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Reality check

Five area contestants on reality TV shows talk about what their experiences were really like and whether they would do it again.

ERIC DEGGANS
Published November 17, 2003

At times, it seemed this moment would never happen.

The idea had instant appeal: Gather area residents who were veterans of some of TV's most popular reality TV shows - from Temptation Island to The Bachelor, Survivor, MTV's Road Rules and beyond - to dish on the secrets of reality TV and more.

But then, reality itself kicked in. Producers of ABC's dating show The Bachelor, fearful of seeing their shows dissected in a forum involving other reality shows, barred recently ejected contestant Mary Delgado of Tampa and last season's runnerup, former Valrico resident Kirsten Buschbacher, from participating.

Temptation Island 2 participant Mark Detrio, a Tampa police officer, got stuck serving a warrant. Tampa resident Christina Sztanko, who quit last season's Bachelor after realizing she didn't like the guy, was out of town.

Still, we convened a panel of five reality TV veterans with local ties for a discussion dissecting their special place in a genre that has become a full-fledged pop culture phenomenon.

They are:

Jan Gentry, 55, of Tampa, a first-grade teacher who earned third place (and about $95,000) in CBS' Survivor: Thailand last year.

Tammy Guthrie, 41, of St. Petersburg, a stay-at-home mother of three who received almost $50,000 in plastic surgery during an episode of ABC's Extreme Makeover in April.

Melissa Howard, 26, formerly of Valrico, who appeared on The Real World: New Orleans in 2000 and lives in Los Angeles. She co-stars in Oxygen's Candid Camera-style show, Girls Behaving Badly. (She called from California to join our discussion.)

Alexis Merrill, 35, of Tampa, who appeared on NBC's Fear Factor in April, winning $50,000. She lost the show's tournament of champions competition in May.

Michelle Ragland, 31, of Tampa, a show host on America's Store, a Home Shopping Network channel, whose March marriage to Robert Blalock aired on TLC's A Wedding Story in October.

The biggest surprise? With their 15 minutes of fame mostly behind them, most every panelist admitted reality TV producers exploited them in ways large and small.

And that was okay.

"When you apply for a reality show, part of that process has to be accepting that you're going to be exploited," Guthrie said. "They want to see that raw emotion; the human flaws that we all have. I really wanted that plastic surgery. So I was willing to do almost anything."

For Merrill, it's all about the editing: "When people slip and they don't remember millions of people are watching . . . that's when they (get exploited)," she said. "These (producers) are making tons of money . . . and they're also manipulating and editing to make people totally who they aren't."

And because such participation remains a relatively new phenomenon locally, casting producers remain interested in the area, said one expert.

"I think people are a little less jaded in areas where there are less media," said Kathryn Price, the mole in ABC's first edition of The Mole, now a producer for the WB's High School Reunion - which will feature a South Florida high school next year. "In Los Angeles, you have so many people who are aspiring actors or actresses. . . . Here, there is less of an industry presence. And for us, that's a good thing."

Here's an edited transcript of our panelists' 90-minute conversation on these issues and much more.

Times: Have you bonded with other people who have appeared on reality shows?

Tammy: "On Extreme Makeover there were 10 of us who had our surgery, all in a 10-week period. So we all recuperated together, and it was just one of those experiences that - unless you were in it, it's very hard to understand. I talk to one of them at least once a day, or once every other day."

Alexis: "Going to Fear Factor, since everyone was 10 years younger than I was, I really treated it like going to summer camp. The people who were in the first one were all there for a party - the ones that lost. In the (championship) finale, everyone was there on a mission. Everybody was on the same level of focus and determination. We still e-mail each other."

Jan: "When we get together, there is no age. They're always saying, "C'mon Jannie - we can't have a party without you.' I'm talking 20-year-olds. They respect me because they know what I had to give up. So you respect everybody just for surviving the process."

Michelle: "For me, it really created a never-ending wedding . . . a bond throughout all of my friends and family members. Even people I just met today are asking, "When's it going to air again?' "

Melissa: "It's funny, because people are (saying) the Real World clique is very incestuous and weird, but . . . it's just nice to be able talk to somebody about what it feels like, about going through that process, without people looking at you like you're crazy. I did Real World, which is a staple of MTV, and 6.5-million people turn around and scrutinize your life."

Times: What surprised you the most about your show?

Jan: "Basically, the young kids who go in thinking it's a vacation. And theyshow you the tapes of all the bug bites and the things that can infest your body. Still, 90 percent of people in our (show), couldn't swim. Why go to an island and you can't swim? You're out there trying to fight for your life. We ate leaves . . . and we were lucky to have those."

Michelle: "On A Wedding Story they pretty much show up with a script. And they spend your wedding pretty much getting you to resay everything you said in your application and everything you said in your phone interview. They have their questions leading you into what you already said and they're putting pictures around it. I don't even know if a lot of brides pick up on that. I knew it because, I know the business. It's still you; it's still your story. But still, that kind of floored me."

Alexis: "(Fear Factor) would retake the walk of shame (when a contestant fails to complete a stunt and is ejected from the show, taking a long walk off camera). This poor guy. . . . It was pouring rain. They wanted to make it look great. And it wasn't natural. . . . They made him redo it, like, five or six times."

Tammy: "I didn't feel I was always being myself. I felt inhibited a lot. I think I would have rather they had hidden cameras . . . then they could see the real me and the real feelings I had."

