The American Nightmare: I Worked in Reality TV and Almost Lost My Soul
All the weird, sordid secrets I learned from three days of working as an associate producer on a reality show about the cutthroat, big-haired world of figure skating.
Illustration by Jessica Olah
Years ago, I worked on a reality show about a group of big-haired girls who ran a cutthroat skating school. They all had drinking problems, personality disorders, and boyfriends in a white rap group. Imagine three Tonya Hardings in one room, and you get the idea. To you, this may sound like sweet, beautiful, trash TV. But for me, it was a job that gave me an inside look at the bizarre gulag of reality television production. We shot the pilot episode over the course of three hellish days, manipulating the cast toward increasingly dramatic extremes. The following is an account of the making of that pilot, and the surprisingly high costs of bargain basement fame.
"We need to break her," Sophia* said to the small army of producers assembled before her.
To "break," in our showrunner's terms, meant to manipulate a cast member of a reality show into telling you his darkest secrets in order to form an artificial bond of trust which you would later exploit in order to extract said dark secrets on camera. We were three days from shooting and had yet to "break" our star.
"If we don't have Stacy*, we don't have a show—this girl is reality TV gold."
Sophia wasn't wrong. Stacy was gorgeous, prone to violent outbursts, and she possessed a wit that complemented her French-tipped nails. She was also a near-Olympian skater, whose muscular, aggressive style failed to find fans among Team USA. Pursuing a career as a professional athlete is always a gamble, and Stacy's Olympic dream had ultimately been a losing lottery ticket. But years later, here she was again, with a new Megabucks scratch-off in her manicured fist: a reality show. Her former dream had failed, but Stacy would do anything to ensure that this new one didn't. She was endlessly pliable, shockingly volatile, and funny as fuck. In short, Stacy was a star—our very own Snooki On Ice.
The central storyline of the pilot concerned a conflict between Stacy and her baby-daddy about their 2-year-old child. Stacy was busting her ass to support their entire family by running an ice skating school with her two friends. Her husband Mark, meanwhile, was attempting to find success as the leader of a white rap group that had a dude in a chicken costume for a hype man. Needless to say, the rap group had yet to become successful, and so it fell on Stacy's well-toned shoulders to pay the bills. She was exhausted, strung-out, and sick of this scenario.
The network liked this as the basic premise for the pilot, but they felt that the production team needed to "explicitly define the stakes." Network execs tend to err on the side of assuming everyone in America is a drooling idiot, and to this end, our execs scripted an on-the-nose "ultimatum" for Stacy to deliver to her boyfriend: "You have one year to make it as a rapper, or I'm leaving you and taking our child with me."
When we reviewed our shooting outline with Stacy, she agreed to all of the scenes except this one; ironically, she felt the scripted line was too real. But Sophia was not one to take "too real" for an answer.
Our execs scripted an on-the-nose 'ultimatum' for Stacy to deliver to her boyfriend: You have one year to make it as a rapper, or I'm leaving you and taking the child with me.
"Jonathan, I'd like you to take a crack at talking to her. A new voice on the phone might help."
Sophia, by the way, was not an evil person. She was actually incredibly kind, generous, and empathetic. This empathic personality is, paradoxically, what made her great at the callous manipulation of others that her job required. I too am extremely empathetic, and quickly established myself as a trusted confidante to our cast. But despite our similarities, Sophia and I differed in one crucial arena: She was a successful reality showrunner, conditioned to the demands of the industry. I, on the other hand, was a newbie associate producer who had yet to adjust my moral compass to the ethically bankrupt setting. But, I had a job to do, and no time to reflect on what it took to do it.
After an hour on the phone, I got Stacy to agree to the scene. A minor celebration ensued, but all I felt was guilt. With Stacy broken, we were finally ready to shoot.
Hair was important to these women, so we shot our first scene in their safe space: the salon. Because "characters" on reality shows are often reduced to a singular trait, the goal here was to simplify the identities of our three stars. Stacy functioned as our white-trash Carrie Bradshaw—a salty, sympathetic everywoman. Monica was the self-described "bitch" who wore real fur and crystals everyday because "what's better than being warm and sparkly?" Finally there was Elena, whose below-sea-level intelligence generated horrific one-liners.
"Did you know pineapple juice can give you AIDS?" Elena said that day with genuine fear in her voice. "I stopped drinking my vodka pineapples."
Aside from Elena's shocking ignorance in the areas of tropical fruit and the human immune system, the salon scene was easy and light. We wrapped quickly, and headed to the women's local watering hole to shoot a scene wherein they would fight with their white rapper boyfriends.
"We have a show" is a celebratory phrase uttered after successfully producing a wild and turbulent set piece that can serve as the dramatic core of an episode of reality television. That night, as we watched our cast bond in their favorite bar, one thing became urgently clear: We did not, as of yet, "have a show."
"Get Monica for me," Sophia hissed into her headset.
'We have a show' is a celebratory phrase uttered after successfully producing a wild and turbulent set piece that can serve as the dramatic core of an episode.
We stopped shooting as I pulled our "bitch" Monica aside, for an emergency shit-stirring pep talk. We needed Monica to rain on the white rap parade and tell the guys that their group was doomed to failure. Monica was taken aback and insisted she didn't really feel that way. Her resistance was met with a smile from Sophia. Surely, Monica's friends would understand this was just a little fake drama for the show?
With the entire cast speeding toward a collective blackout, Monica launched her attack: "It's been ten years, and you guys haven't made it. Give it up. You lost the rap game."
