As a theater major at Columbia College Chicago, I quickly learned that you had to put yourself out there if you wanted to be seen. I was a wide-eyed teenager fresh from the suburbs, ready to dive into the city and all the opportunity it promised. I had dreams of performing onstage at Second City or even making it into television and film. So when a friend in my dorm mentioned she had heard about a one-day gig for Jerry Springer, I homed in like she had said Francis Ford Coppola was holding open auditions for his next lead actress. “Tell me everything,” I begged.
In 1998, daytime talk shows had reached an intriguing zenith in pop culture, a time when TV personalities like Geraldo Rivera, Jenny Jones, Montel Williams, and Maury Povich were constantly competing to top each other when it came to tabloid topics and shock value. It was the true golden era of television if you worked for a paternity test company. And in Chicago, we were graced with the presence of the most outrageous host of them all: Jerry Springer, who filmed his syndicated talk show in NBC Tower, just off the Magnificent Mile. While the others only flirted with the boundary of bad taste, Springer preferred a full-on car wreck, and there was enough of a gapers’ block to make his show a ratings juggernaut. A few examples of episode titles from his oeuvre include “Pregnant Gals and a Mime,” “I Wanna Confront My Pimp,” and “You Slept With My Sister Stripper!”
My friend heard about the job while working part-time mucking out stalls and caring for the horses at the Noble Horse Theatre, then the only stable within the city limits (it closed in 2017). A Springer producer had reached out to Noble to coordinate a temporary place to stay for a “special guest” who happened to be equine. “They’re looking for an animal handler experienced with horses,” my friend told me. “It will only be one day, but they want to make sure you’re comfortable with the subject matter.” The episode was going to be called “I Married a Horse.”
“I’m interested!” I told her, probably way too fast and without considering the possibility of animal rights activists hunting me down for eternity. As a child, I had twice attended horse camp. Combined with my stage experience, that meant I met the bare minimum requirements for the job. I was elated that there was a good chance I’d get screen time. I’d be part of a cultural phenomenon. Juilliard, eat your heart out!
My friend passed my name and phone number on to the producer, who called me to discuss the details of the job.
“So, the subject matter … The episode is about a person in an intimate relationship with a horse. Are you OK with being involved with this production?” he asked.
“Oh yes, that’s fine!” I replied, my voice a nervous chirp. This was show biz, right? My illustrious future acting career might involve all sorts of edgy, boundary-pushing subject matter. Also, they were going to pay me $150 in cash. How could I say no to that?!
On the day of taping, I walked over to Noble in Old Town to meet the producer. It was a pleasant, crisp spring morning, and the stable was quiet except for the soft, soothing sounds of horses nickering in their stalls. I breathed in the earthy scent of manure and hay, reminiscing about my days at horse camp.
Then I met Pixel. A stable hand led her into the courtyard to ready her for the brief trailer ride over to the studio. Pixel was a small pony whose ears didn’t even reach my shoulders, with a dappled brown coat and shaggy yellow mane. As I petted her velvety nose, things started to feel very real. The first seed of doubt flickered in my stomach. Was it a bad idea to be involved in this? What had sounded hilarious to me the night before while laughing with my friends in the safe cocoon of my dorm room now presented itself as sordid and sleazy.
The first thing everyone always asks me about Jerry Springer is “Is it real?” This is hard for me to answer, because I was such a naive 19-year-old that I still considered the Cheesecake Factory in the John Hancock building to be the epitome of Chicago fine dining. But when I met Pixel’s “husband,” Mark, on set — a man who had written a book called The Horseman: Obsessions of a Zoophile — I felt incredibly unsettled. He sat slouched and rumpled, a middle-aged man with a graying beard, a comb-over, and thick dark sunglasses obscuring much of his face. I wasn’t sure what this man’s deal was, but whatever it was, he was all the way in.
At the beginning of the taping, Mark was seated alone onstage. The studio lights revealed Jerry standing among the audience as he introduced Mark. “Please meet Mark! He’s been together with his wife for 10 years, and married for the last five,” Jerry began, setting up the crowd. The show’s topic was kept a secret from the live audience so that their reactions would be genuine. They oohed in anticipation.
“But before we talk to Mark, let’s meet his wife!” Jerry exclaimed. That was my cue. With a smile plastered on my face, I emerged from behind the wall and led Pixel down the red-carpet runner to the stage. The crowd leapt to its feet, screaming, then the chorus began, a two-syllable chant familiar to anyone who partook in this era of ’90s daytime talk shows, a whooping round of “JERRY! JERRY! JERRY! JERRY!” People lost their minds. This wasn’t just another paternity test episode, or stripper love triangle. This was going to be epic. A story you’d tell in bars for years. “Remember that episode of Jerry Springer about the dude married to a horse? I was there!”
Adrenaline racing through my veins, I walked toward the stage, leading Pixel to her owner. To this day, it’s hard for me to remember what it felt like in that moment, that weird sense of rising out of your own body to witness your life happen at a million miles an hour. How did I, a normal college freshman, end up leading a horse onstage while a studio audience cheered on the sordid train wreck they were about to witness? This kind of thing didn’t happen on Felicity!
Once I handed Pixel to Mark, I retreated to the hallway. My job was done, 10 seconds of my life captured forever in infamy. From the wings, I observed as Jerry dug in and did his thing. Incredulous, he pressed Mark for all of the gory details of their marriage — and, ahem, bedroom life — while the audience shrieked, hooted, and groaned along. “Well, it certainly is a stable relationship!” Jerry quipped.
Not a moment too soon, it was time to wrap up. Jerry addressed the camera directly for his signature Final Thought: “If you’re gonna ride it, make sure you’re up in the saddle.”
I accepted my wad of cash, unable to look back at Pixel. It felt as if she could see right through my pathetic attempt at 15 minutes of fame with those soft brown pony eyes. It was the early afternoon and I still had scene study class to get to, so I hopped on the train from the studio to campus. One of my classmates noted the stage makeup still on my face and asked, “Did you just come from shooting something?”
“Yeah, well, it’s a funny story …” One I’d tell a thousand times.
My friends and I checked the television listings religiously in anticipation of my episode. But then the news broke — several watchdog groups had gotten wind of the show’s subject matter and protested its release. The furor escalated as politicians, family groups, and affiliate stations jumped into the fray to express their outrage over such a tasteless display. At the peak of the uproar, nearly every major affiliate decided to pull the episode from the air and replace it with a rerun.
My television debut was officially buried. Did I feel shame, regret, relief? In order to move forward, I compartmentalized those feelings into the Caboodles of my soul. The footage of me in a frozen smile and an unfashionable ensemble from wardrobe walking a horse onstage would be lost to the sands of time.
Or not. About a year later, a friend of mine from the dorm called me up. “Hey, so I saw one of those late-night commercials for a VHS called Jerry Springer Presents: Too Hot for TV! You’ve gotta be on it, right?”
While I’m glad my college years occurred before the rise of social media capturing every regrettable decision of my youth, I did not emerge unscathed. Instead, I ended up permanently documented in one of the most ’90s things possible, the Jerry Springer VHS compilation boxed set, forever haunting me from the bowels of eBay and, later, sliced and diced into short-attention-span-friendly YouTube vids. Sure, I make a questionable mess of my browser history with every search for “I married a horse,” but it’s there, living on the internet for eternity, and so am I.