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3 Minutes to Stardom brings fake laughter, stardom

"Crazy enough for reality TV, but not so crazy you’re going to stab someone”

Chef Richard Sweeney - Image by Howie Rosen
Chef Richard Sweeney

Michael Binkow stands onstage in the event room at Valley View Casino wearing a headset, gray jeans, and a black zip-up jacket. A seven-piece band stands quietly at stage right while Binkow instructs the audience of 200 or so to clap and cheer according to his directions.

“You guys are doing a great job not looking at the cameras,” Binkow tells everyone.

He pauses to listen to the voice in his headphones. “You need a small clap?” he asks into the mouthpiece. He listens again, then turns his attention back to the audience.

“Okay, let’s do a small laugh, like I told a joke,” he says. “I’m going to tell this joke, and if you think it’s funny, laugh. If you don’t, pretend.”

The woman next to me laughs as if this is the joke. But it’s not. When Binkow does tell his joke, it’s lame. But the audience laughs as if it’s hilarious.

Michael Binkow

When the fake laughter dies down, Binkow mumbles something about not being good at anything except producing and doing chores around the house, which causes more fake laughter.

Tonight’s taping of local reality/talent show 3 Minutes to Stardom will air a week from tomorrow, and the fake cheering Binkow generates now will help with the editing process.

His next instruction is for us to boo the judges.

“For example,” he explains, “if someone you brought [here] sang, and you thought they were great, and the judges gave them, like, a five — what would you do?”

The three local music dignitaries who serve as the show’s judges aren’t even in the room yet, but there is an eruption of loud, angry booing.

“No, not that big,” Binkow shouts over the sound. “You wouldn’t do it that much.”

He changes tactics with barely a breath in between.

“Okay, if your birthday is before July, I want you to boo. If it isn’t, don’t. Okay, three, two…” He points to the audience to indicate that it’s now booing time.

My birthday is not before July, and, therefore, I don’t get to boo. Instead, I lean over and whisper to my friend that this whole thing is absurd and bizarre. Inside, I’m secretly hoping that our seats directly behind the judges’ table will get us lots of air time, and that a producer will notice the subtleties and nuances of my fake cheering and booing and offer me a guest spot on Law & Order, or (at the very least) the chance to sit in another studio audience.

It’s not that I’ve done anything grand or great or contributed much to the world

Picture this: on the lush, tropical island of St. Lucia, a woman in a gold floor-length strapless gown walks toward the man of her dreams. A camera close-up shows her smiling while a voice-over projects her narration into the living rooms of millions of viewers.

“I’m in love, and I’m happy, and I really trust Jake with my heart,” says the voice-over as we watch the woman approach the man wearing a blue suit and a crisp white shirt who stands waiting for her. “I really believe that he’ll get down on one knee and ask me to marry him.”

When she reaches him, they hug.

He tells her she looks beautiful.

She smiles.

Thirty seconds later, after a few unconvincing words about how much he loves her “positivity,” he says, “I do love you, and I don’t know what it is, but something just doesn’t feel right.”

Ouch.

The idea of such public humiliation sends my inner fame-monger back into hiding. But Encinitas resident Tenley Molzahn, the season 14 runner-up on The Bachelor, not only lived through the aforementioned embarrassment in front of 15 million viewers, she also went on to compete in another reality show a few months later.

Despite her on-camera good-girl persona, when I first speak with Molzahn on the phone, I expect hard edges and blatant narcissism. This might have something to do with the fact that our conversation has been arranged by a third party, who informed me that Molzhan is unavailable for in-person interviews.

But Molzhan surprises me with the news that she’s in school studying holistic nutrition and plans to become a health counselor. That’s about as far from a fame-seeking career choice as I can imagine, and suddenly I’m curious about how she ended up on reality TV.

At 25, about a year after her 15-month-long marriage ended, she and her sister saw a casting call for The Bachelor.

“At first, I was not into [the idea of auditioning], and then I thought it was funny. My sister and a friend encouraged me and kind of dragged me there, dropped me off, and said, ‘Go.’”

Two weeks after auditioning, she got a callback. A week later, she was on the show.

“It didn’t really give me much time for expectations. I hadn’t really gotten to ask myself, Why am I here? Am I going to fall in love? It was more like, Well, these doors have opened, and I’m in transition in my life, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Why not?

When she got to The Bachelor mansion, she realized that many of the other competitors were strategists: either they were going to get the bachelor’s attention or the show would help launch their careers.

“I felt naive on The Bachelor. I kept scratching my head and thinking, How many of these girls are paid actresses? There were probably a good handful of girls on my season who were there because the cards just fell that way. And there was more than a handful who were there with [ulterior motives]. I still wonder to this day, Were they paid [actors]?

For the next several weeks, Molzahn competed with 24 other women for the “love” of 34-year-old pilot Jake Pavelka (and the three-carat diamond ring he would eventually not give to her). She went dune-buggying and sand-surfing in Pismo Beach. She ate suckling pig in San Francisco’s Chinatown and snorkeled in St. Lucia. She introduced Pavelka to her family and he introduced her to his.

Despite the abundance of full wine glasses and champagne flutes on every episode, Molzahn drank “not more than a sip of champagne ever on Bachelor because I wanted to be fully there.”

Her sweet-girl persona still reigns. Now, as then, the worst she’ll say of Pavelka is, “I think his true ambitions were more into television, rather than finding a genuine, lasting love.”

After her publicly televised heartbreak, the self-proclaimed naive, small-town girl (from Newberg, Oregon) with a background as a Disney-princess dancer (yes, actually) went on a tour of red carpets and talk shows. She soon landed again in the thick of what she calls “the Bachelor franchise.”

