Song Bird And Funny Man Shine

The new live version of "Star Search" kicked off Wednesday night when 13-year-old Meaghan Markert wowed the home audience with her stirring rendition of "Ave Maria." Comedian Tyrone Barnett left them laughing, earning his way into the next round of the talent competition. Both will move on to compete in the semifinal round on Jan. 16.

The winner of the junior singer category is an 8th-grader from Plymouth, Minn. Meaghan has been singing since she was a little girl - at her brothers T-ball competitions, and around the house.

She started training in opera when she was 10. She has done six operas with Minnesota Opera Company and had roles in a lot of local theater productions. She sings Christmas Masses at school.

For the auditions, Meaghan drove to Chicago with her mother. If Meaghan won the $100,000 prizre, she says, she would put some of it in a bank account and go on a little shopping spree.

Meaghan says she admires Celine Dion. She likes all kinds of music, but tends to perform classical music because she says it shows more of her high voice. She likes singing classical and pop. Her goal is to pursue a recording contract and possibly some acting on the side. She says she wants a long-lasting career.

The first person Meaghan called when she won was her grandma. Her parents and 16 year-old brother were in the audience.

Meaghan has no clue what she will do for the semi final round. She is opening for the singer Jewel on Saturday at Minneapolis Convention center. She goes back to L.A. after that for rehearsals until the semi final round.

Barnett says the entire "Star Search" experience has been extremely overwhelming for him. He went from no attention to a lot of attention. But notes it is a good feeling.

The 26 year-old grew up in Chicago, lives in Washington, but is relocating to Los Angeles. People have been telling him he is funny for his entire life, especially in high school. Many of his friends would leave their classes to listen to him crack jokes.

Barnett was always scared to speak in public because he did not want to be embarrassed, he says, adding that he never went out for sports because he feared the embarrassment. But everything changed when his best friend died four years ago. It made him realize that he had not done everything in his life he wanted to do. Losing his best friend has kept him going, he says.

The first time Barnett tried comedy in front of an audience was in Seattle. He received light chuckles, he says. The next night, he got no laughter. The moment he realized he wanted to be a comedian was when he got boo's at a show. From that point on, Barnett says, he could not wait to get on stage and try again, he says. He kept trying - he started taping shows. He wrote about things that he thought was funny. As long as the subject matter he is talking about is from the heart, then he is satisfied, he says.

Barnett took a big risk going into the comedy. He was a pharmacy tech for seven years before decided to be a comedian, but he says he is not cut out for a 9-to-5 job.

When somebody told Barnett that "Star Search" was back, his manager suggested auditioning. He auditioned in front of five people and performed well even though he was extremely nervous.

This entire week, Barnett says, he has been a nervous wreck. But once he was on stage he was fine. Barnett wants to thank everybody for getting him on stage. He says he wants people to know that everything is possible if you believe in yourself.

In the future Barnett hopes for better opportunities and better stages. He says he wants more challenges. Barnett says as a black comedian it is important to him that people really appreciate what he does.

Other Winners:

Andrea Diaz defeated Melanie Molnar in the Model category. Her spirited fashion walk inspired comment from the judges. "Sassy lassie!" pronounced Naomi Judd, giving her three stars. Carol Leifer gave her four stars, saying, "She has a combination of all-American and very exotic. It's a great look." Chaka Khan gave her five stars, and Ben Stein gave her three, remarking, "Gorgeous, but a little too sexy. Scared me a little bit."

In the Adult Singer category, Ugochi Nwaogwugwu, who sang "Neither One of Us" got 29 stars winning over Christina Souza, who got 24. Ben Stein gave Nwaogwugwu four stars, adding, "Super talent, super voice, super pipes, but the outfit distracted from your incredibly great performance."

"You're enormously talented," remarked Carol Leifer, who gave her four stars. "I'd really like to see you go on to big things just to make DJs have to pronounce your name." Chaka Khan gave Ugochi four stars, saying, "You have beautiful presence. You have a lovely voice. You just need to relax and work more." Naomi Judd gave her five stars, telling her, "Music expresses emotions words can't define. You touched me."

