Survival of the dullest

The future is here, and instead of 15 minutes of fame everyone's going to get several episodes' worth. Can anonymity survive "Survivor"?

Topics: Celebrity, Survivor,

Survival of the dullest

Last week, on a freezing San Francisco morning, I went out to the Marina Green, a park next to the yacht harbor, to watch the second round of open auditions for “Survivor II: The Outback,” which, as the title suggests, will take place in the Australian hinterlands. While back-stabbing among kangaroos promises to be entertaining for misanthrope and naturalist alike, as far as the auditions went, there wasn’t much to see.

Fifty or so hazy and tentative hopefuls — looking even hazier and more tentative for the fog — milled around the wet grass, clutching applications and waiting for their three minutes of tape time. Told to do whatever they thought necessary to capture the attention of the show’s executive producers, about half the applicants I watched ran out of things to say before their allotted time expired.

The night before, on “Survivor,” the tribal council had voted Greg Buis off the island and, that morning, he had declined to appear on CBS’s “The Early Show” with Bryant Gumbel. Sensing a “Survivor”-shaped hole in the morning’s offerings, CBS invited Ramona Gray, a former “Survivor” contestant, to appear in Buis’ place. “Early Show” co-host Hattie Kauffman introduced Gray:

Kauffman: “As we noted earlier, Greg Buis decided not to give any interviews. So we invited another non-’Survivor’ back, Ramona Gray.” [Then to Gray] “Good morning. I don’t want to call you a non-’Survivor.’”

Gray: “Good morning.”

Kauffman: “Here you are, alive and breathing.”

Gumbel then explained that aside from living and breathing, Gray was, more importantly, working as a consultant to people who want to be contestants on the next incarnation of “Survivor.” But as Gray began recounting the events that had led to her new career, weatherman Mark McEwen cut in with the question on everybody’s mind:

McEwen: “What’s it like walking through the world? Do people stop you in malls and go, ‘Yo, Ramona!’?

Gray: “Yes.”

McEwen: “Do you like it?”

People who watch “Survivor,” like people who audition for the show, are less motivated by the travel, the adventure and the shot in hell at winning the money than they are by the idea of what effect sudden fame will have on their lives. No matter what they tell the camera on the day of their audition, what most of them want — beyond the experience and the challenge — is to be on TV, just like the weatherman.

Somewhere in the recondite corners of their minds contestant wannabes are convinced that if a camera points at them long enough, they will be transmogrified into someone whose life is really worth living. It seems that most applicants are more attracted by the chance of having their current reality obliterated and replaced than by the experience of betraying their peers in a bucolic setting. After all, they can do that at the company picnic.

When I asked Tyler Cowen, an economics professor and director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Arlington, Va., and the author of “In Praise of Commercial Culture” and “What Price Fame?” what really motivates the average person to audition for a reality show, he replied, “The average person does not audition for a reality show, so it is hard to answer the question as given. But being on TV gives people a sense of being desired, a sense of being known and a sense of being powerful.”

Never mind that most people are scrutinized, judged and criticized at home, school and work for the duration of their lives: The only thing that supersedes the desire for money in this culture is the desire for fame. Reality shows are an adolescent society’s dream. Like cheerleading tryouts for a squad that consists of only you, glorious you, shows like “Survivor” give people a chance to be famous for just being their dull, unattractive, inarticulate, unremarkable selves. In this newest sub-brand of fame, it’s only after convincing millions of people that you have little to offer that your life suddenly takes on extraordinary significance.

On “The Early Show” last week, Gray told viewers of how many “good things had happened to [her] since she left the show.” She’s writing a book and a column for Entertainment Weekly, as well as taking advantage of other, as Gumbel put it, “commercial opportunities.”

Kauffman: “Because now you’re out doing …”

Gray: “I’m taking advantage — right. Right. Yeah.”

Gumbel: “Supply and demand.”

Four months before the “Survivor II” auditions, I attended “Wanna Be a VJ3″ in San Francisco, part of a three-city search for MTV’s new video presenter. A thousand brave hipsters stood in line in the cold for the chance to tape an audition. When asked why, most said that being a VJ was “the best job in the world,” yet it was clear they weren’t there for the employment opportunity. Like those who believe photographers have the power to steal souls, we seem convinced that media exposure can hand out souls like door prizes — providing us with instant substance, position and recognition.

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And to some degree, it’s true. The media has been making minor deities out of chefs, hairstylists, personal trainers, plastic surgeons, dentists, astrologers and little kids trapped in wells for decades now.

When life disappoints, reality shows can offer a quick fix. “Part of the appeal is the relative ease with which everything could change,” says Mark Goulston, M.D., an expert on contemporary culture at Lifescape.com and the author of “Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior.” “There’s almost a lottery quality to these shows. There’s a jackpot mentality. You get to be famous without having earned it.”

“I think the quest for fame is most of all a form of power seeking,” says George Mason’s Cowen. “It is one of the strongest desires that human beings possess. Even those who eschew fame (e.g., Salinger, Pynchon) often revel in their scorn of the public, thereby seeking a greater fame of sorts. Most of all we want other human beings to acknowledge that we exist. We passionately pursue projects toward this end, often more so than for money — money often being only a ‘counter’ in the recognition game. Television has vastly expanded the reach of fame and created irresistible opportunities for people to project their images and personae to many, many others,” Cowen continues. “We are biologically programmed to seek the approbation of others. Being on a TV show is not the same as approbation, but it is a form of attention, often the next best thing.”