Tenley and Kiptyn

The producers offered her a spot on the Bachelor spinoff The Bachelor Pad, in which former Bachelor and Bachelorette contestants live together and compete for a $250,000 cash prize.

“I took some time to think about it because I was, like, Well, it sounds like an MTV hook-up show, and that’s not really the person I am, so I don’t know that I’d be the best fit for it.

But they talked her into it by reminding her that the show is Disney-owned and on prime-time, and so it wouldn’t be raunchy. Besides, Molzahn’s experience on The Bachelor had given her a “thicker skin” and a less-naive perspective.

“On Bachelor Pad, I’ll be honest, I had a different idea of what going on TV is like. I looked at it like this could be a great opportunity, I’d love to win some money, and this’ll be fun. I knew some of the people around me. I trusted them. I didn’t really trust the producers, but I knew how they worked, so I was more laid-back and enjoyed a few glasses of champagne.”

One of those people she knew going in was Kiptyn Locke, a former contestant on season five of The Bachelorette who had also been the runner-up. Locke reached out to Molzahn after the Pavelka rejection aired, to console and befriend her. They’d known each other for two months before filming began for The Bachelor Pad.

“Everybody knew that we had known each other, but people outside in TV world didn’t get all of that. The producers were trying to get us to have conversations about getting to know one another. They’d be, like, ‘Ask so-and-so about this,’ and we were, like, ‘We already know the answer.’”

Once again, for the second time in a year, Molzahn found herself falling in love on national television. Today, two years later, they’re still an item. Locke is the reason she moved from Orange County to Encinitas. Internet searches of the words “Kiptyn and” and “Tenley and” pulls up choices ranging from “Kiptyn and Tenley engaged” to “Tenley and Kiptyn break up” to “Kiptyn and Tenley still together 2012.”

Plug “Tenley Molzahn” into the search box on YouTube, and the list of videos includes everything from Molzahn on The Bonnie Hunt Show to a bikini-fashion face-off between Molzahn and Britney Spears; most of the videos were posted a year or more ago.

“It’s not that I’ve done anything grand or great or contributed much to the world. It really doesn’t settle well in my stomach when I hear past cast members talk about themselves as such superheroes.”

On the other hand, being a recognizable person has its advantages.

“You can use those 15 minutes. It’s allowed me to share my platform for better health and gluten-free awareness and the other things that I’m really passionate about.”

Today, Molzahn’s focus is on school, Locke, stand-up paddle-boarding, and the “structured, simple, everyday life” she’s created for herself in Encinitas. But reality-show world remains just a phone call away.

“There is one network that continues to call us, to see if we’re interested in doing something with them. Never say never, but there are certain things that you just don’t want to invite into your life.”

How about Dancing with the Stars?

“It would be a wonderful opportunity, but it’s not something I’m pursuing. And I don’t think my platform is strong enough for them to be, like, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s call that Tenley girl from a few years back.’”

If it’s boring, we’ll cut it out

Prior to tonight’s show, in the back room behind the 3 Minutes to Stardom stage, Binkow briefed the contestants, reminding them to give their shout-outs. They sat quiet and nervous in the sofas and chairs placed against the walls. One guy, a half-drunk Corona in his hand, bounced an ankle against his other leg’s knee for the entire five-minute speech.

“This is not American Idol. It’s not X-Factor. It’s 3 Minutes to Stardom, at Valley View Casino,” Binkow said. “We want to get the story of who you are. But it’s TV. If it’s boring, we’ll cut it out. And if it goes on and on, we’ll cut it out.”

Then, I suppose to keep the mood upbeat, he added, “Give it your all.”

So, basically, Give us your best you, and do it quickly. And be awesome.

The result of this speech is that half the contestants step out onto the stage shouting and wooting, trying to pump up the audience despite evidence that it may not be in their nature to do so. The ankle-bouncer runs out and high-fives the band, the judges, and the host, before jumping into a rendition of Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long.” It’s a bit over the top, but not quite as embarrassing as the poor guy whose arm gets stuck while he attempts a strip-the-jacket-off sexy-move while singing Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Dancing in September.”

Most contestants opt for the more-is-more approach to their singing, as well, prompting great one-liners from the judges.

“Wow, you really motorboated your way through that song,” Dave Good tells a woman after she sings Mary J. Blige’s “Just Fine.”

Moments after this comment, we break for a commercial. A make-up lady planted in the audience runs up to Good and powders his bald head.

When they turn the cameras back on, I, too, opt for the more-is-more approach to my performance.

I think I’m being subtle, but when the footage airs the following week, my husband will say, “Oh, Lizzie. What is wrong with you?” And I’ll respond, “I was giving it my all.”

I was trying to be the cuddly bear, not the bitchy bear

Although my newfound knowledge that the best clapping moments are faked on 3 Minutes to Stardom makes me feel kind of cool and in the know, chef Richard Sweeney has me beat by a long shot. In 2008, he spent two-and-a-half weeks on season five of Top Chef. Granted, as the fourth elimination, he didn’t stay quite as long as mega-restaurateur Brian Malarkey, who made it all the way to the 14th elimination on season three. But my soft spot for tater tots and big, effeminate teddy-bear men takes me to R-Gang Eatery in Hillcrest, where Sweeney reigns.


Interview with Chef Richard Sweeney about reality TV and "Top Chef"

We sit at a table for two, surrounded by brightly colored pop art, drinking water (me) and ginger beer (him), while he gives me the scoop. Pat Benatar croons “We Belong” from the overhead speakers.

The story begins with Sweeney trying out for Top Chef three seasons in a row before he got called back. Each time, he wore the same T-shirt.

