Reality TV show executives say they are all looking for the same thing: identifiable personalities who can support interesting story lines. "We’re looking for people who can fit into a certain lane, such as the single mom or the guy who hasn’t had a date in five years or the person who’s juggling family and work," explains Dave Broome, the executive producer of NBC’s hit show The Biggest Loser, in which overweight contestants compete to lose the most. And because the genre has now been around for years, fakes need not apply. "The audience isn’t stupid—they can tell when someone has a real experience," says Stephanie Bianco, director of programming for TLC. "As producers, that’s what we want to provide." With its BS meter turned up high, Chicago has become a reliable casting center for these shows. So we gathered a panel of local former contestants for their insights on the process—and the aftermath.
1. Gina Glocksen
American Idol, season 6 (2007)
>> The former dental hygienist from Naperville spent this past summer in Los Angeles recording her first album, a rocker with her manager/fiancé, Joe Ruzicka, on bass. Ruzicka proposed to the 24-year-old last year during American Idol‘s tour visit to Allstate Arena; the couple will marry on New Year’s Eve.
2. Bernie Salazar
The Biggest Loser: Couples, season 5 (2008)
>> After being voted off in week 10, the former ESL teacher returned to Ukrainian Village and continued to lose, for a total of 130 pounds, or 45.94 percent of his body weight, enough to win the show’s "at home" challenge. Salazar, 27, used part of his $100,000 winnings to repair his mother’s flood-damaged home in Indiana. He is writing a children’s book and training for the Chicago Marathon.
3. Tamara Hill Garner
What Not to Wear (2007)
>> Weight fluctuations, a side effect of medication for sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease, made the South Shore resident nominate herself for a wardrobe makeover. Despite being ridiculed for her 1990s attire, the 37-year-old clinical social worker says the experience gave her the confidence to advance her career.
4. Jaslene Gonzalez
America’s Next Top Model, cycle 8 (2007)
>> While growing up in Humboldt Park, the former online college admissions adviser performed with her grandfather’s local dance group, Viva La Gente (Up with People). After winning the $100,000 CoverGirl contract, the 22-year-old Elite model moved to Brooklyn, where she has been hired for magazine covers and movie cameos.
5. Nicolas Fulks and Donald Jerousek
The Amazing Race, season 12 (2007– 2008)
>> Now 70, the salty Jerousek is the oldest contestant to cross the game’s finish line. His grandson Fulks, 25, grew up in Rogers Park and is the son of the local alt-country legend Robbie Fulks. They finished third in a pack of 11 teams.
6. Stephanie Izard
Top Chef, season 4 (2008)
>> Izard tried out for Top Chef after shuttering her restaurant Scylla last summer and seeing how much fun the local chef Dale Levitski had on season 3. The 31-year-old won and says she will use the $100,000 prize to open "a pretty laid-back place with great food; a place I’ve always wanted to go to but doesn’t exist yet."
The mantra here is, Show your personality. When filming yourself for the audition tape required by many shows, Broome says to leave out shticky pre- rehearsed routines. "Don’t hold back your feelings or opinions. We need to see that you’re going to be able to express your opinions and emotions once our cameras start to roll." He loves to see people dance. Donald Jerousek, a contestant on The Amazing Race, swore his way through a second audition in front of CBS executives. "He called me a lot of names in the interview," says Nicolas Fulks, his grandson and teammate. "That’s one of the reasons we got picked." Then, persevere. When Jaslene Gonzalez, the America’s Next Top Model winner, didn’t make the semifinals in cycle 7, she was told to get counseling for domestic abuse—which she did—and tried out again with renewed confidence. "The first time I was clueless," says Gonzalez, now a spokesperson for the Love Is Not Abuse help line. The second time, she won. Gina Glocksen auditioned as an American Idol contestant four times. "The first three times I had no idea who I was—I just knew I wanted to sing," she says. For her fourth audition, Glocksen played up her rock ‘n’ roll persona even though she can sing in many genres. "I had songs ready that hadn’t been sung before on the show, and I looked the part," she says. "Also they knew me and how persistent I was."
