CBS’s summer trash perennial Big Brother returns tonight after leaving an unforgettably bad taste in the collective mouths of viewers last year. For the uninformed, the competitive reality show houses an assortment of mostly white, mostly young, mostly attractive contestants as they vie for $500,000 by hustling and backstabbing. The unique gimmick here is that they are filmed 24/7 for mass consumption.
Paying online viewers are given the ability to eavesdrop on the houseguests, although there have been many complaints that CBS blocks anywhere from 25-50% of the feeds to preserve the “integrity” of the broadcast show. Like most competitive reality shows, Big Brother heavily edits the raw footage to create a season arc that features heroes and villains. Often, the show you see on broadcast TV wildly differs from the unfiltered live footage.
And this is how CBS found itself in very hot water last year.
But, first, I must confess that even I fell under the odious Big Brother spell ten years ago. After deciding that 90 days locked in a house with strangers was vastly preferable to any job I’d held until that point, I decided to try my hand at reality TV with a goal of conning my way into the interview process. An aversion to sun, sand, insects, and the outdoors ruled out Survivor, and a general lack of athleticism and the ability to drive a stick ruled out the Amazing Race. Big Brother seemingly required no skills at all save social ones, so Big Brother it was. I never thought I’d actually become a semi-finalist.
The first step in the process is to submit your application and, back then in the dark ages, a videotape of yourself. I remember very little about the initial application itself. My fears were largely centered on video taping myself. Having watched several seasons up to that point, I was well aware of the extroverted loose canon types they would gravitate toward. Unfortunately, that wasn’t me, so I knew I would have to lie. Lie big. Pacino big.
Insisting on going it alone, I set up the video camera on my bathroom countertop, camera placement serving several critical purposes. First, I could sit in a chair directly facing the bathroom mirror so that I could talk to myself rather than the lens of the camera. Second, the strong bathroom lighting would highlight my face and make it pop on camera. Third, since I was wearing a black shirt, the darkness in the bedroom behind me would cause me to melt into the background, hiding the extra 30 pounds I’d gained from raising my first child and from supplementing my calcium intake with Cook Out milkshakes. Daily. I’d had a suspicion that a show given to featuring half-naked, gym-toned contestants would not cotton to a 28-year old with a middle-aged body.
But my weight was not the only obstacle I would have to overcome. My personality was also particularly ill suited for the show. Where on-air contestants are loud, proud, and outrageously offensive, I was reserved, quiet, and terrified of conflict. So, I needed to manufacture the appropriate fuck-off attitude that would attract the desired attention. My angle was this: I’d been raised on a pig farm in Eastern North Carolina and there wasn’t anything that Big Brother could throw at me that I hadn’t seen before.
Having long ago lost my Southern accent, I decided to manufacture one that, in my opinion, would make me appear at once laid back, ruthless, and ready to party. With the camera rolling, I recited my memorized monologue, but out of my mouth came a Southern accent by way of Beverly Hills, 90210. I used words like “severe,” “kickin’,” “thrashin’,” “intense,” and “no-holds barred.” I also closed with “Your move, Big Bro.”
A bigger star had never graced my master bathroom.
Flash-forward a couple of weeks, and I received The Call. They’d loved my tape, and they wanted to see me at the Semi-Finalist interviews to be conducted three hours away in Charlotte, North Carolina. I could not believe I’d actually gotten through. Someone had watched a completely manufactured version of me and thought I was either cool enough or dumb enough to appear on their reality show. Either way, I was elated.
A few days later, a massive Fed Ex envelope appeared on the front porch all the way from Los Angeles. It was my official application, weighing in at around 15 pounds. There were reams of papers to sign, questions to answer, and (much to my disappointment) bodily measurements to take. I completely lied on those too.
Looking back on it, I wish I’d made a copy of the application so that I could read it when feeling down or too proud of myself. Much like the videotape, my answers seemed to come from another person entirely. I completed the application with a Hannibal Lecter-like flair. Oh, CBS, did you think you could dissect me with this blunt little tool?
The questions I remember were very simple and my answers genius…
- What are you most afraid of? Clowns and bigots
- What type of houseguest would you most not like to see? Republicans
- What are your strengths? Lying.
- What’s your strategy for winning the game? Backstab, lie, and win nothing so as to conceal my inner Ninja
I flew through the document until my hands cramped and my blisters bled. This was ON LIKE DONKEY KONG. With the application submitted, all I had to do was wait for the interview. Suddenly, I’d managed to convince myself that maybe this wasn’t such a crazy idea after all. Maybe they might actually pick me. Maybe they might actually like me.
