The year is 2005. Facebook is a college-only social network. The first videos are just uploading to YouTube. And somewhere in Lower Manhattan, I am trapped in a pink house, embarrassing myself on national television.
“That time I was on a reality show” is an excellent party trick; one of those perennial stories that’s fun to pull out on an early date, or share with a friend who knows you well but somehow skipped a chapter. But the act of telling — temporarily inhabiting the uncomfortable shape of the person who lived through it — is never fun.
Back to 2005, the summer before my senior year at Barnard. I’m a political science major thinking of applying to law school, but if I listen to myself (which will take another decade), all I want to do is write. My dream is to work for a magazine, but I have no connections and find the prospect intimidating.
So when the editor-in-chief of Seventeen comes to speak on campus, I arrive early enough to snag a seat in the front row. At the end of her talk, she plugs a new project — a television show in collaboration with MTV, where a handful of young women from around the country will serve as “role models” for the magazine’s younger readers. In her pitch, it sounds vaguely feminist, highly positive, and quite frankly, unlike anything to ever grace a screen emblazoned with the MTV logo. The winner will receive a scholarship and an internship at the magazine. She urges us to audition the next day, and it seems as good an opportunity as any.
Early the next morning, I head downtown to scope out the open call. I spot the building long before I arrive — a line of young women stretches around the block. We are given numbers and paperwork, while people with headsets herd us like anxious livestock. I briefly consider fleeing, but something urges me to stay.
Once inside, they break us into clusters of ten for a group audition. We sit in a circle, the two casting directors in the middle. They ask us topical questions like, “Who’s a better role model, Paris Hilton or Laura Bush?” (I love you, 2005!) It’s a lively conversation, and I’m uncharacteristically animated.
Next comes the written audition. Each candidate is presented with a hefty questionnaire, inquiring about all kinds of personal things, from religious beliefs and political associations to important qualities in friends, future aspirations, and favorite designers. Filling the pages is no problem.
Over the next few weeks, I receive a series of calls from the two casting directors. Can I meet them in a midtown hotel for a callback? Can they speak to my friends and family? Can I fly to a final callback in LA?
All along, I try to temper my excitement. It’s a long shot. And as much as a TV show seems like an exciting prospect, I feel a kernel of doubt as to whether or not it’s a good decision. At the time, reality shows — The Real World, Big Brother, Survivor — remain relatively uncharted territory. Is it possible this show will be as positive as it seems?
The fateful call finally comes and I feel numb. It’s like watching a Lifetime movie about somebody else, a character I’m not particularly invested in.
“YOU’RE GOING TO BE A CAST MEMBER! CONGRATULATIONS!” shouts the first casting director.
“Oh. Huh. That’s great,” I say.
“Aren’t you going to yell?” asks the second. “Everyone else we’ve called so far has screamed into the phone.”
“Sure. I mean, I’m very excited!” I say, at a slightly higher volume.
Anyone who knows me will attest that I am not a screamer. It’s just not in my DNA. Unless I see a roach of significant heft, odds are there shall be no shrieking. Looking back, I recognize this moment — non-screamer agrees to cohabitate with bevy of screamers — as one of many tiny harbingers of what is to come.
We are told the show will film in NYC, though the exact location remains a secret. A van picks me up at my dorm, ostensibly to head to the set. Instead, we drive out of the city, and pull into a budget hotel near LaGuardia Airport. “All the girls are scattered in the general area,” the producer says, making a circular hand gesture. But everyone is intentionally separated so there will be no contact. I am instructed to stay in my room, not to leave under any circumstances. I can order my meals from room service and charge them to the network. They will not disclose how long I’ll be there. And then I am alone.
I stay there for two strange, isolated days. At one point, there is a knock on the door, yielding stylists who trim my hair and eyebrows. Another knock on the door yields a photographer, to take a headshot.
“Can you show me some attitude?” asks the photographer.
I put on my best sort-of-sexy mirror face. Apparently this isn’t enough.
“Can you look a little more pissed?” he asks.
Every show has their typecast equivalent of “the bitch from New York.” This time, it will be me.
Finally, a producer arrives to retrieve me. There are other girls in the van this time, but we are instructed not to speak, so our initial introductions can be captured on camera.
