Reality Check

The New York Reality TV School has been featured in dozens of television shows and publications. But how real is it, after all?

By Anna Jane Grossman
Sunday, December 21, 2008; Page W14

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.


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