In a world where Tila Tequila, Spencer Pratt and Bret Michaels dominate, higher education doesn’t exactly seem like a priority. In its infancy reality TV gave us gems such as Jessica Simpson’s statememt: “Am I eating chicken or tuna?” in reference to the Chicken of the Sea tuna can she was holding. Only certain people get away with saying things like that, but they are responsible for creating a negative stereotype of idiocy that surrounds reality TV.
Despite these stereotypes, Cornell boasts a handful of alumni who are members of this exclusive group — ranging from the Class of 1975 to 2007, on shows as varied as The Apprentice and MTV’s Real World/Road Rules Challenge.
Even with the variation between the shows and the type of people whom they attract, some producers have actually come to Cornell looking for their next stars.
Evan Starkman ’07, who has been on reality shows on MTV such as The Gauntlet 3, The Duel 1 and 2 and The Ruins, was recruited at Cornell.
“They actually had a casting call at Stella’s. I didn’t want to go because I thought it was super lame but this girl that I was talking to at the time at Cornell wanted to go, so she convinced me and it worked,” Starkman recalled.
Initially Starkman failed to make the cut after the group interview — but his “annoying” friend did.
“I just walked back downstairs and I grabbed a producer and was like ‘listen buddy, I think you made a mistake because I will never sleep again if this girl makes the next round and I don’t — so you gotta help me out here,’” Starkman said. “And sure enough I made the next round.”
Jim Babcock ’07 grad ’08 was a contestant on The CW’s Beauty and The Geek — which surprisingly or not recruits from Cornell.
“The first I heard of Beauty and the Geek was when some friends of mine informed me that the show had set up a casting center in the middle of Collegetown, that they had already sent the director a photo and a write-up of me and that he really wanted me,” Babcock stated in an e-mail.
From that, Babcock knew he had a good chance of being on the show, and with his “extensive resume of verifiable geek credentials” he was good to go. He specifically refers to his pocket protector wearing (for over 10 years!), video game writing, computer science degree from Cornell and his giant beard as reasons for making it onto the show. The added bonus was his sense of humor, which made him an ideal candidate.
“I never imagined I’d go on reality TV, or any television program, because I saw TV as an uninteresting career option rather than as the very interesting one-off it turned out to be,” Babcock explained.
For many people vying to be on reality TV it’s not as easy as stumbling upon a casting call for something you never wanted in the first place.
Stacy Schneider ’89 was, according to a friend of hers, a perfect fit for The Apprentice.
“I didn’t really pay much attention to her and then I went out to Los Angeles to take the California bar,” Schneider, a criminal defense lawyer, explained. “I had a lot of free time and I noticed they were looking for a new cast and were on season five already. And I decided — you know what, I finally have the time to try out for something like this — I’m gonna do it.”
For some shows like The Apprentice, education is much more highly valued and promoted on the show. On Schneider’s season, Lee Bienstock ’05 came in second place. He could not be reached for comment, but fans of The Apprentice can tell how much Donald Trump, a Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania grad, loves elite higher education.
“Oh, he’s huge on the Ivy League,” Schneider explained. “He looks for that; he loves Ivy League grads.”
On her season there was only one other Ivy Leaguer on the season. But only Bienstock and Schneider shared that Big Red bond.
“We talked about the fact that we both went to Cornell,” Schneider explained, “we became friendly on the show but, you know, there’s a big age gap between us.”
Though he began his journey by just being a fan, Daniel Barry ’75 found himself competing on Survivor: Panama Islands - Exile Island, another show less prey to the negative stereotypes of reality TV As a former NASA astronaut, Barry was also intrigued by the small group dynamics on the show — a topic he had long been interested in — so he also sent an audition tape.
For Barry and Schneider, taking the time off from reality for their reality TV pursuits was manageable — Schneider had just moved cross-country, and Barry had recently left NASA. However, for Starkman being on his show Real World/Road Rules Challenge: Fresh Meat meant leaving Cornell mid-way through the semester.
“I had to leave Cornell. I signed up for classes, I went to classes in September and then I told some of my professors I was going to be going away for a couple of months and we needed to figure out a way to make it work and we did. So I had a full course load,” Starkman explained.
Ironically, the semester Starkman, a government major, was in Australia shooting his show was one of his better semesters academically.
