Some problems fall into an unlucky category: bad enough to make your life difficult, but not bad enough to get you on television. Earlier this summer open auditions for the NBC reality show Starting Over were held at the Hyatt Regency on Wacker. A few problems that didn't make the cut:
"My brother thinks I'm gay."
"I can't stick to a diet."
"I want to be a medical assistant, but I don't think I can comprehend everything."
"I have a fear of being successful."
"I want to get an apartment, even if it's a tiny little apartment. If I got on the show I could maybe use the Internet to get a job and a little apartment."
Starting Over requires more than just the normal charisma and immodesty asked of applicants to other reality programs. You need a problem of a certain type and scale: it has to have dramatic stakes, but it has to be solvable. It has to be unusual enough that people might want to watch you talk about it on television every day for a few weeks. And it has to be original, as at least one applicant learned. Brandy's problem was interesting as well as solvable: "My goal is to earn a living in comedy here in America, but I don't know where to start." Sadly, it was the same problem suffered by someone in last season's cast.
Starting Over differs from other reality shows in several ways, the most radical being its time slot. It's on every weekday, at the same time as All My Children and The Young and the Restless, and it's going for the same audience: stay-at-home moms and homemakers. (Viewers like me, who work all day and TiVo it to watch at night, are just a bonus.) A week of Starting Over is structured just like a week on those programs: each Monday presents a major conflict (e.g., Susan, who's searching for her birth father, decides to look for clues in Kentucky, where she was born) that gets resolved on Friday (in Kentucky she meets her mom's ex-boyfriend, who gives her a bunch of new information). Friday's cliff-hanger (Susan's life coach arranges a meeting between Susan and her estranged stepdad) turns into the next week's big deal.
The show can be riveting. Its inaugural season, taped in an enormous, well-fortified house in Uptown, provided what was arguably the most intense scene ever on any reality show--more intense than Pedro and Puck's peanut butter scuffle on The Real World: San Francisco, more shocking than Sue telling off Kelly in the first season of Survivor or Jonny Fairplay lying about his dead grandmother in the seventh. A pregnant cast member named Josie (who's back on the show this season) was considering leaving on the orders of her controlling boyfriend, who'd recently kicked her out of his house. For an entire grueling episode and the better part of a real day the rest of the cast begged her to stay. They used sincere appeals, reason, threats, bargaining, tears. Then the only person with the power to talk Josie down came home: Rain, an outspoken ex-trucker whose judgment all the other women respected and feared. "I know that everybody needs love," she told Josie, "but why run back to that?" She grabbed Josie's chin and tilted up her tear-stained face. "I want you to look me in my eye and tell me why you're doing it, Josie." All Josie could say was, "I don't know, Rain."
The scene took 17 minutes--an eternity on TV. By the end Rain had dragged Josie by the arm into the bathroom. A camera fixed on both of their faces in the mirror. "Look in the mirror!" Rain ordered. Josie threw her hands over her face. Rain yanked Josie's hands away and pushed her forward, barely missing the boom mike bobbing above their heads. "Look!" she said. "You have to face yourself one day! Why are you doing this to yourself?" She pulled up Josie's peacoat, exposing her gigantic pregnant belly. She ran through all the reasons Josie shouldn't leave the house and return to her boyfriend, and finally looked over at the housemates in the other room. "She don't even love herself, y'all," she said, shaking her head. "She don't love herself." "I don't want to look at myself anymore," Josie sobbed. Finally she broke away, crying, "Raaaaaaaiiiiin!" The episode ended.
On a more typical episode the cast members meet with two life coaches and a phalanx of personal trainers, etiquette teachers, real estate agents, and beauticians. They have group meetings. They do exercises assigned by the life coaches--writing their faults on balloons, for example, then throwing darts at them, or jumping off a diving board to symbolize "diving into life," or taking a salsa-dancing class to learn to "deal with touch." They also cry, a lot. As the women achieve their stated goals--Susan finding her birth father, for instance--they "graduate" off the show and are replaced by other troubled-but-not-too-troubled women.
The new season, which started September 13 on UPN, is set in LA, and by the end of June the first batch of housemates had already been chosen. The open call at the Hyatt was for the women who would be rotated in later in the season. The task of sorting through the candidates fell largely to Damon Furberg, Starting Over's supervising casting producer, who over the course of a year listens patiently to the life stories of nearly 1,000 unhappy women. The auditions started at 10 AM, by which time there were already more than 60 women waiting in a hallway in the hotel. They were led to the ballroom and told to stay there until they were called. A few of them struck up conversations that sounded like small talk between new inmates: "What are you here for?"
