Reality Television: An Actor's Career Boost or Bust?

By Simi Horwitz

So is appearing on a reality TV show a good thing for actors or not? Well, it seems to be a mixed bag. But following the old adage "You never know," aspiring young actors are increasingly deciding to give reality TV a shot. After all, the reasoning goes, there's little to lose and perhaps a lot to gain: Actress Jacinda Barrett, for one, launched a burgeoning film and television career ("Ladder 49," "The Human Stain," "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason") after appearing on MTV's "The Real World: London" in 1995. If it happened once, it could happen again, right?

Back Stage decided to interview three: Paul Stancato ("Cupid"), Cynthia Silver ("Bridezilla"), and James Getzlaff ("Boy Meets Boy"). All were reluctant to appear in a genre they viewed as tawdry at best, and all have made some career headway as a result of their reality TV exposure—though not necessarily in the way they had intended.

In fact, all admit it was a decidedly confusing experience. None would do it again (at least, not in the same way) or recommend it to other actors. Silver, who is based in New York City, says she was a virtual laughing stock among industry insiders thanks to her appearance on "Bridezilla." Nonetheless, she used the experience as the basis for a one-woman show, "Bridezilla Strikes Back," and is hoping to turn this wretched episode in her life into something positive for her career.

Stancato, also based in New York, says, "I would not do another reality TV show. It's not acting. Although in hindsight, I would play it much bigger than I did, make more of an effort to be funny. I was very cautious and that was a mistake. Reality TV shows may be good for standup comics who have large presences all by themselves."

Still, he made professional contacts as a result of his appearance on the short-lived "Cupid," and those contacts are producing his Off-Off-Broadway show "Rock Show," slated to open at the end of April at Club El Flamingo. But here's the kicker: The producers were fellow contestants—an entrepreneur and a motivational speaker—who had never produced before. "It was all kind of a fluke," Stancato says.

The Los Angeles–based Getzlaff offers, "My advice to actors is do not do reality TV. The success stories are very few, and transitioning the experience into something good is rare. I was fortunate, but I still think there's a stigma attached to appearing on reality TV."

Among the three, Getzlaff's experiences are the most striking. Following his six appearances on "Boy Meets Boy," a gay dating show that aired on Bravo in the summer of 2003, "I appeared on the 'Today' show, 'The View,' and a number of radio shows," he recalls. "I was profiled for such magazines as Out, The Advocate, and appeared on the cover of [the issue of] Vanity Fair that did a story on the 'gay wave.'

"But I was forced to leave my day job because the people I worked with were jealous. Still, I was able to take a year off and travel."

Getzlaff won $25,000 on "Boy Meets Boy" and his newfound freedom gave him the opportunity to participate in—and often serve as a motivational speaker at—a host of gay-related events, ultimately leading to his appearance in the Off-Off-Broadway show "My Big Gay Italian Wedding." While in New York, Getzlaff was cast in the independent film "Don't Call Me," a comedy in which he plays a Hollywood heartthrob reduced to working as a motivational speaker at a telemarketing firm.

"They rewrote it for me so that the character I play is now a gay man," Getzlaff says, adding that shortly afterward he shot another movie, appropriately titled "Another Gay Movie." Both films are scheduled to open in the coming months.

"Truthfully, appearing on 'Boy Meets Boy' was much more of a door opener than I had anticipated," he says. "But I'm not sure I would appear on a reality TV show again. I can't say I definitely wouldn't, but I'd certainly be wiser in what I'd choose to appear on. I might do something like 'Survivor' or 'Amazing Race.' They're competitions. Unlike 'Boy Meets Boy' and so many of the other reality shows, they're not inherently about manipulation and humiliation."

The Exploitation Factor

It is indeed that feeling of having been exploited that most soured the reality TV experience for all three actors.

Getzlaff, for example, says he'd had the impression that "Boy Meets Boy" was simply a gay version of an old-fashioned dating show, in which he would interview 15 gay men before deciding which to date.

"I agreed to do the show because I thought it would be groundbreaking to present gay people as normal, living stable lives, having responsible jobs, going home to dinner, and having cats and dogs," he recalls. "I thought it would offer young gay people who were struggling with their sexuality a new image of gay people, as opposed to the caricatures that are usually on television."

