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What Really Happens Behind the Scenes Of Reality TV? A True Story
The time has come to spill my guts to the world about the details of my reality show experience. I've been carrying this thing around for 5 years now and I'm tired of keeping it bottled up because of the bloody 'confidentiality agreement'. It's not like the show was a hit. I mean, come on, it never made it on the air for goodness sake! I wrote the "watered down" version in my hub 'Reality Show Reject'. It's time to share the details so that somebody out there can be inspired to overcome their greatest fear! So listen up, everyone! You're about to hear what really happened in My Reality Show Experience: The Whole Story.
Casting Agent Call.....
It all started several years ago when I received the fateful call. I was given a message at work to call "Cindy" at an unknown area code.
"Hmmm", I thought, "I better look this up."
I checked the area code. Santa Monica, California!! At last! SURVIVOR!!!! My heart pounded and adrenalin raced through my body. A week before, I’d sent another audition tape and application to the casting department for ‘Survivor’. Why would an aging, born-again baby-boomer want to apply for a reality show like ‘Survivor’? It’s not like I really thought they would call, but "what if?" And "what if" I beat ‘em all, and showed ‘em how to win without being a liar or a cheat! Oh, man, that would be too cool!
I called the number on the message slip. Voice Mail!
"Hello, this is Cindy in casting. Leave a brief message and phone number and I will call you back."
RATS!!! I left my name, number, and plainly stated I was returning her call. I tried to relax as I waited, but it was impossible. I thought of every question she might ask me. My mind was racing with the possibilities. I was already trying to figure out how I was going to ask my boss for a six week leave of absence.
Finally, she called me.
"Hello?", I said, trying to drop my southern accent.
"Hi", gushed the California voice, "this is Cindy in the casting department at Casting Corp. Tell me about your nightmare". Then, she proceeded to ask me about a recurring bad dream I’d been having....what the heck?
Now, let me explain something. The reason I’m leaving out the name of the casting agency is because of the contractual agreement I signed for this project. I am prohibited from revealing the name of the show, the production company, and the network who was to broadcast it. They agreed to allow me to discuss my experience in relation to the program as long as I would abide by these terms. Back to my story.....
"You’re not with Survivor?", I asked, plainly disappointed.
I was totally blown away, at this point. What was this? As she explained why she was calling, I remembered an on-line survey on the website of a major television network. I had spontaneously responded to the survey a few weeks before. In my response, I described, in detail, a recurring bad dream I’d been experiencing about climbing a high, narrow, and spiraling staircase. The dream was the result of my very real fear of heights that, at times, was totally debilitating. Anyway, as I spilled my guts to this perfect stranger on the phone, I sensed she was really picking up on my enthusiasm. I totally hammed it up and she loved it!
"Okay,", she stated, "this is what I want you to do. Make me a three minute video tape....tell me everything we’ve just talked about. Everything. I want you to send it to me by Monday. Download the application from the website, fill it out, and mail it with the tape."
The Casting Agent Liked Me!
Wow! How cool was that? I hadn’t even applied, and they were requesting my application! In a whirlwind, I made a tape, filled out the application, and mailed it the next day. I even went further than that. I called and left an official-sounding message on her voice mail; "Hello, I wanted to confirm that I have mailed the video and application form, at your request, and it will be in your office on Saturday". Now that was professional.
For the next couple of weeks, I was apprehensive. Would they call me? I just knew I had messed up my video, I wasn’t forceful enough, I wasn’t funny enough, on and on, I tortured myself. Then, on a Monday morning, I got the message I wanted to hear.
"This is Sally, casting director for Casting Corp. We loooooovvvvvve you!"
I couldn’t believe it! Finally, someone had recognized my potential as a reality show contestant! This was it, I knew I’d made it. She congratulated me.
"You’ve made the semi-finals!!! This is what I need you to do now......".
Another video and contracts. They needed to be in her office "........by the 6th!" Everything was push, push, hurry, hurry....now sit back and wait. They wanted to create a sense of urgency so I wouldn’t have time to think about what I was going to do for the video, they wanted it spontaneous (I realized this later).
A few days later, another phone call.
"Congratulations! You’ve made the finals!"
Off to Los Angeles!
Then, whoosh! I was off to Los Angeles after frantically making arrangements for a couple of vacation days. It wasn’t easy explaining to my employer why I needed a day and a half vacation, immediately. Remember, I couldn’t tell them anything, it was all a secret. So, I had my first all expense-paid trip to Los Angeles and I couldn’t tell a soul, except for immediate family members.