Furberg met with the women in a small, fluorescently lit room in groups of ten. "I'm going to go ahead and tell you guys what to expect," he told one anxious-looking bunch. "What we're going to talk about today is what your goal would be if you were on the show. I'm going to give you guys some tips on how to present that information in a way that a small-minded guy like me can understand it."
Tip number one: "You'll be on the show from a month to three months, sometimes a little bit longer. So you need to think about goals that are achievable in that time frame. We can't make you president of the United States or an astronaut during that period of time, as much as we might like to do that for you."
Tip number two: "Avoid getting into too much history."
Tip number three: "Be specific. A lot of people stay stuff like 'I'm trying to figure out what my passion in life is,' or 'I want a new career.' I don't know exactly what to do with that. One thing we're not very good at is helping people figure out what they want to do. We can't figure that out for ourselves half the time."
The women laughed nervously.
"I promise I'll be very nice to you," Furberg said.
Some jobs require you to serve as a therapist even though you haven't been trained as one: hairstylist, bartender, personal trainer, computer repairman, reality show casting director.
Furberg, who's 32, is just the kind of guy a woman might want to pour her heart out to. With his dimples, earnest smile, and the modest gut that men over 30 get when they spend too much time at work, he's cute but unthreatening. When you talk to him, he leans forward in his chair and asks questions. He says your name. He repeats what you've told him, but in his own words. He is, in short, ideally suited to his work.
His mother was a social worker, so "I grew up around a lot of people with issues," he says, laughing. He graduated from Northwestern University in 1994, then ran his own production company in Chicago for a few years, making music videos and low-budget commercials. "I did all right with it," he says, "but I started it right out of school, and I got burned out. I was working so hard just to stay afloat, so I sort of lost my love for it." Then an old friend who was living in LA called him and told him to come apply for a casting job with Bunim/Murray Productions, the makers of Starting Over as well as The Real World, The Simple Life, and a bunch of other reality shows. "She was like, 'You know, I think you'd be really good at this,'" he says.
Furberg has worked on The Real World ("embarrassingly enough, I cast the Las Vegas season," he says--the skankiest season ever in a crowded field), plus MTV's Tough Enough, where regular people competed for the chance to be pro wrestlers. "That was a lot of fun," he says. "As funny and as white trashy as it may seem, it's just really cool to see people being passionate about anything." The only shows he didn't enjoy working on were the dating shows. "I used to do Taildaters for MTV for a little while," he says, "and those really aren't as interesting, because it's just like, 'Who's your type, who do you want to sleep with, and are you gonna sleep with them on the show?'"
Working on Starting Over has taught him a lot about women. "One of the biggest things that I've learned is that most of the regrets that the women coming to these casting calls have have to do with giving up their dreams for other people--be it their family or their husband or their children, that kind of thing," he says. "A lot of these women are at the point where they're sort of caught in between the 50s idea of what a woman is and the modern idea of what a woman is. They started out as that 50s happy homemaker person, then they hit 40 and their marriage ended, or their kids left home, or whatever, and all of a sudden they see all these other women out there who have careers and identities outside of the home. And they're saying, You know what? I want that. I come out of these auditions and I say to everybody I know--this is going to sound amazingly corny--'Don't give up your dreams, because everybody that comes in that did that, that made a big sacrifice for somebody else, they end up regretting it.'"
Charmaine had approached Furberg before her session started. She was too shy to speak in front of a group. Furberg didn't ask her how she expected to perform in front of a bunch of TV cameras. Instead he made a deal with her: she could prepare a written statement, but she'd have to read it out loud. "Everybody send a lot of positive vibes her way to help her get through it," he instructed.
She pulled out a piece of paper and read in a tiny voice that her nine competitors, sitting around a big rectangular table, had to lean forward to hear. "My name's Charmaine," she said. (Or at least I think she said Charmaine--I could barely hear her.) Her eyes welled up with tears. "I'm 24." She began to hyperventilate.
"It's OK," said Furberg. "Take your time. Nobody's judging you." Under the circumstances it was an absurd, incredibly kind thing to say.
Charmaine went on to talk about her history with drugs, alcohol, and depression. Her boyfriend had recently dumped her, and then she'd lost her job. She had nowhere to live. Around the table, other women started to choke up.
"Take a deep breath," Furberg told Charmaine.
"I want to feel peace again," she said, a bit more audible than before. "I want to smile and laugh. I want to make peace with my faults. I want to stop thinking that I have no life and no hope." She put down the paper and looked up, blushing furiously.
"You know what I loved about that?" said Furberg. "You just got louder and louder and more confident the further you got through that. Now, before I ask you questions, let's give her applause." Everyone clapped and whooped. "What is the one thing that's really the most important to you that you're not getting right now?" he asked Charmaine. She had a hard time thinking of anything specific.