At long last, we arrive on set — a townhouse in the Financial District and our home for the foreseeable future. We file out of the van, then take turns riding a taxi up and down the block in front of the house. We shoot getting out of the taxi and walking through the front door. We do this around five times, to sufficiently capture all angles. This will become a recurring theme.
The interior of the house resembles the handiwork of Interior Designer Barbie. Hot pink reigns supreme. There are mirrors everywhere, but it won’t occur to me until much later that they’re vessels for hiding cameras.
Our cell phones and iPods are confiscated, as “consuming media does not make for good media.” I cling to the only vestiges I can: my paperback copy of Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress and the current issue of Vogue. Most upsettingly, the windows are frosted over, as daylight interferes with the lighting. It’s a bit like living inside a Vegas casino — bright and synthetic, without any inkling of weather or time.
The other girls, many of them recent high school graduates, are all younger than I am. While three or four years is a blip on the timeline of human life, it stretches like a vast chasm between the ages of 18 and 21. 18 is recent high school student, newfound freedom, fake ID. 21 is applying for jobs, trying on the word “woman” to see if it fits.
Multiple contestants are cheerleaders, and much of the first afternoon is spent practicing spirited rhymes. A human pyramid rises and falls across the width of the living room.
We wear microphones at all times, including when sleeping and using the bathroom. If we go inside to whisper secrets, or to cry, they need audio of whatever happens behind closed doors.
I grow quiet.
A few times a day, we are taken to a tiny room to do a “confessional.” We’re asked a series of leading questions and instructed to incorporate the questions into our answers. “How are you feeling today?” becomes “Today, I am feeling sad.” The questions I’m asked have no acceptable answers. “Which girl in the house do you hate the most, and why?” There is nothing to say, so I stop talking. “Do you regret your decision to come here?” I nod in the affirmative.
The show will focus on a series of “challenges” in which contestants will be pitted against one another. The focus will not be on championing women, but on exposing the “reality” behind “seemingly perfect girls.”
To this day, watching “reality” programming (and I place that in the largest quotation marks possible), gives me a surge of anxiety. I can’t help but imagine the contestants — bachelorettes, chefs, housewives — filming multiple takes. I can’t help but imagine the many, many minutes that are edited away, hear the words they said before and after the quotes that are taken out of context.
I will play this experience over and over again in the years that follow. I’ll refer back to it as I learn things about myself — group dynamics, the importance of privacy, the values I hold dear. I will feel lame and sad and proud and ashamed. Should I have sensed my hesitation before I agreed to participate? Should I have tried harder to speak my mind?
The cells in our bodies are constantly renewing. I like to remind myself of this when recalling awkward events. I am physically a completely different person now. That wasn’t the same me. Except it was.
Now, when I think back on my time in the pink house, I find it strangely endearing. There I was, even before I knew who I was. A reader, a ruminator, an observer. Wanting to call bullshit but searching for the right voice. Recognizing ourselves is like finding the way home, only to discover that it is everywhere.
At the time of filming, the show is still working title. Eventually, once the cameras stop rolling and all is done, the title is confirmed as Miss Seventeen. I have at least seventeen issues with this.
The show airs in October of 2005, immediately following The Hills. I watch the first episode at the fancy launch party, my heart in my throat. Thankfully, I’m barely visible.
The only words I speak on air take place at our first group dinner, where each cast member is asked to share a fact about herself. Who are we and what are we about? Our “fact” can be anything we want, they say, but it should be something a stranger wouldn’t necessarily know upon meeting us. The answers are varied — tennis, gymnastics, slam poetry, family secrets. When it’s my turn, I say the only thing that comes to mind. After a bewildering week, it is the only thing left to say.
The next day, I am one of seven girls asked to leave the show, for “failure to make a good first impression.” I am thrilled to be free. But for months afterward, I cannot shake the icky, complicated feeling of failing at something I didn’t want to succeed at in the first place.
To this day, my chosen fact — “My name is Caroline, and I’m concerned with the way women are portrayed in the media” — remains the only sentence I’ve uttered on television. It seems like a peculiar kind of justice.
Now, when I’m asked to provide a “fun fact,” I like to say I once appeared on a really embarrassing reality show.
But for the record, I’m still concerned.