The Mice That Roared
Britney? 'N Sync? TV's Felicity? Matt Casella knew how to pick 'em

FOCUS

Some 10 years ago, while casting a new version of The Mickey Mouse Club, director Matt Casella began a nationwide search for. "normal kids with an extraordinary talent...not showbiz kids with agents." To see how well Casella did his job, take a look at the current pop charts. Incredibly, 4 of the 20 wannabes he picked then are teen stars now: Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and 'N Sync's Justin Timberlake and J.C. Chasez. Not to mention, in television, Keri Russell of The WB's Felicity. Their common thread? "They've got an honesty and confidence in who they are," says Casella, currently planning projects for Disney and Dream Works.

He discovered Aguilera, then 9, in 1990 at an open casting call in Pittsburgh attended by more than 500 kids. "Christina was like a Whitney Houston," Casella says, a "triple threat" able to sing, act and dance. He picked Spears, then 8, out of 800 children at a 1990 Atlanta audition. "She totally knocked me out," he recalls. "No child had ever come to audition for me with the dance skills that Britney had." Spears returned the compliment. "He really believed in me," she says. "Maybe he saw. something in our eyes."

So what's the secret of their success? Says Casella: "The drive and perseverance not to give up their dreams and hopes."

Now Showing: The Ex-Files
If there's anything more dangerous than an ex-love, it's one who's brandishing a film called I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meathook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney. The 15-minute black s comedy, showing on the Internet at AtomFilms.com, was directed by Ben Affleck back in the early '90s when he was good job hunting. Now, it seems, he would rather his ex-squeeze Kamala Lopez-Dawson, who cowrote the flick and sold it to the Web site, had left it in cold storage. In a rant on his own affleck.com, the star of February's Reindeer Games slammed Lopez-Dawson for seeking to "embarrass me for her own (financial) gain." Lopez-Dawson, an actress in L.A., decries the "personal attack" and insists she had "a right to sell" the film. No wonder Affleck brought his mom to the Oscars.

90210ver and Out: Ciao, Beverly
Loyal fans followed the Beverly Hills, 90210 gang through 10 years of endless crises, countless hairstyles and forgettable side projects from its stars. But parties aren't meant to last, and on Jan. 24, FOX announced that this season would be the series' last. Low ratings (the show ranked No. 82 the week of Jan. 10, with an average of 8.3 million viewers this season), high license fees (about $2.2 million per episode, according to Variety) and the rumored departure of key players Brian Austin Green and Tori Spelling sparked the move.

Foreign Trade: Tyson for Fergie?

Mike Tyson fell in love with London last month, telling British boxing writers "I want to move here" after jogging in Hyde Park and buying a bowler at royal hatter James Lock and Co. Ltd. Meanwhile, Sarah Ferguson, a self-proclaimed "closet American," was in the States interviewing Leo DiCaprio for her new employer, the Today show. Hmmm, Fergie for Tyson, Which country wins in that pop cultural exchange?

AMERICA GETS: ENGLAND GETS:

A certified member of the upper crust. A certified master of the uppercut.

A chance for Weight Watchers fans to reduce their hips through diet, not surgery. A chance for ring opponents to reduce their ears through diet, not surgery.

A woman who snared her title with a ring. A man who snared his title in the ring.

A potential replacement for Vanna White—another performer with unfathomable, but much admired, skills. A potential addition to Britain's reigning bubblegum quartet: Very Very Scary Spice.

A woman who won't let the Queen run her life. A man who won't let Don King run his life.

A Stone's New Leaf
Keith Richards, tree hugger? Well, yes, if the flora happens to surround the Rolling Stone's Elizabethan minicastle in West Wittering, England. Developers cleared more than 50 trees and shrubs from the lot next door, angering the locals and turning Richards green. He fired off an angry letter to local officials, arguing that the woodland doubles as a refuge for birds. "He really does care about nature," says neighbor Peter Dawson. The pruning has temporarily stopped, suggesting, indeed, that if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.

And for My Next Trick...
It's no illusion! Following a failed multiyear engagement to magician David Copper-field, Claudia Schiffer, 29, has a new fiancé-British art dealer and Green Stamp heir Tim Jeffries, 37, who proposed during a romantic getaway on St. Bart's over the New Year. The two recently made the scene at Hollywood's Golden Globes. Jeffries, once married to British actress Koo Stark, has dated Elle Macpherson and a few other models.

POP QUIZ

with Jon Stewart

Primary season presents a special challenge to politicians and comics alike. With so many debates, press conferences and late-night monologues, there's a constant pressure to find new material. Which may be why Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show on cable's Comedy Central, hired former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole as the show's political commentator. A blurring of the thin line between legislator and laugh generator? Here's Stewart's view.

Bob Dole—comic?

He'll function as an Internet search engine. I'll say, "Who's the guy with the brown hair?" and Bob Dole will go, "He's the Speaker of the House."

But can he be funny?

"We're playing him as a pundit. It's certainly not going to be prop humor and impressions. But it's like a few days ago I said to him, "[Bill] Bradley and [Al] Gore seem a little stiff to me." He said, "No, no—I've seen them smile once." He's got a great understated delivery.

How's the campaign going?

I'm delighted with it. But I'm also saddened because I believe the Republicans, after New Hampshire, will lose that Backstreet Boys look they have at their debates. I don't think there will be five guys, six guys up there anymore. But we haven't even dusted off the Reform Party yet. They're choosing between [Pat] Buchanan and [Donald] Trump, so it's a win-win situation for us.

Does comedy influence the nation's politics?

If it could, Pat Paulsen [who ran tongue-in-cheek campaigns for President from 1968 through 1996] would've been running the country years ago.

Where do you get the news?

From late-night comics. No—we check the wire services, we keep up.

Will any of the presidential candidates prove as great a source of humor as Bill Clinton?

It's so hard to get a situation [like the Monica Lewinsky scandal] that's so covered, has such longevity and isn't horrific: a trifecta. I think Clinton has raised the bar. Even if the next President has a liaison with an intern, that's old hat. We need someone who will be a trendsetter.

Any funny issues?

Well, certainly campaign-finance reform. Oh, I'm sorry—I meant sex. What lends itself most are the fringe issues, the little spices thrown in. The pop quiz from Boston, the promise to never run negative ads.

What about the conventions?

It used to be a bunch of hard-liners in smoke-filled rooms. Now Aretha Franklin comes in and belts out a song. They look like the 1986 Emmys.

What do you think of CBS showing weeks of David Letterman reruns in primary season?

I think that's a respectful idea. He is that show.

ON THE BLOCK

ROSEANNE'S ROOST
Television's Roseanne, who has been fronting a raucous rock and roll band of late, is changing her tune. She wants a little peace and quiet, says husband Ben Thomas, so she's selling her two-story Beverly Hills home and looking for a more relaxed environment to raise their 4-year-old son Buck. The 11,000-sq.-ft. house, purchased in the spring of '98 for $7.9 million, is now on the market for $8.9 million. It features a tennis court, pool, spa and rose garden in an exclusive gated community. So where to next? In the L.A. area, but by the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea, says Thomas.

  • Contributors:
  • Mike Neill,
  • Russell Scott Smith,
  • David Wallis,
  • Liza Hamm,
  • Matthew Beard,
  • Lorenzo Benet,
  • John Hannah,
  • Reshmi Kutty,
  • Bob Meadows,
  • Ed Newton,
  • Gabrielle Saved,
  • Debbie Seaman,
  • Paula Yoo.