The Real Story Behind My Experience On A Reality Show

Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Donofrio.
“Do you watch UnReal? It’s so good,” says everyone, all the time. While I have no reason to doubt this, I will not watch. It might bring back some uncomfortable memories.

“That time I was on a reality show” is an excellent party trick; a perennial story that’s fun to pull out on an early date. But reliving the whole experience still makes me cringe.

The year is 2005. Facebook is a college-only social network. The first videos are just appearing on YouTube. I’m a senior at Barnard College with dreams of working for a magazine, but I lack connections and find the prospect intimidating.

So when the editor-in-chief of Seventeen comes to speak on campus, I arrive early enough to snag a front-row seat. At the end of the talk, she plugs a new project — a reality show in collaboration with MTV, featuring a handful of carefully vetted young women. Her description sounds vaguely feminist, highly positive, and, quite frankly, unlike anything to ever grace a screen emblazoned with the MTV logo. The grand prize is a scholarship and an internship at the magazine. By now, all members of the audience — two dozen media-hungry overachievers at a women’s college — are practically salivating. She urges us to audition, and it feels like fate.

We wear microphones at all times, including when sleeping and using the bathroom.

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Early the next morning, I head down to Manhattan’s Meatpacking District to scope out the open call. A long line of young women snakes around the building, an imposing brick nightclub doubling as an event space for the day. Some of them are with their mothers, Mama Rose types who fluff their daughters’ hair and straighten their outfits. Others stand in groups, talking about their nerves. I spy a couple women I recognize from school. We are given numbers and paperwork, while people with headsets herd us like anxious livestock. I consider fleeing, but something urges me to stay.

Once inside, we’re divided into clusters of 10 for a group discussion. We sit in a circle, two casting directors in the middle. They pose topical questions like “Who’s a better role model, Paris Hilton or Laura Bush?” It is very 2005.
Photo: Craig Sjodin/ABC.
Next comes the written audition, a hefty paper questionnaire filled with personal queries. From religious beliefs and political associations to thoughts about friendship and favorite designers, no topic is left untouched. It’s longer than the SAT.

Over the next few weeks, I receive a series of calls from the casting directors. Can I meet them in a midtown hotel for a callback? Can I do a screen test? Can they speak to my friends and family? Can I fly to a final callback in L.A.?

A kernel of dread takes up residence in my stomach. While a TV show seems like an exciting prospect, reality shows — The Real World, Big Brother, Survivor — are still relatively uncharted territory. Can this show be as positive as these producers make it seem?

When the fateful call comes, I feel numb. It’s like watching a Lifetime movie about somebody else, a character who makes poor life decisions for our collective amusement.

“YOU’RE GOING TO BE A CAST MEMBER!” shouts the first casting director.

“CONGRATULATIONS!” shouts the second.

“Oh. That’s great,” I say.

“Aren’t you going to yell?” they ask. “Everyone else we’ve called so far has screamed into the phone.”

“Sure. I mean, I’m very excited!” I say, at a volume I hope is convincing.

Every show has their typecast equivalent of 'the bitch from New York.' This time, I fear it will be me.

We are told the show will film that summer in NYC, though the exact location remains a secret. I tell my boss at my summer job that I’ll be taking off an indeterminate amount of time to appear on a reality show. She looks at me quizzically, but does not protest.

The following week, a van picks me up at my dorm, ostensibly to head to the set. Instead, we drive out of the city and eventually arrive at a budget hotel near LaGuardia Airport. “All the girls are scattered in the general area,” the producer says, making a circular hand gesture. But contact is strictly prohibited. I’m instructed to stay in my room, order all meals from room service, and charge them to the network. They will not disclose how long I’ll be there. And then I am alone.

I stay there for two strange, isolated days. At one point, there is a knock on the door, yielding stylists who trim my hair and eyebrows. Another knock on the door yields a photographer, to take a headshot.

“Can you show me some attitude?” asks the photographer. I put on my best sort-of-sexy mirror face. Apparently this isn’t enough. “Can you look more pissed?” he asks.

