Krissy Miller freaked out when she opened the door to her Huntington Beach apartment.
Xzibit, a rapper with tight cornrows and wearing a throwback San Diego Padres jersey, was about to repo her car -- temporarily. The host of MTV's unexpectedly popular reality show "Pimp My Ride," Xzibit has, for the past three months, been helping such down-on-their-luck twenty-somethings get a fresh start on the road to adulthood with a brand-new, grand G-ride.
Miller, who had sent an e-mail to the show's producers, knew she was a finalist to be picked for the show. But she did not know what to expect when a producer told her someone was coming out to see her.
"I was totally, totally surprised," she says. "I just lost it. I felt I was going to cry. . . . Good things like that don't happen to me."
"Pimp My Ride" is a makeover show. But instead of presenting a couple with a new living room or turning an ugly duckling into a beauty queen, Xzibit and the mechanics at West Coast Customs trick out broken-down Hondas and scrap-metal Fords with shiny chrome rims, radioactive paint jobs, asphalt-thumping sound systems and video game consoles.
On this half-hour show, which debuted in March and airs Sundays at 9:30 p.m., no one is forced to eat worms or cow intestines. No one is maligned for perceived inadequacies. Unlike the average reality show, "Pimp My Ride" tries to boost a person's confidence.
A car, after all, embodies freedom and independence. A car says something about who you are, where you've been and, most importantly, where you're going.
The floor underneath the driver's seat of Miller's 1960 Volkswagen Baja Bug was corroded through. It looked more like the prehistoric cars from "The Flintstones" cartoon than the rough-and-tumble beach utility vehicle it was designed to be. The body featured three colors of rust, and the doors didn't work. The upholstery, if it wasn't torn or tattered, was mildewed and moldy. But Xzibit promised to return her beloved Bug with a new lease on its automotive life.
"This isn't 'fix my car,' " Xzibit says, disguising his hip-hop cadence with strait-laced over-pronunciation. "This is Pimp. My. Ride." The vernacular implies bling-bling to excess.
Standard features are scrapped in favor of over-the-top custom accessories. Why open a car door with a handle when you can have rear-hinged suicide doors that open backward with the touch of a button? Install a new stereo? Not when you can install a CD and DVD system with a flat screen mounted on the inside of each door.
The car becomes a metaphor for turning one's life around. "It's about wish fulfillment," says co-creator and executive producer Rick Hurvitz, who has also worked on reality shows "For Love or Money," "Married by America" and "Eco-Challenge." "MTV really tries to find deserving kids."
In one episode, a 21-year-old student who drove her ailing grandmother to doctor appointments had her broken-down '92 Honda Civic converted to a spaceship-like sportster with flip-up Lamborghini-style doors. Another episode features a young man with a kidney disease who once had to ditch his ailing hatchback on the side of the road and take a bus to his dialysis appointment.
The producers go through e-mails and letters and scout the freeways and neighborhoods of Southern California for young drivers with interesting stories and problematic cars.
"Viewers' cars are really important to them," says Lois Curren, executive vice president, MTV series entertainment. She says MTV research shows that viewers go out of their way to customize different areas of their lives, from downloading music to shopping, and "we noticed they started doing this with their cars."
In 2003, car owners spent more than $3 billion on specialty accessories and performance features, up from $295 million in 1997, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a trade group representing the custom automotive industry.
Miller, 23, depends on her Baja Bug to go to school. She studies adolescent psychology at Long Beach State and wants to help teens avoid the pitfalls of drug addiction that once plagued her. Miller started using drugs as a teenager and says a string of bad experiences overwhelmed her life. The car, which she bought on the street for $1,000 after she got clean, holds a special place in her heart.
"It has personality, it has spunk," she says after waiting two weeks to see her made-over car for the first time. "I'm afraid it's going to be too nice to take it off-road."
Predictably, the show is popular among male viewers attracted by hot rods. But surprisingly, the show also appeals to young female viewers. Episodes alternate between male and female subjects to give the show broader appeal. Forty-five percent of the audience is female, according to MTV.
"I knew we had something, but I thought it would be more of a slow burn," says Hurvitz, who created the show with his business partner, Bruce Beresford-Redman. Instead, the show quickly found an audience.