GETTING TIME OFF WORK
Contestants often must spend long periods away from home. For example, Glocksen was in Los Angeles for six months while taping American Idol, a stint that would likely require a leave of absence from a full-time job—that is, if candidates could persuade their boss to give them the time off. Gonzalez quit her day job. Stephanie Izard did Top Chef during a self-imposed break after closing her restaurant in Bucktown. Bernie Salazar was finishing a master’s degree in educational curriculum design at UIC and could take the time off, as could Jerousek, the retiree. But his race partner, Fulks, had just started working as a pilot for American Eagle and was forced to be creative. "I asked people who’d been with the company a long time what to do, and they laughed and said, ‘No way are they going to give you a month off to parade around the world,’" he says. "So I went to the public relations department. I slowly went down the hierarchy. By the time I got to my boss, it had been approved."
THE GRIM REALITY
Although appearing on television may seem like a vacation from real life, these shows are competitions and, our panel agrees, grueling endurance tests. During his month on The Amazing Race, the globe-spanning scavenger hunt, the already rangy Fulks lost 25 pounds. "You’re focused on two things—finding food and not coming in last," explains his partner, Jerousek. "I had thought they were going to put us up in a hotel every day. In India, we had to sleep on the street, and there wasn’t any food or anything." Biggest Loser contestants exercise up to eight hours a day. During a typical week on American Idol, each long day is devoted to a different aspect of show biz, from rehearsing to performing to shopping with a stylist. Some shows also seal their players in a media-free bubble (no Internet, no magazines, no newspapers) and cut off contact with friends and family. "The show becomes your entire life," says Salazar, who spent nearly three months taping The Biggest Loser in Southern California. Izard says her five weeks in seclusion were difficult, but the requirement makes sense to her. "That’s how we got to know each other so quickly," she says. "It’s the only way to get people to really connect."
In the contrived ecology of the reality television competition, the main challenge is striking a balance between performing well and creating a telegenic persona. But the impulse to behave outrageously for the sake of the cameras, our panelists agreed, rarely pays off. You can also lose focus if you spend too much energy trying to manage your image. Instead, resign yourself to the fact that whatever your personality, it will inevitably be magnified in the editing process. "Lisa is a classic example," says Izard about Lisa Fernandes, a chef from New York who ended up, perhaps unfairly, being the season’s villain because of her sniping commentary and her sometimes cutthroat approach to winning. "She can be quite negative, but at the same time she can be really fun, too." Izard says her own strategy was to steer clear of the drama and stay positive. The opposite temptation can be trying to make friends with everyone you meet on the show. "It was hard trying to get along with so many girls," says Gonzalez of the sorority-like accommodations on America’s Next Top Model. "I made friends with all of them—but my strategy was to know at the end of the day I was there for a competition."
WINNING ISN’T EVERYTHING
While Salazar credits Biggest Loser with restoring his health, and Tamara Hill Garner’s What Not to Wear experience gave her the confidence to advance in her career, the more tangible prizes come with strings. Taxes must be paid on winnings, and not all get the prize they want. Along with the grand prize and a couple of trips to Europe, Izard won a new home kitchen—which she says won’t fit in her Lake View apartment. Although they had to return other souvenirs, Fulks and Jerousek were allowed to keep the matching "FF" tattoos they got in Italy to win a Fast Forward leg of The Amazing Race. "Another contestant won an electric car that goes 30 miles per hour," says Fulks. "He has to go to North Dakota to pick it up, plus pay taxes on it. He’s thinking about forgoing it." The instant fame that comes with television exposure can sometimes sting: Although most reactions have been positive, Garner did receive some hate mail after appearing on What Not to Wear from viewers who criticized her appearance. Izard says she sometimes forgets that she is not as anonymous as she used to be. "I’ll be out in my pajamas walking my sister’s dog and holding a poop bag and people will be like, ‘Hey, Stephanie!’"
Photography: (Glocksen) Michael Becker/Fox Reality Channel, (Salazar) NBC/Chris Haston, (Garner) Courtesy of Sly Hughes, (Fulks and Jerousek) Robert Voets/CBS/Landov, (Gonzalez) AP photo/Jennifer Graylock, (Izard) Bravo/Chuck Hodes