overthinking the idiot box

May 2, 2005

Reality: It's not just for off-camera life anymore.

Fear and Self-Loathing in Los Angeles1:
A savage journey to the heart of the New American Dream

by The Ashes of Raoul Duke

Part I | Part II

Left to right: Irate Security Guard, Dr. Gonzo-las and the author
Based on some hints dropped and a Google search, I later identified my mystery Survivor as Ryan O. 1 (pronounced "Rhino") from Pearl Islands — one of the more memorable seasons and yet still, all I can remember about this man is the way his name is pronounced. No wonder he's auditioning with the rest of us Reality virgins for another shot at fame on this Certain Reality Show (which by all accounts is a sizable step down from Survivor). Perhaps his all too brief earlier taste got him hooked and he needs more. I did hear him mention that he and Burton (a slightly more memorable cast member from Pearl Islands) were also planning to follow in Rob & Amber's footsteps on The Amazing Race.

And yet, coming after his charming story about having his genitals exposed on national television and his parents' ensuing embarrassment, this desire for more rang of masochism and/or an unhealthy addiction to the limelight. Somebody should really stage an intervention (perhaps his friends at The Fishbowl?), but it wasn't my place, so I kept this observation to myself and looked around for somebody else to judge from afar.

When I first arrived at the studio, I'd seen a very nicely (too nicely) dressed Asian woman getting out of a cab alone. I made note of this because taking a cab to a Reality audition struck me somehow as oddly desperate — more so than if she had taken a bus or been dropped off by a friend. Calling a cab in advance and paying the costly fare indicated to me that this was far more important to her than it was to me (or most of the other fame-seekers there). Arriving alone also set her apart, as most people came with posses in tow (either fellow fame seekers, or like Dr. Gonzo-les, Immoral Support). When she opened her mouth, one more thing distinguished her from everyone else: She spoke Pidgin English. This (and the amusement people took in it) earned her the name Wilma Hung, though every time I looked at her, I couldn't help but think of Asian singing sensation Wing (as portrayed on South Park).

Now Wilma was sitting off to the side in a parked golf cart (like the one I used to drive around this very lot) filling out her application (like the one I had stayed up all night to complete — she outsmarted us all there). She was the only person there (besides Dr. Gonzo-les and myself) who didn't bother conversing with the other potentials.

We finally made it to the check-in table where I checked in. I had feared they wouldn't let Dr. Gonzo-les go any further since she was "too good" to audition. However, when they asked her if she was there for "moral support," she lied and said, "Yes," so they let her through. But not before sternly warning her that she was not to appear on any cameras or talk to any roving reporters (little did they know that she was actually there with a roving reporter!). And like that, we were through to the next line.

At least this line was in the shade, because the day was growing hotter and my nose was starting to turn red. At this point, Dr. Gonzo-les, who had failed to adequately caffeinate herself, was beginning to nod off mid-sentence. I gave her my completed application to read (without her to talk to, I'd be forced to interact with these freaks). Some of my answers (written in a fit of haste and sleep-deprived delirium) sent her into bouts of zany laughter at my expense. I wanted to be angry at her (this wasn't the sort of Immoral Support I'd brought her along for), but when you've been up for twenty-four hours, it's hard to be angry at someone (I don't know how Jack Bauer does it) so I gave up and joined her by giggling like a mad schoolgirl. After a while, we weren't sure what we were laughing at anymore, but we were sure that we were getting funny looks from everyone around us (including Parrots and Tinkerbell). Ah, the judges had become the judgees. How irony-laced!

Just then, Dr. Gonzo-les was whisked away from me. A news crew from the local CBS affiliate had arrived to document this newsworthy event2 and they couldn't risk my sidekick's un-whorish visage tainting this media spectacle. She was ushered off in the nick of time, narrowly avoiding having her soul captured by the cameras. This meant I would be all alone in the moments leading up to my one-on-one audition. Just like Wilma.

Well, not entirely alone. A kindly, middle-aged African-American woman, who I'll call Mrs. Doesn't Belong Here, started speaking to me. I had vowed not to converse with any of these lunatics, but since she approached me and seemed fairly normal (thus the name I've bestowed upon her), I decided to allow it. She told me that her daughter had made it to the semi-final auditions last year for this Certain Reality Show, complete with psychological evaluations, however she ultimately didn't make it onto the show because they decided to go with another African-American. News of this casting quota would surely disappoint all the Women in Hoochie Clothes and Flamboyantly Gay Men vying for those token slots.

About this time, I heard our old friend Ryan O. (Remember him? He was on Survivor) complain that the producers wouldn't let him audition. Apparently, the producers of this Certain Reality Show have "a beef" with the producers of Survivor (or vice versa) and it would've been okay if he had been on any other CBS Reality show. Who could've imagined he'd actually be penalized for not appearing on Wickedly Perfect or The Will? Still, he hung around to provide Immoral Support for his friends (and presumably score a contact limelight high).

It was Wilma's turn to enter the lions' den, and as soon as she was out of earshot, the cattiness began. I heard one woman say that she had continually cut in line, moving up to the front, and that if they both made it onto the show, this woman would hold that against her and Wilma would be the first one voted out! Then another woman joked that there was no way Wilma would make it on the show and everyone around shared a good laugh. Except for me.

