BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. Once he's done hosting ABC's "High School Musical: Get in the Picture," Nick Lachey might have a career ahead of him as a spokesman for the Utah Travel Council.
Lachey, a veteran of the boy band 98 Degrees and star of MTV's "Newlyweds" with then-wife Jessica Simpson, spent several weeks in the state while the reality/competition show was being filmed at Murray High School. And while show-biz types who don't live in Utah are prone to making some rather sweeping, unflattering generalizations about the state, Lachey was having none of it.
"You know what? Utah, and I say this honestly, gets a bum rap," he said. "There's a lot of impressions of what Utah's like and what Salt Lake City's like, and I can honestly say that we had the best time there. The people there were genuine and very warm and welcoming.
"We had a blast!"
And he didn't know he was talking to the television critic from the Deseret News until after he'd made that observation.
"High School Musical: Get in the Picture," which premieres Sunday at 7 p.m. on Ch. 4, continues Utah's link to the hugely successful Disney franchise. The first two TV movies were filmed here; the third movie which will be released theatrically is in production in Salt Lake City.
Thousands of teenagers turned out at open calls in Southern California and Florida, and talent scouts found other kids across the country. After the pool of hopefuls was whittled down to a dozen, Lachey, the finalists and the production team descended on Murray High School, where they "set up a performing arts school, essentially."
(There was still "a banner or two" hanging in the hallways urging people to support "American Idol" finalist David Archuleta. And Murray High actually is much more prominently featured in "Get in the Picture" than it was on "Idol" when Archuleta returned home for his big celebration.)
"Every day (the finalists) went to class, they learned, they were faced with challenges things we set up to really push them to go above and beyond where they wanted to go, quite frankly." Lachey said. "But in the end I think it made them better performers and, honestly, probably better people, too. They learned a lot."
The prize awaiting the winner of "Get In the Picture" is a chance to be "High School Musical 3." Well, in the credits, anyway the winner will star in a music video that will play while the end credits roll.
He or she will also get a talent holding deal with Disney as well as a recording contract with Disney Records.
"But I think, more than that, they've got their foot in the door of probably the most successful franchise out right now," Lachey said. "And the opportunity to step into a huge franchise in 'High School Musical."'
It's a franchise he admits he wasn't altogether familiar with when he was approached about hosting the show. He hadn't seen the first two "High School Musical" movies, but he was impressed when he went back and watched them.
"You could see right away why it's been so successful. They do such a great job of capturing a moment in life that none of us will ever see again," Lachey said. "As a teenager who loved performing, I would have jumped at the opportunity. I just don't remember, when I was a teenager many, many, many years ago things like this happening,"
(Well, not THAT many years ago. Lachey is 34.)
The idea behind "Get In the Picture" is familiar to Lachey, who attended a performing arts high school in Cincinnati when he was growing up.
"Having gone through those experiences and the challenges that come along with those rehearsals and performing at that age, I felt like I could add kind of a unique perspective to this particular show," he said. "It seemed like the perfect fit for me."
And it turned out to be an "awesome" experience for him. (Except for the finale, the entire series has already been filmed.) "Each and every day I worked with the kids. And, to me, that was the most rewarding part because I was blown away by truly how talented these kids are," Lachey said. "And just how hard they worked.
"In addition to being the host, I viewed my role as being a mentor to these kids. Someone they could come to and get advice and find support. To be a big brother figure and try to steer them in the right direction when I could."
His primary message was "Be yourself. Part of what makes 'High School Musical' so great is it's not about one type of performer, one type of person, black or white, male or female. It's about kids who love performing.
"I used to say, 'What's going to make you stand out from the others? That's your personality. That's your charisma. That's the spirit that every one of you has. So, be true to that and really tap into that. Make that a part of your performance.'"
And he urged all the kids to keep on working even if they were eliminated from "Get In the Picture."
"You can't always succeed, especially in this performance business," he said. "Only one person's going to get the lead. It's what you learn in that moment of failure. It's what you take with you to your next audition, that's going to define you as a performer and as a professional.
"You know, 98 Degrees, we didn't get it right out of the box. We had to work pretty hard at it."
Lachey himself has just finished recording a new CD, which will be released in November. The first single, "All in My Head," will be out in September. He's looking at touring, probably in 2009."So, I'm getting ready to perform again myself," he said. "But I had a lot of fun with these kids."