“It’s an ‘I ♥ Hot Moms’ T-shirt, which was always meant to be a conversation piece. Inevitably, someone asks, ‘What is it you love about hot moms?’ And I say it’s because they’re usually married to hot dads, but I can’t find a boy-cut T-shirt like that. So it just kind of became this schtick.”

Sweeney speaks with exaggerated and somewhat ladylike gesticulations that add an unexpected dimension to his well-trimmed beard and bearlike body.

Eventually, the Hot Moms T-shirt did get him noticed. But not before Sweeney had worked his way up from recent culinary-school graduate to executive sous chef at the hip, downtown San Diego restaurant, Confidential.

Even after he received a callback following his interview for season five, the casting process included months of random, cryptic phone calls (which always ended with Sweeney still uncertain about whether or not he’d been cast), and a meeting with a psychologist.

“They want to make sure you’re just crazy enough for reality TV, but not so crazy you’re going to stab someone,” he says.

A couple of weeks after the meeting with the psychologist, he received an email with a confirmation number and a set of instructions: plan to be away from work for five or six weeks; pack for warm, humid weather; no recipe books or computers or iPods; and, yes, you can tell your boss, but if it gets out, we’ll put you on the next plane home.

In July 2008, Sweeney flew to New York, where his season would be filmed. A man was waiting for him at baggage claim with Sweeney’s name on a sign. The man wore an earpiece, and he turned out to be one of the associate producers of the show. Sweeney collected his bags and the producer told him that, once they got out to the van, Sweeney would be allowed to talk only to the driver and himself.

“So, we get in the van, and Jamie Lauren [another contestant] was there already,” Sweeney says now, almost breathlessly, reliving the adventure. “I mean, your natural reaction is to introduce yourself, and we were both like…”

He stops and mimics an awkward, silent wave.

“The whole idea behind this is that they want to capture the first time you meet each other. Everything has to be done on film.” He pauses to sip from the squat, brown bottle of ginger beer, then adds, “And it’s the most asinine thing in the entire world.”

When the van arrived at the hotel, an associate producer accompanied each of the contestants to the front desk for his/her key and then walked them to their rooms, which were spread out across different parts of the hotel, in order to keep distance between them. The producers held on to the room keys.

“They want to have complete control over everything you’re doing,” Sweeney says.

After leaving him alone for a bit, production-staff members came back to Sweeney’s room to go through his things and make sure he had no prohibited items, and no more than the allotted number of knives and tools. They also checked his clothing for brands and logos, covering up what could be covered and confiscating the rest.

Before leaving him alone again, they took his cell phone, wallet, keys, cash, passport, and credit cards.

“They take pretty much every connection you have to the outside world. Everything gets catalogued and put in a giant Ziploc baggy. You don’t get that back until they put you on an airplane to leave.”

The following morning at 6:00, Sweeney and the other 16 “cheftestants” met producers in the hotel lobby for bagels, coffee, and juice. There, they were instructed that this was a “TV timeout,” during which no talking was allowed, and which would last through the van ride to their first shooting location.

In episode one, Sweeney first showed up on camera at his introductory interview, during which he said, “The inner queen inside me is screaming to know, ‘Where is Padma [Lakshmi, the show’s host], and what is she wearing?’”

His next appearance was during the season’s first Quickfire challenge, which resulted in him slicing his thumb open as contestants raced to peel 15 apples each, using a knife instead of a peeler.

Sweeney’s run on the show lasted through episode three. Though he did get air time in the kitchen, more often the cameras caught him prancing around during off-time, or spouting spicy one-liners during his one-on-one interviews.

“Me and my little lesbian gotta go up against each other, which sucks,” he said of Jamie Lauren, when they went head-to-head in the first elimination competition.

“I think Tom’s really cute. He’s got great eyes. He’s a cutie,” Sweeney said of one of the judges in a voice-over while the camera showed him nervously presenting his dish of lamb sliders and orzo-feta pasta salad. “I’d buy him a drink if I saw him in a bar. Hell, I’d buy him three.”

In episode three, the group split into two teams and made competing Thanksgiving dinners for the Foo Fighters. Sweeney was eliminated for an attempt at banana s’mores topped with vanilla cream and chocolate ganache. One judge called it a “failed concept”; another said it looked “like spit on the plate.”

“I legitimately did not think I even had a chance for going home,” he tells me. “I thought, There’s three of us on the bottom. These two royally messed up, and I had one bad thing. I thought, I’m not going to go home when they have so many more fuck-ups.

During the exit interview, the producers reminded Sweeney that he’d said he was sure he wouldn’t be going home. They asked how he felt now.

“It’s, like, ‘If I had the chance, I’d go back and throw everybody under the bus, and back it up and go over them one more time, if it means I’m going to save my own hide.’ I was trying to be the cuddly bear, not the bitchy bear. If I knew then what I know now, I would have been calling everybody out on everything they did.”

He laughs and then adds with a flamboyant lisp and a wag of his finger, “‘And your hair looks stupid!’”

At this point in his story, Sweeney’s phone beeps on the table. He pauses to look at it.

“Sorry, one of my kids just texted me about what time they’re in today,” he says.

Kid, as in staff member. Another Pat Benatar song plays: “Heartbreaker.”

“I’m not going to say it was a traumatic experience,” he continues, “but if I had known then that there was going to be footage of me crying my eyes out on national television…” He sips from his ginger beer.

“Then what?” I ask.

“Oh, well, then I would have made it more dramatic.” He laughs. “I mean, if you’re going to do it, go for a moment!”

