Former Big Brother host Ian O’Malley moved on to a career in radio, film, and philanthropy
In reality TV history, American Idol co-host Brian Dunkleman is perhaps the most in/famous forgotten host; his co-host Ryan Seacrest is hosting the Emmys tonight, and who knows where he is, besides being mocked. While Big Brother host Julie Chen gets her own share of criticism and mocking, but she wasn’t always alone.
Ian O’Malley has appeared in The School of Rock and The Hoax, and works as a DJ at Q104.3 in New York City. But seven years ago, he was also the other Big Brother host. I’d completely forgotten about him until I recently received a witty and self-deprecating e.mail message, in which Ian himself wrote, “I know the show sucked. And still does. I look back at my 6 weeks on the lot at CBS and BB with a mixture of relief that I got out relatively unscathed,” he wrote.
But the show still haunts him, and he explained that I’m somewhat to blame, since a search for his name comes up with this brief post in the first page of results. Ian wrote, “Now granted I probably did look like an idiot, but that doesn’t mean that i have to live in infamy with this line from your page popping up whenever my name is searched does it?” Alas, it kind of does; that’s the nature of Google and bad reality shows. But his message was intriguing enough to try to find out why he was fired and what he thinks of the show today.
In an interview with reality blurred, Ian said that when his then-agent offered the host/reporter job on the first season, “I didn’t really know what it was. This is the ground floor of reality television.” But “SAG went on strike,” and it was a “very lengthy and very painful strike for many folks.” While Ian says the job “[wasn’t] really my thing, the money they were offering was terrific.”
He auditioned and got the job, but says, “I didn’t have a very good feeling about it. But I figured, hey, give it a whirl, it’s network television; they money was fantastic, so it just seemed win-win.” Of the show’s premise, he says, “I knew the critics were probably going to go bananas because of the voyeuristic aspect.” He was the show’s reporter, talking to in-studio host Julie Chen from outside the house and also interviewing the houseguests’ family members.
Ian says he was let go from the show after a few weeks because he’d finished the on-location interviews with families, and the executive producers told him, “We’re making some changes here to the show and we’re going to eliminate your position.” He asked if it was his performance, and they assured him that it wasn’t. Among the changes the producers instituted was, Ian says, a “walk of shame” for the evicted houseguests; instead of Ian meeting them to interview them, they’d walk to the studio alone, followed by a camera. (A New York Times article back in 2000 also said that producers let him go to give Julie Chen more time to interview the houseguests and act like the journalist she was supposed to be.)
When they fired him, “it was the first time I saw Hollywood at its worst,” Ian said, because “the next thing that comes out of the guys’ mouth was, ‘We can arrange to release you from your contract so you can pursue other opportunities.’” At that point, he had a “guaranteed contract for a 13 week season,” and he realized that the producers “wanted to screw me out of my money.” He told them, “you decided to eliminate my position, so be it, but I had a guaranteed [contract]. I can give you $1 million of good publicity when you leave here, or I can give you $1 million of bad. Which will it be?” They paid him per his contract. “I was relieved when I left; there’s no doubt about that,” Ian told me.
Of his performance on the show, he said, “the critics were pretty tough, but I didn’t give a shit; I have have a pretty thick skin. … I understood that I was going to get beat up a little bit; I’m not a dummy.” One critic, for example, said he had the “worst dye job” ever. He also acknowledges that what he did on the show seemed ridiculous, like the first-episode, single-take tour of the house that he conducted. “Me doing that whole tour of the house was going to look pretty stupid anyway,” he said. “When you’re talking about stupid stuff,” Ian said, he’d ask himself, “How am I going to do this without looking like an idiot?” Overall, he says the producers and editors didn’t manipulate his footage, although “a couple of times I noticed they did some selective edits.”
As to the show’s now-permanent host, “I felt very badly for Julie. … She’s a news anchor; you start dealing with credibility issues. … I have nothing but nice things to say about Julie Chen,” as she was “pleasant to the staff” and critics “really unloaded on her.”
Ian is still recognized from the show, and still gets offers to host reality shows. But he hasn’t watched the series he once hosted. “I’ve probably seen a grand total of 20 minutes of Big Brother since I left the show,” he said. “Frankly, I’m surprised that the show’s still on the air.” Instead of wasting his summers on the hamsters and the new group of producers, he works in radio, has appeared in films and on TV, and does charity work. “It was an experience I don’t regret,” Ian said. “It gave me a real for what big-time television is all about, and I don’t want to live in Los Angeles.”