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Reality Shows: Deal or No Deal?

How’s pilot season going, actors? Not the traditional January–March period when thesps line up auditions for new scripted shows, but the booming reality-show season going on right now. Shows such as America’s Next Top Model, The Biggest Loser, America’s Got Talent, Hell’s Kitchen, The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency, and Top Chef are holding open calls across the country. Studios are also green-lighting more reality pilots in anticipation of a possible talent strike in 2008.

Whether to audition for or accept a role on a reality show has become a moral quandary for many actors. The proliferation of such shows—shot cheaply, quickly, and in some cases without a union contract—has taken airtime away from scripted television, and thus precious potential jobs away from actors. On the other hand, some think gaining exposure on such a high-rated, prime-time show could jump-start their careers and lead to more-serious projects. When you’re accepting your Oscar/Emmy/Tony, no one’s going to remember that your first TV gig was competing for a stranger’s affections on The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Age of Love, Flavor of Love, or Rock of Love, among countless others.

This is one of many reality-TV myths, according to a recent article in New York magazine that revisited several memorable reality-show stars—most of whom haven’t become big names in their respective industries. Most notably, the magazine featured Jay McCarroll, the first-season winner of Bravo’s Project Runway, who said in the article, “I haven’t been living anywhere for two years. I sleep at other people’s houses. I sleep [in my studio] if I’m drunk.” After the article was published, McCarroll told the media he is not homeless and posted a series of videos on YouTube mocking his alleged destitute state. Even if he has a place to hang his couture hat, McCarroll didn’t find a successful fashion career through the series, as he’d hoped. His $100,000 cash prize also came with unexpected strings. McCarroll turned it down after learning that the show’s producers, the Weinstein Co., would forever own 10 percent of his brand. Perhaps most damaging of all, McCarroll said the pressure of having won on a reality show has “creatively crippled” him. “I was an artist before this happened. Now I’m an artist with a fucking clock ticking,” he said.

McCarroll and so many other artists are drawn to reality shows as a fast track to showbiz success. But it’s all an illusion, according to some who have been through the reality mill. Irene McGee, a cast member of The Real World: Seattle who now blogs and podcasts on media issues, said she was manipulated into fighting with other cast members and was told to only eat and drink certain products. In the VH1 documentary Reality TV Secrets Revealed, McGee and other former participants of shows such as Joe Millionaire, Survivor, and The Restaurant told tales of reshooting scenes and about show producers who used editing techniques to misrepresent the truth.

A few former reality stars have crossed over into the acting world, but they seem to be the exceptions to the rule. American Idol’s Fantasia Barrino is currently starring in The Color Purple on Broadway; Idol’s Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar this year for Dreamgirls. Survivor’s Colleen Haskell has appeared in a handful of films and TV shows. Max Crumm and Laura Osnes, the winners of Grease: You’re the One That I Want!, are currently starring in Grease’s Broadway revival. Johnny Knoxville (Jackass) is now a successful actor, but he created and produced his own reality show, as opposed to appearing or competing on a show that was already in existence.

A shot at appearing on a widely seen show is so tempting. But before you get in line to become America’s next top anything, consider that actors may have more to lose than do nonprofessional performers appearing on the same programs. Like designers and chefs, actors must prove themselves to be serious, dedicated, and—above all—talented within a highly competitive creative industry. Yes, a stint on a reality show could expose you to a mass audience—but as what? An “accomplished” bug-eater on Survivor or Fear Factor? A talented yet terrible housemate on Big Brother or The Real World?

The reality of reality shows is that, until the show airs, participants never know how the world will see them. For an actor who aspires to more than 15 minutes of fame, such an unflattering first impression could spell doom for a serious acting career.    

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