Today, Sweeney owns and operates R-Gang Eatery, which he opened in 2011. He calls his food “contemporary retro-American,” and the menu features a collection of flavored tater tots. Yet, three years after his Top Chef experience, even with just those three episodes under his belt, he says he’s still transitioning from a reputation as “that Top Chef guy” to “the tater tot guy.”

He admits that being “that Top Chef guy” has advantages, especially as a drawing force for press and people seeking out restaurants owned and/or run by former contestants.

“Anybody can open up a restaurant, but when you have only three chefs from San Diego who have been on Top Chef, then you can say that a Top Chef contestant is opening up their own restaurant. And it’s, like, ‘Now we want to talk about it.’ I definitely used that to my advantage as much as I could.”

So, is Chef Sweeney eager to do another reality show?

“I am, but I’m not. I’m not, because I love my daily life, and to do anything that’s going to throw you completely away from everybody for a month, at least, isn’t something I’m necessarily eager to do. But at the same time, as crazy as it was, it was a lot of fun. I made so many great friends and contacts. On top of that, I didn’t win Top Chef, so I still feel like I have something to prove.”

Get to work

Along with the reality-show veterans in our midst, San Diego has also been the location for more than a handful of reality shows. The Real World (an MTV production featuring young, libido-heavy strangers living together) is likely the best known, PB Reality Show (produced by the Hugh Hefner–inspired self-proclaimed “PB Millionaire”) is the most creepy and narcissistic, and Sand Blasters (which offers exploding sand sculptures and a $15,000 prize) is the most bizarre.

Then there’s Get to Work, the eight-episode series the Huffington Post says “convinces us that pointing a camera in someone’s face 24/7 is actually worthwhile.” (August 12, 2012).

Filmed on Imperial Avenue, in an old unemployment building that now houses Second Chance, a nonprofit focused on employment, the documentary-style series focuses on the organization’s Job Readiness Training program. Each episode follows one class of participants through the four-week program, highlighting the successes of some and the failures of others.

Rob Smith

“They filmed every day,” workforce manager Rob Smith tells me. “At any given time, there would be four to five cameras going, eight hours a day. They did that for four months straight.”

We’re sitting in the building’s lobby. Smith has given me a tour of what he estimates is 20,000 square feet of offices, conference rooms, computer labs, and two huge walk-in closets filled to bursting with work-appropriate clothes donated by local businesses and individuals.

“You can watch [the show] and get an idea of the feeling,” Smith says. “You can make all kinds of assumptions, but you come in on Friday, and you’re going to see that the cameras become like furniture. These people are worried about ‘Where is my next meal coming from, where am I going to sleep tonight?’ So, the camera is pretty much irrelevant.”

Smith’s voice is gravelly, and his accent reveals his New York roots. A stocky five-foot-five or -six, the 42-year-old has a strong handshake and a no-nonsense presence, even in casual conversation. It will be at least an hour into our meeting before he cracks his first smile. From the footage of Get to Work, my impression is that this demeanor is a requirement of his job.

Although not every Second Chance client comes via parole or probation, Smith estimates that 85 percent are convicted felons. In episode one, Smith tells the camera, “[Our students] know how to walk on a prison yard, but to walk into a job and be professional, that’s a new arena for them.”

Early in the same episode, Smith and other staffers put the participants through their first test by letting them out for a ten-minute break. Those who are as little as ten seconds late are made to stand against the wall in the back of the room. One at a time, they are required to pay a fine or give up something of value in order to get their seats back.

One participant gives Smith three dollars. Another gives up his hat. One gives up his class ring. And one offers Smith some trail mix.

“I don’t want trail mix,” Smith tells him while the whole class watches. He looks the guy up and down. “I like those shoes.”

The guy refuses to give up his shoes. He offers the excuse that he’s not wearing socks.

Smith, who carries a stick of some kind, uses it to lift the guy’s pantleg off the top of his shoe, revealing that he is wearing socks.

“No, high socks, I meant,” the participant says.

Smith sends him packing.

“Fuck you, you little fuckin’ short bitch,” the participant says over his shoulder as he walks out of the classroom.

Smith seems unfazed. He tells the camera, “You lie to me in the workshop, I’m going to fire your ass.”

Smith says these were the kinds of moments that, when they were first approached about the reality show, made upper management nervous to let camera crews in. But Smith tells me he was never fazed by the idea.

“When you think about television and how you look on TV, I’ve been on the six o’clock news for a shootout, for a kidnapping, for drug possession and sales, so I’m thinking this isn’t nearly anything,” he says, explaining his own criminal past.

Smith is a 2002 graduate of the STRIVE program in New York, on which the job-readiness program is modeled. Fifty percent of Second Chance staffers are graduates.

Although some in upper management were nervous about how the program would look on television, Smith and others convinced them that it was a good idea. At the same time, Smith had no intention of hamming it up for the cameras.

“I told them this upfront. I said, ‘Don’t ask me to fabricate anything.’”

Every now and again, one of the camera people or producers would try to nudge him during the “on-the-fly interviews,” to give a little more excitement to his demeanor and explanations.

“Sometimes, they’d say, ‘You said it so passionately in there.’ And I’m, like, ‘That’s because I was with them. I ain’t excited about debriefing with you. I’m not going to stand there and make an ass of myself in front of a camera just because it gives you good ratings.’”

Although Smith doesn’t watch a lot of TV, he is familiar with the formula of most reality shows, and he has no illusions about them being “real.”

“We talked a lot with the film crews. And some of the staff — not the directors, not the producers, not the guys who were in charge, but…the guys on the ground that are doing the grunt work — they tell you a lot about reality TV, that it’s not real. And for them, they really enjoyed this project because they had no clue, on any day, what was going to happen.”