Once in Los Angeles, the real fun began. Met at the airport by a production assistant, I was driven to the exclusive hotel hideout for reality contestants near Hollywood / Universal City. A casting agent was waiting outside the hotel to welcome me.
"I’m soooooo glad to meet you!! We’re soooooo glad you’re here! Welcome to L.A.! Would you like something to eat?"
These people catered to my every need! I mean, the casting agents were so upbeat and positive, it was hard NOT to be enthused. I told them they were great sales people. One agent told me, "This is just the way we are". Right......
After I settled into my room, I had my first interview with the executive producer. I was exhausted, since I was still on Central time and it was quite late, but I managed to get through the taped interview process easily and with great ease. I’ve always felt natural in front of the camera, maybe because I’m such a drama queen. The producer questioned me extensively, about everything. It’s not like they didn’t already have my life history after the background check, but they wanted it all. He made me feel very comfortable, and besides, I was impressed with the fact that he used to work on a major television network.
I'm In, I'm On the Show!
Mr. Executive Producer called me, a few days later, and said they would be coming to my hometown to shoot some footage and tape interviews with me and two of my family members. This was actually part of the show, the rest was to be taped in L.A. at a later date. They didn’t tell me they would be bringing the host of the show with them. In fact, I never watched his movies, but I knew who he was. You can imagine my surprise when, two weeks later, I walked into the lobby of a local hotel to meet the crew and producers, and there he was! I thought he looked familiar, you know, like maybe he was someone I went to school with. I turned to one of the producers and said, "Hey, he looks like an older ------ ------". And the producer said, "He is XXXX XXXX !". I think they got a kick out of that. Then I realized, XXXXXX had been viewing my audition tapes and interviews in preparation for shooting! He acted like he already knew me, so I felt pretty comfortable. I mean, why not? He’s just another person who happens to have a high profile job. We talked quite a bit. I found him to be a very interesting person. I’m sorry I can’t reveal his name, but you know the old ‘confidentiality agreement’, coming back to haunt me. Good grief, will it ever disappear?
The main interview, with me and the Host, was to be taped the next day. This would be the plot of my episode, a narration of my dream and the phobia that plagued me, so it had to be done carefully. We used my mother’s house to shoot the footage, and let me tell you, we had no idea what was involved. When I asked my mother about using her house to tape some footage, she asked me, " How many crew members will be coming?" I told her I thought about four or five people with a camera. NOT! Let’s see, five rental cars and approximately ten crew members, not to mention the extra that drove down from the network subordinate in Little Rock. And not to mention the number of lights, cameras, and equipment that filled her living area (they moved the furniture out). On top of the fact that they turned my mother’s house into a studio, they used the spare bedroom for a makeup /dressing room for the Host to use. So, when my expected ‘four or five people’ turned into a mass production, Mom made sure she played the part of a top notch southern hostess, offering the camera men cake and coffee. Of course, my father was in the dark about what was going on. We told him I was working on a project with some California folks, but he seemed to roll right with it. What a day!
Reaching the Semi-Finals.
The next morning, I had breakfast with Mr. Executive Producer, the Casting Director Assistant, a Production Assistant, and three of the other contestants. I found out we were the first four of over twenty people chosen for the finals. We formed an immediate bond and labeled ourselves the ‘First Four’. It made us feel like we were their top choices ( I found out later this was true). In addition, this was a brand new reality show, and we felt totally privileged to be the first four contestants considered for this particular show. After breakfast, we were whisked away for our medical exams.
In the afternoon, we had some free time. Our babysitter, the casting director's assistant, took us all over Hollywood. We made the legendary walk down Hollywood Blvd and went to a lot of tourist traps. I clowned around the whole time, naturally, and held nothing back. This was my day! We had a totally awesome time and ended up in a gourmet pizza restaurant in a Hollywood mall. The day was totally exhausting, but worth it, especially since I didn’t have to foot the bill! Later that night, we got to meet the top producer for the show. I don’t know what I expected, but he didn’t look like my concept of a traditional producer. He was an average guy with a family, just like everyone else. He’d done a lot of work on reality shows.
The next day, we had our psychological examinations. I had to leave immediately afterwards in order to catch my flight home, so I never got a chance to say a proper goodbye to my new friends. After all, we were the ‘First Four’ and we were going to be reality stars on a new show that was going to be a hit. Sure. I never saw them again, we weren’t allowed to exchange addresses until after the show aired. Right. After it aired.
