If you take 300 people and push them to an extreme stress level, some of them will die under the pressure. I believe producers of reality shows know this is true. There are no former reality show contestants who will candidly discuss the process of casting and filming a major reality show because the contracts contestants sign contain nondisclosure agreements in addition to frank threats against their family and friends. And, elements of reality show casting are horrific enough to deserve a transparent discussion. Full of dangerous, dirty secrets; no one can talk about the full details except me, an unlikely candidate from the start. The only explanation I have is that my interest was accelerated by a desire to please, an insensate understanding of pop culture and a pathological curiosity.
When my husband Billy and his daughter Lila moved in with me and my children in 2008, they brought with them a riot of pop culture we had never been exposed to. As I sorted through the novel offerings I understood two things almost immediately: I hated video games the most and liked cooking shows the best. We had watched “Hell’s Kitchen” for two years already when “MasterChef” began its run in 2010. Billy got me hooked in the first season. I dug into the sort of anxiety that resolves deliciously at the end of each season and enjoyed recreating and embellishing the food in my own kitchen. We watched season 2 but, really, I watched Billy watch the second season. He liked watching it, and I wanted to be the thing he liked watching.
Even with my limited knowledge of reality shows, I knew that real people became unreal characters. I’d long understood that the caveat to my lifelong atheism was that though there is no one creator god, all gods are real, because people create them through belief. Once made, gods take on their own power. It’s not just mental illness that causes a person to think a god voice has spoken to them. It’s also that the god has been brought into existence as a character with a measure of his or her own free will. Same with reality show contestant fame. Did I want my husband to see me on television as a kitchen goddess creature brought into existence for a moment? Yes, I did. I wanted to be more special than a person. That impulse alone is both questionable and problematic for a person weighing the odds of a dangerous decision. And I imagine it’s a feeling shared by most people wanting to be reality stars.
The casting process that no one is allowed to talk about occurs in multiple stages. Most contestants send a video, then go and prepare a “signature dish” in person at various tryouts around the country (I drove to Seattle to do mine), at which point the “signature dish” is graded by subcontracted cooking school judges in secret. If they pass you on, the next step is filling out reams of paperwork that end up coaxing a TV-ready backstory and a streamlined brand where, before, there was simply a person.
For other contestants there is a different path. Quite a few of the “kooky” contestants, the ones with puppets and spells and flying falcons, are recruited, but for comic relief rather than a quick advance to the finals. They are Hollywood eccentric staples. Christine Ha, however, the winner of season 3, was recruited based on her Blind Chef cooking blog. Luca, winner of season 4, was recruited after an unsuccessful tryout with me in season 3. For me, this raised the question: Do they choose the winner before the first tryouts?
For us regular schlubs, once you pass the next few rounds of casting online, you get to fly to LA (which you pay for yourself). You gather with some of the other contestants in a nondescript meeting room at The Doubletree Hotel in Culver City and you all complete a two-hour-long personality psych test reminiscent of the somewhat outdated Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). The test is analyzed by a computer while you wait and the results are then given to a psychiatrist who meets with each potential contestant. You do not get to see the results. It seemed to me that the point of the test is to judge what dramatic traits each person has that could be harvested later for a plot twist.
I filled out the questionnaire carefully, consistently, and not at all truthfully. “You’re a real rule follower, hmm?” asked the tall, fit examiner, who looked as if he could be a psychiatrist out of central casting himself. “I suppose so,” I answered blandly. I knew that tests with multiple similar questions asked in different ways are testing for lies. But, I think I beat it. The doctor figure asked a lot of other questions about mental health and what I guessed were follow-up questions for: hypochondriasis, hysteria, psychopathic deviation and hypomania, among other conditions. More generally, the test was an attempt to predict behavior in various situations. Or, what TV producers would call plotlines. Over the course of the 15-minute interview I peppered posed naïveté with sassy, authentic eye contact, thus maintaining the brand I had created without breaking character. Had he worked for other shows, I asked? My voice pitched higher than usual. “Yes!’” he said, “‘The Biggest Loser,’ ‘American Idol,’ all the Fox shows.I was too pissed at the thought of his sadistic prying into the vulnerable psyches of the idiots who would want to go on reality TV to maintain my “PNW Organic Mom 2.0” profile. “What about that First Do No Harm clause in your medical training?” I asked, my eyes narrowing now. I never imagined I would actually get to say that to a doctor in real life. I wanted to make him uncomfortable.
“We’re done here,” he said, opening the door. “Go see the private investigator now.”