It attracts an average of 2.6 million viewers for an original telecast, according to Nielsen Media Research. The show's highest-rated broadcast, which aired May 2, was watched by almost 3.2 million viewers. By comparison, more than 9 million people watch "The Sopranos," the highest-rated show on cable. Last week, MTV's highest-rated show, the "Real World-Road Rules Challenge," had almost 4.5 million viewers.
MTV moved "Pimp My Ride" from Thursday to Sunday nights after seven weeks and added five episodes. Two episodes remain; the season ends June 13. The show, which has been renewed for a second season, has been featured on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live."
"Pimp My Ride" is filmed on location at West Coast Customs in Inglewood, Calif. It's where rappers such as Ludacris and NBA stars such as the L.A. Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal take their cars to be souped up. It has been featured in Dub, a popular magazine for hard-core tuners.
At West Coast, tattooed and pierced grease monkeys turn junk into funk. The mechanics smoke cigarettes and horse around as if they're still in high-school auto shop. But they are modern-day artisans and automotive engineers who can rewire the electrical system of a $50,000 Hummer H2 to support a 11,800-watt sound system with 8 subwoofers, thundering bass and enough speakers to blow away the Hollywood Bowl.
On one episode, the team added a flamethrower to the back of a Ford Mustang (the idea, hardly street-legal, was eventually scrapped). They put a fake tailpipe that disguised a bubble-blowing machine on another Mustang so a trail of bubbles could follow the car as it cruised the streets. They installed a fish aquarium in one car, an espresso maker in another, and a karaoke machine in the trunk of a third. The back of a pickup truck was converted into a gaming center, including a Nintendo GameCube and a ping-pong table that fit over the truck bed. A Nissan station wagon was outfitted with a professional-quality DJ set, complete with turntables and a mixing board.
"There's no reason to do it other than it's funny and cool," Hurvitz says. "We're always trying to entertain ourselves."
Funny and cool drives the show. The West Coast mechanics are genuinely amused that their antics are being recorded for television. They ham it up whether or not the camera is rolling. They spare no one -- the MTV crew, a visiting journalist -- with their gibes. Getting everyone to stand still or dress in the proper colored shirt for a scene is like trying to organize a class of hyperactive preteens.
"We let them go," says Hurvitz. "This is a living set, it's a real garage." The team often works 12 hours a day to turn a car around in under two weeks.
Ryan Friedlinghaus, 28, owner of West Coast, says he puts $25,000 to $30,000 worth of parts and labor into each car. Some accessories are supplied at no cost by manufacturers eager to see their products on television.
The show has raised the shop's profile and helped Friedlinghaus expand his business into new areas. He says a company wants to put his name on a line of automotive tools.
West Coast Customs has also become a local landmark and unofficial tourist destination. Teens wearing baggy jeans, backward ball caps and oversize sports jerseys often come around looking for celebrities or cool cars or the cool cars of celebrities. "Pimp My Ride" has blurred the difference between car and star.
After almost two weeks of rehab, Miller's Baja Bug is ready for its star turn. Miller waits nervously outside the garage with her mother, Susan, while the West Coast crew wraps up the final touches.
Miller says she tried to avoid forming mental pictures of what her car might look like. "I trust the guys to see what I see," she says. When Xzibit leads Miller into the work area, the West Coast mechanics stand around the tarp-covered car, expectant grins on their faces.
"Oh my God!" Miller yells as they reveal her car.
Her bug is painted Incredible Hulk green with purple accents. A lighter, tilt-forward fiberglass hood replaces the old, heavily dented shell. A new purple roll cage was installed. It all sits atop off-road tires and chrome rims. The interior is white tweed with purple and green accents. Flowers embroidered on the upholstery and lava lamps mounted in the back play on the car's 1960s spirit. The new dashboard features a touch-screen GPS so Miller can navigate anywhere adventure takes her. The touch-screen stereo/DVD player is connected to two seven-inch video screens in the doors.
As all owners in the show do, she hugs Xzibit and runs directly to the driver-side door. Everything shines. The car barely resembles the vehicle she remembers. She yells "Oh my God!" 36 more times.