It was not until the fifth episode that Getzlaff was told he was the victim of a hoax: "Half the men I was interviewing as possible dates were straight. Their goal was to fool me into thinking that they were gay. If I chose one of the straight men, he would win $25,000. If I chose a gay man as my date, I would get $25,000 and the two of us would win a trip to Australia."

Getzlaff won the $25,000, although neither the trip nor his date materialized. No one took the show seriously—least of all the contestants, half of whom were actors hoping to advance their careers, he suspects.

But what most disturbed him was that "like all reality TV shows, the goal was to be shocking and sensationalizing."

Stancato's experience on the 2003 CBS program "Cupid," a straight dating show "crossed with 'American Idol,' " he says, was not quite as unpleasant. Nonetheless, he walked away feeling emotionally battered and totally unprepared for what happened.

On "Cupid," a single young woman and two of her female friends questioned a group of male contestants to find a potential mate for the former. The questioning was brutal, recalls Stancato, and so were the discussions that followed, in which the women made hash of each potential suitor before an audience of millions—an audience that participated in the blood sport by voting for their favorite.

"One of the things the women accused me of was their belief that the only reason I was on the program was to further my acting career," Stancato says. "I said I was a playwright and professor, which are true. I never said I was an actor, but they obviously didn't believe me. I wish I had talked back to the women, but I didn't. One producer told me to fight back; another said I should hold my ground and be dignified."

Not an easy trick, he says. And consider the prize: "The winner—the date America votes for—was expected to marry the girl, propose to her on the air. If she accepted, they were to stay married for one year and if they did that, they'd be awarded $1 million. I was finally voted off the show."

Perhaps nobody, however, felt more humiliated than Cynthia Silver, who appeared on "Bridezilla" and insists she was led to believe she would be participating in a legitimate documentary called "Manhattan Brides," produced by September Films, about the trials and tribulations of planning a wedding.

"We were told the eight-episode series would air on the Metro channel and the Women's Entertainment channel," she recalls. "The idea was to photograph and interview us as we went about planning our weddings. There were two months of shooting and we became a kind of family. The cameraman was always around and I became very friendly with him. His name, coincidentally, was Matt, the same name as my fiancé. So it became a joke: If my fiancé couldn't join us, I'd say, 'Matt couldn't come. So I brought the other Matt.' It felt like a gig and everyone was very excited because I was an actress."

Silver says she had no way of anticipating what would happen next: "The producers sold all of the footage to the Fox network, which then compiled an hourlong special called 'Bridezilla,' consisting of the moments when each bride lost it emotionally. And we all did, at one point or another," she admits. "We were all depicted very negatively, although compared to the others, I was the comic relief. But this is not what I had signed up for."

Following the airing of "Bridezilla" in January 2003, the documentary (in a somewhat altered form) actually did air on MetroTV and the WE: Women's Entertainment channel.

The upshot was that "everyone was embarrassed on my behalf," Silver says. "I actually felt that people were avoiding me. Initially I did include my appearance on 'Bridezilla' on my resume and was told by an agent to drop it. When I later met a casting director, she said to me, 'You look familiar.' I reeled off a number of other things she might have seen me in, and then she remembered and said, 'Why did you do that?' "

What Were They Thinking?

That's a good question. Silver maintains she bought into the notion that any publicity is better than no publicity. "And truthfully, at that point I wasn't working very much as an actress," she says. In addition, almost all her theatre friends encouraged her to do it, thinking it would be fun if nothing else.

Stancato was similarly spurred on to audition for "Cupid." In fact, it was his own agent who suggested it. And despite Stancato's discomfort at the time, he feels that appearing on the program has not been much of a liability.

"I do include it on my resume," he laughs. "No one remembers it anyway. They all assume it was a sitcom. I believe there was a sitcom called 'Cupid.' I don't tell anyone I wasn't on it."

Getzlaff, who was tapped for "Boy Meets Boy" at a gay bar in West Hollywood and was initially very resistant to the idea, insists that his reasons for appearing on the show were, as noted, political and social: "In fact, I was told by my friends in the business that if I appeared on the show, I would probably never work as an actor-singer again. But at that point I really didn't care. In fact, I'm still very careful about what I'll do, and I go to only those auditions that don't interfere with my 9-to-5 life."

Ironies never cease.