The experience with the “MasterChef” detective felt just as invasive. No, I never modeled underwear for softcore porn. I don’t think? I’m sure I did many worse things he didn’t ask about, though, and I sweated guilt. He must have known I was guilty. I can’t remember what he looked like or how long I was in his office. Was I ever arrested? I don’t remember. What will the financial credit report, arrest records, residential history and historical reports he ordered dig up? Because I’ve done nothing. Right?
I flew back home to Portland, Oregon, the same day I left and felt wild, violated and alive. The blood and pee samples I had to send to them from the lab after I got home felt like no big deal after the professional interrogation. Submit. Submit your blood, they said. Yes, sir. I did.
I passed the next round of casting and they sent me the final multiple contracts by email and I sent them back 17 bulleted questions about the details because oh my god, they were unbelievabledocuments. Any part of myself that desired to please got trampled by the part that liked to win.
In the “MasterChef” contract, which a casting director later told me was essentially identical to those of most reality competition shows, they asked me to agree to be subjected to physical and mental distress, to agree to have my medical history used in any way that they wanted and to use it in perpetuity, to agree that my family would likely not be contacted in the case of an emergency. They asked me to release the show and its employees from liability for any injury to myself from risks both known and unknown. They asked that I release them from liability from the social and economic losses that could result and to please note that the consequences could be substantial and could permanently change the future for me, my family, friends and significant others.
They asked for a clause that could have kept me from working at my own media publicity company and to remove my own company website on their request.
They asked me to agree to pay a 15 percent “management fee” to a company called One Potato Two Potato (OPTP) owned by . . . Gordon Ramsay. This fee would then apply to any income or even gifts I received in any context potentially related to the show. I asked if OPTP would do any other career management. No, they said.
Despite the huge number of questions I asked, and despite the lawyers that they undoubtedly employed along with the detectives and psychiatrists, somehow someone missed that I never sent back the signed contract. I promised nothing.
The day before all the contestants arrived, the casting department called to say I had made the cut. I was a contestant. They were flying me out to LA the next day. Clearly, I was a replacement for someone else who dropped out at the last minute and I figured, fuck it. I never signed anything waiving any of my rights and as the daughter of a journalist, I’m genetically hardwired to be curious. It was the most perfect setup for a pathologically inquisitive, masochistic exhibitionist that ever was. I couldn’t wait to get there.
The contestant minders were called wranglers. They were all gorgeous. Perry was the lead wrangler but her official title was Contestant Coordinator. There were quite a few wranglers and in my memory they run together into one attractive, fit, amoral blur. All of the contestants stayed in a hotel for the first two days and, pelted with questions, the wranglers told us some things and would not tell us other things. It was hurry up and wait and whisper and guess. We spent all the time asking what was happening and where we were going and when we were eating. They got direction through earbuds which would then be transmitted to us.
There was an odd assembly where a producer (who appeared to be an actor) assured us that all the contestants had the same chance of winning or he would get in trouble with some official body and we should try our hardest. Then a member of the “official body” came on stage and shook his finger at the phony-looking producer and the producer pretended to be scared. It was like watching a psych version of WWF.
Everyone there besides me seemed like they were OK with believing whatever they were told. The contestants applauded and shrieked like initiates in a revival tent. Each one was a winner. They all just knew it. I was almost jealous. I missed out on the orgy of emotion and faith that the reality show congregants trampled over each other to prove.
We contestants were each interviewed during the first two days in front of a production set of fake produce, a regular horn of plenty, where I refused to be filmed holding the Walmart bag. We weren’t allowed out of the hotel room unless we were with the wranglers, who would take us on one or two outings, either to the hotel pool or a burger place, where we would share enormous confidences with one another. Explosive familiarity bloomed in these small portions of time we were able to see other people, strangers, who were all equally anxious to unfold their shininess to other shiny strangers after the stress of staying hours in a hotel room with antagonists and no phones. Because the wranglers made a huge deal out of telling us our roommate selections were random. And because that appeared impossible.
Everything the wranglers said seemed a pretty obvious setup to me to add intensity and create plotlines. I could see it from the outside (I kept a notebook, of course) and the artifice was fascinating and well done. From the inside it felt . . . gross. They had asked me about religion; Atheist, I said. And food: all local and organic! So I was roomed with a devout Evangelical Christian woman who used sugar, Rice Krispies and food coloring to make statues of the judges’ heads, which she brought with her from Texas. The Palestinian and the Israeli were roomed together (the Israeli contestant dropped out before the end of the weekend). The short, anxious, possibly gay man and the bully banker. The flamboyant opera singer and the dead-eyed animal tracker. Contestants chosen for the producers’ raw accessibility to stereotyped plotlines. Locked in together for hours. Fascinating. Cruel. Effective. More than any other experience in my life, the wranglers exemplified the ideology of “just following orders.”