“I kind of upset a few people in the administration, that’s for sure,” Starkman added. “I guess in the theoretical world you shouldn’t be able to leave Cornell University for six and a half weeks and still do well. But as any student knows, that’s completely possible. It’s bogus. I was in the College of Arts and Sciences, to be fair. I suppose if you’re an engineer or something missing six or seven weeks of school is not good.”
The administration certainly was unhappy with Starkman. On his show, he explained, they usually let people wear college apparel even though it isn’t a company that paid to have their clothes promoted.
“The show approved for me to wear a Cornell sweater, but Cornell wouldn’t approve of me to. It was funny. I was blacklisted at Cornell, which is cool,” Starkman laughed.
Going from school to the set is just one type of shock that these contestants initially experienced during their filming.
The scale of the production particularly surprised Babcock, having always thought of reality shows as low budget. He was additionally shocked by the time scale, which he described as “compressed time” in which mundane, everyday tasks are removed.
“A single episode represents only about a half a week of real time but involves more drama and interesting events than a year of ordinary living,” Babcock explained.
The same was the case for The Apprentice. While each episode of The Apprentice seems to take a week, each task only lasts between 24 and 48 hours, and you are fired the next day. It was this speed that particularly impressed Schneider.
“Getting the tasks done and carrying out goals that would’ve taken corporate America three to four weeks to execute and executing it in 24 to 48 hours [was my favorite part]. It just made you feel like you could accomplish anything and it really makes you feel like you’re on top of the world when you can do that and pull of a major project,” she described.
For the unique contestants attracted by each show, the favorite experiences differ greatly.
For Babcock, a geek on Beauty and The Geek, his favorite moment came from the first day of production — which was not only a learning experience, but a time to meet the people he’d be living and competing with. Babcock seemed to fit right in from the start.
“We, the geeks, started out doing a bunch of walking around shots for the intro sequence, then walked into this big dark hangar where [the announcer] Mike Richards stood in a spotlight to welcome us to the show. He asks ‘are you ready?’ and I shout back ‘hells plural yeah!’ — pause; ‘person who shouted hells plural yeah raise your hand; say that again without everyone else shouting over it,’ — resume,” Babcock fondly recalled.
As a contestant on Beauty and The Geek, Babcock engaged in a series of tasks during his time on the show including a talent show, a phone number gathering contest, flag football, a science fair and a love hotline. It was the love hotline that led to Babcock and his partner Tiffany to be eliminated.
“Unfortunately, I’m not as eloquent on the spot as in writing, and learning physics in one afternoon is completely impossible, so we went into elimination (a two versus two trivia challenge) against Matt and Leticia. I didn’t miss any questions, but the setup was such that it depended more on buzzer-pressing speed than accuracy,” Babcock explained.
He lasted until the fourth episode.
For some, elimination comes even sooner, which was the case with Schneider.
In the second challenge of The Apprentice, teams worked on a text messaging advertising campaign for Gillette razors.
“We had to go to on the streets of New York and see how many people we could get to text message into Gillette and the team with the highest number of text messages would win the task. I was fired for picking a bad location [as a native New Yorker],” Schneider said.
Initially Schneider’s family had worried that she might be embarrassed or look stupid being on a reality TV show. But Schneider was not embarrassed but angry about how soon she was fired.
“I knew I had a lot to offer and I thought the firing reasons were … manipulated … let’s say. I don’t think it was an accurate picture of how the “job” was executed, but that’s TV,” Schneider lamented.
TV has a way of manipulating the situation by the way they edit the film, which was part of the reason Katarzyna Dolinska ’07 was eliminated from America’s Next Top Model Cycle 10. The host, Tyra Banks, perceived Dolinska as boring — and therefore not top model material.
For Barry, however, being voted off in Survivor’s tribal council was something he attributes, in retrospect, to the harsh conditions he was exposed to.
“I had been through a couple of military survival schools where they just pounded into you — you cannot let yourself get dehydrated. So I was checking myself every day and thought that I was down about five pounds of water weight, and by the way, just so you know, the issue is that the water that you are given is not clean water so you have to boil it to drink it okay,” Barry recounted. “And the problem is that it rains everyday in the tropics, so the availability of dry wood was low. In fact that was our biggest difficult, was finding enough dry wood to keep the fire going to boil water to be able to drink it — and we were way low.”
Barry’s estimates were way low. By the time he got home and weighed himself, he found that he had lost about 33 pounds due to his dehydration. Because it was mostly water weight, Barry gained most of the weight he had lost in those two and a half weeks by his third day at home.
