By Anna Jane Grossman
Sunday, December 21, 2008
I'm a fan of doing nothing. Give me a comfy couch and the puppy cam, and I'm a happy girl. It's not easy, however, to figure out how to turn a passion for nonexertion into a viable metier -- especially in the big city, where you're expected to be ambitious about your chosen career. Where does one get a degree in inaction? The guy who slept for more than five hours in Andy Warhol's five-hour film "Sleep" -- what was his college major?
So, when I heard of a class that promised to teach people the secrets to making a living by doing little more than just being themselves, I tittered with joy. Brilliance! The class's conceit? To teach people how to get on reality TV.
On a brisk Saturday in September, I showed up at a studio space on Manhattan's West 27th Street and enrolled in a $299 five-week course at the New York Reality TV School. The first class was a three-hour seminar that alone could be attended for $139; the last would be the same seminar taken again with a batch of newcomers, with the three interim sessions consisting of 90-minute colloquia.
Out of the roughly 50 people in the room that day, it seemed that close to half were journalists. Since it opened in June, the school has been featured in more than 80 newspapers, magazines, radio and TV shows in more than a dozen countries. While various networks' camera crews wove around trying to avoid each other, I hunkered down in my folding chair, crossed off all my Saturday plans for the next month and waited for reality to begin.
THE SCHOOL IS THE BRAINCHILD of Robert Galinsky, a smiley, curly-haired acting coach and professional idea man. Galinsky is a big believer in what he calls "tapping into personality and building entertainment out of nothing." Nothing! Talk to me, bro.
Before this year, however, the energetic 43-year-old hardly paid attention to reality TV. Indeed, he seemed almost immune to the evil magic that has kept me loyal to "America's Next Top Model" for 11 seasons. "People trying to put together a raft made of mismatched parts and then rowing it out to get a flame off a tiki torch . . . I was just astounded that people would sit and watch 20 minutes of that," he says.
His feelings about the medium changed, however, when he got a call last March from Jorge Bendersky, a Manhattan dog groomer who was seeking an acting coach. Bendersky, whose clients include the "four-legged children" belonging to the likes of Alan Cumming and Tatum O'Neal, had been contacted by Animal Planet's "Groomer Has It" -- think "Project Runway," but with poodles instead of skirts -- and wanted to do all he could to increase his chances of becoming America's Next Top Groomer.
In the interest of helping a student -- and making a buck -- Galinsky went on a reality TV-watching marathon and surprised himself by recognizing some positive aspects to the genre. Reality TV is very democratic: average people creating entertainment for other average people. "It's something that allows people to get some control," he explains. "That interested me."
For six weeks, the duo developed strategies to make Bendersky stand out: He'd wear long sleeves and only reveal his heavily tattooed arms at the right dramatic moment; he'd always be aware of his "best angles" when he faced the camera. Bendersky, who is Argentinean and, in a nasally accented voice, describes himself as "the love child of Ricky Ricardo and Fran Drescher," ended up placing third. One of the first things he did upon returning home was to report back to Galinsky all the tactics he thought had helped him reach that elite level.
With Bendersky's blessing, Galinsky decided to use their coaching sessions as the basis for a school. Some of his friends voiced their distaste early on. "They were like, 'I can't believe that you are going to feed the decline of Western civilization through reality television,'" recalled Galinsky. "But I was like, 'Since when has television been the intellectual pulpit of our culture?' "
What he imagined was a school that would deal with more than eating bugs and belting out pop songs. He envisioned it being about "human interaction, building entertainment out of nothing . . . tapping into personality, understanding self, dealing with confidence," he says. With those goals in mind, he e-mailed hundreds of the reality TV hopefuls in the address book of Robert Russell, a reality TV casting director he knew. Within two weeks, 28 students had matriculated. Galinsky was ready to get real.
"I'M JUST HERE TO GIVE BACK TO THE COMMUNITY," says my seat neighbor at class No. 1. He is Billy Garcia, a former contestant on "Survivor: Cook Island," which aired two years ago. (Lest anyone forget this fact, he wears a doo-rag emblazoned with the "Survivor: Cook Island" logo at all times.) Garcia, a blimp of a man with a goatee and a T-shirt bedizened with elaborate skulls, is part of a collection of reality castoffs and casting directors who field questions at the end of each seminar. Galinsky's panel participants get paid solely in adulation, but Garcia says he is well-compensated for his other appearances. He attends conventions, corresponds with fans and brokers sponsorship deals -- all of which amounts to a little more than doing nothing . . . but not by much. Since the show aired, he says, he's been able to support himself solely on his celebrity, even though he was eliminated in the season's second episode. "But those first two episodes," he says, "they were really all about me."