A vodka-Red-Bull-fueled hell broke loose. The guys screamed at Monica, prompting a shrill retaliation from Stacy and Elena. Mark pushed Monica against the bar's battered juke box. I looked at the people in charge; surely someone would stop this. Instead, the fight poured out onto the street and the cameras followed. Monica burst into tears as Mark spat foul epithets in her mascara-stained face. As a last ditch defense, Monica threw Sophia under the bus.
"I didn't even wanna say that shit! Sophia made me! It's just for the show!" Monica screamed to Mark as he stormed off.
But Mark kept walking. It didn't matter who said it. What mattered is that it was true: the band probably wouldn't make it. Sophia knew this cast inside and out, and she knew what would trigger a violent outburst. We had gotten what we came for. The fight would be preserved in the final cut, and Monica blaming Sophia would wind up on the cutting room floor.
I didn't even wanna say that shit! Sophia made me! It's just for the show!
I hated every aspect of this low-budget shit-circus. But as I looked around at the wilted faces of our crew, I realized I wasn't alone. Reality TV is a place where people wind up on their way to somewhere else. In this aspect, the production team shared more in common with the cast than they would've liked to admit: We were all slogging through career quicksand together, biding time until our dreams came true. Few made it out, but that night I promised myself I'd be one of them.
As Monica sat sobbing on the concrete steps of the bar, our director turned to me with a weary smile.
"We have a show."
Stacy's apartment was a claustrophobic one-bedroom that she shared with her husband, their 2-year-old daughter, and an evil rat-dog that barked relentlessly upon our crew's arrival. Stacy, normally brash and ballsy, was quiet and apologetic that morning; she seemed embarrassed to have the crew filming here. The apartment was a lens into the stressful dynamic of this family: Stacy worked constantly to finance her man's rap dreams, and this depressing apartment was evidence of how strapped they were for cash as a result.
"I'm sick of supporting you. You have one more year to make it as a rapper, and then I'm leaving you and taking our daughter with me."
Our director fed Stacy this exact line over and over again as she and her husband rehashed a fight they'd had many times before. Because this scene was crucial in establishing the "stakes," as the network maintained, our showrunner forced the couple to do numerous takes. At first, Stacy and Mark were good natured about "acting" for the cameras, even joking between takes. But as we pushed into the second grueling hour of shooting, the energy shifted. Stacy and Mark didn't need to fake it anymore. They were, after all, fighting about real issues in their relationship and soon became genuinely angry. The angrier they got, the further we pushed them. It was a strange simulacrum, where the false scenario that we as producers had created actually became real.
The angrier they got, the further we pushed them. It was a strange simulacrum, where the false scenario that we as producers had created actually became real.
"So do you think we have a chance of getting picked up to series?"
This was the question that a bleary-eyed Stacy posed to me, daughter in lap, as we packed our equipment for the day. Under all that hairspray and fake tanner, she was a smart chick. Stacy knew this show was a way out of her oppressively carpeted one-bedroom and the struggles of her blue-collar existence. She would do whatever it took, even if it meant exploiting the most painful moments in her life. I didn't blame her; I simply wished her a safer escape route.
"I think we have a solid shot," I said even though I secretly hoped, for her sake, that it wasn't true.
Our final day of shooting started with a trip to the ice skating rink, where our three stars performed a routine Monica had choreographed for a local breast cancer benefit. Elena had designed their outfits: rainbow butterfly costumes that fluttered garishly as they skated to Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings." It was a divine display of trash and talent that captured the tragic irony of their careers: the girls had some of "it," but not quite enough.
After skating, the crew headed to a concert venue the production rented for the final scene. The plan was for their significant others' rap group to deliver an incredible show that would remind the women of the reason they busted their asses for these bros. With the help of some unpaid extras and creative camera angles, we created the illusion of a crowd. The band's sound was like if Eminem and the Beastie Boys had an angry fourgy, then gave birth to a less talented baby.
As I watched the girlfriends mosh in the front row, it suddenly clicked: Our entire cast existed on the edge of a dream come true. They were convinced the show would help them become "successful" within their given fields. But in reality, all the show could ever do for them would be to create a false image of "success," the on-screen equivalent of a party where you stretch the truth to impress a dude you want to sleep with. They wouldn't get to "live the dream," but rather they'd project the image of the dream. Of course, there was the slight chance the cast could rise to Jersey Shore heights. But even then, their success wouldn't be predicated on their talent for ice skating or rapping, but rather for their ability to binge drink and fight.
Our entire cast existed on the edge of a dream come true. They were convinced the show would help them become 'successful'.
However, our cast would never experience this dubious success because the network ultimately passed on the pilot. I was secretly thrilled and celebrated by quitting my fucking job.
During my last week in the office, Stacy swung by to say "hello." The senior level producers were desperate to avoid her, so I was given the task of entertaining our fallen star. As it turned out, things were going well for Stacy. Her husband had taken a job at the fire department, allowing their family to move out of the shoebox they had formerly called home. With Mark's extra income, Stacy was able to stop working around clock and see more of their daughter. She seemed balanced, happy even.
After she finished her update, Stacy revealed the true reason behind her visit: "Do you think there's any chance the show could still be picked up?"
"I'm sorry, but no," I told her.
She thanked me for my time, and I walked her to the elevator. As the doors slid shut, Stacy sighed. I can't say for sure, but I'd like to think it was one of relief. Ultimately, in her failure to find the American Dream, Stacy had been saved from an American Nightmare.