More Reality Than You Can Handle

I was hoping to run into some reality stars while I was out in L.A., because I figure they flit around out there like fruit bats. But the only one I saw was Daniel Vosovic from the second season of “Project Runway,” and he was already too encrusted with suck-ass glommers for me to make it worse for him. Don’t get me wrong; I am not at all above tackling a reality TV star in public if I’m the only one subjecting him to the imposition, but I can’t jump into the fray once it’s already started. In short, I can initiate the misery, I just can’t add to it.

So I did not corner any reality stars or even contestants during my trip to L.A. for the national Book Expo last week, but I encountered something else that I have since convinced myself is even better: I met – I swear this is true; he was standing right in front on me, or sitting, anyway – I actually met face-to-face the psychiatrist who evaluates the mental stability of the contestants who audition for cable-TV reality programming. And not only that, I met the nurse who administers their physical exams as well. To me this was like hitting the mother lode.

“Lord Christ on the cross!” I squealed, “I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about all the sickos who didn’t make it through the screening process!” Because, let’s face it, the criteria does not seem to be too tough. It seems to me you can be covered in cold sores with a taxidermied donkey leg hanging out your ass and they’d still unclip the velvet rope and wave you through. Half the contestants on “America’s Next Top Model” are practically swatting at imaginary insects the entire show. And “Shot at Love with Tila Tequila” is a complete circus sideshow. It’s almost as if they’d hung audition posters in the psych wards of county prisons.

But infuriatingly the good doctor wasn’t forthcoming with any explicit tidbits about failed, or even successful, reality candidates. He just disclosed that each candidate has to undergo a 600-question personality test, and if they’re consistent about marking “true” under questions like “I like to eat people,” then there’s a good chance they won’t make it through the screening process.

“Most likely,” he qualified. “It all depends on what the producers are looking for.”

I cannot wait for the reality show where the producers are looking for candidates who like to eat people, but until then I’ll have to make do with “Top Chef,” I guess. I didn’t get cable until last year, so my addiction is young. There are still a number of shows, such as the one with the collection of plastic cactuses who are supposed to represent housewives living in Orange County, that I couldn’t watch unless I was chained to a chair with my eyelids propped open with paper clips. But I’m told that it will be just a matter of time before there’s nothing left of me but two eyes and a spinal cord coiled around a bowl of popcorn on the couch, pulsating to the jingle of the BRAVO network.

Thankfully the reality nurse was more forthcoming about her experience with the selection process. She disclosed that in any reality program where accommodations were to be shared – which is like, almost all, isn’t it? – each contestant has to be screened for communicable diseases, most notably sexually transmitted diseases, because evidently there is plenty of copulating going on behind the camera as well as in front, and evidently the network doesn’t want to be sued for pimping people off on each other without disclosing to everyone what they’re in for.

“I cry every time I have to tell someone they’re HIV positive,” the nurse said. Lord Christ, I would, too. That’s got to be awful. I never thought about it like that. How ironic, to audition for a reality show only to be handed more reality than you were willing to face. Once, the nurse recalled, the producers were screening contestants for a show that, I swear to God (I think), offered up a male virgin. So they, like, had to find one, which was no easy task – and in Los Angeles, no less. Anyway, the producers finally settled on someone who seemed like the perfect prospect – he was wide-eyed, demure, young and supple – only to hand him over for the medical exam and learn he was a walking incubator for venereal diseases.

“He tried to tell us he was clean when he came in, so we must have been the ones who infected him,” she said. Shaking her head like someone who truly has seen it all.

I shook my head, too. Can you imagine? But then later, after I had cut the nurse short because she’d reminded me there was a “Project Runway” marathon airing as we spoke, I remembered there was a time not too long ago when reality shows held no appeal to me whatsoever. I was clean when I came in, I realized.

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