About "Star Search:"

"Star Search," a one-hour variety/talent series hosted by Arsenio Hall and inspired by the original "Star Search" television program (1983-1995), which helped launch the careers of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Ray Romano, Sinbad and Martin Lawrence, among others, will be broadcast live twice a week for four weeks, beginning with its premiere on Wednesday, Jan. 8 (8:00-9:00 p.m., live ET/delayed PT) and on Thursdays (8:00-9:00 p.m., live ET/delayed PT) beginning on Jan. 9. Star Search will have its finale on Thursday, Feb. 6 (8:00-9:00 p.m., live ET/delayed PT).

"Star Search" will be a nine-episode, bi-weekly, one-hour series featuring live tournament-style competitions in four categories -- adult singer, junior singer, comic and supermodel -- culminating in the grand-prize winning Star in each category. Voting will be done by a panel of both celebrity judges and viewers at home via the Internet who will determine the winners and the $100,000 grand prize winner in each category. There are three regular judges and one surprise celebrity judge each episode. Their vote is 50 percent of the final vote. The viewers Internet votes make up the other 50 percent.

Episodes one, two, three, five, six and seven will be "first round" match-ups. Winners of episodes one, two and three will advance to episode four, the first semi-final. Winners of episodes five, six and seven will advance to episode eight, the second semi-final. Episode nine will be the grand finale in which two semi-final winners from each category will compete for the $100,000 grand prize.

Multi-talented actor/comedian Arsenio Hall is perhaps best known to television audiences for his successful six-year run as host and executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning "The Arsenio Hall Show." He began his career in Chicago as a standup comedian, eventually touring with more than 25 headliners. His additional television credits include "Martial Law" on the Network and hosting the "MTV Video Music Awards" for four consecutive years (1988-91). He also co-starred in the hit motion picture "Coming to America" and "Harlem Nights."

Auditions were held in Miami, Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles.

Following is a profile of the show's three permanent judges:

Ben Stein

Ben Stein is an accomplished writer, lawyer, teacher, actor and game show host. Stein has written more than 15 books and during 1973-4, he wrote speeches for President Richard Nixon. He currently hosts "Win Ben Stein's Money" weekdays on Comedy Central and teaches libel and securities law courses at Pepperdine University. Stein is probably best known for his role as a teacher in the cult classic "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." His scene was recently ranked one of the 50 most famous scenes in American film.

Naomi Judd

Naomi Judd is probably best known for being one half of country music's most famous mother/daughter team, The Judds. The Judds sold over 20 million albums and earned 20 top-10 hits, 15 of which went to number one on the charts. They won five Grammy Awards and were undefeated for eight consecutive years at all three major country music awards shows. Judd is also an accomplished actress, motivational speaker and author. Additionally, Judd donates her time to a number of charities including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Make-A-Difference Day and SHARE, a Los Angeles-based children's organization, among others. Judd founded the Naomi Judd Education and Research Fund for the American Liver Foundation and is the national spokesperson for the American Liver Foundation.

Carol Leiter:

Carol Leifer is an acclaimed comic, comedy writer and producer who began her career as a standup comedian performing in many of New York's well known clubs. She spent three years as a writer on "Seinfeld," eventually serving as producer, which earned her both Writers Guild and Emmy Award nominations.

Leifer also served as writer/supervising producer for "The Larry Sanders Show" and creator/writer/executive producer for "Alright, Already," in which she made her television acting debut. She has written, produced and starred in several cable specials, including "Carol Leifer Comedy Cruise" and "Gaudy, Bawdy and Blue." In addition, she has written for both the Emmy Awards and the Academy Awards presentations.

Leifer's acting credits include episodes of "Seinfeld," "The Naked Truth" and "Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm." She also appeared as a guest on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" and made more than 25 appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman."

Leifer, a native of Long Island, N.Y., lives in Los Angeles

Chaka Khan

Chaka Khan began her musical career in 1974, singing for the group Rufus. During the next six years, Rufus became one of the most popular urban acts scoring a number of hit songs and winning a Grammy Award in 1974 for "Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group."

In 1978, Khan left to pursue a solo career. Khan is best known for her hit singles "I'm Every Woman" and "I Feel for You" among others. She is the recipient of seven Grammy Awards including "Best R&B Vocal Performance" in 1992.