You’ve seen the interviews in the press for just about as long as reality television has been around. Past and current cast members of docuseries, reality competition shows, and every other strain of the genre complain about how they were edited to appear a certain way, made to say things they didn’t say, or were otherwise “portrayed” in an unflattering manner.
While my new book doesn’t deal with casting from a would-be star’s perspective, it does talk about story ethics along the way, and it’s from that place of caring about your dignity and sanity that I’m writing this post today.
MOTIVATION: I WANNA BE RICH!
Unless you’re signing on to do a reality competition show with a huge cash prize, you either:
a) Don’t know much about reality television, or…
b) Are a brilliant strategist.
Shocker: reality television typically doesn’t pay well. Specifically, it usually pays average Joes anywhere from zero dollars and zero cents to maybe a couple of thousand bucks an episode or a living stipend. Maybe in the second or third season of a show and beyond, you’ll get more than that. Don’t make the mistake of reading about the Jersey Shore kids’ salaries and get cartoon dollar signs in your eyes.
I attended a panel a few years ago in which a major alternative TV agent (“alternative” is what many agencies call reality) lamented that every time some show trots out a new cast, he’s inundated with queries from the folks appearing on that season of the show as they seek representation. When asked what it is they actually do that he can promote, they often replied with a statement like “I’m the chick with the blue hair on show x.”
As you can imagine, he emphasized, it’s hard to market the mere talent of being.
Even if you are actually talented, it’s tough to get a career out of an episode or even a season of reality show participation. Can you name even half of the people who have competed on even the biggest reality shows? What percentage of American Idol hopefuls can you remember off the top of your head? Maybe ten or twenty percent, even as a fan of the show? These people appeared for weeks on the highest rated show in America… and you wouldn’t know them at the mall.
That said, exposure is worth something if you have a game plan and seize opportunities while they are ripe. Bethenny Frankel made the most of her time and stardom on The Real Housewives of NYC and spinoffs Bethenny Getting Married? and Bethenny Ever After by promoting herself and her product line, reportedly earning more than $100 million from its eventual sale. I have no idea what her salary was for the shows, but it sure wasn’t a hundred million bucks.
MOTIVATION: I WANNA BE FAMOUS LIKE BETHENNY FRANKEL! OH, AND A ROLE MODEL!
Did you see what I wrote above about American Idol? The chances of you becoming a star of Bethenny’s magnitude is pretty slim. And as to actually stating that you want to be a “role model,” you’re basically subscribing to the vain person’s version of “inspiring others.”
In other words, congratulations on being the world’s greatest dad / bartender / blood donor / volunteer house builder, but if the show is about you and ten other people competing to lose weight / race each other to Bangkok / climb a rope faster than somebody else, the focus is on watching you do things and react to other people doing things. Unless you’ve signed up to do a show called Here’s a Bunch of Really Terrific People, you’re simply there to compete or interact in a manner that’s hopefully consistent with whatever the casting people saw in you during their process.
It’s not impossible to come off well on a reality show, and many, if not most, do. Remember this, as it will help you boost your chances of seeming likable: The story department is there to find stories. The degree of access you give them, your general nature on-set and the emotional honesty you bring to your time shared with the field producers makes all the difference, as in the absence of naturally occurring story resulting from you being a clammed-up phony baloney in a misguided attempt to manage what we do, you may either find yourself minimized on the program or letting the other participants on the show create your image for you in the interviews and scenes in which you’re being referenced.
Get in there. Mix it up. Enjoy yourself and be yourself. Usually it’s the most energetic and emotional moments that punctuate story and make it to air. If you are uncomfortable with people seeing how you handle yourself in moments of extreme joy, stress, anger, or sadness, you do not want to be on a reality show.
HOW DO I KNOW THEY WON’T MAKE ME LOOK BAD? CAN I CONTROL HOW I COME OFF?
Once you’re cast and start paying attention to stories from people who have had negative experiences on reality shows, you might buy into their issues and become alarmed that you’re going to look bad or be painted as a fool.
“No problem,” you say. “I’ll just put on a show.”
Well, no. That’s a terrible approach. The minute you start putting forward a veneer (which many of us call “self-producing”), you’re running the extreme risk of coming off as a huge phony in the final product. You’ve heard what other cast members say about phonies and goody-two-shoes: “He thinks he’s so great and awesome, but he’s totally putting up a front.” Then, in an unguarded moment after weeks of trying to be someone you’re not and having your castmates call you on it, you’ll probably blow up at someone and all that “you” will come flooding out in a wildly embarrassing moment that will no doubt be part of the season finale because you finally “snapped.”
In other words, you suddenly became yourself, only with all the crap you’ve been shoving down into your soul for weeks coming up with it, turning you into a combination Tasmanian devil slash human hurricane. Which is… ah… not good.
There are no Mother Teresas in reality tv. No flawless stars who never make mistakes and always serve as shining examples to the world of how to live without farting, forgetting an anniversary or occasionally losing their cool. Because that is what people do. And as much as critics of the genre love to say that reality thrives on humiliating people by putting them in embarrassing situations or showcasing poor behavior, the truth is that you cannot tell a captivating story in any medium without characters that exhibit (and try to overcome) flaws. Aristotle, in his Poetics, refers to “hamartia,” wherein missing a mark or exhibiting error or sin in ignorance, results in emotion being elicited from an audience as the character then suffers a poor change in fortune (which, in the modern, could be anything from a drink in the face to the disruption of a developing friendship). Audiences expect to see you stumble. They might laugh at you or empathize with you as you struggle, but it’s critical that you be you while you do it.
You know why Bethenny Frankel became a huge star? Because she was emotionally real, and people could react to her. When she was at her bitchiest, she was interesting. When she was at her most vulnerable, she was interesting. She let it all hang out, and that gave the story teams miles of material to work with in making sure she came off as a real person and not a caricature.
If you can’t handle occasionally looking bad at points over the course of a story that runs six, eight, ten episodes wherein you may totally be able to redeem yourself with an apology or spiritually generous action down the line, in keeping with the mechanics of good storytelling, you do not want to be on a reality show.
IF I CAN’T NECESSARILY BE RICH OR FAMOUS OR A ROLE MODEL, AND I CAN”T CONTROL HOW I COME OFF, WHY DO I WANT TO BE ON A REALITY SHOW AT ALL?
Do it because you think it will be interesting, or because it would be fun to compete for a million bucks, or because you enjoy challenging yourself, or because you want to draw attention to your profession, a cause or a charity.
Only you know why you want to be on television. I’m just here to make sure we tell a good story.