The Fame Game
In line for The Real World's casting call
Published September 23, 1999 in Scope

Number 98!" Pressing my Real World data sheet to my bosom, I got up and followed the pimply assistant to the interview room to meet Bob and Alex, two thirtysomethings-dressed-as- twentysomethings. They glanced at my stats, then Alex said, "Take off your blouse," so I did. "Now turn around." I stood up to allow them a good look at my ass, and Bob grabbed it. "Firm and round," he said to Alex. "Wouldn't need much in the editing room."

See also...
... by D. R.
... in the Scope section
... from September 23, 1999

Okay, that's not at all the way it went down. If only. Better that than the puerile truth. MTV had set up The Real World's casting couch at Paramount's Great America in Santa Clara, California, the very same amusement park that had dropped a mentally challenged boy to his death just the week before. Even so, 2400 "unique individuals aged 18-24" showed up. With a $34.99 admission to the park, Viacom (which owns both MTV and Paramount) raked in at least $84,000 on this one weekend alone -- and never mind the auditions at three additional Paramount sites (and calls for "true individuals" in 13 other cities.)

At opening time on a sweltering Labor Day Sunday morning, parents with food-stained children were already piled up at the door; and at the theater where they held the casting call, 74 kids with "bound for glory" written in their eyes had beaten me to the punch. They were an orderly cross-section of American youth culture: braid-sporting divas, beefy fratboys in their flannel, a baby punk or two, and an overwhelming number of lipsticked girls with blow-dried hair and tight spandex tank tops.

A Paramount thug was checking ID's to make sure we were all between the exuberant ages of 18 and 24 (much to the chagrin of my 33-year-old friend Wendy who had come down especially to check out the barely-legal girlflesh). He gave us each a number and a one-page questionnaire sporting such college application gems as, "The thing that scares me the most is..." and, "What is the best advice you have been given?" We-the-hopeful shuttled into the theater-space for a three-hour wait, where I used my San Francisco apartment-hunting skillset to grill the competition.

Not surprisingly, the star-struck kids gave it up quicker than the school slut on prom night to a real, live reporter:

  • Nicole, an impeccably coifed 20-year-old, said without a trace of irony, "I think the world needs to know my story."
  • Shy, chubby, chainsmoking 21-year-old Joe told me, "I went through nine roommates last year, but I think this [living situation with six strangers and a shared bedroom] would be fun."
  • Roy, 18, looked at me with a hungry desperation. "This show is a chance for me to get out of my house, away from my parents. I really need that."
  • When asked what would happen if the network decided to edit her unfairly (as they have with at least one cast member every season), 19-year-old Sarah squinted quizzically. "They wouldn't do that, I don't think. Not to me, anyway."
  • Chris, a 22-year-old dressed like an affluent L.A. rapper, echoed the afternoon's most common sentiment. Why would MTV pick you? I asked. "Because I'm an individual," he said. He paused and reflected for a moment. "And I try to live life to the fullest."

Michael, a polyester-clad Paramount employee, looked around the room with amusement. "I think it's funny. Every single one of these kids thinks that they have that 'special something,' that extra spark."

Eventually, my number was up. They shuttled me with four no-hopers into a room with two overgrown sorority girls/MTV employees who quickly read over our applications. Everybody smiled broadly, proclaimed their love for all mankind, and spouted affirmations like: "Oh, I love writers, so I think she and I could have a reaaally good time talking about... you know, writing." The MTV girls expertly feigned interest.

They singled out Lisbeth (bartender/out-of-work actress), and asked how we'd feel about living with her. They cross-examined Jimmy (failed freshman year at community college four times) on what would be the biggest drawback to being on the show. Then the casting chick picked on me ("Jewish Ivy League lesbian former go-go dancer"). "What would surprise you to know about her?" she asked the group.

Perhaps it was the contagious hunger in the air, but I'm convinced that I heard a hint of respect in her voice. Because, you know, I am interesting and different and special. Dammit. But you know, there's always fine print on the pact with a Music Television devil. 23-year-old Enrique yearned to change the media's oft-unfair depiction of Mexicans (and Latinos in general), but he was skeptical of the process. He noted wryly, "They have a tendency to kick people of color off the show, so I dunno how it'd work out."

The interview was over in less than five minutes; wham, bam, thank you ma'am. No pillow talk, no cigarette -- we were just curtly thanked and shown the door. I felt cheap. Used. Betrayed. Ok, mostly I felt ready to buy a beer with Wendy and not worry about getting carded because for Christ's sake I've been legal since some of these kids were planning their Bar Mitzvahs. And if there's any one thing I took away from the experience, it's the abrupt, sharp realization that I'm getting old.

It's hard to resist the fantasy of being seen as so impossibly riveting and enchantingly captivating that rich TV networks think you're the next Golden Ticket but, pushing 25, I'm no longer a member of the MTV demographic. And I wouldn't go back to being 18 for anything in the world -- not even for a year's free rent and a date with Martha Quinn. Thanks very much, but I guess I'm just fine with maturity after all.

D. R. is a legend in her lunchtime.