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Waiting to see if the glass slipper fits

A vivacious Valrico woman may seem a shoo-in to be chosen by The Bachelor's Prince Charming, but her appraisal of her experience doesn't include the term "fairy tale."

Published May 13, 2003

[Times photo: Fraser Hale]
“I don’t think anybody went into this thinking, ‘I’m going to find my husband here,’ ” says Kirsten Buschbacher of Valrico. The Bachelor contestant is one of the final two whom Andrew Firestone will choose from on Sunday’s finale.

Tell Kirsten Buschbacher you're convinced that she is walking away with the big prize on ABC's reality romance show The Bachelor, and she just smiles wide. She offers a string of charmingly vague responses that could have come straight from the producers' mouths.

But there's something - a twinkle in the Valrico woman's eye when she talks about possibly moving to California with bachelor Andrew Firestone, a confidence the 23-year-old shows in discussing her chances - that leads this interviewer to a rash conclusion: Firestone will choose her when the show concludes Sunday.

"I can't say," Buschbacher yelps, laughing loudly (probably at the notion that anyone would expect her to sink a multimillion-dollar reality show with a single answer).

"Going into it . . . you have no idea whether you're coming back in five days or seven weeks," she said of the show, which filmed the footage of Firestone selecting his mate in January and February. "I'm figuring my chances of liking the guy, the chances of me lasting (in the competition) or there being a connection are so slim. . . . I was planning I would be back before the Super Bowl. Then I met Andrew, and I didn't want to go home."

Firestone, 27, is the scion of the famous tire-making family, which has long since sold off the tire business and transitioned into wine making and beer brewing. Spiky-haired and self-deprecating, Firestone has come off as an easygoing, earnest suitor. He even let a few tears slip out when he sent the latest lady packing, shown on Wednesday's episode.

As far as viewers know, Buschbacher and 26-year-old Chicago account executive Jennifer Schefft are the last women standing, winnowed down from a field of 25 hopefuls during a series of increasingly elaborate dates. Viewers will see Firestone face the 23 women he rejected at 9 p.m Wednesday on The Bachelor: The Women Tell All; his final choice airs Sunday in a two-hour finale that may test the patience of anyone who just wants to know who won.

It's easy to see why Firestone seemed to connect so quickly with Buschbacher. He said she was "glowing" as she stepped out of a limousine to meet him on the contest's first night.

Perched on a sofa last week in the spacious Valrico home she shares with her parents, Buschbacher, who works at Home Shopping Network's online service, was poised and outgoing. With TV-ready looks and an easy manner, she charmed a new visitor to her home the way she charmed Firestone during the game, in which she earned the envy of the other contestants while her bond with the bachelor grew.

Asked about the toughest aspect of watching the shows and she answered quickly: seeing Firestone dating, hugging and kissing the other women.

"You know that in order for him to make the right decision, he's going to have to . . . explore different situations with the other girls," Buschbacher said, laughing nervously. "The thing that did kind of get to me was that he really was saying the same things to all of us. Normally, in a dating relationship, when you get to the point where you're having overnight dates, (your boyfriend) isn't dating other girls. But I knew this was going to happen."

She did not, however, count on developing a reputation for treating her fellow contestants badly, a perception that Buschbacher said was fed by misleading editing on the show and backbiting from the more competitive women. She said that she wasn't aware of how the other women felt about her until the episodes began to air.

"(Producers) decided early on what character each girl was going to play," Buschbacher said. "I talked to the producers . . . and they said "Kirsten, we tried to tell you. You're saying all these nice things about the girls, but you have no idea what they're saying about you.' I felt . . . kind of betrayed by some of them." (Expect to see more cattiness during Wednesday's tell-all episode, which Buschbacher and Schefft didn't attend.)

Christina Sztanko, a 24-year-old Realtor from Palm Harbor who also competed in this edition of The Bachelor (in all, three women from the Tampa Bay area appeared on the show), said that she didn't experience friction with Buschbacher. She left the competition before the second "rose ceremony," the time on the show when Firestone hands roses to the women he selects to remain in the competition. Sztanko told him that she just wasn't attracted to him.

"The reality of it is, it's entertainment. . . . It's not a good way to meet a lifelong partner," said Sztanko, who found herself the subject of unflattering stories on and in the National Enquirer during her short time on the show.

"Andrew . . . he likes flattery (and) he can't recognize whether a girl is putting up a front or not," she said. "The way the whole show is set up, you can't be straight up (honest) with each other. If (he was) truly honest, how could (he) mess around with other girls?"

Like many reality TV show participants, Buschbacher worries that viewers have come to know her mostly as a caricature created by Bachelor producers. "They've made Jen out to be this great, all-American girl, and I'm kind of the girl Andrew really likes, but I don't play nice," she said. "I would like people to know who I really am."