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Chef Richard Sweeney - Image by Howie Rosen
Chef Richard Sweeney

Michael Binkow stands onstage in the event room at Valley View Casino wearing a headset, gray jeans, and a black zip-up jacket. A seven-piece band stands quietly at stage right while Binkow instructs the audience of 200 or so to clap and cheer according to his directions.

“You guys are doing a great job not looking at the cameras,” Binkow tells everyone.

He pauses to listen to the voice in his headphones. “You need a small clap?” he asks into the mouthpiece. He listens again, then turns his attention back to the audience.

“Okay, let’s do a small laugh, like I told a joke,” he says. “I’m going to tell this joke, and if you think it’s funny, laugh. If you don’t, pretend.”

The woman next to me laughs as if this is the joke. But it’s not. When Binkow does tell his joke, it’s lame. But the audience laughs as if it’s hilarious.

Michael Binkow

When the fake laughter dies down, Binkow mumbles something about not being good at anything except producing and doing chores around the house, which causes more fake laughter.

Tonight’s taping of local reality/talent show 3 Minutes to Stardom will air a week from tomorrow, and the fake cheering Binkow generates now will help with the editing process.

His next instruction is for us to boo the judges.

“For example,” he explains, “if someone you brought [here] sang, and you thought they were great, and the judges gave them, like, a five — what would you do?”

The three local music dignitaries who serve as the show’s judges aren’t even in the room yet, but there is an eruption of loud, angry booing.

“No, not that big,” Binkow shouts over the sound. “You wouldn’t do it that much.”

He changes tactics with barely a breath in between.

“Okay, if your birthday is before July, I want you to boo. If it isn’t, don’t. Okay, three, two…” He points to the audience to indicate that it’s now booing time.

My birthday is not before July, and, therefore, I don’t get to boo. Instead, I lean over and whisper to my friend that this whole thing is absurd and bizarre. Inside, I’m secretly hoping that our seats directly behind the judges’ table will get us lots of air time, and that a producer will notice the subtleties and nuances of my fake cheering and booing and offer me a guest spot on Law & Order, or (at the very least) the chance to sit in another studio audience.

It’s not that I’ve done anything grand or great or contributed much to the world

Picture this: on the lush, tropical island of St. Lucia, a woman in a gold floor-length strapless gown walks toward the man of her dreams. A camera close-up shows her smiling while a voice-over projects her narration into the living rooms of millions of viewers.

“I’m in love, and I’m happy, and I really trust Jake with my heart,” says the voice-over as we watch the woman approach the man wearing a blue suit and a crisp white shirt who stands waiting for her. “I really believe that he’ll get down on one knee and ask me to marry him.”

When she reaches him, they hug.

He tells her she looks beautiful.

She smiles.

Thirty seconds later, after a few unconvincing words about how much he loves her “positivity,” he says, “I do love you, and I don’t know what it is, but something just doesn’t feel right.”

Ouch.

The idea of such public humiliation sends my inner fame-monger back into hiding. But Encinitas resident Tenley Molzahn, the season 14 runner-up on The Bachelor, not only lived through the aforementioned embarrassment in front of 15 million viewers, she also went on to compete in another reality show a few months later.

Despite her on-camera good-girl persona, when I first speak with Molzahn on the phone, I expect hard edges and blatant narcissism. This might have something to do with the fact that our conversation has been arranged by a third party, who informed me that Molzhan is unavailable for in-person interviews.

But Molzhan surprises me with the news that she’s in school studying holistic nutrition and plans to become a health counselor. That’s about as far from a fame-seeking career choice as I can imagine, and suddenly I’m curious about how she ended up on reality TV.

At 25, about a year after her 15-month-long marriage ended, she and her sister saw a casting call for The Bachelor.

“At first, I was not into [the idea of auditioning], and then I thought it was funny. My sister and a friend encouraged me and kind of dragged me there, dropped me off, and said, ‘Go.’”

Two weeks after auditioning, she got a callback. A week later, she was on the show.

“It didn’t really give me much time for expectations. I hadn’t really gotten to ask myself, Why am I here? Am I going to fall in love? It was more like, Well, these doors have opened, and I’m in transition in my life, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Why not?

When she got to The Bachelor mansion, she realized that many of the other competitors were strategists: either they were going to get the bachelor’s attention or the show would help launch their careers.

“I felt naive on The Bachelor. I kept scratching my head and thinking, How many of these girls are paid actresses? There were probably a good handful of girls on my season who were there because the cards just fell that way. And there was more than a handful who were there with [ulterior motives]. I still wonder to this day, Were they paid [actors]?

For the next several weeks, Molzahn competed with 24 other women for the “love” of 34-year-old pilot Jake Pavelka (and the three-carat diamond ring he would eventually not give to her). She went dune-buggying and sand-surfing in Pismo Beach. She ate suckling pig in San Francisco’s Chinatown and snorkeled in St. Lucia. She introduced Pavelka to her family and he introduced her to his.

Despite the abundance of full wine glasses and champagne flutes on every episode, Molzahn drank “not more than a sip of champagne ever on Bachelor because I wanted to be fully there.”

Her sweet-girl persona still reigns. Now, as then, the worst she’ll say of Pavelka is, “I think his true ambitions were more into television, rather than finding a genuine, lasting love.”

After her publicly televised heartbreak, the self-proclaimed naive, small-town girl (from Newberg, Oregon) with a background as a Disney-princess dancer (yes, actually) went on a tour of red carpets and talk shows. She soon landed again in the thick of what she calls “the Bachelor franchise.”

