The cast of Paper Dolls

Photo courtesy of Paramount+

Paper Dolls unmasks the darker side of being a woman in the music industry

"For a quarter of a century, women are still being treated this way,” say the show’s stars Miah Madden and Emalia.

Mild spoilers ahead. From the Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child to Little Mix and Blackpink, the global music industry has seen the evolution of the girl band over the past three decades. Closer to home, Bardot made waves when it formed in Australia in 1999, propelling the likes of Sophie Monk, in particular, to instant fame. More than 20 years later, a new TV series taking some inspiration from Bardot’s heyday has been released. 

Paper Dolls follows the journey of five aspiring female singers who are part of the manufactured band, HARLOW. However, the glamour of fame and fortune is immediately peeled back from the very first episode, unveiling the darker side of pursuing a music career, especially as a woman. Mental health, sexual harassment, body image pressures and media sensationalism are all explored in the eight-part series, that’s co-executive produced by former Bardot member, Belinda Chapple. 

“I think it does a really great job of showing the parallel between the very high ups and the very low downs that can occur, and how they can happen simultaneously,” says Emalia. 

The actor, who portrays character Izzy James in the series, also happens to be a R&B musician in real life. She says that while a music career can appear “super glitzy and glamorous” from the outside, “it's not always that way behind the scenes”.

In the first few episodes, viewers will see Izzy facing panic attacks and the pressure to look a certain way, all while navigating boundaries that have been crossed by a male music label executive. 

“I think most of the issues that are presented [on the show], I've seen in one way, shape or form within the industry,” she says. “Whether it's things that I've experienced myself, or that people that I've worked with and those around me have experienced.

“You can go into Google and type in ‘pop star abuse of power’, ‘pop star coming out’, ‘pop star mental health’ and you will find hundreds, if not thousands of results of people who have been through this and who have lived these experiences.”

Paper Dolls star Emalia

Emalia. Photo courtesy of Paramount+

Miah Madden plays Charlie Levett in Paper Dolls, a fellow HARLOW band member who’s super competitive against Izzy as she faces her own personal demons. Madden acknowledges one of the more challenging aspects of portraying her character involved scenes dealing with self-harm. They were confronting to film, and they’re confronting to watch. But Paper Dolls strives to respectfully depict the darker side of the music biz, and the lengths some young women feel they must go to in order to obtain success. 

“I knew it was a story that I really wanted to do right and do with a certain sensitivity, as I knew that so many young women have experienced this,” says Madden. 

“[We were] working with a psychologist to really understand the psychological reasons as to why people do this. Usually it is out of a place of feeling vulnerable and just other circumstances in their lives that have made them feel a certain way. Being on top of it medically was my biggest priority, and then ensuring that everybody on set knew how important the portrayal of this subject matter was.” 

While the storyline is set in 1999, Madden notes that many of the issues women face on the show are just as prevalent in 2023. “For a quarter of a century, women are still being treated this way,” she says. 

Emalia believes that turning around the industry’s toxic culture will take time, and open discourse is the first step. 

“I think these are the conversations that need to be had by the show and by plenty of other activists,” she says, mentioning Jaguar Jonze as an example. Jonze has previously spoken publicly about sexual harassment and assault in the music industry.

“This is the bravery that we need to see from people and also the conversations that we all need to be having collectively to move forward and decide how we can protect young people, and just protect people in general, who are in these spaces,” says Emalia. 

Paper Dolls star Miah Madden

Miah Madden. Photo courtesy of Paramount+

Growing up in Australia as the daughter of South Asian immigrants, I didn’t see too many women of colour solo artists, let alone WOC in girl bands. Nevertheless, I gravitated towards and enjoyed the broader female musical role models that I could – and my first ever album purchase at a local CD store was Bardot’s debut album. 

HARLOW may have been loosely based on Bardot’s rise, but a key difference is seeing three women of colour in this group. Madden is a proud Gadigal and Bundjalung woman, Emalia is of Spanish and Portuguese descent and co-star Naomi Sequeira has Portuguese, Spanish, Filipino and Chinese heritage. 

“I didn't have anyone growing up that I could look at and be like, ‘That could be me because that looks like me’,” says Madden, explaining that it’s because of this that cultural representation is even more significant to her. 

“I think it is so important that even though we are recreating 1999, it is so great that we bring in an element of modern morals where we need a diverse cast because that is the Australia that we all want to see… Australia in itself is multicultural. 

“It is so, so important, especially in a music industry where women of colour have been taken advantage of and have been disadvantaged and prejudiced.” 

It’s all of these elements of Paper Dolls – whether that be race, gender or the entertainment industry – that strive to educate and entertain audiences and remind us all, that women deserve better.

Paper Dolls is now streaming on Paramount+

If you or anyone you know is experiencing mental illness or in need of confidential support, please contact Lifeline (131 114) or Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636).