Other notables who are there for the Q and A, or "press conference," as Galinsky insists on calling it, are George Weisgerber, a.k.a. Tailor Made, the winner of VH1's "I Love New York" show last year, and Suzanne Siegel, who a few weeks after this class would be announced as the winner of another VH1 effort, "I Want To Work For Diddy." Bendersky was also present -- he remains Galinsky's star pupil. (The runner-up would probably be Jonathan Fable, a construction worker who took the class and then joined a winning team on "Hole in the Wall," a Fox show where contestants in unitards try to figure out how to fit through holes in a moving yellow wall. Really.)
Class is filled with others who seem to share that drive to be successful with minimal exertion. Next to Garcia is Crystal Marcelle, 23, a home health aide who tells me that she is there to learn how to create a reality TV show about herself. "It'd be called 'Everyone Loves Kiesha,' and it'd be about me going around the country and all the men who want to be with me," she says, explaining that she'd be Kiesha, because that's a more glamorous name than Crystal.
"So what would you do on the show," I ask. "Um, nothing?" she says. "Just be myself?"
Next to her is Tommy Lyons, a small, bristly 40-year-old taxicab dispatcher with a thick New York accent, who tells me he's come to better his chances of getting on "Big Brother" -- he's applied to be on it every season since it first aired. "I think I'd be good on it. I have mood swings that I think would be entertaining," he says. But, like Crystal, he would ultimately like to have a show about himself. "It'd be about me and all the people I interact with -- my friends, my family, my co-workers, and all the crazy things that happen in my life." When asked to elaborate in front of the class, he recounts the time that he went over to talk to an attractive woman at a bar and then realized it was a guy.
CLASS BEGINS WITH MINI-LECTURES from Bendersky, Galinsky and Risa Tanania, a casting director who has worked on "Cash Cab" and "Wife Swap." They all give us a few tips on drawing a producer's attention. Bendersky, who intones several times that "coming in third on the first season of the first reality competition ever aired on Animal Planet makes me reality royalty," hands out a tip sheet featuring a cartoon of a shirtless man blow-drying a dog, tight jeans open at the waist. Galinsky, he says, taught him to "find confidence and pull it out when it's most needed -- like when you are stuck with people you don't like, with one bathroom and no TV."
Tanania then preaches the pitfall of being unspecific about yourself.
"If you say, 'I want to be on this show because I'm interesting,' that is the most boring thing. It's a turnoff," she says. "If you say, 'I'm here to piss off my parents,' that's real. That draws me in."
They all warn us to never, ever say we are actors. SAG cards should be used purely for tooth-picking. "If I wanted an actor, I'd hire one," says Tanania. This line gets a big laugh.
We circle up and introduce ourselves. Maria de Jesus Castellon, 23, a voluptuous Nicaraguan actress -- er, waitress -- is there because she thought the class could help her with auditioning; agents have frequently told her that she needs to bring more of herself to castings. "I've always loved to hate reality TV," she says, "but I have an open mind."
Standing next to Maria is Lobke Huijs, a soft-spoken and sweet 13-year-old whose parents drove her in from Connecticut after seeing Galinsky on "The View." When asked to describe herself, Lobke cloaks herself in the familiar teenage banner of being, you know, different. "I'm pretty crazy," she says. But, besides her penchant for neon colors and combat boots, she seems rather average, if not borderline shy. Deborah DiFronzo, a blond middle-aged packaging designer, enrolled because she's looking for work and thought the class could help her think on her feet during interviews. "I've been trying to try something new every week or two, so I thought I'd give it a shot," she tells me.
La'Verne Perry-Kennedy, a sassy fifty-something who was once a vice president at Sony Urban, says that she came because she was the co-star of a soon-to-air Internet fashion commentary program, and is hoping to get tips that would help her on the show.
La'Verne is my partner in our next activity. We have to walk together in front of our classmates while they harangue us from both sides. This is what Galinsky calls the "gantlet of shame." It is supposed to simulate some of the tenser moments that the producers-cum-puppet-masters create for contestants on a typical reality show. "Step into your fear! See what you discover!" says Galinsky. Thing is, it can be hard to come up with really hurtful ways to insult someone you've only just met. So Galinsky feeds us reasons to dislike one another. "Pretend she just threw your mother under a car!" he says. I can't say I've seen anyone commit this particular offense on "Top Model," but no matter. A chorus erupts: "I hate you! You suck! You're awful!" La'Verne and I stifle smiles as we do our perp walk, but Galinsky tells us to try harder to really feel the emotions. "This is how you build up emotional immunity," he says.
