Attack of the models: When people will riot for their shot at fame

The dust has settled, the broken high heels mended, and we can safely assess the fallout from the terrifying stampede of wannabe models at the America's Next Top Model auditions.

Having been there, and having seen these girls for myself, I was struck by something the news reports didn't convey. Discussion of the event centered on poor crowd control and blame-placing, but even an hour after the awful mob scene, well after living through the animal chaos, girls were hanging around, stumbling through mounds of trash, clutching their resumes and still hoping to have their shot at fame. They actually chased down some nameless schmoe who was carrying an open cardboard box just to stick their headshots and phone numbers into it.

A blind hunger for something can easily lead you to harm yourself. In the Great Depression, Americans would destroy both body and mind in multi-day dance marathons just for the chance to win some paltry prize. With the hindsight of better times, we could see such masochistic misery as emblematic of the depths to which our society had sunk. The clamor to be on TV reality shows -- and let's be honest, it goes way beyond Top Model -- has brought that pathetic desperation back to us.
In America, the get-rich-quick dream is sold to us in countless variations, day after day. Every People magazine story, every Disney princess, half the topics on Oprah -- they all make sure to point out that the hero or heroine was in a bad way before the change was miraculously bestowed. Extreme Makeover, the Secret, American Idol: They start with a luckless schmuck (the stand-in for the audience) and turns them into Cinderella. The mythology is undeniable, and when people are down on their luck, it's seductive. It's enough to make a pretty girl crazy.

Competitive reality TV is more about the American Dream than entertainment. Producers of nearly every reality show carefully describe the "story" of the person competing, the better to subtly tell viewers that simply by virtue of their appearing in front of the lens, anything can happen to an average person. If they should win the prize, the American Dream will be once again validated. When people describe current American Idol contestant Danny Gokey, it's usually as "the guy who lost his wife," not with words that actually describe his vocal performance.

For Americans, applying to a reality show is now a short-cut to the American Dream. Young people used to want to see the world, but now they want to get on VH1. In 1996, Harper's reported that more than twice as many kids applied to be on MTV's The Real World as applied to the Peace Corps.

How many times have you been talking about a reality show and had a friend tell you, "You should go on that show?" (I get that about The Amazing Race a lot, but if I were a pretty young girl, I imagine I'd hear it about America's Next Top Model.) As if it's easy to get on these shows! The truth is that many of the people on these shows were not plucked from open auditions but from careful searches among a network of struggling performers. If you watch the live feeds from the Big Brother house, you'll hear contestants talk about having once been a back-up contestant for Survivor one year, or having done a role in some straight-to-DVD movie, or about having been on some lame MTV dating reality show. (The producers swiftly cut the camera and mic if they catch their contestants talking about this.) Many reality show contestants weren't plucked from obscurity in the strict sense. They worked for their slot, often backing up their pavement-pounding with lots and lots of abdominal crunches. Yet the fantasy of them fulfilling the American Dream through the show persists.

That myth is what gives much of reality TV its central appeal. Viewers who aren't happy with their own monetary circumstance can draw inspiration from their screens. Unfortunately, when it comes time to apply for these shows, they can lose their heads if they think riches are now within their grasp. It can be as dramatic as the melée in New York, or as quietly pathetic as Top Model's orderly audition in Denver, when girls herded for hours to be seen for all of 15 seconds, if they were seen at all. For many, an alternate life lies in that hasty judgment, and the build-up to it can be extreme.

When I wrote about the model's stampede, some interesting comments poured in from readers. Sense wrote, "If women had more opportunities in this country to make an actual living, rather than minimum wage or ten bucks an hour at best and at servant oriented job, they wouldn't stampede some ridiculous show like this."

Reality Blurred, a brittle blog about the reality show world, recently interviewed Sandy, a contestant on the current season of Survivor. Sandy wanted so badly to be the first in line at the auditions in Seattle that she stayed in a seedy motel, contracted an infection there, and required three surgeries to clear it up. If it's true, it's proof that people will gladly risk their health to have their big shot at fame. If it's not true, it's proof that people will lie about anything to become memorable enough to cast so they can have their big shot at fame. (Sandy's eventual goal, after Survivor, is to work on another TV show, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.)

Last weekend, I was having a drink at a bar when a recent winner of a major reality TV show sat next to me. No one else seemed to recognize him, but he spent a significant part of his conversation with his date talking about major brands that "might be a good fit" with him as a spokesperson. I never heard him say that he was proud to have won because of his talents. For him, as with so many, competitive reality TV is a means to a financial end. It's a golden lightning bolt.

If you buy a lottery ticket, winning is literally in the luck of the draw. Striking it rich on TV is similar in that it isn't a culmination of years of hard work. It's the culmination of a single moment of approval from the casting director, which can be obtained if you're memorable or if people routinely want to sleep with you. No wonder people claw and fight to get on shows; they think that once they do, their struggles among the great unwashed will end.

In truth, they're wrong. Few reality awards are large enough to sustain you for long. Even Big Brother's grand prize is only $500,000 before taxes, and Top Chef is just $100,000 before taxes. But that's all right. Somehow, the idea of rising above your present circumstance is intoxicating enough to get us to lose all dignity. The lower our economy sinks, and the more opportunity narrows at the Starbucks or the local mall, the more people will revel in the fantasy of winning it all on a reality TV show.

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