How not to be the first contestant kicked off a reality show.

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Sept. 24 2008 12:57 PM

One and Done

How not to be the first contestant kicked off a reality show.

Survivor: Gabon.
Cast members from the new season of Survivor

There's no television type quite so pathetic as the first person dropped from a reality show. He's the embodiment of broken dreams, the guy who survives the rigorous casting process, films the opening credits, tastes the elixir of TV fame … then gets booted in Episode 1. And usually, there's good reason. He's too abrasive, too inflexible, or just too amorphous to last.

Reality producers say once filming begins, it's often easy to see who's expendable. "You're always pulling people aside and coaching them and telling them, 'This isn't what we picked,' " says Stuart Krasnow, executive producer of NBC's Average Joe and Oxygen's The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency. "Some people never pop, and other people pop beyond your dreams."

When CBS's Survivor debuts tomorrow night, will you be able to spot the contestant who doesn't make it past Episode 1? Can you identify the warning signs of first-episode implosion? What follows is a catalog of failed reality types—and a series of lessons gleaned from their bad examples.

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Lesson 1: Don't be dull.
In the premiere of the current season of Bravo's Project Runway, designers Jerry and Stella, charged with making clothes from items in a grocery store, created outfits that seemed equally hideous. Stella sheathed a model in garbage bags. Jerry made a shapeless raincoat from a shower curtain. Yet in the end, it was Stella who survived.

Why was Jerry the first to go home? It was a matter of charisma, and Stella clearly had more. As a designer to rock stars with a penchant for leather and metal, she had a deep, growly voice and cheeks so sunken that one blog has dubbed her "Cheroin."

Jerry was homely, too, but not in an interesting way, with his chubby face, short hair, and a dress code of unadorned T-shirts. He was cocky but not deservedly so. He was neither a sure contender nor a brewing troublemaker. And if producers had a say—which they usually do—they probably asked that he be auf'd.

Jerry sneered at everyone else's clothes, but even his snootiness lacked character. "Crap on top of crap" was his idea of an insult, but this show thrives on more colorful critiques: One contestant said Jerry's outfit belonged on an ax murderer, while judge Michael Kors compared it to "a handiwipe gone wrong." In interviews, Jerry has since said he wishes he'd unleashed more caustic stuff. It's a lesson too many contestants learn too late.

Lesson 2: Nice guys finish last. Same with nice ladies.
Before reality TV became the force it is today, before everyone understood how cutthroat these games could be, there was CBS's Survivor, and there was Sonja. In the show's first-ever season, in the long-lost summer of 2000, she was the first to have her torch snuffed out on the island of Pulau Tiga.

At first glance, Sonja seemed a lovely addition to the mix of islanders: an artsy senior citizen who played the ukulele, she had a bright view of human nature and, unlike some of her playmates, was genuinely nice. Sure, she had a fateful stumble during the first immunity challenge, but her true vulnerability ran deeper. This was an island of snakes and rats, and Sonja's guileless personality made her seem impossibly weak. In a scene midway through the first episode, Sonja played a cheerful ditty called "Bye-Bye Blues" for eventual winner Richard Hatch. He applauded her gamely—he probably even meant it—but you know what he was thinking: bull's-eye.

Lesson 3: Don't be chicken.
Reality contestants have learned from Sonja's mistakes; these days, most seem to arrive on set with hackles raised. Yet a few still seem shockingly naive about the demands of the contest at hand. Sonja, at least, was game for the rigors of life on a desert island. Sometimes, a reality contestant signs up for adventure but winds up looking sorry she didn't stay home.Take Stephanie, the first woman cut from the CW dating show Farmer Wants a Wife.

Among the city girls in heels who hoped to win a farmer's heart, Stephanie was the most squeamish about country life. Tasked in the first episode with putting chickens into pens, she was reluctant to grab the poultry. Farmer Matt wasn't charmed, and the producers probably weren't, either. Why bother coming to rural Missouri if you're not willing to get down and dirty on the farm? The show's humor derived from the contrast between city and country life, and to play up the divide, the women had to be willing to embarrass themselves. Most of Stephanie's competitors were squeamish, too, but they ran eagerly after the birds, throwing caution—and fear of chicken-poop stains—to the wind.

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.

But VH1 understands the ratings power of the loudmouth; who among the channel's viewers wouldn't want to watch a plus-sized Omarosa gone ghetto? Kim, who had already done a turn on an ABC reality show called Fat March, had honed her beeyotch skills to fine precision. And she seemed to appreciate the VH1 mentality. In this clip, fighting for survival before the judges, she delivers a stirring monologue about the failures of her teammates. The judge named Capricorn was clearly impressed—and she and her fellow panelists couldn't help but let Kim stay.

Lesson 9: Everyone loves a comeback story.
The Project Runway producers surely passed the champagne several times after that first, fateful week of Season 5. Stella lasted through eight more episodes, redeeming her false start with a series of interesting designs: Her black leather Olympic parade outfit would have looked a lot smarter than the blazers Ralph Lauren sent down the Beijing track. Better yet, she became one of the season's most intriguing characters, expounding on the virtues of leather, pounding fabrics with a hammer in the workroom, and rolling her eyes like an overworked nursery-school teacher if anyone complained. "Who knows how a personality is going to develop?" says Mock, the Top Model casting director. "Who they are on Episode 1 is definitely not who they are at the end."

By the time she was eliminated earlier this month, Stella was acting as if the show had outlived its usefulness to her. "I think my ego was way too big to be here anyway," she said cheerfully, after accepting Heidi Klum's auf Wiedersehen kiss. Though she won't be the winner, Stella will be remembered as one of this season's stars. A bad first episode doesn't mean a contestant can't make a comeback. But if you want a shot at post-reality fame, you first have to make it past Week 1.

Joanna Weiss is an Op-Ed columnist for the Boston Globe and author of the novel Milkshake.

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