I wonder how I would fare on reality TV. I tend to be pretty shy, so I would likely present myself as nervous and stressed-out, but there is a slim chance I could muster the coolness to work with quiet diligence toward victory. My fixation with these programs lies in the psychology of how participants react to the contrived scenarios. The challenges presented to the contestants are so preposterous, that their true character ultimately bubbles to the surface, for better or for worse. More often than not, it is for worse. That makes good television. But when it is for the better, the results are truly inspiring.
My curiosity about reality television began with VH1’s most successful show ever, the first season of “Rock of Love”. Rocker Bret Michaels had twenty women in a house who competed for his affection. I watched, mesmerized, as the women finagled a way to approach him. Some sat like wallflowers, while others bordered on stalker behavior. If I had been on the show, I would have been one of the wallflowers, probably cleaning up the dirty dishes to avoid snaking myself between four other girls to make conversation with a stranger. I would have been eliminated the first episode. I can see my exit interview now: “I guess Bret just didn’t get to see the real me. Oh well, his loss!” I like to think that my intelligence or charm would help, but who knows. I can get along with others, so I would have made friends with the other contestants, except Lacey and Heather, who hated all of the nice girls.
I can usually call out the winner from the first few rounds of these shows, or at least which players will become the top contenders. I know which designers Heidi, Michael and Tim will like on Top Design. I sense which Chef will make it to Kitchen Stadium. And I knew from the first episode that there was something special about Jes, who ended up winning Bret’s heart on that first season of Rock of Love. Jes kept her cool. Despite the drama, drunken craziness, and temper tantrums all around her, she maintained her dignity and confidence.
Ultimately, the confidence is what separates who gets to stay and who is told, “Auf weidersehen”. You have to have an enormous overflow of self-esteem to believe that you can cook a masterpiece in 30 minutes, create a designer-quality gown in one day, or get a rock star to fall in love with you in 9 weeks. Almost every contestant on these shows has at least enough confidence to try out for the program and pass the producer’s screen tests. I cannot even imagine how many people must try out, only to betray their nervousness with a shaky voice or sweaty forehead. You rarely see people who are super-nervous on these shows. Those people get weeded out before the camera even rolls.
On one episode of “Chopped”, however, there was a young female contestant who must have snuck through the screening process. This girl was visibly on edge. New to the cooking scene, fresh out of culinary school, her only real expertise was as a pastry chef. She was evidently out of her element, and her confidence was extremely rattled. She was a wreck, and could barely put together the appetizer needed for the first round. After the judging, backstage with her competition, she began to cry. She was actually half-hoping to get cut, so that she could end her misery and go home. It was painful to watch.
Nervous girl made it through the first round, however, and was less shaky during the main course. (They had to make a meal using snap peas, oatmeal, goat chops and horseradish root.) She held it together, figured out how to manage this bizarre amalgamation of ingredients, and survived to compete in the last course: dessert. She worked with laser-sharp concentration, and finished her plates before the timer went off (something that rarely happens). With 20 seconds left on the clock, she ran back to the kitchen. Everyone was wondering what last-minute touch she was going to throw on her tomato-peach crumble with emu egg soufflé. She had a bottle of liqueur-I thought she would drizzle it over everything. But no, with 10 seconds remaining, she grabbed 2 shot glasses, set them out before her competitor, poured a shot for each of them, which they both swallowed before the timer buzzed. Nervous girl was celebrating. She conquered her fears and won the battle of her own insecurities.
In the end, nervous girl was victorious. In the span of 30 minutes, she went from borderline-breakdown to ultimate champion. Whether her crumble was truly more sublime than her competitor’s dessert simply does not matter. The judges saw some gumption as she pushed herself that far out of her comfort zone. Nervous girl will never be the same, and I was inspired. For a moment I wondered how I would do on the show….
Well, maybe not. Anyone who knows me knows that cooking is not my forte. I don’t want to cook anymore than I want to capture Bret Michael’s attention or design a cool outfit for the runway. What captures my interest is how to push myself toward a seemingly unattainable goal. I imagine how I can harness my inner spark to take an overwhelming situation and truly conquer the moment, and not just sneak through on the merit of “failing less badly.” Or, as Chef Caswell said in one season of “The Next Iron Chef America”: “I hope some of the others sucked more than me”.