I've been instructed to use my goodbye post to relate a story I haven't told before. So strap in, kids: you're getting the never-before-revealed tale of my brief foray into reality television.
The week before I began my first guest-blogging stint at Defamer, I spent an entire day competing in the Big Brother house. CBS had invited several entertainment journalists there to challenge each other in an untelevised, "speed round" version of a typical Big Brother week, and I was sent by The Advocate to take part. The time-dependent article never ended up running (sorry, CBS!), but it was an interesting trip through the looking glass, to say the least.
Except for a two-second reaction shot on Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List that flooded me with emails and phone calls from friends as far back as high school, I was a reality TV novice. Which is not to say that I didn't watch it or have the typical Los Angeles links to it (when even the guy who cuts your hair is in negotiations for a one-hour special on Bravo, you get used to its ubiquity). It just wasn't something I wanted any part of; after all, if there's one thing my subsequent stint at Defamer would drive home, it's that a minor on-camera misstep can haunt a reality TV star for the rest of his lifetime.
At first, it was a blast. As soon as we were let into the house, the eight of us immediately laughed at how reality-ready we were as a cast; for journalists, we were a vaguely telegenic group, and each one of us fulfilled an important reality TV cliche. People's Reagan Alexander was the leather jacket-clad bad boy, while Jenn McBride of CBS/KCAL was the beautiful, blond Christian who met her husband while making milkshakes at Bible camp. Secretly, I thrilled to my designation as "the token gay," an invaluable participant that no good reality show can be without.
Those introductions and the initial flurry of ridiculously-costumed competitions carried us until nearly halfway through the day, and it's at that point that the most insidious element of reality TV—the allure of the cameras—sunk its tenterhooks into us. The stakes for the day were awfully low (only one person would be voted out, and it would happen just before we all left), yet we began to conspire like they were all-important. In a house that lacked a deck of cards, television, or music, playing the camera game was the sole entertainment, and the only way you could win was to give those whirring, wall-set cameras a reason to follow you. It didn't matter that all we would eventually get for our troubles was a fifteen-minute, cut-together "episode" of our day. The battle to be the untelevised breakout star was on.
The camera addiction even affected our gameplay. After winning the title of Head of Household, Entertainment Tonight's Kevin Frazier was ordered to put half the house on "slop" (a gross, green, oatmeal-like substance) for the rest of the day. As he asked for us to plead our cases, I said, "I will actually take slop if you promise not to nominate me for eviction," which prompted impressed "oooohs" from my housemates. To me, though, it was a no-brainer—I wasn't expecting a nomination, so I might as well do something daring to earn camera time.
Still, I needed more: a shtick. Increasingly bored at one point in the afternoon, I donned a coonskin cap left on the dresser by a thoughtful set decorator. My housemates looked at me dubiously, but now the cameras began to follow me whether I was plotting or not. Encouraged, I also donned boxing gloves and fashioned a bedspread into a makeshift cape. Ridiculous? Yes, but who goes on reality television to preserve their dignity? "This guy..." said Kevin, shaking his head. Exactly: I was now somebody.
As votes were cast to nominate two of the players for eviction, things became even more mad. Formerly normal contestants became increasingly paranoid and prone to outbursts. At the beginning of the day, we had enacted play-fights just for fun, but the line had become oddly blurred. Not that I was helping matters; when one of the eviction nominees, Yahoo's Brian Gianelli, was canvassing the house for support, he came to me. "What can I do to win your vote to stay?" he asked. "You can wear this ridiculous poodle bedspread I found as a cape," I said, now certifiably insane. He did, I held my word, and my vote was the only vote to keep Brian in the house—he got evicted at 8:55pm, five minutes before the game ended for us all.
A week and a half later, a courier arrived on my doorstep and handed me a DVD. "This is from CBS," he said. I grabbed it, excited: Would it feature all my plotting? Would my cap-and-cape adventures merit a humorous subplot? My camera-hogging impulses, which had gone dormant since I left the house, were suddenly revived.
Though the episode started out strong in a vanity-assuaging way (I was featured so often in the confessionals that I began to wonder if the DVD was specifically tailored to me), my scheming and cavorting received nary a second of camera time. Like so many reality TV veterans before me, I had become a victim of editing.
Did the experience make me more sympathetic to the people I would eventually cover at Defamer? In some ways. The machinations of Hollywood and reality TV are insane and tireless, and once one becomes fully caught in them, it can be hard to untangle. Ordinary people become narcissists, clever comics become too enamored by their own voices, and wallflowers suddenly feel worthless without a camera pushed into their faces at every moment. The machine demands our merciless satire, and even its most tiresome participants deserve our empathy.