THEY'RE ALL WINNERS -- COLGATE COUNTRY SHOWDOWN

On a cool evening in Florida, a handful of young people are trying to do what Garth Brooks, Martina McBride, LeAnn Rimes and John Michael Montgomery couldn't.

It's the finals of the 21st Annual Colgate Country Showdown at Walt Disney World in Orlando. After more than six months, 541 competitions at local, state and regional levels, and performances by more than 50,000 singers, it all comes down to one nationally televised night – and six finalists. At the end of this evening's show, in just a couple of hours, one of them will be $100,000 richer – and named the Best New Act In Country Music.

It's a title some of the best in the business have tried – and failed – to earn. In years past, then-aspiring young stars like Martina, Garth, John Michael and LeAnn all took to the showdown stage and went home empty-handed.

One current star who gave it his best shot – and lost not just once, not just twice, but three times – is Billy Ray Cyrus, the superstar host of tonight's show, which will air on numerous syndicated TV markets at various times in March and April and on the PAX network in May.

So how far did Billy Ray get? "Man, I don't even think I placed," he grins. "I know I didn't win! I was a contestant in 1982 and 1983 in Ashland, Ky., and then in 1986 in Winchester, Ky. "But they say the most important ingredient for success is failure. And every time you try and fail, you eliminate one way that won't work. So I eliminated that – three times! And finally persisted and found another way." Did he ever!

After missing the brass ring in the Showdown, Billy Ray went on to have a string of hit records and land a starring role in PAX-TV's top-rated television show Doc. But he credits his Showdown experience for helping him get there.

"Those were big times when I had to rise to the occasion, give it my best shot," explains Billy Ray. "And I came out of it a more well-rounded musician and entertainer.

"So it's great that Colgate is giving these kids a chance to go out there and make their dreams come true."

Win or lose, the contestants who are willing to keep working for success will have a good shot at it. In its 21-year history that's what the Showdown has always been about – recognizing hard work and talent.

The contest is sponsored by the Colgate-Palmolive corporation, the makers of numerous household products from toothpaste and deodorant to soap.

"This competition will never try to build television ratings by humiliating our contestants," declares show producer Dean Unkefer at a dinner for contestants and sponsors the night before the show, making an obvious reference to a certain other televised talent-search program that delights in chewing up its losers.

"The Showdown has always been about talent – and the integrity of our judging system."

As the finalists come forward after dinner to say a few words about themselves, it's apparent the Showdown is also about real people. "I hadn't entered in time and thought I'd missed the deadline," recalls Californian and third-time contestant Jason Wheeler. "But my wife took a red-eye flight to Nashville and hand-delivered my entry materials to the competition offices – and delayed our wedding to do it."

Samantha Madison, a New Hampshire native and another finalist, tells how her mother was in the car and heard a country station promoting the competition.

"I was 14 the first time I entered," recalls Samantha with a winning smile. "I'm 17 now and this is my third time in the competition." Like Billy Ray, she understands the power of persistence. And the stories continue.

A band called The City Cowboys from Salt Lake City heard the contest mentioned on a radio station, but didn't know which station it was. "We called every country station we could think of," smiles drummer Doug Osmond, "until we found the one that was promoting the Showdown and could give us entry information."

Carrie Joy from Illinois steps forward and modestly smiles. "I don't really have a story to tell," she says. But the very fact that she began with 50,000 other contestants is a story in itself!

For Young Country, a trio from Arkansas, their career together began with them competing against each other at local talent shows. "We'd see each other at every talent contest," declares Jimmy Miller, "and finally decided it made more sense to work together than to keep trying to beat each other."

Ashley Thompson from Mississippi is still rehearsing as the dinner winds down, so her parents step forward to tell how proud they are of her and how much they believe in her.

Yep, it's all about real people. And, as the show unfolds, it's apparent the contestants are all really talented people. No one wants to be in the judges' shoes. But as difficult as it is, a decision has to be made.

Portly country comedian T. Bubba Bechtol keeps the audience laughing between televised portions of the show, joking about his success "beating anorexia" and how to tell if you, too, just might be a "bubba" – or a "bubbette."

But while folks are laughing it up in the audience, there are enough butterflies in the wings to pick up T. Bubba and carry him right off the stage. Because this is it. The judges have made their decision. And the contestants, who've formed genuine friendships with each other during days of rehearsing their songs and shooting promotional spots, are gathered onstage as Billy Ray prepares to read the name of an act whose world is about to change – big time. Who is it?

To find out (and get info on how to enter the new 2003 contest), check your local TV listings or visit countryshowdown.com for more Colgate Showdown information.

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