Mike Hansen had a mission: to find telegenic Southerners who love to party for a new reality television show. Together with his fellow talent scouts, Josh and Candy, they meandered through the Deep South in a second-hand RV, dropping into small bars and local rodeos and taking breaks to cook steaks in WalMart parking lots. As they approached Arkansas, Mike stumbled upon an online ad for a biker rally promising 10,000 attendees and “greatest mullet” contests. They decided to drop by. The directions brought them to a sign that pointed down a dirt road through a forest that was too narrow for their four-wheeled home to maneuver. So they set off on foot. Eventually, the trees cleared. “The first thing that we see is a huge Confederate flag with a little tiny camp, maybe 10 tents, and there was a bunch of people sitting around,” Mike recalled. There was a fire and a keg of O’Douls non-alcoholic beer. One of the bikers came up to them and said, “goat.” “Goat?” Mike asked, somewhat confused. “Goat,” the biker repeated, this time making shapes with his hands. He was saying, they realized, that he was deaf and that Goat was his name. “We discovered that everybody around the whole camp was deaf. It was a deaf biker rally.”
The scouts had been dispatched by the most notorious reality-TV casting director, Doron Ofir. If you love, or even if you hate, Nicolle “Snooki” Polizzi, Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino, and Jennifer “JWOW” Farley, you have him to thank, or to blame. Over six feet tall with a trimmed beard and a rapid-fire delivery, this animated and enigmatic gay Israeli-American is the character behind the “characters.”
Raised in New York, he spent his adolescence skipping school to run with Club Kids downtown, the Vogueing Balls in Harlem or whatever else was going on in the city’s erupting queer subcultures. After a brief stint on screen as Camille Grammar’s dance partner on ”Club MTV,” his first career was working the doors of Torpedo and Paragon and half a dozen other clubs in 1990s Miami. Every night, he decided who to let in and who to turn away, and in doing so, he learned to spot a specific kind of specialness. And when reality TV took off, he saw an opportunity to use his trained eye for television. He began as a freelancer for “The Amazing Race,” delivering four couples at $200 a piece. Doron promptly founded his own casting agency, Popular Productions, and went on to cast show after show: from the socialite-wannabes of “Paris Hilton’s My New BFF,” the lonely bachelors in “Millionaire Matchmaker,” to the obsessive-compulsives on “My Strange Addiction.”
That certain something which transforms an unknown nobody into a national celebrity is what we call charisma. This mysterious phenomenon of personal magnetism is usually thought of as defying definition. We can never seem to put our finger on what exactly that force of personality is exactly or where it comes from. But Doron’s ability to find star after star suggests that charisma isn’t the enigma we once assumed it to be. With 45 staff members spread over five states casting up to eight reality shows at any one time, Ofir has built an industrial-scale assembly line on his own formula for stardom.
“I tend to find people who don’t want to be on TV,” Ofir explains. “It’s not their goal to be on a reality show: They just happened to embed themselves in a world that I’m incredibly interested in.” These worlds within a world are subcultures – be they the deaf bikers from Arkansas, the guidos of New Jersey or the Club Kids in New York.
Once identified, the quest of casting a reality TV show becomes an “anthropological and sociological experiment,” Ofir says. Fliers are printed, websites are built and Twitter feeds are mined. Natives are hired to scout among their own kind. MeetUp.com groups are infiltrated and local venues are co-opted for casting parties. “I’ve had people take their clothes off a million times for me,” Isabelle Rayes admitted, who frequently hits up the Vegas clubs looking for talent. The famous French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once likened sociology to un sport de combat. But for talent scouts, the combat isn’t always metaphorical. Zach Lopez, a tall, well-built Apache guy once helped cast a “rowdy girls” show. “These girls really wanted to be on it,” he recounted. “They believed themselves to be the baddest, and they wanted to prove it, and I’d have these big casting calls with 70, 80 people. The girls threw bottles, I broke up fights, people tried to attack me. Meth-heads – everything. That was in Philadelphia, mostly.”
The notion that you look to the subcultural margins of society to find mainstream stars isn’t a very intuitive idea. Talk to Hollywood executives developing movies and scripted television, and they’ll tell you that their Holy Grail is the “relatable character.” But when you look at who really captures the popular zeitgeist, be it Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson or Nicolle “Snooki” Polizzi, it’s hard to see how they fit the “relatable” mold for the median viewer. The question is, why do people from the margins of society resonate so strongly with the mainstream? How did small get so big?
The answer, I think, can be found in another anthropological paradox. In the latter half of the 19th century, colonialists, missionaries and other European travelers began to notice that in places as far flung as Australia, North and South America, Africa and Melanesia there was a common and highly peculiar form of religion they called “totemism.” It revolved around plant or animal objects that were taken as the marker of a clan. Each clan would worship this object and forbid its members from killing, eating or even touching it. It was both their totem and their taboo. Anthropologists wondered: How could these isolated societies in every corner of the world come up with the same form of religious practice without any contact with one another? Theories were abundant. Some believed it was the result of pre-scientific thought where plants and animals were used to explain the world they inhabited. Others believed these organic objects were sacred because they were of practical use. Even Sigmund Freud pitched in, hypothesizing that totemism emerged as a social institution to prevent incest. But the most prescient theory emerged several decades later in the writings of the British anthropologist Mary Douglas.
