Seems like you almost have to have a rap sheet these days to be a contestant on Big Brother.
There was last summer's infamous incident with Justin Sebik, who was booted off Big Brother 2 for holding a knife to the throat of a female housemate during a drunken flirtation. Producers were red-faced when it later was discovered that Sebik had been arrested three times for assault and twice for minor robberies--charges that didn't stick, but that the show's background investigations nonetheless failed to turn up.
(Earlier this month, Krista Stegall, the woman Sebik tried to woo with cutlery, filed a lawsuit against CBS and the producers of Big Brother 2 claiming the network and show-runners were negligent for allowing the incident to occur.)
Shortly after reports of Sebik's checkered past came to light, it was learned that Big Brother 2 contestant Shannon Dragoo had hit and killed an elderly man and pleaded guilty to a careless driving charge. Fellow housemate Michael "Mike Boogie" Malin, meanwhile, had served a probationary sentence after pleading guilty to charges of trespassing and using a fake ID. Finally, a third Big Brother 2 contestant, Hardy Hill, had been rung up on DUI charges and served a sentence that included probation, a suspended license and community service.
CBS admitted to knowing about the cases but allowed the camera-ready trio to participate anyway.
Of course, CBS and the folks behind Big Brother vowed to make the vetting process even more intense for future installments.
Now, in yet another embarrassing gaffe for CBS, the Smoking Gun Website has reported that Chiara Berti, a houseguest on the network's current Big Brother 3, was arrested for drunken driving just weeks before the premiere of the reality game show.
The 25-year-old marketing rep from New York City was pulled over by the California Highway Patrol on May 26 and charged with three misdemeanors, including driving under the influence and driving without a license, while she was in Los Angeles for the final round of Big Brother auditions. She was stopped by police about 2:40 a.m. with a blood-alcohol level above California's 0.08 limit. She spent five hours in jail and was released on $2,500 bail.
But producers apparently didn't hold the arrest against the photogenic Berti, who was one of 12 selected to compete for the $500,000 prize.
Berti's attorney, Sherman Ellison, tells the Smoking Gun that Big Brother was worried not about the charge per se, but whether any court date might conflict with the show's broadcast. Ellison assured show lawyers and producers that it wouldn't.
Berti's original arraignment was scheduled for June 20, but Ellison managed to delay that hearing until last Friday. When Berti was once more called before the court, Ellison asked the judge to reschedule again to give Berti enough time to play the game.
The judge reluctantly agreed and postponed Berti's arraignment to September 3.
The date puts CBS in a tough predicament: If Berti's not voted out of the house by then, either the network will have to allow her to leave to attend the hearing or eject her from the show entirely.
On Tuesday, a CBS rep admitted that executives knew about the DUI charge, defended the show's selection process, pledged support for Berti and demurred when asked whether the legal case would affect Berti's status on the show.
"We certainly don't condone drunk driving. However, on the bright side, there will be no driving in the house," says CBS spokeswoman Diane Ekeblad, adding that the controversy is a "moot point" if Berti's evicted by her September 3 court date.
But if she's not?
"Her attorney may be able to have the court date without her needing to appear," says Ekeblad. "But if she needs to appear we either make arrangements, or we make a penalty eviction, but it's too early to say at this point."
It's doubtful that Big Brother producers would want to let a few criminal charges get in the way of what's turning into Chiara's playhouse. Since the show's July 10 debut, she has sparked viewer interest by showering with a female houseguest, taking off her top and getting hot and heavy with housemate Roddy. She's in no danger of getting booted this week, since Josh and Tonya are the nominees for banishment. And in a running poll on CBS.com, Chiara ranks behind only Jason and Danielle among users' picks for the ultimate winner.
Ratings-wise, the show has been holding its own, drawing about 8.9 million viewers last Wednesday, making it the 13th most-watched show of the week, just behind the Wednesday installment of Fox's hit American Idol. Thursday's episode of Big Brother 3 drew a solid 7.9 million and Saturday's attracted 5.7 million.
Meanwhile, in other Big Brother news, NBC on Tuesday announced that Big Brother 2 winner Will Kirby has been tapped to host the network's new reality series Love Shack, which debuts August 26.