Will everyone who is a reality TV star please raise your hand? OK, good; most of us are here. Since we're all on the same page, let's take a bit of time to discuss why we set out to "star" in reality TV — broadcast's annoying stepchild.
In a market increasingly crowded with regular-folks-turned-D-list-celebs, we see a trend which we'll refer to as the "Hmmm, I could be famous, too" line of reasoning. This is completely natural and not particularly deplorable or pathetic. For instance, if you watch a show and see some average idiot mowing his grass shirtless one week, and the next week he is finding a golden grail for which he will earn a brand-new jet-ski and a spot on the cover of US Weekly, you want that, right? Absolutely. And don't think our pretty little town isn't in on the jig.
Our fair city brags a list of reality stars and "reality opportunities," and I'm not talking about the Palmetto Pointe kids (who I'm sure don't read CP anyway, thanks to Nick Smith). So what constitutes a reality opportunity? To start, any dispute, no matter how trivial. For a fair resolution, look no further than Extreme Akim.
Local injury lawyer Akim Anastapoulo serves as judge and jury in his own national "reality courtroom drama" Eye for an Eye. Rulings are steep, like wrestling in a vat of chili for the ownership rights to a pawn shop engagement ring. That's justice to me. If Extreme Akim's mere 5'5" presence isn't enough to hold order in the courtroom, it's backed up by the "Bat of Justice," which is basically just a wooden bat painted with the word "justice." Akim also has a burly bailiff: former boxing champ Sugar Ray Phillips, who (when not executing writs) appears to be a pimp. To cap off this list, Kato Kaelin, who became a star by thrusting himself into the spotlight during the O.J. trial, provides meaningful legal commentary.
Now, this may sound like an awful show, but the far reach of Eye for an Eye is nothing short of spectacular. In the past year, the show cleared over 80 percent of the nation (70 percent is the syndication mark). The show airs in 38 different countries and between four and six million people watch each day. Statistically, it's slightly more successful than Joey.
To Extreme Akim's credit, he couldn't be a nicer guy. His reasons for accepting the proposal to appear as star judge on the show are perfectly understandable. "I was asked to do it. I was curious about the TV business, and I gained interest when we did some pretend cases," says Extreme Akim.
Akim says he was perturbed over whether or not the show would make a difference in the world, but he managed to find a resolution. "I was concerned whether it did any good for society," says Akim. "But one day an old lady called me and told me that she was having a bad day. She couldn't pay her bills; she was really down and out. But she told me that she saw my show and it made her laugh, and I realized: TV's importance is to entertain people and let them escape their problems for 30 minutes."
Akim is highly devoted to his Charleston roots. He explains that he grew up here and hopes his show will positively affect our city. Not to mention that his local celebrity status is through the roof! "I enjoy the celebrity. I like meeting people a lot more than when they point at me and whisper," says Akim. He adds that we can expect the show to focus more on the judge this season, but he thinks he's ready for it.
Charleston native Richard Davis saw what was going on in reality TV and felt that he could do better. Davis created Flip This House, where regentrification becomes wholesome entertainment. And he isn't the least bit bashful about admitting his success. "I think scripted reality TV is B.S. They needed to show the trials and tribulations of running a business. So, I wrote a show and said, 'You wanna see a drama; look at what I do everyday'," says Davis.
Davis' show appeared on the A&E network for its first season, but he says he wasn't satisfied with the lengthy periods between episodes. So, he strutted to TLC's parent company, Discovery Network, and convinced them to pick him up. "It was so damn slow with A&E, so I approached TLC. I said, 'Listen, I set every kind of ratings record there is; so if you guys can keep up, I'll switch."
As for his position as a celebrity, Davis says that hasn't changed much. He confesses that he knew "pretty much everyone in Charleston" before the show started. Fortunately, there's more (completely sincere) deference for him now that he has so many bills in the bank. "It's gotten kinda crazy. I mean, I got helicopters and BMWs with our logo on them," says Davis. He bargains on having even more BMWs after the next season. "They're going to promote the dogshit out of this thing," says Davis.
Another classy concept sweeping reality TV, wife swapping, also struck Charleston. Aletha and Glenn Smoak of Ravenel appeared on the show Wife Swap two years ago and say they still get stopped by fans. "I knew my family and husband were taking me for granted and I just wanted to show them that the grass isn't always greener," says Aletha Smoak.
Smoak was sent to the pit of Kentucky to live with a dreadlocked hillbilly. The steamy possibility that she may have fallen for him didn't seem to be in the cards. "I wondered, 'What if I like this guy better? What if I don't want to go back to my life?' But when I got there and saw him, I knew that wasn't likely."
Smoak says that the cash was the last thing she and husband Glenn considered when they agreed to do the show. "Money was definitely not a factor. But ABC has taken care of us. They gave us $5,000 and we get to travel a lot. We've met Richard Gere and Usher, which has been fabulous. And we've gone on The View and CNN."
As for newfound celebrity, Smoak says that it isn't uncommon to be recognized in public. "I was in the New York airport and people stopped me. It's unreal how good people treat you. It's really flattering. You hear all these celebrities talk about how terrible it is being in the spotlight. I think it's fun."
