One and Done
How not to be the first contestant kicked off a reality show.
Lesson 4: Nobody likes a loner.
Nimma entered Bravo's Top Chef Chicago last spring with an impressive work ethic, a professed love of cooking, and a steadfast refusal to have fun. Some people deal with pressure by drinking or picking fights. Nimma just wanted to be left alone.
That's a fairly common pitfall for reality contestants, Krasnow says. On the set of his shows, he hunts down people who are sitting alone and urges them to mingle. Even talent-based reality shows draw their drama from relationships. And with no computers, TV sets, or other outside distractions, Krasnow says, contestants have no excuse for isolation. "It's like being Amish," he tells them. "You're actually going to interact with people."
If Nimma got a pep talk to this effect, she didn't heed it. Morose after making a substandard deep-dish pizza in the show's first challenge, she went to bed while her fellow chefs popped champagne, drank beer, and goofed off. Yet it was Nimma who looked foolish in the end. Even with all of that rest, she still oversalted her shrimp scampi the next day.Before long, she was sleeping back at home.
Lesson 5: Don't clam up.
On America's Next Top Model, the vaudevillian CW contest, it's especially hard to break through the crowd. When everyone is young, tall, and beautiful, you've got to be intriguing from the get-go. The finalists in last spring's Cycle 10 were a typical mix of larger-than-life ladies, from the combative survivor of female circumcision to the not-quite-reformed graduate of anger-management school. And then there was someone named Atalya, who managed to make little impression whatsoever. In one scene, she managed to be outshone by a trio of homeless people.
Throughout the casting process, Atalya seemed a winner, says Top Model casting director Michelle Mock. She was beautiful, outspoken, and positive, Mock says. But sometimes, contestants arrive on the set, get an eyeful of the competition, and instantly clam up: "It's kind of like fight or flight."
Mock is surprised at how many contestants succumb to intimidation, especially if they spot another model with a similar look. But with so little time to break through the clutter, no one has the luxury of opening-night jitters.
Lesson 6: Know your eliminator.
On a reality show, it's almost always good to be memorable. But if your fate is in a single person's hands, you'd better be indelible for the right reasons. On the premiere of the 11th season of ABC's The Bachelor, Texan millionaire Brad Womack met his 25 potential brides at a cocktail party and was charged with winnowing the field to 15 by morning. The challenge was to make a strong impression amid a Top Model-type field: Each contestant was equally doe-eyed, flirtatious, and overly made-up. And as the alcohol flowed and the time ticked away, the women grew increasingly desperate for Brad's attention.
One woman, trained in Chinese medicine, performed a reading of her would-be suitor's tongue. One twisted herself into a human pretzel. One changed into a bikini and dove into a pool. And one determined brunette named Morgan made herself especially memorable. She announced that she was pulling out her "signature move," then took off her shoes and showed Brad a pair of webbed feet. She got him to react, all right. But she didn't get a rose.
Lesson 7: No, seriously: Know your eliminator.
Sometimes, a grating personality can take you far; how else to explain the legendary Omarosa? Still, to last on a show with an opinionated judge, you have to follow certain rules. Martin, the first person cut from NBC's The Apprentice: Los Angeles, spoke in aphorisms ("A new broom sweeps clean, but the old broom knows the corners") and was the last one picked when his cast-mates split into teams. He was conflict in pinstripes, and the producers probably loved him.
But the decision-making lay with Donald Trump, who knows the qualities he wants in an employee. And when it comes to judging, reality producers don't always get their way. On the set of The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency, Krasnow says, he often begs his star to keep contestants in. "She tends to get fed up and wants to get rid of somebody because they're annoying her," he says, "whereas we like that they're annoying and want to keep them around."
Martin seems to have signed his own pink slip by breaking a basic law of Trumpdom: Look overeager at all times. In the first boardroom session of the season, the Donald and daughter Ivanka questioned whether Martin would fit into their corporate culture. They challenged his claim that he had worked suitably hard. And they chastised him for committing a mortal sin—asking to use the bathroom when he should have been sticking to business.
Lesson 8: Know your demographic.
In order to make a hateable personality work, you have to know your eliminator, but you also have to understand your demographic. Take Kim, from VH1's Apprentice knockoff, I Want To Work for Diddy. She swooped onto the show like a wildly overcaffeinated diva and survived two close calls in the first episode alone. First, the judges nearly knocked her out—or pretended to, at least—for her strange opening presentation, in which she dubbed herself "Poprah." (She said it stood for "perfect personal assistant.") Later, after enduring her nonstop insults, her cast-mates begged the judges to send Kim home.
Joanna Weiss is an Op-Ed columnist for the Boston Globe and author of the novel Milkshake.
Still from Survivor: Gabon © 2008 CBS. Photographs on Slate's home page of: Jerry Tam by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images; Sonja Christopher by Kevin Winter/ImageDirect; Jeffrey Ross by Ethan Miller/Getty Images; Stephanie Horn by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.