Melissa: "To see yourself filtered down to one small element of who you are is pretty weird. What's really interesting, is after my time on the Real World, I really have become a lot more introverted. Seeing yourself on TV being that outgoing all the time . . . I had no idea (I was) that eager to talk about random stuff every day. I really kind of have shut down in that sense."

Jan: "I absolutely agree with her. I'm very gregarious, very outgoing, very hyper. But when I was on TV, I downplayed myself. I didn't exactly know how to be me. I kind of lost myself. Because . . . these people would come up to me randomly and say, "You're her!' (And) I'm not any better than the guy sweeping the porch. And I didn't want to be. I just wanted to be me. So it took me a year to get over it. Now, I feel okay. But I couldn't even enjoy the show (when it was airing), because I didn't know how to act."

Tammy: "I just didn't know how to handle that. It made me kind of pull in and become less outgoing, because I wasn't sure how people were going to treat me out there. It's almost like they have this image of me from television, and what was I supposed to live up to? I wasn't sure. Instead of having to take all that attention, I kind of became a little reclusive for a while."

Melissa: "With reality TV, it's a weird, quasiapproachable fame. I don't think people who come up to you realize that it's just as awkward and just as uncomfortable for you as for them. I have this weird pressure that I put on myself to be superoutgoing and nice. It's almost like you're stripped of the right to have a bad day. I've had people come up to me in the airport, my hair looks like hell, I'm tired and I'm hungry and all of a sudden you have to put on that smile and be really happy. I don't want anybody to walk away from me thinking that I think that I'm famous. I feel like I owe these people a happy extension of me."

Tammy: "I have a question. Why did you guys do your shows?"

Michelle: "I did mine to have a personal documentary of my wedding and how I fell in love with my husband. It's something that, whenever I have kids and they're old enough, I can say look - this is how we met. It's all right there."

Alexis: "For two years, I watched (Fear Factor) and I was just cussing at the TV. I just knew, if I got a chance, I could win the money. I couldn't not go to the audition and try it out."

Jan: "My son called me. He said, "Mom, it's perfect for you. You're athletic. You love people and it's an adventure. . . . You gotta try out for Survivor.' I said, "What the hell is Survivor?' I had never seen it. (Laughter.) He said, "Mom . . . just try.' So I sent in my application, and they kept calling me."

Times: What's the biggest misconception people have about your experience?

Michelle: "With A Wedding Story, the biggest misconception is that you get something. You don't get any free anything. To me, it was just all about that documentation. So I didn't really want anything else. Well, other than the producers' cards: I am in TV, for God's sakes."

Melissa: "The biggest misconception is that you go on Real World to launch your acting career. If you're on a reality show and you want to work in L.A. in any other capacity, you have to prove yourself tenfold. Don't get me wrong, we're given an edge because we have a little bit of exposure, but at the same time, there can be a weird stigma attached to it. There's also this automatic misconception that we're just automatically rich. Being famous and poor . . . If that's not a crash course in growing up, I don't know what is. I was (thinking), "You want to take my picture and (have) me sign these autographs and, meanwhile, I'm freaking out about rent coming up?' "

Jan: "I do think 90 percent of the people who go on Survivor think they're going to go on to other (acting) things."

Melissa: Shows like Real World (or) Newlyweds . . . they're not shows that you love to watch for the people. They're shows you love to watch because you love to judge the people. Now that I've done the show, I understand the process of being judged, and of course it doesn't feel great. (But) not a lot of people can say I was on a reality show when that craze was huge. You're really integrating yourself in a part of pop culture than not a lot of people have been a part of. And I think that's cool."

Alexis: "At least we all got in before it really got out of hand. If it keeps going the way it is, I bet in five years (people will say), "Oh, my neighbor was on The Bachelor . . . big deal.' "

Jan: We gave (viewers) a hope . . . (showing) an average person who had the opportunity to do something. Anyone could do it. I'm 54 years old, and I kept laughing every time they kept calling me back, saying, "You want me?"'

Times: You know there are people out there who will not believe that you had such a positive experience on these shows.

Tammy: "After the makeover show aired, we got a lot of calls from talk shows . . . the Oprah show, particularly . . . (and) they kept asking us: Is there any negative things that have happened? Are you having marital problems? Anything, is there anything negative? They were trying to find some dirt. There really wasn't any dirt to give them. Even magazines, they were looking for dirt, because that's what sells."

Times: Can you still watch reality TV shows now that you've seen behind the mask?

Melissa: "You can't really enjoy it, because you know exactly what they're going for: I know why this person has said that. I know what the director must have asked in order for this person to say that. I'm looking for boom mikes and I'm (thinking): "Why they are shooting her from that angle? Just look at her thighs."'

Times: Is there another reality show you would appear on, if given the chance?

Jan: "I'd love to do The Amazing Race. The people on Amazing Race are just like the people on Survivor - our personalities are very similar. But you get to eat and sleep in a bed."

Alexis: "I used to think I would do Survivor. I think I know how to win. You've got to be a total mute - do like she did (pointing to Jan), you fly under that radar. Then, when it's absolutely necessary, then you play all the tactics."

Tammy: "When you live in America, you have everything at your beck and call. Survivor is the complete opposite. It's a life-changing experience. Before I even heard of Extreme Makeover, I had my videotape and I had my whole application filled out for the February 2003 Survivor. In fact, I still have it . . . and I may send it in."

Melissa: "If I had to do another reality show, it would probably be Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Just to hang out with Carson and get the free beauty products."

Michelle: "I'm contemplating A Baby Story (group cheers), but I just don't know. . . . I couldn't imagine myself even attempting to remain composed while giving birth."

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