Tenley and Kiptyn

The producers offered her a spot on the Bachelor spinoff The Bachelor Pad, in which former Bachelor and Bachelorette contestants live together and compete for a $250,000 cash prize.

“I took some time to think about it because I was, like, Well, it sounds like an MTV hook-up show, and that’s not really the person I am, so I don’t know that I’d be the best fit for it.

But they talked her into it by reminding her that the show is Disney-owned and on prime-time, and so it wouldn’t be raunchy. Besides, Molzahn’s experience on The Bachelor had given her a “thicker skin” and a less-naive perspective.

“On Bachelor Pad, I’ll be honest, I had a different idea of what going on TV is like. I looked at it like this could be a great opportunity, I’d love to win some money, and this’ll be fun. I knew some of the people around me. I trusted them. I didn’t really trust the producers, but I knew how they worked, so I was more laid-back and enjoyed a few glasses of champagne.”

One of those people she knew going in was Kiptyn Locke, a former contestant on season five of The Bachelorette who had also been the runner-up. Locke reached out to Molzahn after the Pavelka rejection aired, to console and befriend her. They’d known each other for two months before filming began for The Bachelor Pad.

“Everybody knew that we had known each other, but people outside in TV world didn’t get all of that. The producers were trying to get us to have conversations about getting to know one another. They’d be, like, ‘Ask so-and-so about this,’ and we were, like, ‘We already know the answer.’”

Once again, for the second time in a year, Molzahn found herself falling in love on national television. Today, two years later, they’re still an item. Locke is the reason she moved from Orange County to Encinitas. Internet searches of the words “Kiptyn and” and “Tenley and” pulls up choices ranging from “Kiptyn and Tenley engaged” to “Tenley and Kiptyn break up” to “Kiptyn and Tenley still together 2012.”

Plug “Tenley Molzahn” into the search box on YouTube, and the list of videos includes everything from Molzahn on The Bonnie Hunt Show to a bikini-fashion face-off between Molzahn and Britney Spears; most of the videos were posted a year or more ago.

“It’s not that I’ve done anything grand or great or contributed much to the world. It really doesn’t settle well in my stomach when I hear past cast members talk about themselves as such superheroes.”

On the other hand, being a recognizable person has its advantages.

“You can use those 15 minutes. It’s allowed me to share my platform for better health and gluten-free awareness and the other things that I’m really passionate about.”

Today, Molzahn’s focus is on school, Locke, stand-up paddle-boarding, and the “structured, simple, everyday life” she’s created for herself in Encinitas. But reality-show world remains just a phone call away.

“There is one network that continues to call us, to see if we’re interested in doing something with them. Never say never, but there are certain things that you just don’t want to invite into your life.”

How about Dancing with the Stars?

“It would be a wonderful opportunity, but it’s not something I’m pursuing. And I don’t think my platform is strong enough for them to be, like, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s call that Tenley girl from a few years back.’”

If it’s boring, we’ll cut it out

Prior to tonight’s show, in the back room behind the 3 Minutes to Stardom stage, Binkow briefed the contestants, reminding them to give their shout-outs. They sat quiet and nervous in the sofas and chairs placed against the walls. One guy, a half-drunk Corona in his hand, bounced an ankle against his other leg’s knee for the entire five-minute speech.

“This is not American Idol. It’s not X-Factor. It’s 3 Minutes to Stardom, at Valley View Casino,” Binkow said. “We want to get the story of who you are. But it’s TV. If it’s boring, we’ll cut it out. And if it goes on and on, we’ll cut it out.”

Then, I suppose to keep the mood upbeat, he added, “Give it your all.”

So, basically, Give us your best you, and do it quickly. And be awesome.

The result of this speech is that half the contestants step out onto the stage shouting and wooting, trying to pump up the audience despite evidence that it may not be in their nature to do so. The ankle-bouncer runs out and high-fives the band, the judges, and the host, before jumping into a rendition of Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long.” It’s a bit over the top, but not quite as embarrassing as the poor guy whose arm gets stuck while he attempts a strip-the-jacket-off sexy-move while singing Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Dancing in September.”

Most contestants opt for the more-is-more approach to their singing, as well, prompting great one-liners from the judges.

“Wow, you really motorboated your way through that song,” Dave Good tells a woman after she sings Mary J. Blige’s “Just Fine.”

Moments after this comment, we break for a commercial. A make-up lady planted in the audience runs up to Good and powders his bald head.

When they turn the cameras back on, I, too, opt for the more-is-more approach to my performance.

I think I’m being subtle, but when the footage airs the following week, my husband will say, “Oh, Lizzie. What is wrong with you?” And I’ll respond, “I was giving it my all.”

I was trying to be the cuddly bear, not the bitchy bear

Although my newfound knowledge that the best clapping moments are faked on 3 Minutes to Stardom makes me feel kind of cool and in the know, chef Richard Sweeney has me beat by a long shot. In 2008, he spent two-and-a-half weeks on season five of Top Chef. Granted, as the fourth elimination, he didn’t stay quite as long as mega-restaurateur Brian Malarkey, who made it all the way to the 14th elimination on season three. But my soft spot for tater tots and big, effeminate teddy-bear men takes me to R-Gang Eatery in Hillcrest, where Sweeney reigns.


Interview with Chef Richard Sweeney about reality TV and "Top Chef"

We sit at a table for two, surrounded by brightly colored pop art, drinking water (me) and ginger beer (him), while he gives me the scoop. Pat Benatar croons “We Belong” from the overhead speakers.

The story begins with Sweeney trying out for Top Chef three seasons in a row before he got called back. Each time, he wore the same T-shirt.