Once filming started we had 14-hour days on set while contestants took turns cooking, then either failed or made it through to the next round. Our clothing was assigned the first day and cleared with costume and we wore the same thing each day as the musky people smell increased and slept-in hairstyles were prodded back to center. As the people who didn’t get an apron left each day, the remaining contestants’ relationships grew more intense. The man with the puppets who read handwriting samples, the pastor’s wife from Detroit, the witch who tried to put a spell on the judges and the vegan bread maker who was shocked (shocked!) to hear that yeast was alive left fairly quickly. The Jamaican Marine cooking peas and rice; the Italian cook who came back to win season 4; the gentle Hawaiian man whose parents promised to kill me a pig; the fabulous, black, Christian opera singer; the racist, alcoholic redneck, they mostly stayed till the end of the week.
The shiniest people were obvious from the beginning. The star power of Felix Fang, the technique and focus of Becky Reams, the staggering capability of blind contestant Christine Ha and the hugely tall, kind, food lover and former Army Corps of Engineers contract specialist Josh Marks outshined the rest of us, as we all stretched our powers of charisma.
My tryout was at the last part of the last day of the weeklong tryouts. The only people left were the ones who were continuing along to the next episode and the set was quieter than the days before. My dad (the journalist), my husband, my brother and his wife (pop culture enthusiasts), our three kids and my brother’s daughter flew down to California to watch while I cooked.
That morning, I left my wallet in the hotel room and future finalist Josh Marks noticed I was desperate for some coffee. “I got it!” he said. I blushed. I hate accepting things from people I don’t know well. “I’ll get you back when you’re famous,” I said. As if I didn’t care. “Absolutely,” he answered cheerfully. But I didn’t get the chance to buy Josh Marks a cup of coffee. No one has been able to do that for several years now.
On set through the day, the pressure mounted. I am not generally fazed by strangers trying to stress me out, but the wranglers and interviewers are pros. They also try out for the job that they have and the skill is being able to set people off balance. When contestants talk into the camera in a reality show, they are answering questions that have been carefully and tactically worded to create an interestingly uncomfortable moment. I was surprised to find myself flustered. I burned the goddamn garlic. Why did I decide to use a Japanese mandolin when I had never used one before? Because I wanted to know how it worked just like I wanted to know how a reality TV show worked. But, it turns out solving puzzles with a clock running down while people try to destabilize you is less satisfying on set than in real life.
Like the scene from “The Wizard of Oz,” I walked slowly past the crowd pushing a cart with my signature dish on in through the black curtain darkness with all of the videographers and wranglers dressed in black, motionless, watching me and suddenly: there I was in a cavernous room. Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich were elevated on a stage in front of me, brightly lit god-men.
They each asked me about the dish (it’s an egg frittata with California asparagus and goat butter Hollandaise! All sourced within five miles of the warehouse and all organic!). Branding myself as “Portland Locavore” was a no-brainer. They each walked down from the stage one at a time and tasted; then, an airplane flew over the warehouse. “Damn, that ruined the ambience,” said Graham. I started cracking up. “OK, again,” said one of the interviewers. I regained my lack of awe.
“Beauty shot,” said the cameraman. “We want to take a long still of your plate.” I backed off obediently and then realized they were filming me, not the plate. That was how they got those odd shots of people nervously waiting right before a commercial break. I stared back at the camera, eyes as flat as possible. Fuck. No.
“No,” said Joe. “Yes,” said Graham. Then I remembered — they had already interviewed me about this — “which judge’s 'yes' vote would be most important and emotional for you?” I had told them, well, Graham will say yes, Joe will say no, so Gordon’s the swing vote. Which is how they wrote it. So that I would react.
I knew I wouldn’t get an apron because I was a replacement contestant from the start, plus I wouldn’t hold the Walmart bag. As I watched during the week, I learned that the food had little to do with moving past the first round. The tryout round was to watch contestants for telegenic qualities, one-liners and quick responses on camera and potential plotlines between contestants. The second round knocked out all of the contestants who had compelling, touching backstories but not much cooking experience and/or not enough plotline potential.
“Daaamn. Shame,” Gordon said in his thick British accent. He didn’t like my frittata (burned garlic). “But the goat butter Hollan-dez is rally qu-white good.”