Robert Russell then asks a handful of us to give an idea for a new reality show. I suggest a show that a friend of mine thought of: A "Biggest Loser" reversal, it would be called "Big House," and people would gorge themselves with food to try to see who can put on the most weight. I'm faced with a room of blank stares. Tough crowd. For the next activity, Galinsky's younger brother, Philip Galinsky, stands in front of the class donning a mustache, a yellow polo shirt, a polka-dotted apron and oven mitts. He darts around the room like an evil cartoon character, inviting students to say why they want to be on reality TV. The best contestant will win his silver spatula! "You're either hot or your not -- and if you're not, you're flipped!" he shrieks. Galinsky the senior refers to this activity as "On The Grill With Phil." He created this part for his brother because, "I felt like there needed to be some kind of hyperactive quasi-casting session," he tells me. "Something in the school has to be mean in order to convey the idea of 'I don't care about you.' "
When she's called up, Jayme Girard, a spandex-clad 22-year-old from Boston, says she'd be a good participant on "The Real World" because she's willing do anything that anyone asks her to do. Someone suggests she take off her shirt, so she does -- but she's wearing a tank top underneath, so it isn't that exciting.
After class, however, Jayme admits to me that she's not just your average student: She's actually there with a Canadian TV crew that's doing a show about people who want to be on reality TV shows. They're featuring her -- and flew her in to take the class -- because she has auditioned (unsuccessfully) for more than 20 reality shows. Was it fame that she wanted?
"Yeah," she says, "But that's not all of it. That's not really it. I don't know what it is." I suggest she take Tanania's advice and try to be specific. "I have no filter whatsoever. I'm honest. I can be crazy. I can be a bitch if I need to be, or I can be a sweetheart, I can be loyal, and I just really love reality TV! It's what I've always wanted!" she says.
"So how does it feel to have gotten your dream?" I ask. She looks confused; I gesture to the crew training their cameras on her.
"Oh, that doesn't really count," she says. "It's just Canada."
THE SCHOOL'S WEB SITE promised that, in the subsequent weeks, we'd make an audition tape that would then be critiqued by casting guru Russell and collie guru Bendersky.
This sounded unappealing; I bristled at the thought of being taped and then forced to watch myself. I guess my dream would be to become the reality TV equivalent of Charlie Brown's parents. I recall reading an interview with a former "Real World" participant who advised getting naked or singing a Beatles tune in order to keep the cameras away -- it's expensive for networks to get rights to pop songs or to blur out privates. You could also just die: When a contestant on the first season of Sweden's version of "Survivor" killed himself post-taping, the producers largely edited him out.
In preparation for the worst, I put on lip gloss and my most slimming black T-shirt. But when I got to the little studio on the West Side where the next three classes were held, there were no cameras present. There was just me, six other students and Galinksy -- who was looking a little sad. Indeed, the small number of people and the lack of space gave the class a deflated feel. He began by warning us about post-show blues -- the depression that can sink in after a long-awaited audition, or after a show is done filming . . . or after, say, planning a big class. "You go in with all these high hopes, and then you leave, and there's no more glitz and glamour," he said.
For the first activity, we had to go around the room shaking our bodies while telling one another what we had eaten for breakfast. When an argument broke out over whether or not coffee could really be "eaten," Galinsky beamed. "This is great! This tension is exactly what they're looking for on TV!"
Then we had to act out one anothers' goals (which we wrote on strips of paper and traded). We were put into small groups and given five minutes to create song and dance routines about the goals. La'Verne, Deborah and I couldn't figure out what to do and ended up halfheartedly singing "Jingle Bells," pausing between choruses to read off the paper slips. "I want to be a well-developed actress on ABC Family!" I trilled. When we timidly asked the point of the activity ("It seemed weird," said Deborah, "the direction was so vague."), Galinsky told us that the pointlessness was part of the point: Did it make sense to make a raft to go get a flame from a tiki torch? The trick is to not ask "why" but to simply assume that the producers have a plan that will eventually cause everything to make sense. "Always reply, never deny, never ask why," he repeated several times.
