Jay McCarroll is homeless; Bravo’s reality stars struggle with fame

Although has a studio space with no kitchen or bathroom, Jay McCarroll, the winner of Project Runway, is homeless. “I haven’t been living anywhere for two years. I sleep at other people’s houses. I sleep here if I’m drunk,” he told New York magazine for their 6,000-word, quasi-expose of Bravo’s reality show stars and the network’s treatment of them. It reveals that Jay rejected the show’s $100,000 prize because “the Weinstein Company would forever own a 10 percent stake in his brand,” although that’s no longer an issue because “[t]he company has since dropped the clause.”

Project Runway may not get its own True Hollywood Story, but the New York piece comes close enough, chronicling what happened to past contestants on that show and others such as Top Chef, and makes grand statements about the shows’ appeal. Jennifer Senior argues that “[f]or ‘coastal, educated’ people, the base of Bravo’s viewers, these shows offer idealized reflections of their lives–urban, verbal, multiethnic, creative, gay–and, like an idealized life in the city, they’re mini-meritocracies, driven not just by personality but talent. For the contestants, the implicit promise of these shows is that they’re time machines, compressing the brutal urban mechanics of getting ahead–the political maneuvering, the grinding incremental labor–from a matter of years to months.”

Among other things, the article points out that “the participants are forced to live in freak isolation from the rest of the world and claustrophobic propinquity to one another,” which Senior argues “seem a bit extreme, and their effect, intended or incidental, is to push the contestants to the breaking point.” That’s because contestants “are not allowed money, credit cards, cell phones, newspapers, magazines, televisions, or Internet access. They cannot make independent excursions without a chaperone; they have to schedule phone calls through the producers, who monitor their every word. They can’t listen to iPods, can’t listen to the radio (among other reasons, Bravo would have to pay for the rights to the songs). They can’t even have sex with one another to pass the time. … In fact, the contestants are left with little to do on these shows except drive each other barking mad.”

And as Tom Colicchio helpfully points out, “Plus, they’re drinking.” There are other harsh conditions: Top Chef 2 filmed in a building in Los Angeles that “had no air conditioners” although “[t]here were days when it reached 110 degrees outside.”

As a result of “enduring the rigors of the shows, however–the sleeplessness, the loneliness, the intense public scrutiny–many of the contestants believe, with some justification, that they’re entitled to the financial rewards the world offers them without Bravo’s intervention, especially when many of them were responsible for making the shows so interesting to watch,” the article says.

Lauren Zalaznick, Bravo’s president, says, “Everything associated with Bravo isn’t just driving a rating. It’s driving a business.” Part of that business now includes a talent management agency, although she “points out that the new arrangement” is “optional, not required” and “would help address exactly the kind of confusion that insta-celebrities from Bravo face, providing career guidance, helping sort wheat from chaff, negotiating deals that’d keep them in the public eye.”

But Heidi Klum says that the contestants are basically whiners: “This show is an opportunity. But guidance? You do that with children. As an adult, you have to find your own way in this world.”

The Near-Fame Experience [New York magazine]

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.