Surviving reality TV: You gotta have a gimmick

Posted: Wednesday, September 12, 2007

I am an admitted reality show addict. I used to try to limit it to one show at a time, but I've lost control. It's bad enough that "Top Chef" is must-see for me, but I'm watching "Big Brother" three nights a week, and I've even found a cable channel devoted to nothing but reality shows.

I guess "The Real World" in the early 1990s was the gateway drug to this addiction. I can also blame my job for the bingeing.

I started watching three cooking-related reality shows this summer. First up was "The Next Food Network Star," then "Hell's Kitchen," followed by "Top Chef."

Soon Gordon Ramsay will have an American version of his BBC show "Kitchen Nightmares." My addiction is so bad that I couldn't wait and had to catch a couple of episodes of the original on BBC America.

With all of this reality viewing, I think I've come up with a guide on not only how to become a contestant, but how to survive on these "loser leaves the kitchen" shows.

To be a contestant:

* You need a gimmick be it wild hair, pouffy hair or no hair, an ordinary do won't do. Short of wearing a John 3:16 multicolored fright wig, hair has to stand out. Which is sort of scary because none of these chefs wear the required head coverings in the kitchen.

If hair won't get you noticed, get inked up. Tattoos, especially around your hands and neck (where the camera will catch them) are a big plus.

It also helps to be an "extreme." Tall, short, fat or thin, someone who looks out of place will fit right in.

* Have skills, but not too many. You want to know your way around the kitchen, but if you are too proficient, you'll win too many challenges and make the show boring. Have a weakness and let everyone know what it is so that the producers can exploit it at every turn.

* Have a story. Viewers need to connect to the fact you are an ex-con, a former nun-turned-stripper-turned-sous chef, or a mother of triplets who realizes only after being sequestered for two days that you miss your babies terribly.

But getting on is only the first step. To do well, you need to:

* Fly under the radar. On "Big Brother," Dr. Will famously never won the coveted Head of Household challenge but ended up winning the grand prize. The strategy works on the cooking shows, as well. The trick is to let the judges know you can cook, but don't knock their socks off. Wow them once, and they will expect the same every week.

* If you are crazy enough to want to be on Hell's Kitchen, for crying out loud learn to cook risotto, crab cakes and Beef Wellington. It seems that these dishes are the only menu items. Even after seven weeks, the chefs can't prepare these dishes to Ramsay's expectations.

* When asked to work in a team setting, be the guy who listens to all the rules for the challenge and try to be in charge of the money.

Lapses in cooking ability will be forgiven if you're the team member who remembers that there is a $200 spending limit and that the only food items that can be purchased are ones that start with the letters "B," "M" or "T."

* When you have messed up a team challenge, don't be shy about throwing a teammate under the bus. It won't make you popular with the other contestants, but it's the judges you need to sway. Live to cook another day.

Most of all, remember this: In the world of reality TV, it's not about cooking. It's all about entertaining.

Dan Macdonald can be reached at

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