Hurry Up and Wait!
The episode taping was only half over. I still had to make another trip to L.A. to shoot the final "challenge". I had four weeks to mentally and spiritually prepare. The fun part was over, now it was time to face this thing, head on. It was a personal battle between me and the fear that plagued me. I was more than just another attention-seeking reality contestant. I considered myself a strong person who was, for years, tormented by a totally ridiculous, illegitimate fear of heights and the dreams that accompanied it. Sounds a bit like Fear Factor, huh? Remember this: People who are Fraidey-Cats don’t go on Fear Factor; and I’m a Fraidey-Cat.
Another Trip to L.A.
The day arrived to leave for L.A. While I was in DFW Airport, my son called me from overseas and said,"Go for it, Mom. You kick butt!" My daughter, who participated in the interviews, also encouraged me. When I arrived in L.A., the casting department were getting ready to leave for the day. They suggested I call room service, then I was alone to contemplate my expectations for the next day. When morning arrived, I prepared myself for the day and opened the Gideon’s Bible to Isaiah 41:10... "Fear not, for I am with you: Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand". I carried those words in my heart.
The casting agent who originally contacted me, Cindy, met me in the lobby and drove me to the set location. I had my own trailer! Hey, I was a Star for the day! Cool; I mean, how many people can say they were a Star for a day? They even gave me a couple of lines. So, by the time we started to shoot the first scene, I was really getting into it, so I hammed it up a little. One of the producers said, "Hey, this is reality television....stop acting!"
Ha! I was doing what came naturally. That’s what I thought! We broke for lunch, a catered Tex-Mex meal, then we had a short lapse before the final "challenge
If you can imagine being scared of something to the point that it physically pushes you down, then you can relate to how severe my phobia was. It was that strong. When it was time for me to actually face this thing, any preconceived ideas I’d had about proving to the world what a comedian I could be when faced with my ridiculous fear were blown out the window. When the stunt girl came in, dressed exactly like me, she cinched me up in a safety harness. It was so tight I nearly peed my pants, and I hadn't even done my challenge yet! Literally. You see, when I realized what I was actually going to have to do, I looked at the crew and said, "You gotta be crazy". They wanted me to climb a fire escape. For an instant, I wanted to quit. There was no way I could do it! No Way!! I remembered the scripture " I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me". (Philippians 4:13). I summoned all the inner strength I had and felt a tremendous struggle going on within me. Then, I stepped out onto a place I’d never been before: a fire escape landing. Let me tell you, I felt very alone at that moment. But I wasn’t alone. There were three of us who stepped onto the landing that day: me, Jesus, and the devil. Not to mention the casting extras standing on each landing dressed up like bell boys from the 30's! The battle was on! As I began my ascent, I cried, I prayed, I sang. I even prayed in the spirit! (Can you imagine the sound men tapping their earphones trying to figure out why they couldn’t understand me!) At this point, I'm sure the producers were thinking how I'd ruined their production with my over-zealous Christian faith. I didn't care, I only know that I did everything I could do to get through the next few moments. It was the scariest thing I’d ever done in my life, and I did it with my eyes ‘wide shut’! ( I really had my eyes shut, no lie). This wasn’t just a bad dream I was re-enacting, it was a real fear. I focused on God, on healing, on finishing! I was going to make it. I screamed at the top of my lungs. I was screaming and rebuking the devil to leave, I was calling on God to rescue me, and I was letting myself be the voice. Finally, I heard another voice (the host) above me, "Almost there!" I was so relieved!
Relief and Post Traumatic Stress!
Thank God, was it really over? Had I made it? I can truthfully say that the minute I reached the top, it was over for me. I was victorious! I jumped up and began to sing, "Look What the Lord Has Done" while the cameras rolled. This was the real meaning of my desire to participate in the show; to overcome adversity in the midst of fear! I had to prove to myself that I could do it. Not with my will, but His. But, alas, Hollywood has it’s twists. It was over for me, but not for them, naturally. In order to complete the challenge and win the "big bucks", I had to do just one more thing: climb a rope ladder attached to the fire escape!! I’d already been up six flights and was approximately 80 feet high, now they wanted another 15 feet! It was my turn to say ‘NO’. Who was I to put God to the test? I already had the victory! I didn’t complete the challenge, but who cares? I faced my fear! I have a new saying, these days: It’s better to face your fear and fail than never face your fear at all! But, who lost? Certainly, not I.