Thinking positively amid negatives

Once she made it into the final four, Buschbacher knew that her hopes of seeing the Super Bowl were history.

To keep journalists and fans from guessing the outcome, producers isolated the four finalists in California for the duration of the contest, which stretched through February.

The rules were strange at times: No talking about previous editions of The Bachelor, and no talking with Firestone offcamera (if a plane flew overhead or cameramen needed a break, he was separated from the girl he was with). And there was lots of alcohol around.

"They know if there's alcohol involved, we'll be more open," said Buschbacher, noting that one participant, 23-year-old Amber Stoke, may have been unfairly portrayed as having a drinking problem. "You get more emotional, and then you're more likely to open your mouth and say things. Wine, champagne, martinis, beer . . . our kitchen was stocked, (and) it takes a strong person to deal with that."

Another possible pitfall: the questions from producers, which were sometimes calibrated to draw tears or stoke rivalries. "Some people think we're just volunteering information, but the reality is, you're being interviewed by a producer," said Buschbacher of the show's "confessional" moments, when participants reveal their feelings directly to the camera. "(Producers) will ask, "How did you feel when so-and-so said this about you?' And sometimes, you didn't even know it had happened. . . . And of course, your emotions come out."

She said that the rumors, often circulated on the Internet, also have been painful: that she's pregnant with a child that's not Firestone's, that her dad, Frank, is an embezzler (he works in sales for an ice cream company), and more.

An ex-boyfriend was involved when some of the other women got the idea that Buschbacher still was emotionally attached to him. They rushed to tell Firestone.

"I don't see him anymore because he's totally avoiding me," Buschbacher said of her former beau. "He says he doesn't watch the show, but I know he does. . . . And it has to be weird for him. The producers have said a lot of times ex-boyfriends will come back (after the show begins airing) and say "I made a mistake. I may have lost this great girl.' Eventually, we'll have a talk about it."

Buschbacher said she has discussed with Firestone the logistics of moving to California, where he lives, if he picks her.

"Once the show's done, you almost have to get back to the get-to-know-you phase," Buschbacher said. "You go from this surreal world where you don't talk about what you eat for breakfast . . . to the real world. You're dealing with work and family and things you never had to deal with before, and on top of it, you're a recognizable couple."

Buschbacher graduated from Plant City's Durant High School in 1997 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Florida four years later. Though her concentration was magazine journalism, she won't rule out snagging work as a broadcaster when the dust clears (some show alums, including Bachelor 2's Brooke Smith, original winner Amanda Marsh and Bachelorette runner-up Charlie Maher, have jobs on radio, TV and syndicated newsmagazine shows).

The show's shoddy coupling success rate - the couples from both previous Bachelor installments have broken up, and Bachelorette star Trista Rehn and her beau haven't married - might lead the cynical to assume that those who participate may be in the game for, shall we say, ulterior motives.

Firestone, for instance, has been touring the country, talking up distributors about his family's products, buoyed by the burst of fame that comes from regular exposure on national TV. And this show's female participants couldn't miss that Rehn was picked for the first Bachelorette after losing to Marsh on the first Bachelor.

These days, the show's participants all but admit that there's little chance of a quick marriage after meeting in such bizarre circumstances. So isn't the central idea of The Bachelor - a guy will find his wife through a succession of hot tub dates and dinners on yachts - a bit of a fallacy?

"I don't think anybody went into this thinking, "I'm going to find my husband here,' " said Buschbacher, who applied for the show on a lark, filling out an online form after talking to some friends at a wedding. "It's entertaining television and a chance to get out to L.A. for a few months and just have a blast. To me, the positives outweigh the negatives."

A decision on her future will have to come soon: A "For Sale" sign in front of the Buschbachers' home, tucked neatly inside a cul de sac, reveals that her parents are headed to North Carolina because of a job transfer for her dad.

Sunday, viewers will learn whether Buschbacher is headed out of town to start her own adventure. Regardless of the outcome, she said that she has learned what it takes to survive in the white-hot glare of attention.

"I've learned that I'm a lot stronger than I thought. . . . I can handle people saying negative things about me," Buschbacher said. "Britney Spears . . . they talk negative about her and there's all these rumors about her, but yet she can laugh all the way to the bank, because she's making all this money. I'm not making any money, yet people are judging me based on this character on a TV show. You just have to be strong."

AT A GLANCE: The Bachelor: The Women Tell All airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. The Bachelor's two-hour finale airs Sunday at 9 p.m. Both will be broadcast on WFTS-Ch. 28.

[Last modified May 12, 2003, 16:49:30]

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