10 tips for reality-show contestants
Donít be a jerk, and learn to drive stick
Jennifer Szymaszek / AP
Want to get past Donald Trump on "The Apprentice"? Take our 10 tips to heart.
By Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
Updated: 1:26 p.m. ET Sept. 3, 2004There are Monday-morning quarterbacks, there are backseat drivers, so it should come as no surprise that some of us are couch-bound reality-show contestants.
I may be too horrible a singer to make "American Idol," or not enough of an exhibitionist for "Real World," but I can still yell advice at the screen with the best of them, secure in the knowledge that while I will never appear on one of these shows, I'd certainly be better than the losers who fill them now. That said, here are my 10 tips for future reality-show contestants.
1. Don't be a jerk
Here's hoping the reality-show creators didn't just read this: They know that if some of their contestants weren't jerks, their ratings would plummet.
Jerkdom comes in various flavors: Reality shows in recent years have hosted contestants with racist, sexist and homophobic tendencies. But the majority of contestants who wear the Jerk label so do because they are so self-centered they cannot see past their own immediate desires.
The first reality-show jerk I remember was Puck on 1994's "Real World San Francisco." He's most clearly remembered for sticking his unwashed fingers into a jar of peanut butter, but if that were his only crime, he'd have faded into the obscurity of his castmate Cory. It wasn't the peanut butter, it was Puck's attitude. He immediately figured out his roommates' vulnerabilities and went after them with the finely honed knowledge of what would hurt them the most. It ended in Puck being kicked out of the house and his name forever going down in the annals of Loserdom.
Some would say jerkdom has worked well for Puck ó MTV followed him around with cameras for a while, and he occasionally shows up at a "Real World" reunion or challenge show. But on his most recent challenge he was a jerk once again. Some labels can never be lost.
Examples not to follow: Puck on "Real World San Francisco," Scott on "Big Brother 5," Omarosa on "The Apprentice."
2. If there's an obvious alliance, break it up.
I don't care if Romeo and Juliet are on your island, or Chang and Eng are on your show, break them up.
Really, you'd think this one would be obvious, but then again, I'd think all 10 of these would be obvious. Alliances are formed to gain numeric advantage. If you see someone has gathered other contestants to their side, you want to start eliminating those people as quickly as you can.
If you've still got the numbers, go to every contestant who's not in the alliance, explain the situation to them, and start breaking the group up. If you don't have the numbers, figure out who the weakest people in the alliance are, and play on that. Let them know they're going to be the first alliance members to go, and see if you can offer them a higher position on your side.
And never, ever forget: Romances and blood relations are always alliances. If someone's sister or spouse is playing the game, they are an alliance of two. Do not let them stay together, no matter how sweet or romantic or nice you think they are. I don't care if Romeo and Juliet are on your island, or Chang and Eng are on your show, break them up.
Example not to follow: The cast of "Survivor: All-Stars," who let Rob and Amber's romance flourish undisturbed. Especially you, Lex.
3. Even if you're in an alliance, never relax.
Alliances are pretty easy to figure out. And sometimes, their members just don't care. If you've got the numbers, it might not matter that much if you swagger around like the cat who ate the cream, unless by doing so you are in violation of Rule #1: Don't be a jerk.
Even when you think you have the numeric advantage, you can't count on that. There's always someone in the alliance who's a little bit frustrated with how the chips are falling, who suspects that he or she is the most expendable. You've got to play your alliance low-key in the show as a whole, but also within the group itself. Some try to get around this by making multiple alliances, but that rarely works. Treat an alliance like you would an egg: It's fragile and easily broken.
Example not to follow: The Four Horsemen on "Big Brother 5," who lorded their alliance over the whole house, only to see it throughly destroyed.
4. Learn how to drive stick.
Also, not to fear heights. And also, to sing country. And walk a runway. Or whatever the specific focus of your show is. It's amazing that, after years of "Survivor," "Amazing Race," and "Road Rules," some contestants act as if they've never seen the shows before.
No, Mirna and Charla of ĎAmazing Race 5,í the Spanish word for Ďstopí is not Ďstop-o.í
If you're on a show that travels to different countries, learning to drive a manual-transmission car is mandatory. (Even swaggering Mike "The Miz" of "Real World Return to New York" was brought low by a stick-shift car when he tried to take his act to a "Real World-Road Rules Challenge" show.)
Other basics: Know how to swim, especially if you're on "Survivor." Learn a few fashion photographers' names if you're on "America's Next Top Model" (ahem ó Shannon ó ahem.) If you're on "American Idol," be willing and able to sing outside your genre. If you're on a travel show, learn a few basic phrases in major foreign languages. (No, Mirna and Charla of "Amazing Race 5," the Spanish word for "stop" is not "stop-o.")