The day of the interview finally came. I called in sick to work and selected my outfit. Knowing nothing about appearing on camera, I naturally selected a bright yellow, button-up Polo whose sleeves were a half-inch too short. I spent an hour starching and ironing it to death until it was time for the road trip to Charlotte.
Unfortunately, I’d also convinced myself to save gas and drive the distance with the sunroof open and the windows down. By the time I’d gotten to Charlotte, I was both sweaty and wind-blown. I looked like a fat man who’d ran a marathon in a wind tunnel. My perfectly starched, bright-yellow, button-up Polo had apparently been worn as a nightshirt. Plus, I’d misjudged the distance, and I was running slightly late. No time to change, so I convinced myself it wouldn’t matter. My pathological lying would prevail.
As I checked in at the hotel where the interviews were being conducted, reality began to sink in, and my hopes at being The One began to crumble. My competition immediately outclassed me in the physical department. My pale skin mapped with stretch marks starkly contrasted with theirs, the finest that tanning beds could produce. That flap of skin under my arm that continued to wave at passersby long after my hand had stopped would not compare to the bulging biceps of their toned physique. And my salt-and-pepper hair, still combed in the same style my mother fashioned some twenty years earlier, looked ridiculous when pared with the salon-coiffed casualness aided by Bed Head. I was an alien among them, the beautiful people.
I suffered this humiliation for a good hour until the time came for my interview upstairs. Struggling to regain the renegade attitude I’d manufactured for my video, I collapsed into a bundle of nerves. My stomach wretched into my throat. My heartbeat flooded my ears, drowning out all sound. But, in the interview room, I bizarrely achieved tranquility. All of my nerves flooded away, and memories of the hours of interview rehearsal I’d conducted (again, in front of a mirror at home) started to surface along with a few shreds of confidence.
That is, until the cameraman had to stop my interview and adjust his lighting. The glare from my receding hairline was interfering with the taping. I’m sure the wrinkled, bright-yellow, button-up Polo didn’t help.
I have no idea what came out of my mouth after that.
The interview was seemingly over before it began. I have vague memories of leaving the interview room and returning to remind the interviewer that I was a “no-holds barred person” that would “do anything to win” in a garbled Southern accent that hinted at potential brain damage. Blissfully, time has erased the rest.
Naturally, I did not advance beyond the Semi-Finalist interview round. And, given what happened to last year’s contestants, it was probably for the best.
For years, online viewers complained about the authenticity of the televised show. Many of the “good guys” featured on the show made dozens of questionable statements on the live feeds, but CBS would not address the statements on-air.
That is until last year when many of the contestants regularly bashed the ethnicity and sexuality of other houseguests. I’m not going to repeat the vitriol here, but, if you’re interested, there is a Wikipedia page dedicated to it. The cries from the Internet were deafening. Hints of it even unexpectedly made it on air, giving the impression that the comments were so widespread as to make editing them out difficult.
Finally bowing to enormous pressure, CBS addressed the controversy on air with Asian-American host Julie Chen given the task of interviewing the worst offenders as they were evicted from the household, but the questions felt light and did little to assuage the anger elicited by the comments and actions. Admittedly, Chen and CBS were put in a situation where they could not win. Nothing they could do could erase the stench save the cancellation of the show, and that would never happen.
Big Brother has never been without controversy, but last season seemed to cast a pall over the show. Perhaps worse, it fed the growing resentment and racism that has plagued America for decades. When Barack Obama carried North Carolina in the 2008 Presidential election, white faces cried out in racist horror and organized politically in recent years to return the state to such conservatism not seen in over 100 years. But North Carolinians were not unique in their reaction. Twitter hatred grew, fanning the flames of racism across the country. And here comes Big Brother making the evening news with such hatred and ignorance. All in the service of televised entertainment.
Will I watch Big Brother this year? Maybe. The show always rises and falls on the strength of its casting and our ability to root for someone who doesn’t turn our stomach. But I will not spend three hours a week watching racists and bigots competing for a half million. How could I with my children hovering over me, obsessed in what entertainment I consume? How could I tell them that I once tried out for a show that fostered such ugly behavior otherwise foreign to them and their friendships?
But that wasn’t really me, was it? That was somebody else in a wrinkled, bright-yellow, button-up Polo with a Southern accent by way of Beverly Hills, 90210.
The lastest season of Big Brother premiered tonight at 8 pm.