According to Goulston, the average person auditions for a reality show “because average isn’t good enough for them. Being special protects you from being ‘ordinary,’ and some people just can’t stand feeling ordinary. If you feel that you haven’t accomplished much or somehow you aren’t good enough, winning something like this is a way of catching up.”

This phenomenon was in full evidence at the “Survivor II” auditions, where very few of the hopefuls possessed any quality that might be described as telegenic. Most of them clearly hadn’t coasted through life on their good looks, and it’s probably safe to say they hadn’t skated by on their brains or personalities, either. When asked why they wanted to be on the show, many replied that they had already survived all manner of reverses — from one’s mother’s menopause, to living in New York on $30 a day, to the war in Bosnia — and so were ideally suited to take the punishment.

“I’m just a lowly admin assistant,” a shy man in his mid-30s told me when I asked why he was auditioning, as if television were a sort of refugee camp for the unfulfilled.

Of course, there were a few exceptions to the underachiever rule. One man who auditioned — a handsome, smarmy, platinum-haired urban hipster — talked about surviving frostbite, envy, Princeton and 13 management changes in 12 years as a V.P. at a major corporation. Retired at 38, he was looking for life’s next challenge. His sense of his own superiority was palpable, yet I got the impression he was going to break into a scathing rendition of “Is That All There Is?” in situ.

“A number of people,” says Goulston, “believe you can achieve happiness. Whereas achievement can make you feel accomplished, it doesn’t make you happy, it doesn’t make you feel content. A lot of people feel that if they had more, they’d be happier. But it’s an illusion. And you keep feeding it.”

The pervasive illusion in our culture is that fame can protect you from bad things, that through fame you will acquire the goodwill, good treatment, respect and love of others. But few people are prepared for what it feels like to lose the limelight. Most onetime celebrities — as Darva Conger is proving — are reluctant to crawl back under a rock after having been invited to a few parties in the Hollywood Hills.

“Being on a reality show gives you an adrenaline rush,” explains Goulston. “The problem is that the thrill of an adrenaline rush is exceeded by the agony of an adrenaline crash. So you don’t really anticipate what it’s going to be like after your 15 minutes or 15 episodes of fame are over. You don’t anticipate that after it’s over, you’re not going to get sympathy from everyone around you for just how bad you may start to feel. Because in their minds, you got to be famous.”

Much was made of the contestant on the Swedish version of “Survivor” who committed suicide after returning home. CBS has stressed that all contestants in the show’s U.S. production were thoroughly ransacked for any and all signs of mental illness before being shipped off to the island. Still, achieving overnight fame and then quickly losing it constitute as destabilizing an experience as one is likely to have — as most former child stars (not to mention Vanilla Ice) can attest to. Goulston, who has counseled people coming off shows such as MTV’s “The Real World” and “Road Rules,” says that participants sometimes depart the programs feeling exploited because “the way things are edited can twist the perception of the people watching.”

On “Road Rules,” the producers have to edit 1,000 hours of tape into 10 one-hour programs. Hypothetically, the focus put on a minor, albeit dramatic, event could inaccurately amplify it and give viewers a skewed impression. “Let’s say that, one night, one person has one drink too many,” Goulston explains. “They follow that story line and the world thinks that person’s an alcoholic.”

Goulston also describes the experience of being on programs such as “Leeza” or “Oprah.” Some who go on such shows and discuss a personal tragedy may believe that they’ll be healed by talking to a famous, powerful individual. “But usually what happens,” he says, “is that they bring you on the show, they put you in the green room, they ask a few questions that throw you off guard to create more ‘videogenic’ reactions; then they send you back to the green room, give you a T-shirt and some party favors, take a picture of you and the host; and the next thing you know, you’re in a cab on the way to your hotel room.”

On “The Early Show” last week, however, Gray’s post-”Survivor” life seemed to stretch before her like the promise-filled road to Oz. The closing banter between Gray and the show’s hosts encapsulated what is perhaps the dream of every disappointed person who ever filled out a “Big Brother” application.

Gumbel: “You’ve got to go off down to the MTV studio now, or something like that?”

Gray: “No, I’m going to my lab, actually.”

Gumbel: “You’ve got to go over to Entertainment Weekly and write your column?”

Gray: “Yeah.”

Gumbel: “You’ve got to go see your agent?”

Kauffman: “She’s got to go audition somewhere.”

Gumbel: “Right, your accountant, going to the bank.”

Gray: “I’m going to get some head shots done.”

Gumbel: “Yeah.”

McEwen: “There you go.”

The ’80s had junk bonds, we now have “junk celebrities” — celebrities who have done nothing that merits celebrating. Thanks to this relatively new phenomenon, a life lived in obscurity may now seem even more empty and disappointing. So what if your only claim to fame is that you did something stupid on TV? At least you have a claim to fame!

“Individuals, once they have experienced fame or great attention, often find it hard to return to normal life,” Cowen says. “Fame often serves as an addiction and as a drug. Those who have fame typically are led to seek more and more of it, never being content with what they have. Those who have been on such a TV show typically have no chance to win further fame … and thus they will end up frustrated. In terms of approbation, the peak of their lives will have come at a frustrating and inconvenient time. The happiest life is often one that builds to a peak and brings improvements along the way. Those who experience fame through reality TV shows will find this kind of pattern difficult to have.”

Descending from fame into obscurity is “kind of like losing your virginity,” says Goulston. “Once you’ve lost it, you can’t get it back.”

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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