Smoak also gave some insight into the production process. "Manipulation came in the form of text messages. I butted heads with the producers, but I think that was because they were British and there were cultural differences," says Smoak.
The roles of manipulation from producers and the editing team are highly debated in the reality realm. The infamous Cirie Fields, a Walterboro registered nurse turned Survivor, seemed to be a victim of the editing process. Fields was frequently shown complaining and her tagline — "I hate leaves" — became a favorite around office water coolers everywhere. Fields is reluctant to speak about her experience, which is why she refused to talk with CP for this article. She did, however, score a new GMC Yukon from her Survivor stint.
Mary Sean Johnson entered the reality TV world for different reasons. Johnson owns Organized Bliss, a personal organization business in Mt. Pleasant, and appeared on an episode of Mission: Organization on the HGTV network. Johnson says that she's never felt comfortable on camera, and while she feels that many go into reality television with the hope of developing their acting careers, her decision was purely business. "I felt it was an opportunity that presented itself and as a professional organizer I couldn't turn it down. It's one way for my business to stand out," says Johnson. "There's only been one person who recognized me from the show, but it's really grounded my business and shows that I'm serious about what I do."
Johns Island resident Chad Hayes also felt that reality TV wasn't for him, but still managed to appear on the small screen. Hayes is a saltwater fishing guide and was approached to compete in ESPN's Ultimate Outdoorsman competition, a challenge he couldn't resist. "So far the experience has been both fun as well as educational. I grew up watching outdoor television shows and always wondered how they were put together," says Hayes.
His show airs at the end of the month, so he still isn't sure what the total outcome will be. The competition offers Hayes a chance to host an outdoors show on ESPN2, the aspiration of any wilderness adventurer. Still, he makes it clear that he never anticipated his involvement in the reality TV sector.
"I am not a big fan of reality television. I find it to be a grim reminder of just how stupid most people are. Considering that, it's funny that I am part of a reality show competition. It's not really reality, many scenes have to be staged to look good on television, but hey, it's television. It's meant to be entertaining," says Hayes.
Some reality shows shift the focus from showering contestants with gifts, seeking instead to help those less fortunate. The Do-It-Yourself (DIY) network recently started taping episodes of DIY to the Rescue in Mt. Pleasant and Johns Island. The show aims to help people who have started a home improvement project and reached the 'in-over-their-head' point. Larry Rice is the Charleston-area franchise owner for Paul Davis Restoration, the company undertaking the project. "The producers select the cities they want to go to, and this time they chose Charleston," says Rice.
One of the episodes in Johns Island centers on the installation of a handicapped bathroom at the Charleston Area Therapeutic Riding horse farm. The farm accommodates physically challenged riders and uses riding as part of physical therapy treatment. "I am really excited about getting them a handicapped bathroom. We're thrilled to volunteer our time, resources, and planning to help out with these causes," says Rice.
So, maybe all reality television isn't fueled by the desire to enhance our financial situation and societal status. But why do we, as viewers, watch? Because we see other peoples' lives as either (A) more fascinating or (B) more depressing than our own, and this provokes us to absorb every moment of "real" life (as portrayed on television).
We watch The Apprentice because we actually want to be the lucky souls that head up that Fortune 500 corporation, not because we find Donald Trump the least bit appealing or (gasp) attractive. Conversely, we watch The Biggest Loser because we can pin those people as bigger losers than ourselves. We even acknowledge that this isn't legit. Note that when most of your friends tell you they watch a reality show, they refer to it as a "guilty pleasure," as in: "Karen and I get together every week for Wife Swap. It's our guilty little pleasure (giggles)."
Many of us see this as a semi-tragic display of our society descending to voyeuristic excess. But isn't this just entertainment? Does anyone actually use reality television as some sort of guidance tool for how to live his or her life? The reality of reality TV is that most of it is crap. But crap is generally the most entertaining content. I have long stated my hatred for the show American Idol, which I believe allows people to compete for ridicule and, if they're lucky, a major label record deal which will legally bind them for the remainder of their natural lives. But the most recent season taught me that America values kindness more than talent. Taylor Hicks lacks even a mediocre voice, he's not particularly good looking, and he probably has the most obnoxious catchphrase since "Whassssssup." But he's a nice guy and this is easily detectable. America seems to have voted with their hearts this year.
Further, I was asked by a casual acquaintance if I'd like to watch an episode with a group that gathers every week. This seemed strange to me at first. Why would I want to get together with you and your friends to watch a show that I abhor? But when I finally did, I realized that the communion was the real entertainment; friends gathered to laugh and talk about what's going on in their lives and how they relate to the "real" characters. In light of the Bowling Alone era, maybe reality TV is somehow inadvertently drawing people closer together. Maybe reality TV isn't just a viable escape from everyday life, but rather a means to connect with other people in an increasingly isolationist society.
I still cringe when I hear some idiot say "Soul Patrol!" but I do have more respect for Charleston's own reality stars. They're putting themselves in front of the world, at the risk of extreme judgment, for the sake of communion and healthy escapism. Or at least that's the outcome that my producers manipulated in this article. Editing is a bitch.
For more photos of our local celebrities, visit here.