“It’s an ‘I ♥ Hot Moms’ T-shirt, which was always meant to be a conversation piece. Inevitably, someone asks, ‘What is it you love about hot moms?’ And I say it’s because they’re usually married to hot dads, but I can’t find a boy-cut T-shirt like that. So it just kind of became this schtick.”

Sweeney speaks with exaggerated and somewhat ladylike gesticulations that add an unexpected dimension to his well-trimmed beard and bearlike body.

Eventually, the Hot Moms T-shirt did get him noticed. But not before Sweeney had worked his way up from recent culinary-school graduate to executive sous chef at the hip, downtown San Diego restaurant, Confidential.

Even after he received a callback following his interview for season five, the casting process included months of random, cryptic phone calls (which always ended with Sweeney still uncertain about whether or not he’d been cast), and a meeting with a psychologist.

“They want to make sure you’re just crazy enough for reality TV, but not so crazy you’re going to stab someone,” he says.

A couple of weeks after the meeting with the psychologist, he received an email with a confirmation number and a set of instructions: plan to be away from work for five or six weeks; pack for warm, humid weather; no recipe books or computers or iPods; and, yes, you can tell your boss, but if it gets out, we’ll put you on the next plane home.

In July 2008, Sweeney flew to New York, where his season would be filmed. A man was waiting for him at baggage claim with Sweeney’s name on a sign. The man wore an earpiece, and he turned out to be one of the associate producers of the show. Sweeney collected his bags and the producer told him that, once they got out to the van, Sweeney would be allowed to talk only to the driver and himself.

“So, we get in the van, and Jamie Lauren [another contestant] was there already,” Sweeney says now, almost breathlessly, reliving the adventure. “I mean, your natural reaction is to introduce yourself, and we were both like…”

He stops and mimics an awkward, silent wave.

“The whole idea behind this is that they want to capture the first time you meet each other. Everything has to be done on film.” He pauses to sip from the squat, brown bottle of ginger beer, then adds, “And it’s the most asinine thing in the entire world.”

When the van arrived at the hotel, an associate producer accompanied each of the contestants to the front desk for his/her key and then walked them to their rooms, which were spread out across different parts of the hotel, in order to keep distance between them. The producers held on to the room keys.

“They want to have complete control over everything you’re doing,” Sweeney says.

After leaving him alone for a bit, production-staff members came back to Sweeney’s room to go through his things and make sure he had no prohibited items, and no more than the allotted number of knives and tools. They also checked his clothing for brands and logos, covering up what could be covered and confiscating the rest.

Before leaving him alone again, they took his cell phone, wallet, keys, cash, passport, and credit cards.

“They take pretty much every connection you have to the outside world. Everything gets catalogued and put in a giant Ziploc baggy. You don’t get that back until they put you on an airplane to leave.”

The following morning at 6:00, Sweeney and the other 16 “cheftestants” met producers in the hotel lobby for bagels, coffee, and juice. There, they were instructed that this was a “TV timeout,” during which no talking was allowed, and which would last through the van ride to their first shooting location.

In episode one, Sweeney first showed up on camera at his introductory interview, during which he said, “The inner queen inside me is screaming to know, ‘Where is Padma [Lakshmi, the show’s host], and what is she wearing?’”

His next appearance was during the season’s first Quickfire challenge, which resulted in him slicing his thumb open as contestants raced to peel 15 apples each, using a knife instead of a peeler.

Sweeney’s run on the show lasted through episode three. Though he did get air time in the kitchen, more often the cameras caught him prancing around during off-time, or spouting spicy one-liners during his one-on-one interviews.

“Me and my little lesbian gotta go up against each other, which sucks,” he said of Jamie Lauren, when they went head-to-head in the first elimination competition.

“I think Tom’s really cute. He’s got great eyes. He’s a cutie,” Sweeney said of one of the judges in a voice-over while the camera showed him nervously presenting his dish of lamb sliders and orzo-feta pasta salad. “I’d buy him a drink if I saw him in a bar. Hell, I’d buy him three.”

In episode three, the group split into two teams and made competing Thanksgiving dinners for the Foo Fighters. Sweeney was eliminated for an attempt at banana s’mores topped with vanilla cream and chocolate ganache. One judge called it a “failed concept”; another said it looked “like spit on the plate.”

“I legitimately did not think I even had a chance for going home,” he tells me. “I thought, There’s three of us on the bottom. These two royally messed up, and I had one bad thing. I thought, I’m not going to go home when they have so many more fuck-ups.

During the exit interview, the producers reminded Sweeney that he’d said he was sure he wouldn’t be going home. They asked how he felt now.

“It’s, like, ‘If I had the chance, I’d go back and throw everybody under the bus, and back it up and go over them one more time, if it means I’m going to save my own hide.’ I was trying to be the cuddly bear, not the bitchy bear. If I knew then what I know now, I would have been calling everybody out on everything they did.”

He laughs and then adds with a flamboyant lisp and a wag of his finger, “‘And your hair looks stupid!’”

At this point in his story, Sweeney’s phone beeps on the table. He pauses to look at it.

“Sorry, one of my kids just texted me about what time they’re in today,” he says.

Kid, as in staff member. Another Pat Benatar song plays: “Heartbreaker.”

“I’m not going to say it was a traumatic experience,” he continues, “but if I had known then that there was going to be footage of me crying my eyes out on national television…” He sips from his ginger beer.

“Then what?” I ask.

“Oh, well, then I would have made it more dramatic.” He laughs. “I mean, if you’re going to do it, go for a moment!”