It was this rapid weight loss that, according to Barry, led to the loss of his last challenge — a puzzle challenge in which teams had to find large puzzle pieces and put them together.
“In retrospect that had a big impact on things like energy levels and judgment and probably being able to solve that puzzle was directly related to dehydration,” Barry said.
It didn’t help that the opposite team had given immunity to Sally, the other person responsible for the failure of the challenge, leaving Barry and his alliance of four others to turn against one another. In fact, Terry, an original teammate of Barry’s and the person with who he made his initial alliance with, was the one who turned against him.
“One of us had to go. And basically, my best friend, that dirty snake in the grass, Terry, voted against me so I was gone,” Barry said, only half-laughing.
After people were eliminated from their shows, they were ushered into seclusion. For Barry it was “the losers lodge” and for Schneider, it was a hotel in a still undisclosed (for contractual reasons) location in New York.
The seclusion and elimination was a blessing in disguise for Schneider, who used her time productively to write her first book He Had it Coming: How to Outsmart Your Husband and Win Your Divorce. Donald Trump, who Schneider said is very supportive of the projects his apprentices engage in after the show, even endorsed the book for Schneider.
The aftermath of all of these shows led to interesting and unexpected experiences for the former reality contestants. All of the contestants — with the notable exception of Babcock who underwent a makeover on the last episode of Beauty and The Geek — report being recognized in public.
Schneider in particular was surprised at how many people recognized her even though she was fired so soon. Immediately after the show, people would often stop her on the streets of New York.
“[The other apprentices and I] get together for dinner in the city and people would come up. One man actually came up and sat down at the table with us without asking. [He sat there] for a good 10 minutes before we told him we had some business to take care of so we had to excuse ourselves,” Schenider humorously recalled.
Starkman, who has been on numerous MTV reality shows and is a host in MTV Canada, reports getting recognized frequently.
“It’s kind of trippy. [My shows] are so heavily played — it doesn’t just play on Wednesday nights on the 10 Spot, it’s like Wednesday night and then they immediately put it on again at 11. And then Thursday morning, Thursday afternoon, four episodes Thursday night — it’s always on. So you really become a very highly recognized person. And it’s like weird because people not only think they know you but have an opinion about you. You get to meet people — I love meeting people. Sometimes it gets a little hectic, but it’s great,” Starkman said.
Because Starkman has done so much work on MTV, he gets the perks of being “part of the MTV family,” like attending the Movie Awards and VMAs. He has even gotten the opportunity to meet celebrity fans of his shows, such as Queen Latifah — an experience he described in one word: “ridiculous.”
Starkman has made a career for himself out of his reality TV experiences — he just finished filming a traveling show.
“I just spent the last two months in places that I don’t ever to get to visit and now I probably won’t have to work for the rest of the year. It’s amazing. But at the same time I’m jealous of all my friends from Cornell that are in New York — eh I’m not jealous of anyone sitting behind a desk actually,” Starkman joked.
Dolinska has also used her experiences of being on reality TV to create a career.
“I continued modeling after the show, signing with Elite Model Management in New York, Ace Models in Athens, Greece and Ford Models in Paris, France,” Dolinska stated in an e-mail.
Dolinska, who currently lives in Paris modeling full time, explained that since the show she has appeared in numerous fashion magazines and runway shows.
“This work [that I’m doing now] has nothing to do with America’s Next Top Model and I was allowed to — but did not — use any of my photographs from the show in my portfolio,” Dolinska explained.
These Cornellians walk a fine line between the stereotypes of the reality TV world and those of the Ivy League.
Starkman, a victim of many of these stereotypes, merely because he shares a network with The Hills, 16 and Pregnant and A Double Shot at Love, sometimes feels the need to hide his educational level.
He doesn’t mean to insult the other reality TV people.
“I don’t want to give the show, or reality people, in general, a bad rep. Especially because I’m part of the club so I’m basically calling myself an idiot every time I call them that. I’ve met some incredible people,” Starkman explained.
Even so, Starkman has an interesting way of telling people about his Ivy League education.
“I usually say Upstate New York and then if they say ‘where’ I say ‘I went to school in Ithaca.’ And then if they say ‘where’ then I say Cornell — so it’s third on my where did you go to school list.” Starkman said.
“I would never want to start a conversation with ‘hey I went to Cornell’ because then all of the sudden you’re offering some very stereotypical information.”