003 and 2013.

Tia Carrere

Actress and  Grammy-winning singer, Tia Carrere, appeared on a 1985 episode of "Star Search" in an attempt to move her dream of becoming a performer a step closer to reality. It didn't work out as she hoped: Carrere, who was still a teenager at the time of her appearance, lost to her opponent by a quarter-point and returned to her native Hawaii, where she was discovered by a talent agent at a grocery store in Waikiki.

A role in the 1988 movie, "Aloha Summer," led to modeling and roles in series like "The A-Team," which in turn, resulted in her star-making appearance in "Wayne's World" and later, roles in "True Lies," in the "Relic Hunter" series, and voice-over work for "Lilo and Stitch."

Since the mid-2000s, Carrere has divided her career between acting in series like "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Hawaii Five-0" and recording music. Each of her four albums released between 2007 and 2010 has been nominated for Grammys, with 2008's "Ikena" and 2010's "Huana Ke Aloha" winning best Hawaiian music album.