Every show has its typecast equivalent of “the bitch from New York.” This time, I fear it will be me.

At last, a producer arrives to retrieve me. Any and all devices are confiscated, as “consuming media does not make for good media.” I’m herded back into the van with a gaggle of girls, where we are instructed not to speak. Our initial introductions must be captured on camera.
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Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Donofrio.
At long last, we arrive on set — a townhouse in the Financial District and our home for the foreseeable future. We file out of the van and take turns riding a taxi up and down the same block. We film getting out of the taxi and entering the front door. We do this around five times, to sufficiently capture all angles. This will become a recurring theme.

The set design is one big gender stereotype. Hot pink reigns supreme. There are mirrors everywhere, but it won’t occur to me until later that they’re vessels for hidden cameras. Most upsettingly, the windows are frosted over, as daylight interferes with the lighting. I’ve unwittingly entered a Barbie-themed hostage situation. We have no inkling of weather or time.

The other girls, many of them recent high school graduates, are younger than I am. While three or four years may be a blip on the timeline of humanity, it stretches like a vast chasm between the ages of 18 and 21. At 18, you’re a recent high school student, embracing newfound freedom, fake IDs, the ability to get a tattoo. But 21 is a whole new landscape, with job applications, legally ordering Jack-and-Gingers, trying on the word “woman” to see if it fits.

Multiple contestants are cheerleaders, and the atmosphere is perpetually awash in spirited rhymes. A human pyramid rises and falls across the width of the living room.

To this day, watching unscripted television gives me a surge of anxiety.

We wear microphones at all times, including when sleeping and using the bathroom. They need to capture audio of whatever happens behind closed doors.

I grow quiet.

A few times a day, we are taken to a tiny room to do a “confessional.” We’re asked a series of leading questions and instructed to incorporate the questions into our answers so they sound like independent thoughts. The questions I’m asked have no acceptable answers. “Which girl in the house do you hate the most, and why?” There is nothing to say, so I stop talking.

We are told there will be “challenges” where contestants will be pitted against one another. The focus will not be on championing women, but on exposing the “reality” behind “seemingly perfect girls.”

To this day, watching unscripted television gives me a surge of anxiety. I can’t help but imagine the contestants — bachelorettes, chefs, housewives, you name it — filming multiple takes. I can’t help but wonder about the many, many minutes that are edited away, hear the words they said before and after the quotes taken out of context.

Five days later, we are told it’s time for the first “elimination round.” I am one of seven girls asked to leave the show, for “failure to make a good first impression.” I am thrilled to be free. But for months afterward, I cannot shake the icky, complicated feeling of failing at something I didn’t want to succeed at in the first place.

I will play this experience over and over again in the years that follow. I’ll refer back to it as I learn things about myself — how to navigate group dynamics, the importance of privacy, the values I hold dear. For months, I feel alternating levels of pride and shame. Should I have sensed my hesitation before I agreed to participate? Should I have tried harder to speak my mind?
Photo: Craig Sjodin/ABC.
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Now, when I think back on the experience, I find it strangely endearing. There I was, before I even knew who I was. A ruminator, an observer. Wanting to call bullshit but searching for the right voice.

At the time of filming, the show still has a working title. Eventually, once the cameras stop rolling and all is done, the title is confirmed as Miss Seventeen. This is unfortunate for at least 17 reasons.

The show airs in October of 2005, immediately following The Hills. I watch the first episode at the fancy launch party, my heart in my throat. The only words I speak on air take place at our first group dinner, where each cast member is asked to share a fact. Who are we and what are we about? We can share anything we want, they say, but it should be something a stranger couldn’t see upon meeting us. The answers are varied: tennis, slam poetry, family. When it’s my turn, I say the only thing that comes to mind.

To this day, my fact — “My name is Caroline, and I’m concerned with the way women are portrayed in the media” — remains the only sentence I’ve uttered on television. It feels like a peculiar kind of justice.

Now, when I’m asked to provide a “fun fact,” I like to say I once appeared on a really embarrassing reality show. But for the record, I’m still concerned.