BY WEEK THREE, class attendance had fallen to just four -- and three of us arrived half an hour late. (Only Lobke was on time; her parents had chauffeured her.) The class syllabus suggested a jam-packed session: "Learn how best to make a tape for submission . . . We will show how to make the camera work for you once you are on set and further explore: blocking, staging, wardrobe details and personally tailoring your look to your advantage." Instead, Galinsky lectured again about embracing random tasks, even when they seem silly. Then we did the breakfast exercise again.
During the last part of the third and fourth classes, we were indeed put in front of a camera, twice. The first time, we had to introduce ourselves in a quick and punchy way. La'Verne, Galinsky suggested, should spice up her intro by saying she's from the "Boogie Down" Bronx; Deborah got praised for her clever triplet, "I was born in Boston, raised in Connecticut and ruined in New York." The second time, we were told to confess two secrets -- one that belonged to us and one that a classmate wrote on a slip of paper. I sucked in my tummy for the camera and then confessed that "I like drugs" and "I like teasing my lovers with naked pictures of myself" -- and I'm not going to tell which one was mine. But when all was said and done, we learned we hadn't actually been recorded -- the point, Galinsky said, was just to see how it felt to watch ourselves on the monitor while we were talking. When asked later why we didn't make the tapes or follow much of what had been outlined in the syllabus, Galinksy wrote, via e-mail, "I reserve the right to alter/adjust the curriculum based on the composition and interests of students attending."
Deborah called me a few weeks after the class ended to voice her disappointment. She was worried about the fate of show ideas we'd mentioned -- did they now belong to the school? Were we being filmed the whole time without our knowing it? "The class description said we'd be provided with a tape of ourselves that would then be critiqued by a casting director, but we never did that," she said. "I asked Robert, and he said that we'd do that separately if I wanted, but I keep e-mailing him and calling, and he hasn't responded." She paused. "Do you know a good entertainment lawyer?"
Fact is, Galinsky's already busy on other projects. A few days after our very first class, Portfolio magazine's Web site posted a story about a TV idea he was trying to sell. It sounded familiar: a reality show about him starting a reality TV school. He's quoted describing it as "an uber-meta-circular-[expletive] of camera seducing camera seducing cast seducing viewer."
The Russian-nesting-doll aspect of the ploy left me feeling uneasy, but if my classmates understood that they were pawns in a Charlie Kaufman-esque charade, they didn't seem to mind. Galinsky had e-mailed the Portfolio story to his address book, suggesting that people comment. Most positive responses were from people who'd been in class; the consensus was that a few hours of stretching, shaming, lecturing and spatula flipping really could significantly change one's life. "He encourages the student to break down fears and build confidence," wrote one. "His class makes the student step out of their skin and be who they really are inside," wrote another. La'Verne called Galinsky a "master." Either I was abnormally immune to the school's transformative powers, or there was something here I was missing.
I found the answer where one finds most things: on Craigslist. In the "gigs" section, I came across an ad fishing for actors who could portray reality show hopefuls with "amazing" personalities in a show about a reality TV school. "The New York Reality TV School is now doing preliminary casting for actors to play staff and 'students' in the pilot," it read, going on to ask for "actors, comedians, models, musicians and performers." The "audition" would be participation in one of the one-day seminars. It had been posted shortly before my final Saturday class.
This might explain why the personalities who showed up for our last session seemed a little over the top and why some had their tuition comped. The tarot card reader who cried when mentioning her recently deceased mother -- brilliant method acting or maudlin slice of reality? The statuesque New Jersey man whose business cards showed him flaunting his rippled abs, who told me that he "deserved" to be on television then hit the ground and did one-hand push-ups -- character sketch or character quirks? It also made me suspicious of the pupils who tidily provided focal points for the media that once again swarmed in: a French pharmacist for a French TV crew; a machinist from Oklahoma for Oklahoma City's News 9. (While the Oklahomans say their joint appearance was just a coincidence. The pharmacist, a part-time actress, copped to responding to a posting on NYCastings.com. It had asked, specifically, for someone who had lived in France.)
Galinsky says "any student so far" might be considered for the possible show, so presumably, even the paying pupils such as me had been unknowingly auditioning. That would mean, I guess, that a spot on a reality TV show really could be in my future. Set your DVRs: I'll be the naked one singing "Yellow Submarine."
Anna Jane Grossman is a New York-based freelancer. She can be reached at GrossmanAJ@gmail.com.