Today, Sweeney owns and operates R-Gang Eatery, which he opened in 2011. He calls his food “contemporary retro-American,” and the menu features a collection of flavored tater tots. Yet, three years after his Top Chef experience, even with just those three episodes under his belt, he says he’s still transitioning from a reputation as “that Top Chef guy” to “the tater tot guy.”

He admits that being “that Top Chef guy” has advantages, especially as a drawing force for press and people seeking out restaurants owned and/or run by former contestants.

“Anybody can open up a restaurant, but when you have only three chefs from San Diego who have been on Top Chef, then you can say that a Top Chef contestant is opening up their own restaurant. And it’s, like, ‘Now we want to talk about it.’ I definitely used that to my advantage as much as I could.”

So, is Chef Sweeney eager to do another reality show?

“I am, but I’m not. I’m not, because I love my daily life, and to do anything that’s going to throw you completely away from everybody for a month, at least, isn’t something I’m necessarily eager to do. But at the same time, as crazy as it was, it was a lot of fun. I made so many great friends and contacts. On top of that, I didn’t win Top Chef, so I still feel like I have something to prove.”

Get to work

Along with the reality-show veterans in our midst, San Diego has also been the location for more than a handful of reality shows. The Real World (an MTV production featuring young, libido-heavy strangers living together) is likely the best known, PB Reality Show (produced by the Hugh Hefner–inspired self-proclaimed “PB Millionaire”) is the most creepy and narcissistic, and Sand Blasters (which offers exploding sand sculptures and a $15,000 prize) is the most bizarre.

Then there’s Get to Work, the eight-episode series the Huffington Post says “convinces us that pointing a camera in someone’s face 24/7 is actually worthwhile.” (August 12, 2012).

Filmed on Imperial Avenue, in an old unemployment building that now houses Second Chance, a nonprofit focused on employment, the documentary-style series focuses on the organization’s Job Readiness Training program. Each episode follows one class of participants through the four-week program, highlighting the successes of some and the failures of others.

Rob Smith

“They filmed every day,” workforce manager Rob Smith tells me. “At any given time, there would be four to five cameras going, eight hours a day. They did that for four months straight.”

We’re sitting in the building’s lobby. Smith has given me a tour of what he estimates is 20,000 square feet of offices, conference rooms, computer labs, and two huge walk-in closets filled to bursting with work-appropriate clothes donated by local businesses and individuals.

“You can watch [the show] and get an idea of the feeling,” Smith says. “You can make all kinds of assumptions, but you come in on Friday, and you’re going to see that the cameras become like furniture. These people are worried about ‘Where is my next meal coming from, where am I going to sleep tonight?’ So, the camera is pretty much irrelevant.”

Smith’s voice is gravelly, and his accent reveals his New York roots. A stocky five-foot-five or -six, the 42-year-old has a strong handshake and a no-nonsense presence, even in casual conversation. It will be at least an hour into our meeting before he cracks his first smile. From the footage of Get to Work, my impression is that this demeanor is a requirement of his job.

Although not every Second Chance client comes via parole or probation, Smith estimates that 85 percent are convicted felons. In episode one, Smith tells the camera, “[Our students] know how to walk on a prison yard, but to walk into a job and be professional, that’s a new arena for them.”

Early in the same episode, Smith and other staffers put the participants through their first test by letting them out for a ten-minute break. Those who are as little as ten seconds late are made to stand against the wall in the back of the room. One at a time, they are required to pay a fine or give up something of value in order to get their seats back.

One participant gives Smith three dollars. Another gives up his hat. One gives up his class ring. And one offers Smith some trail mix.

“I don’t want trail mix,” Smith tells him while the whole class watches. He looks the guy up and down. “I like those shoes.”

The guy refuses to give up his shoes. He offers the excuse that he’s not wearing socks.

Smith, who carries a stick of some kind, uses it to lift the guy’s pantleg off the top of his shoe, revealing that he is wearing socks.

“No, high socks, I meant,” the participant says.

Smith sends him packing.

“Fuck you, you little fuckin’ short bitch,” the participant says over his shoulder as he walks out of the classroom.

Smith seems unfazed. He tells the camera, “You lie to me in the workshop, I’m going to fire your ass.”

Smith says these were the kinds of moments that, when they were first approached about the reality show, made upper management nervous to let camera crews in. But Smith tells me he was never fazed by the idea.

“When you think about television and how you look on TV, I’ve been on the six o’clock news for a shootout, for a kidnapping, for drug possession and sales, so I’m thinking this isn’t nearly anything,” he says, explaining his own criminal past.

Smith is a 2002 graduate of the STRIVE program in New York, on which the job-readiness program is modeled. Fifty percent of Second Chance staffers are graduates.

Although some in upper management were nervous about how the program would look on television, Smith and others convinced them that it was a good idea. At the same time, Smith had no intention of hamming it up for the cameras.

“I told them this upfront. I said, ‘Don’t ask me to fabricate anything.’”

Every now and again, one of the camera people or producers would try to nudge him during the “on-the-fly interviews,” to give a little more excitement to his demeanor and explanations.

“Sometimes, they’d say, ‘You said it so passionately in there.’ And I’m, like, ‘That’s because I was with them. I ain’t excited about debriefing with you. I’m not going to stand there and make an ass of myself in front of a camera just because it gives you good ratings.’”

Although Smith doesn’t watch a lot of TV, he is familiar with the formula of most reality shows, and he has no illusions about them being “real.”

“We talked a lot with the film crews. And some of the staff — not the directors, not the producers, not the guys who were in charge, but…the guys on the ground that are doing the grunt work — they tell you a lot about reality TV, that it’s not real. And for them, they really enjoyed this project because they had no clue, on any day, what was going to happen.”

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