Stepping up to celebrity status

A bay area rapper basks in newfound fame, the result of a role on VH1's I Love New York.

Published February 17, 2007

"Yo, are you that dude?"

The voice breaks through Patrick Hunter's cell phone, proof positive that time spent on VH1's hottest reality series has done more for his profile in Tampa than years toiling in the city's overlooked rap scene.

Fans of I Love New York recognize Hunter as Tango, the injury-prone, sometimes combative contestant facing down 19 other suitors for the hand of reality TV's latest high-maintenance heroine, Tiffany "New York" Pollard.

On this day, Hunter, 27, is speaking from the corner of Hillsborough Avenue and 40th Street in Tampa, forbidden to personally meet with reporters until his fate on the dating contest has been televised. But as enthusiastic fans crowd around him, it's clear Hunter is riding a wave of celebrity even he didn't fully see coming.

"I'd be lying to say this hasn't helped my career," said Hunter, who insists he signed up just for the challenge of courting Pollard, but now is negotiating a major label record deal. "I can't even go to Kentucky Fried Chicken . . . when I walked in there, people behind the register dropped the chicken. Wherever I go, I have to sign autographs and take pictures with people before I can even eat."

If Hunter is surprised, imagine the honchos at VH1, who decided to give Pollard a show of her own after she "popped" as a breakout character on two cycles of its dating contest Flavor of Love.

Spirited, demanding and streetwise, Pollard amplified the notion of Flavor as a hip-hop parody of ABC's Bachelor reality dating contest. She got into profanity-filled fistfights with other contestants in season one and returned as a "consultant" in the second cycle, only to be rejected again by star Flavor Flav.

Giving Pollard her own show was a no-brainer. But few expected it might surpass the popularity of Flavor itself, debuting Jan. 8 with 4.43-million viewers - the highest series debut in VH1's history.

"It feels fresh to an audience who got so tired of seeing fake romance shoved down their throats," said Jeff Olde, a senior vice president at VH1. "Tiffany, as outrageous a character as she is, is truly like that offscreen. And if you cast a show well, you don't have to fool an audience into believing what's not true."

For anyone used to the gauzy pretense of network TV reality dating shows, Flavor of Love and I Love New York can feel like ghetto-drenched parodies worthy of Chappelle's Show or Saturday Night Live.

Contestants fill a role

In the show's debut, Pollard welcomed her 20 suitors to a pimp-ified mansion decked in purple and gold - adorned with a huge, blinged-out replica of a necklace featuring the program's logo.

Contestants bear nicknames such as Whiteboy, T-Weed and Pootie; challenges include playing a one-on-one hoops game with a point guard from the Women's National Basketball Association and modeling bikinis in a "Mangeant."

The men, who fit their stereotypical character niches so well, they seem to be playacting, bounce off each other like oversexed high schoolers.

It's the same formula of outrageous behavior and liquor-fueled humiliation that has powered VH1 "celebreality" shows such as The Surreal Life and Breaking Bonaduce. But I Love New York is VH1's first success with a star the channel created.

"The show's attractiveness is more the drama of the contestants, who are absolutely train wrecks and stereotypes," said Andy Dehnart, a Stetson University instructor who edits the reality TV-focused Web site Realityblurred.com. "Reality TV revels in stereotypes . . . (because) it's an easy shorthand for producers. You wonder how many teens are growing up watching shows like (MTV's) The Real World and thinking, 'I will grow up to be that person.' "

Which brings up the most persistent criticism of Flavor of Love and I Love New York: that their popularity stems from their focus on buffoonish stereotypes. From rapper Flavor Flav's hedonism to Pollard's materialistic self-absorption, VH1's new reality stars seem like new school versions of black characters critics have fought to eradicate from fictional programming for decades.

"I don't have a great answer to that, except to say that we didn't set out to make a show about race," said VH1's Olde, noting that 20-million black viewers (half of them age 18 to 49) watched Flavor's second season. "We're just putting out a show for entertainment value."

But black viewers also loved Amos n' Andy, the 1950s TV comedy now reviled for its stereotypical characters.

So the question falls to Hunter, an admittedly proud black man: Why get involved with this at all?

"This was not a dating show to me - there was no Chuck Woolery hanging around - this was freaking Survivor," he said. "I think a vast majority of the guys on the show are there for career enhancement . . . but I didn't see how this show was going to help my street cred. I just think Flav slipped up . . . and I go after the most challenging females out there."

These days, Hunter is basking in his new profile, taking two hours daily to sort through messages on his MySpace page - where producers initially discovered him. On Sunday, he appeared at a local club with Sandro "Rico" Padron, a Tampa man who was shown getting rejected by Pollard on Monday's episode.

Internet message boards buzz that he may be the winner, based on a hand signal Pollard threw during a talk show appearance that mimics his signature move ("VH1 says I don't have an opinion, and . . . I don't have one," Hunter said, laughing).

But he has a curious response for those who say the show is stereotypical and trashy: Viewers need the contrast of shows like I Love New York to better appreciate when they watch other, really good programs.

"If you treat this like a comedy network, when you turn it on, you're going to see a comedy," Hunter said. "Hopefully, when people watch this show, they will say 'Those other guys are idiots, but this guy Tango, he's okay.' "

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.



I Love New York

New episodes air at 9 p.m. Mondays on VH1. Rating: TV-14