Furberg is careful to spend as much time talking to people like Charmaine, who have no chance of being cast, as he does courting good candidates. "This is going to sound really corny," he says, "but I sort of feel like it's my duty to be an ambassador of the show, in a way, to make everyone feel like they've been heard." Sometimes he wants to refer people to a real therapist or a doctor, but his job doesn't allow him to. He tells the worst cases, "Look, there are a lot of resources out there that can help you with this particular issue, and you really need to do something about it other than, you know, trying out for a TV show." And he's careful to talk to them about something cheerful before their interviews end.
"I have a friend who's a casting director for another show who refers to it as 'closing people up,'" he says. "You know, like after surgery? If you're gonna open 'em up, you gotta make sure you close 'em up before you go. You don't want them to leave there feeling like their stuff's all over the table and they haven't gotten any closure."
Then there's the other end of the spectrum--the people who don't seem to need any help.
"My issue is I'm a recent college graduate, and the job market's really tough right now, and I want to get into something nonprofit and work with something worthwhile," a startlingly enthusiastic 23-year-old named Nicole told her group. As she continued it became increasingly difficult to imagine what advice a TV life coach might offer her: "I'm quite open-minded. I've talked to people, I've been doing a couple job fairs. I have done a little research. I think it would be really cool to work with the United Nations to help people in impoverished countries, like helping people with AIDS, or even inner-city kids here in the U.S."
Then, without pausing, she suggested that perhaps Starting Over could use her help as well: "I was speaking with women in the waiting room, and I also think there's a great need for support. And I was thinking for Starting Over, it'd be really cool to start like a localized community support group, a way to connect up. Maybe they can't go on the show, but maybe they could meet up and do some of those exercises that you guys have created. I think that would be an awesome thing for me to kick-start if that were something you guys might want. It would be good advertising too: all these ladies who are watching may want to join that."
When another woman, Kim, told the group that she wanted to be a writer, but couldn't find any writers' groups in Chicago, Nicole reached into her bag and pulled out a daily planner, which she flipped through until she found what she was looking for: "At the Darien library they have an adult writing group," she informed Kim. "The next one's on the 28th."
After the session Nicole followed me out of the room and outlined some of her other ideas. "I have offshoot shows that I think could be funny to add too," she said. "Like a man's version. I think it would probably end up talking more about how they want to get popular with the ladies." She laughed. "It would be a funny show to watch. I don't know if they'd have as much of a following, because a lot of men don't stay home and watch soaps, but, I don't know, there's an idea there."
Also, "rather than the Jackass show," she went on, "you could have the 'Smartass' show, where you walk around and make fun of people and make smartass remarks."
I told her she should be a Hollywood executive. "I was going to ask you too," she said. "You work at the Reader? Are there any, like, internships or anything there ever? Because I would be interested in getting into journalism for a newspaper or something like that." I told her we don't have regular internships. "What about other newspapers?" she asked brightly. "Do you know about those? Who has internships here in town? You seem to know a lot about that kind of thing. Can I have your e-mail address?"
Her e-mail address, in case you need someone to run a small country for you, is email@example.com.
Furberg says he's looking for four things in these sessions: charisma, likability, emotional availability, and storytelling ability. The dream applicant, he says, has "all of those in spades." But if someone's got most of them, he can work around the rest.
Every once in a while, though, he strikes gold.
Anazella Swapp's goal is to get her GED and become a photographer and a hairstylist. The reason she needs a GED is that she never went to high school--or any school, for that matter. She was homeschooled by her parents in Utah. They didn't do the greatest job, according to her--she had to teach herself to read when she was 11. She's having trouble finding work.
But it's not just her educational credentials that have made it hard. It's also that everyone in town--in Marion, Utah--knows her name. In 1979, Anazella's grandfather John Singer was killed by police who were trying to arrest him for an offense related to his refusal to send his kids to school. Just before the ninth anniversary of his death her father, Addam Swapp, bombed a Mormon church, leading to a 13-day siege by police and the FBI on the family's property. It ended with the death of one police officer and the arrests of Addam Swapp, his brother Jonathan, his brother-in-law John Timothy Singer, his mother-in-law, Vickie Singer, and his two wives, Anazella's aunt Charlotte and her mother, Heidi. Anazella was six years old. A book was written about her family, and NBC made a TV movie about them starring Dennis Franz. Her Starting Over audition was the first time in years that Anazella had talked about any of this with strangers.
"I remember that we always had to crawl underneath a bed because they were always firing bullets at us," she told me afterward. "And they knew there were children in the house. That didn't get out on the news, and that didn't get put in the movie either. I remember putting blankets over the windows because they'd put lights around our house so that they would hurt our eyes if we'd try to look outside, and they could see us if we were outside. They put sirens up, and they had them going all night long to try to drive us out of the house."
