Citizens of the world live in a world of ambient intimacy, a voyeuristic society where, thanks to Facebook and Twitter, everyone can monitor each other’s every move down to the smallest intimate detail.
Television, too, has earned a deserved rep as an emotional free-for-all, where unknowns around the country are plucked from their humdrum lives, slapped on to reality series where they are trailed by cameras and crew, and lay bare their deepest, darkest and most embarrassing secrets for the entire universe to watch.
From the groundbreaking 1973 PBS docu series “An American Family” to E!’s seminal “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” reality has replaced fantasy in mainstream media entertainment. Fake is out; real is in.
But how real is reality TV?
“Personally, I felt more like I was more myself in front of the camera than I was off,” says Dustin Zito, the 25-year-old Louisiana-reared castmember on MTV’s “Real World,” now in its 25th season and set in a luxe pad in Las Vegas’ Hard Rock Hotel. “The cameras actually gave me the opportunity to show who I really am. I made sure to articulate the way I really felt about things. Some people on the show dumbed it down because there were things they didn’t want America to know about them, but for me, that was never an option.”
Zito, who defended his porn star past on a recent episode, admits the presence of cameras was a bit distracting. But very quickly they became as incidental as moving furniture or a lamp in the room.
“By the end you complete forgot they were there,” he claims of the film crew following him around 24/7. “You don’t look at the camera. You don’t acknowledge the camera. It’s like the camera isn’t there.”
Heather Marter, Zito’s 22 year-old “Real World” castmate, was initially intimidated by the prospect of surveillance cameras charting her every waking breath.
“We were always miked,” she recalls. “If we turned off our microphones then we had to completely stop talking.”
Eventually, though, she made a commitment to bare all and hide nothing.
“If there’s anything I can say about this cast, it’s that all of us went into it promising to be ourselves,” says Marter, a television production major at New Jersey’s Monmouth U. “Whether or not it was going to be controversial, we wanted it to be relatable and honest. We all agreed that if you change yourself for the camera, you’re only hurting yourself. We were extremely ourselves. You make real friends, have real fights and real romances. You get so involved in your life that you sometimes forget that you’re on a show.”
Jeff Jenkins, exec producer on “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” — the E! skein about to enter its sixth season — refers to the cluster of on-set cameramen as “ghosts.”
“For some people it takes a few days, others a few weeks, but eventually the crew, cameras and lights really become like wallpaper,” he explains. “The cast and crew develop a relationship of trust. While the cast can feel the cameras or maybe see them out of the corner of their eyes, it’s like we’re not really there.”
If there’s one thing viewers can’t possibly accuse the Kardashian clan of, it’s that they are not real, contends Jenkins.
“This family is the reason that people find the show so compelling,” he asserts. “Their lives are an open book. Khloe got married on TV. Bruce Jenner had a facelift on TV. Kourteney pulled a baby out of her vagina on TV. We could have chosen any family, but we chose a loud, sexy, pleasantly dysfunctional and unique family on purpose. That’s what makes it a reality show.”
While some reality stars find themselves at a gig signing autographs at an Ohio mall or a brief appearance on a network affiliate talkshow, the Kardashians have successfully turned themselves into a multimillionaire-dollar branding juggernaut, a feat to which Jenkins attributes the brood’s tight-knit dynamic.
“At the end of the day you want to be in this family,” says Jenkins. “They love each other and they have each other’s back. They don’t have armies of friends; they are each other’s best friends. The moms can identity with Kris, the dads with Bruce. It cuts across the whole family spectrum.”
For Zito, his stint on the “Real World” has opened up a world of opportunity, one he doesn’t see as hampering any future career in the works.
“I don’t think my experience on the show will typecast me in any way or prevent me doing what I ultimately want to do,” says the aspiring salesman who hopes to continue in the field. “I was myself the entire time, and I’m still me now. For me, what happens after the show is the best part of the journey.”
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