And most of all, if you're afraid of heights, seriously reconsider your reality-show participation: Shows make contestants bungee-jump, skydive, walk on wires between skyscrapers, and ride a zipline from a tall building into a pool, and yet some contestants act shocked when faced with a height challenge. Just close your eyes and think of the million.
Example not to follow: Gervase Peterson on the original season of "Survivor." I guess we could cut him a little slack for not knowing how to swim since no one had ever seen the show before ... naw, we're not cutting him any slack. Learn to swim.
5. Learn to read
I want to assume that all reality-show contestants know how to read. But the more I watch, the more I see that this can't be assumed.
On "Survivor" and "America's Next Top Model," it's embarrassing how haltingly some contestants read the Tree Mail and Tyra Mail. Throw in a word that isn't in a Dick & Jane book and their vocabularies crumble.
On "Amazing Race," numerous teams digging for a scarab had no idea what they were looking for. (Colin thought it was a sword, obviously thinking of "scabbard," which also isn't a sword, but is at least in the same ZIP code.)
Sometimes the competitors seem to be physically able to read, but choose not to. Numerous "Amazing Race" teams have skipped over part of the instructions given to them, ended up doing a task wrong and had to go back and do it again, losing valuable time. Apparently your grade-school teachers were right: Learn to read, do it well, do it often.
Example not to follow: Scott of "Big Brother 5," who not only drew a blank on that most exotic of English words, "confide," but also spells a certain food "cheesse."
6. Don't out-think yourself
Let's be honest here: Most reality-show contestants are not, shall we say, the brightest cathode-ray tube in the universe. To figure that out, one need only look at Tip #5: Learn to read.
They say good chess players are always thinking many moves ahead. Lex of ĎSurvivor: All-Starsí is no Bobby Fischer.
That said, it's often just about enough for many contestants to understand the basic rules of the game they're playing. Things get really messy when a cocky contestant decides to try to outthink the game itself. Teams who take it upon themselves to throw a challenge in order to get the chance to vote someone off, for example, are always taking a risk, and shouldn't be surprised when it turns out the vote cannot be controlled.
They say good chess players are always thinking many moves ahead. Lex of "Survivor: All-Stars" is no Bobby Fischer. When he had a chance to get rid of Boston Rob's girlfriend, Amber (see Tip #2: If there's an obvious alliance, break it up), Lex should have gone for the easy decision and booted her. Instead, he started thinking ahead: Hmm, if I can use this to keep Rob on my side, maybe I can go further. Apparently he never thought to the part where Rob and Amber would still have a numeric advantage over him as well as no reason to stay loyal.
But one of the best, and funniest, examples of outthinking occurred on "Big Brother 3." "Big Brother" features something called the Power of Veto, which can be won in a competition and allows the winner to save someone from being evicted from the house. You might think that, if you are one of the two nominees in danger of being evicted and you win the Power of Veto, you would definitely use it to save yourself.
Such was not the case when Marcellas Reynolds won the Veto. Convinced he was only nominated as a decoy, germophobic Marcellas chose not to save himself. When fellow contestant Jason cast the deciding vote to oust Marcellas, he ruefully told him "You should have used the veto." What's that expression we used to use back in grade school? Ah-DUH.
Example not to follow: Marcellas, of course, whose move was so boneheaded that, in her after-vote interview, host Julie Chen whacked him upside the head.
7. Remember, your parents are watching.
Viewers often get to meet the parents of reality-show contestants, and they're usually decent, upstanding salt-of-the-earth types. It's too bad that their kids often embarrass their fine folks by breaking every rule they were ever taught.
"Real World" and "Sorority Life" and "Fraternity Life" host some of the worst offenders. These young folks are quick to forget that cameras are around, jumping into hot tubs and under the covers with people they've only just met. (On the first episode of "Real World Las Vegas," Trishelle, Brynn and Stephen engaged in steamy three-way kissing in their hotel suite's hot tub, and "Real World Miami" featured an infamous three-way makeout session in the house's shower.)
But older folks are embarrassing, too. "Survivor's" Heidi and Jenna stripped naked for no apparent reason (they claimed it was for food, but they would have gotten the food without getting naked). "Big Brother" has seen Alison and Michele dress in bikinis made of lettuce.
Nudity and promiscuity aside, it's the plain meanness that probably shocks their parents more than anything else. What did the family of Stephen on "Real World Seattle" think when they watched him run after Irene and slap her in the face? We know from interviews that the parents of Scott on "Big Brother 5" were pretty shaken by their son's behavior. But sometimes parents have no problem with it: When Jon "Jonny Fairplay" lied to his "Survivor" colleagues that his grandmother had died, his family and undead grandma reportedly thought it was a pretty smart tactic on his part.