Think about tidying up your bedroom. We put our socks in our sock drawer, books on the bookshelf, coats in the closet. Inevitably, though, you’re always left with a pile of things that don’t belong anywhere. Trinkets you bought on vacation. A knick-knack Auntie gave you for your birthday. They’re on the margins of belonging in one place or another. This pile of misfits, Douglas believed, were an inevitable part of the way in which our minds – and our cultures – attempt to divide up and order our worlds. Most of the time, we can ignore them with little consequence. But when these misfits demand our attention, they elicit a strange and ambivalent socio-psychological reaction. We manage to simultaneously disavow and avoid them as taboos and at the same time hold them up as objects of fascination and worship them as totems.
Take, for example, the clans that live in the Amazon rainforest around the Pirá-paraná river in the Vaupés region of Columbia, just off the border with Brazil. When the young anthropologist Stephen Hugh-Jones from Cambridge University arrived there at the end of the 1960s, he discovered that each clan was distinguished by its own totem derived from a shared creation mythology. The Bara were descended from the anaconda, the Barasana from the jaguar, and the Tatuyo from the eagle. Each of these animals was special because they were misfits. They broke through the divisions of the cosmos — air, water, sky — that ordered their world. Eagles fish in rivers and fly in the air, jaguars climb trees and swim, and anacondas leave the water to come to land. They’re rule breakers.
Not only could this cognitive explanation account for universal nature of totemism, it also explains how societies decide which people are believed to be special. If you look at people that believe in magic, you’ll find those who become sorcerers have one thing in common: They are all misfits. One prevalent commonality is the “madness of the gods,” such as a neurotic temperament or a frenzied episode. It is enough for societies as varied as the African Zulu, the Siberian Koriak, and the Andaman Islanders to suspect evidence of spirit possession and powers of the occult. This is usually combined with strange dreams, spending days and nights in the wilderness outside the encampment, surviving severe illness, and forgoing food for days on end. And all of this takes place in adolescence: precisely the time when we are on the margins of personhood, neither children nor adults. They break the cultural rules of “normal” behavior and by doing so challenge our intuitive sense of natural order. This evokes the contradictory feelings fear and fascination, danger and wonder. It empowers these adolescents with a personal magnetism that feels like magic. They are the beneficiaries of the universal socio-psychological foundations of charisma: the charismatic code.
If you were to stand in the middle of Doron’s office, you’d see two walls plastered with brown corkboard covered with dozens of white index cards. Grouped by television show, each card represents a finalist. Together with their photo and their basic information – name, age, occupation and relationship status – is a short tagline. And if you were to spend some time comparing these taglines, you’d quickly notice a pattern. Consider this random smattering. For a military themed show we see “A Muslim & A Marine,” on a political show there’s the “Socialist Stripper,” a dating show includes a “Cut Throat Cupid,” and on the fan-boy show we have “Tiffany Strikes Back.” Each one is an inverted cultural archetype. They’re taking your expectations of what Marines, socialists and fanboys “should” be and turning them on their head. They’re misfits. What you’d be looking at is the charismatic code.
And if you were to delve into a few episodes of “Jersey Shore,” you’ll discover that the same rule applies. “A guidette is someone who is extremely, like, into music and going out to clubs; loves make up, fashion and big hair; and really sticks out like a sore thumb,” cast-member and shore-native Deena Cortese explained to me. “There might be ten people in black suits, a guidette would be one person in a bright pink two-top. They like to stick out.” Snooki, Deena says, is “my partner in crime; we go out, have a blast and break rules.” And there’s the key: The rules they’re breaking are widely held social expectations just like the socialist who’s a stripper or the Muslim who’s a Marine.
Consider the lingo, Deena’s personal “dictionary.” We have a lean cuisine: “a guy that is in shape, and has really mean abs, kinda tall and thinner, keeps himself and he’s good for you.” Then there’s a backpack: “a guy or girl is on top of you the entire night in a club and won’t leave you alone, kinda like stalkerish.” And, of course, a slop tart: “a girl who is extremely drunk – or it could be a guy – when you’re really, really drunk and you’re falling all over the place. Me and Nicole are slop tarts a lot.” What’s catchy isn’t just the play on words, it’s the way they encapsulate and express a subculture as a culture of misfits and rule-breakers. By not conforming to the expectations of the “ten people in black suits” they have, unbeknownst to them, conformed to another social law: the charismatic code.
And this is why subcultures are mined for reality TV. It’s how small got so big. It’s why television is filled with people who live in swamps, teenagers who have babies, little people who run farms, and men with multiple wives. It’s why we have the same contradictory feelings of fear and fascination, why, all to often, we say to yourself, “I can’t believe I’m watching this, but I just can’t help myself.” And by using subcultural misfits as the basis for casting shows, Doron has reverse-engineered the charismatic code. Whereas Mary Douglas and Stephen Hugh-Jones used anthropology to decode totemic iconography, Doron is using that very same code to construct new icons.
“Let Your Freak Flag Fly,” Lady Gaga declares. It’s no wonder that she’s become our latest international icon, a totem of popular culture across the globe.