“Thanks!!” I couldn’t help being excited by the verbal pat on the head. I knew that on top of the other egregious actions sustained by the “MasterChef” contestants, Gordon’s management company was waiting to siphon off future earnings from winners. But he was awfully charismatic in person. I think it was season 3 winner Christine Ha who said he smells incredible. I didn’t get close enough and I wasn’t going to be one of those people who asked for a hug in the first round.
There was a dramatic pause in which I felt zero anxiety. “No,” he said. Because I knew he would. I can’t deny a bit of disappointment, though, as much as I would like to. So I didn’t win at not caring entirely, but I gave it my all.
I walked back through the door with no apron and everyone made sad sounds for the camera. I looked at my husband — let’s get the fuck out of here. “Stop. Exit interviews,” said the wrangler.
She wasn’t the wrangler I had been led around by all week and she wasn’t Perry, queen of the wranglers, but she was enough of a voice of authority that I stopped rather than diving through the open door like I wanted to. It might have been Carter. Or Angelic. It’s possible this next part is a stress memory, but I’m nearly certain that the exit interview took place in an elevated boxing ring. Although there’s no good reason there would be a boxing ring in the warehouse. Maybe the ring was there so I wouldn’t contaminate the winners with failure. Losers were very strictly not allowed to speak with other contestants. Once you failed, you no longer belonged.
I rushed through the interview quickly and was so close to the industrial backdoor when another gorgeous anonymous wrangler told me I had to see the psychiatrist again. No, not the same doctor. “Do you harbor any thoughts of killing any of the judges or yourself?” he asked. “No . . . .” said I. They finally let me go.
When I got home I was a little screwed up. Despite knowing that they were messing with me, it worked, probably because I thought I was immune. Anxious, neurotic, easily startled and sobbing off and on for the next week, I was mortified that I could have inadvertently exposed my children to a bout of my depression (self-imposed, no less). I hid as much as possible and it passed in a week or so. The children steadfastly pretended not to notice.
I learned later from speaking with a number of the runner-up cooks that every round longer that a contestant stayed in the competition, the symptoms of traumatic stress appeared more intense when they returned home. Many of the runners-up from each season appear quite damaged. Some are unable to hold jobs, have difficulties with explosive anger. The winners fare somewhat better but not always. I’m still friends with many of them on Facebook and there are secret Facebook groups to talk about all things reality, though interest for most contestants dies off over the years other than blatant self-promotion, fundraising and talk of appearances on other cooking shows.
Despite thinking most of the people who decided to sign that contract were total rubes, the contestants of season 3 were some of the most interesting people I ever met and I don’t doubt that they all had their own reasons for submitting to the abuse. It was a group formed by a casting department for intentionally created, attractive diversity: telegenic people from as many walks of life as they could come up with, who would do practically anything for attention and who loved food. I wouldn’t have traded that part of the experience. But it’s impossible to discuss the experience of being a short-term reality show contestant without noting that some don't emerge from the experience unscathed.
The week the season finished filming, after he lost the finale to Christine Ha, Josh Marks, the self-titled “gentle giant,” was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He struggled with psychosis. Josh got into several conflicts, including a fight with cops, and heard voices in his head. Police said he claimed he had been possessed by Ramsay. It’s not hard to imagine the god that Gordon Ramsay became through Josh’s deep faith actually manifested. The week before he took his life, Josh was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I met this man’s family. I met his mother, who struggled to find adequate mental health resources for him in Chicago. Josh was kind and decent and excited about his future and starting a restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard and I mourned his death.
All three of our kids told me that reality TV was stupid and that on-set filming was boring. I think they were still annoyed that I tried to leave them for a month. My husband and I never really watched cooking shows again until the “Great British Bake Off” years later. I felt bad about it in a topical way — we had to start watching something else, so thank god for “True Blood.”
An activity I thought would be partially a lark and partially an unprofessional investigation became something else: an experiment in power and submission and subversion over which I had no control. I knew there would be danger, but I thought the danger would give me energy, that it would excite me creatively where a happy marriage and a calm few years had left me feeling dull and soft without the potential for danger. But instead of feeling like a warrior surviving a crucible, I left feeling I had failed to protect the tender people. Eccentric, charismatic strangers, yes, but these fragile egotists couldn’t have completely known the results of professional abuse. Being violated is something that can make people feel alive. But that doesn’t make it safe.
A month after I returned home I got a chatty note from the casting director. “Oh, could you send me those final forms, it seems we don’t have your signed contract.”
“I'm really not at all wild about that idea,” I wrote back.
“I’m having legal call you to straighten this out.”