Sure, that had been my reaction when I first heard Wilma speak (not the laughing, but the thinking that there was no way she'd be cast). I even said as much to Dr. Gonzo-les. Yet who were we (and by "we" I mean "they") to judge her? None of them (and by "them" I mean "us") had said one word to Wilma that entire morning. For all we know, she's led a far more interesting life than any of us and is the most deserving contestant by virtue of her fascinating life story. For all we know, she came to this country packed in a small container in the steerage compartment of a cargo ship — a victim of religious persecution seeking refuge in our great country with a dream of achieving Reality stardom in her heart3.

Before I could become sufficiently outraged at the latent racism and xenophobia I was witnessing, I was called up to the on deck circle. As I entered the Passions greenroom, I was too nervous to even reflect upon all the greats who had passed through those hallowed doors (Timmy, Nurse Precious, Dr. Gonzo-les' former roommate-turned-arch-nemesis). The moment of truth finally arrived and as I walked in for my interview, I passed Wilma on her way out. I wanted to wish her good luck, but I had vowed not to speak to any of these crazies, so my hands were tied.

The large room was set up like when they would do tick-checks in the elementary school gym. There were four separate interviewing areas partitioned off with sheets hung over posts so that you couldn't see into them, but you could hear everything as you passed by. In my cubicle, there was a female Interviewer and a male Cameraman. They started laughing about something stupid and Interviewer turned to me and said, "You know how sometimes when you don't get any sleep you get sort of loopy?" And right then, I knew I was in the right cubicle.

While waiting for Cameraman to change tapes (which took several minutes) I just sat there, listening to Parrots loudly squawking about her "Hot Bitch" T-Shirt. A part of me wanted to sabotage her chances by pointing out to my Interviewer what an obnoxious Paris-wannabe she was, but then I wondered why I cared. Had their competitive desperation rubbed off on me despite my vow of silence? This is why my Immoral Support was supposed to remain by my side the whole time. Damn you, Channel 2 News!

Finally, the camera was rolling and I was on. Boy, was I on. This is where the caffeine and the sleep-deprivation really paid off, killing off the last vestiges of my inhibitions. Interviewer asked me why I wanted to be on Certain Reality Show. This is where I made my first mistake — I basically called the show what it is: A completely talent-less exercise in sitting around a house for a few months. It's the show I was born to do! From there, I'm not sure what else I said in my two minutes. My own voice sounded to me like a hummingbird's heart beating, or the MicroMachines guy sped up like the Bobby Vinton sample in that Akon song. All I know is that at the end, when she asked if there was anything else they should know about me, I said, "Oh yeah. I'm funny. But I'm not one of those people who says they're funny [wait, didn't I just say that?] and isn't." On that note, I was out of there, the whole humiliating experience of auditioning behind me.

Well, not quite. I went for an awkward handshake, first with Interviewer, then with Cameraman. It was obvious that neither one of them wanted to be touched by me (for all they knew, I was just another one of those grotesque fame-seekers that I myself had wanted no part of), but I couldn't abort. That would be even more awkward.

I spent the rest of the day second-guessing my audition. I thought of other things I could've said about myself, other answers to put down on that application, other strategies for winning that I should've mentioned. All this second-guessing (and the sleep-deprived hallucinating) kept me from reflecting on the meaning of this journey and what I'd learned about the people who feed into the Reality machine I so enjoy from a glossy distance.

Now, a week hence, I've had some time to think about it, but I'm still not sure I know why those people (myself included) did what we did. It didn't take more than a few minutes of being there for the shame and self-loathing to set in for me. I felt dirty for being there and projected my disgust onto those around me. Surely my stomach isn't that much weaker than theirs; my skin that much thinner? They must have been feeling twinges of the same nausea that I was suffering from, right? So what kept them/us there? It couldn't be the mere promise of wealth and very temporary attention. There had to be something more.

I keep going back to Wilma Hung, the wide-eyed foreigner who wanted this more than any of us. Ultimately, I believe that she, like the rest of us there and at all the other auditions across the country and sending in tapes from home, was chasing the New American Dream. A generation ago, immigrants and natives alike were content to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and earn a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. They believed all they were entitled to was life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But that's no longer enough. Now every American has been promised their moment in the sun thanks to our hundred-plus channel lifestyle and its voracious need for content. This is the logical outcome of a generation raised by our parents to believe that we are all "Special." Of course we all deserve to be stars. And it's no longer as difficult as sleeping with the director or sitting at the counter of Schwab's Drugstore. All it takes is standing in a short line on a hot Sunday morning to achieve the New American Dream. Well, that and enough caffeine to squash the part of you that experiences humiliation.

1I said that all names would be changed, however, because Ryan O. has achieved some level of notoriety, I'm using his real name. Still, like Freud's Anna O., The Story of O's O, and Jackie O., Ryan's surname shall remain an initial.

2I TiVo'd the Channel 2 News for the next two days, but alas it was all Pope, all the time.

3I might as well admit that the entirety of my knowledge of Chinese refugees consists of an episode of The West Wing (well, that, and the eastern Wing).

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Return to Vol. 1, Episode 3.