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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why I Turned Down $3,000 To Be on a Reality TV Show

In August, I wrote about hoarding in a personal essay for Salon's Mortifying Disclosures section. I'd been debating between cyberstalking and hoarding as my most mortifying disclosures, and went with what I considered the mosre unusual and the more treacherous for me. I received mostly positive feedback to the piece, including some from people I greatly admire (no, I did not read the comments, but a friend read a few aloud to me, including the ones about, sadly and predictably, people who wanted to spank me).

I wound up going on a radio show based on that article and then I was contacted by a reality show, expressing interest in having me on as a guest. I was honored, and intrigued by the fact that I could've made a significant amount more than I was commissioned for the essay, not to mention received organizing services (something I've been paying for piecemeal when I can afford it) something that I think signifies a lot about our media consumption. I eagerly answered their questions, rounded up a friend who might appear to give an assessment, and started to think about what it might really be like to have my every stray pair of underwear, towering stack of books, sex toys, dust bunnies and whatever other detritus I own beamed into conceivably millions of homes.

I don't own a TV and watch very few shows. The ones I do watch are mainly via Netflix rentals, hotel visits, airplane rides and visits to friends. For me, being published at an esteemed site like Salon, which I've been reading for a very long time, was a huge honor. Being on TV would be exciting but also felt a little removed; since I don't watch TV, I have little sense of how many people do watch. It seemed to me like something that happens in some tucked-away corner of the world, even though that equation is actually hugely distorted. Sad as it is to admit, I know it's us readers who are in the minority.

Last year, I flew on my own dime to Los Angeles to appear as a judge on a cooking show. It was a little nervewracking but mostly excited, and it was over almost before it started. I didn't have to worry as much about "being myself" because all I was doing was smiling at the camera and tasting some mini cupcakes (although I did get one of my favorite pieces of hate mail ever calling me "piggish" for licking my fingers after I ate).

The irony of turning down this show about hoarding was that a little while later I found myself without the cushion of a full-time job. Would I have made a different decision if I'd known how that would turn out? I'm not sure. It's very tempting, because turning down money, wherever its source, feels like telling the universe I don't care about paying off my gigantic debts or any kind of financial security. It feels like hubris of the highest order; who am I to be picky, to write for a very small fraction of that fee, or, ahem, blog here for free, but turn down something lucrative?

Many friends and advisers had strong, anti-reality TV reactions. "You won't have any control," the said. "It's exploitative." "They can make you seem any way they want." All true, but those were not reasons that seemed convincing to me. Of course reality TV has an angle; don't we all? Yes, it's edited, but don't we all edit ourselves, presenting our best, or sometimes our worst, selves, or some part of a persona to person X, another part to person Y? That seems to me part of being human. I get that the difference is that when we do it, we are in control of what side of ourselves to show, while an editor can manipulate even the parts of you that you've chosen to present and twist the context. I still think that the risks would have been worth it, for me. Some people are extremely private about most aspects of their lives, but I'm not one of them. For me the catharsis of admitting my biggest flaws and then connecting with others who either share them, as happened with my hoarding essay, or have something useful to offer, outweighs the specter of judgment.

Ultimately, my reasoning was about a much more basic level of self-preservation. I didn't want to have to ask my landlord to sign a legal release that, despite seeming innocuous, was still something I'd have been hesitant to sign myself., and thereby reveal something that might jeopardize my housing. I don't have a Plan B about where to live, and because of my possessions, it would take a few months to even get everything boxed up, unless I were to toss it all in a dumpster.

But back to the legal form…There's something about saying "I promise not to ____" that makes even the least skeptical person, who had never even suspected ____ was possible, read a phrase like that and immediately think "I wonder if they will actually do ____ and if they do, what will happen." Despite having attended three years of law school, contracts make me nervous. The formality of their language is by its nature intimidating. It's not the way we naturally speak, and sometimes seems deliberately designed to obfuscate the truth, requiring a translation. Don't get me wrong; I sign contracts all the time, but I am aware of their limitations.

I'm not a fan of flowery, academic or overly wordy language. I've started reading books and put them down in part because they were over my head, and in part because I felt like they were trying to reach a limited audience simply by their highfalutin language. Me? My dream is to write a novel that is sold in airport bookstores. While much of what I write is also not going to appeal to the masses (bondage and spanking erotica, anyone?), the language itself is not trying to hide anything.

I don’t know what would have happened if I'd agreed to take part in the show, aside from having two months' worth of rent in my pocket and a cleaner home. Would I have gotten recognized on the street as "that girl with the messy apartment?" Would I have somehow placed myself out of another opportunity waiting in the wings? Would it have led to a memoir about being a (former) hoarder?

Soon after, I was approached by another show, this one a tattoo reality show. I had already decided to get a second tattoo sometime in November to celebrate my birthday, so I expressed interest. However, on this show, there not only isn't any payment, participants pay for their own tattoos, in effect coughing up cash for the chance to be on television and be inked by a famous, and presumably more expensive than average, tattoo artist. No thank you.

Don't get me wrong, reality TV producers of America: I'd love to be on TV, partly because I am, after all, an attention whore, and partly because I think that the very process of giving up control would be a major lesson for someone who's as much of a control freak as it's possible to be in this world. There are moments in my life when I can step back from being my typically vain, self-conscious self and think, That would be funny, like when I struggle to get on the subway with four gargantuan bags and have to either maneuver sideways to get my backpack in or slip some of them under the turnstile. Other moments are darker but no less dramatic, like looking up at a subway marquee and seeing the name of the one person I'm trying to get over, as if to remind me that they are forever and always ubiquitous and my efforts in moving on will always be futile.

I'm not above laughing at myself—at least, I don't think I am. Being on a reality show would be a great chance to find out if that's really true, or just one of the lies I tell myself, the persona I put on to face the girl in the mirror. I don't see that huge of a difference between opening my life up for cameras and the deliberate acts of self-disclosure about everything from my trouble having orgasms to my declaring bankruptcy to being a daughter of an alcoholic. To parse that seems like those who want to endlessly argue the difference between porn and erotica. I don't have issues with revealing my weaknesses and faults; I'm trying to get to a place where I don't have so much trouble celebrating my successes either and not think that's the path to instant overinflated hubris.

Lastly, and maybe my snobbery is showing here, but the fact is, if I were to go on a reality show and people were to judge me for what they saw on their screens to the exclusion of everything else about me, more pity them for not being able to acknowledge how not only media works, but how life works. We can never present every single aspect of ourselves to the world, even if we are on a 24-hour webcam. Humans are more complex than that. At least, I hope so.

To conclude: I’m ready for my closeup. You know where to find me.

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