Example not to follow: Reaching back in time to "Real World Los Angeles": Replacement cast member Glen was one of the cruelest cast members we remember. His nasty remarks about Beth and Jon were breathtakingly mean and his band, Perch, was just horrendous.
8. Never dog the judges or host.
Look, they're judging you. Or hosting the show. They have more power than you, and oftentimes can decide whether you stay or go. Why would anyone give them a hard time?
Mirna of ĎAmazing Race 5í hugged hunky host Phil Keoghan so many times they should have been dating.
Sure, sometimes it's done in the heat of the moment, as when Sue from "Survivor All-Stars" exploded at host Jeff Probst before quitting. (see Tip #9: Never quit.) She was really upset at Richard Hatch for rubbing against her during a challenge, and Probst, one of the smarter hosts out there, knew it.
It's a different story on shows where the judges face down the contestants directly, such as "America's Next Top Model" or "American Idol." Wannabe model Camille put her foot in her mouth on the second season of "ANTM" while she was trying to make the other contestants look bad, telling judge Janice Dickinson that others were calling Dickinson names behind her back. Thankfully, Dickinson, an old-school model, knew a slyly placed dig when she saw one.
On "Idol," it's often the just-been-booted singers in early auditions who let out their anger at the judges, figuring that they've already lost any chance they had. One tossed a glass of water at judge Simon Cowell (see Tip #1: Don't be a jerk.)
Overfamiliarity with the hosts/judges is also a no-no, not so much because it hurts your chances as that is squicks out the viewers. Mirna of "Amazing Race 5" hugged hunky host Phil Keoghan so many times they should have been dating.
Example not to follow: Camille of "America's Next Top Model 2" was convinced she knew more than the judges, and it must have been so satisfying for them to finally throw her out.
9. Never quit
Thousands of hopefuls audition for reality shows every year. They travel, sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles. They sleep in the streets for hours. You'd think that the rarified chosen few who do make it would understand that, and appreciate the opportunity given them.
If you do quit, give whatever reason helps you sleep, but remember, the cameras were watching.
You would be wrong. Quitting has become more and more frequent on reality shows, and the reasoning for it is only sometimes understandable. The most acceptable reason ever: Jenna Morasca, who'd already won a million dollars on "Survivor: Amazon," decided to bow out of "Survivor: All-Stars" to spend time with her dying mother. Morasca got home to her mother's side and was able to spend those final days with her, and there's just no monetary prize that can replace that.
On "Real World Seattle," Irene allegedly quit because of her Lyme disease, which may or may not be the real reason, but her mental condition had obviously deteriorated since she joined the show, and it was probably smart that she left.
But often the quitters' reasons are less altruistic. Osten Taylor quit "Survivor: Pearl Islands" for no apparent reason other than the well-known hardships of the game ó hunger and deprivation. . Marshall and Lance of "Amazing Race 5" claimed they quit because of Marshall's knee problems, but it was clear to every viewer that was a thinly veiled excuse to cover their wimping out. If you do quit, give whatever reason helps you sleep, but remember, the cameras were watching.
Example not to follow: "Survivor's" Osten, a well-muscled, young healthy man, quit the show when tiny, scrawny women stuck it out. It's only fitting that tiny Amber won the big prize.
10. Suck it up. Suck. It. Up.
You could also call Tip #10: Don't whine.
Don't whine when a tiny piece of plaster bonks you on the head. (Omarosa in "The Apprentice.") Don't whine when you get a free vacation to Greece. (Frankie on "Real World San Diego.") Don't whine every single second until you and your long-suffering partner win the million dollars. (Flo on "The Amazing Race 3.")
It kind of goes without saying, but also: Don't cry. Don't cry when you get a Twiggy haircut. (Catie on "America's Next Top Model.") Don't cry when you have to pose for a modeling shoot dangling in space. (Catie, again.) Don't cry when you're told you dress like a ho. (Catie...etc.)
If you're spoiled to the point where you can't tough out some hardships and criticism for a few months, part of me wonders how you got through high school, and the other part says you should in no way audition for a reality show. If you're sensitive to the point that you just can't control the waterworks, stay home.
Example not to follow: The world of reality shows offers up more than its share of whiners and criers, but no one, no one, whined like Flo from "Amazing Race 3," who reached the nadir of whininess when partner Zach decided to change from pants to shorts, which somehow ticked her off so much she ended up throwing her bike helmet. I suppose that her half of the million-dollar prize kind of soothed the idea that millions of viewers think of her as the ultimate example of the ugly American, but I like to think she's an exception to the rule.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Television Editor
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