The Singers and Swapps considered themselves "true Mormons," meaning in part that they practiced polygamy, unlike members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "That's all I knew," Anazella said. "That's what I grew up with. And it was OK. We had love in our family. I had a really good family before my dad blew up the church."
The news reports at the time, Anazella said, got everything wrong. They said the Swapp kids played with real guns--not true, she insisted. They made it seem like her parents were bad people. They talked about the family property in a weird way. "They called it the Singer-Swapp compound," she said. "But it was just a bunch of houses on the same property." The movie was worse. "It's called Siege at Marion. It's just so embarrassing. It makes us look like a bunch of psychos.
"I barely slept the whole time of the siege. I got really sick on the compound." She laughed. "Now I'm calling it the compound! I got an earache and I was really sick for a couple days. I remember when my dad got shot. He got shot in the chest, an inch away from his heart." She began to cry, and apologized. "He ran into the house. . . . He was bleeding all over. I thought he was going to die."
Anazella's the oldest of 12 children. At the time of the siege there were six kids hiding under beds in her house. Afterward they were put in foster care for a few months, lived with her dad's parents, then went back to their moms. Their father and one of her uncles are still in prison.
Now Anazella is 23, a slight woman with long dark hair, a round face, and a soft voice that contrasts somewhat with the directness of her delivery and her unfaltering gaze. Her trying out for Starting Over was something of a fluke. She and her boyfriend had brought their three-year-old daughter to Chicago to visit his two sisters. During the visit the sisters asked Anazella to join them in the living room. They looked very serious, Anazella said. "They asked me to sit down, because they wanted to explain this television show that they watch all the time."
She'd never seen it. "I grew up without a TV," she said, "so I've never been really big on TV. I watch TV when it can be beneficial." Her favorite shows are the ones you'd expect someone to have who wishes she'd gotten a better education. "I'm interested in the Discovery Channel. I like the Learning Channel. I like watching documentaries and stuff that teaches me about different cultures and stuff." She wasn't sure what the sisters were up to. "I was like, Why are they doing this? I thought maybe they were just catching me up on the show so we could just sit down and watch it together--you know, do this girlie thing."
They watched an episode together. Anazella liked that it was "pretty positive" and that "some of the girls smoked and could drink coffee." (She's not a Mormon anymore.) Then the sisters started crying. "And they were giving me this 'We just think it would be a really good opportunity.' They were like, 'We don't want to offend you,' just because of my whole childhood and background and everything. They didn't want to tell me I had these big problems and I should go on this show to fix them. But I just stayed really open about it, and they said they would do anything to help me get here."
They urged her to send in an audition tape (instructions for which, Furberg wants you to know, you can get by calling 888-633-8149) and went online to find out where to send it, which is how they discovered that auditions were going on live, right here, the very weekend Anazella was in town. "I really didn't want to come down here today," she said, "but everything was just falling into place really well. I decided to try it even though I don't know what's going to happen."
When she arrived at the Hyatt she was so nervous she could barely fill out the application. "I was, like, ready to walk out. I didn't feel confident enough, because I have failed so many times in my life," she said. I suggested that feeling like a failure made her more, not less, qualified for the position. "I guess so!" she said. "I never thought of it that way."
She was second to last to speak during her audition session. "I talked about my goals," she said. "I said that I wanted to become a beautician, to do hair, but I also want to take a class in photography, because I really like to take pictures. And then I started crying and I couldn't hold back. I was just like, Well, I just want you guys to understand that I'm from Utah and I don't have very good social skills. And this is what my dad did, and this is what my family's about. This is the basics. This is where I come from. And so this is why I'm so emotional. I didn't know exactly how to get it out. I kind of went blank after that."
"She has got a pretty fascinating story," Furberg says. "Often you'll get people who have a real crazy backstory like that, and that's all they have. They're really stuck in it. But she seems like she's ready to make a change, and I like that about her. It amazes me sometimes, people who have been through that sort of thing and are afraid to take a GED test. That's nothing compared to what she already survived, you know?"
When Anazella got back from the hotel, one of her boyfriend's sisters told her that the casting staff had called and wanted to speak with her. Anazella assumed she'd botched something on her application. "I was like, 'Do I have to explain what I did wrong?'" she said. "And she's like, 'No, you made it into the finals.' I was like, 'What?' I kind of felt relieved, but then I was like, 'Oh no. More questions.'"
She went back to the Hyatt the next day, where she auditioned all over again, this time on videotape. The tape was sent to more casting people in LA who would pick the next round of finalists. At press time Anazella was still in the running.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.