I was traumatized from the experience, yet I felt a sense of accomplishment I’ve never known before. For the next couple of days I experienced a range of feelings: from extreme confidence, to spells of breaking down and weeping. I was exhibiting the symptoms of post traumatic stress and recognized the signs. In addition, I had recently stepped out in faith and confronted a career change by leaving the comfort of a stable job and starting the last few classes for my college degree. A triple whammy! After a few days, I was almost back to normal. Almost. You see, once you’ve experienced something like this, nothing is ever the same. Ever. And the bad thing about it is that I’m held in bondage by the dreaded confidentiality agreement. There it is again. I don’t know what’s worse, the post traumatic stress or the binding torture of being prohibited from telling others the complete facts. Come on, is it really fair? Legally, yes. I signed a contract. It’s legal and binding. Ha! Binding, no joke. Is it ethically fair? Not really, but Hollywood isn’t known for it’s fair work ethic, either. It boils down to this: The accomplishment of the total experience was worth all of the stress, anxiety, elation, and legalities I had to endure.
After the excitement was over, all I had to do was wait for the show to air. So, I waited. And waited, and waited. The production company called me once to ask me what my occupation title was. That was the last time I heard from them. Then nothing. I continued checking the web sites for new information, but the proposed air date continued to change. After approximately eight months, I stumbled upon an on-line interview with the Host of the show. In the interview, he confirmed the show had been ‘shelved’ by the network and was, more than likely, ‘gone forever’. What a disappointment! And worse, the production company nor the network ever bothered to contact me or any of the other contestants. It’s like we never existed, we’re out there in Never Never Land with the cancelled pilot and six episodes collecting dust on the cutting room floor.
I tried calling the production company, once, to find out where I stood with the confidentiality agreements, but they never returned my call. I was determined to get an answer, so I e-mailed the network on their website’s public feedback section. After about three weeks, a member of the law department answered my e-mail and wanted to know exactly ‘how I wanted to share my experience on the show with others’. So I promptly answered him. About ten days later, he sent me a new addendum to my original contract. The addendum allowed me to tell of my experience, yet prohibited me from revealing the network, name of the show, or the production company involved. In addition, it must not be for exploitation purposes, whatever that means. They may as well have slapped me in the face with a wet fish. ( I sent an e-mail, about it, to the creator of a particular reality-show-based website who said he was amazed and appalled at the restriction. ) So, I weighed the restrictions on a scale of "what’s best" and decided I’d rather tell people about the experience and leave out the name, rather than not talk about it at all. It’s that simple.
I must address the issue of my phobia. After the show, I was a wreck. Every time I saw a building with a fire escape my hands shook and became cold & clammy. But there's an upside to this. My over-all fear of heights diminished to the point that I was actually able to climb the open staircase at the college library! Before, I was never able to go up the stairs to the book store, it was a complete disaster. The day I walked into the store, stepped onto the first step and walked to the top with ease, I knew it was worth it all!!! Best of all, I was able to climb other staircases that I'd previously been too terrified to attempt! I can go up or down escalators with ease. How's that for victory! I still have a problem with very high, open places. But I'm telling you guys, my fear has alleviated to the point that it NO LONGER controls my life! I give God four stars & all the glory for this!
So, here I am. A victim of network programming etiquette, locked in a prison of Hollywood legalities, looking for some kind of closure. I feel like I’ve been left hanging. (Yeah, from a rope ladder 80 feet up!) I want to see my episode, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I found out one thing for sure, though. The host of the show was still talking about me a few months after taping. He gave an interview to a certain website concerning the show’s cancellation. Then he mentioned me. He described me as a’ fundamentalist, born-again Christian who was a great person.’ That really made me feel better. He said as they were taping my "challenge", they were thinking that the episode’ wasn’t going to make it’, but my personality was so strong, it turned out to be an interesting show. Now that really made me happy! Maybe it can be my ‘closure’ on the experience. Even if the show never airs, anywhere, at least I know that I made some sort of an impression on the producers, crew, and assistants. If they remember me as ‘that Jesus Freak from Arkansas who spoke in tongues on the fire escape’; that makes me happy! Whatever way you look at it, I’m positive I’m not the only reality show contestant who feels this way. I don’t know about the other contestants, and I certainly can’t speak for them, but I’m totally changed from the experience. So, I guess I’ll be forever content to be cast in the role of ‘reality show reject’. But I got the victory, anyway. It’s as simple as that.