If you're beyond a certain age, or not yet beyond a quaint awe at the standards of decorum in this culture, then the exertions of prime-time exhibitionists will have left you feeling perplexed. You are the gentle souls who feel that the mystery at the core of every reality show—the question more pressing than, "Who gets voted off this week?" or even, "Why am I watching this?"—is, "Who the hell are these people?" Possessed by this query, I headed out to pass a moderately mind-blowing summer's day with the producers and talent from American Princess (WE, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET).
There were, at that early stage in the season, a dozen contestants quite literally vying for a crown. American Princess assembles a diversely unrefined group of New World lasses—tomboys, drama queens, geeks, hoochies, and sundry other commoners—and trains them in the ways of the European nobility. The winner will saunter away with a $5,000 necklace, $50,000 cash, the opportunity to wear a diamond tiara at a ball thrown in her honor in Ye Olde England, and—you gotta love it—a title: Lady of the Manor of Nether Hall. Danielle, a 22-year-old figure model in a shrieking red halter dress, was kind enough to limn the attractions of that last prize: "Getting a British title would make things a lot easier," she confided. "I could put it on my card or my résumé."
Danielle and the other girls—these aspiring princesses exist in a state of adolescent hysteria and pubescent self-invention, so let's call them girls—had begun their day at the Roosevelt Hotel. In the morning, the judges, Jean Broke-Smith and Paul Burrell, put them through the day's carriage lessons on the hotel's humid mezzanine. Broke-Smith, a finishing school matron and the most fearsome figure on Sundance's Ladette to Lady, strove to correct the girls' strides. She was especially vexed by one of the most promising girls—Clarissa, a Bronx-bred executive assistant who, despite being a veteran of beauty pageants, walked with a certain sauciness in her stride. The dictum: "Forget the wiggle." Meanwhile, Burrell—first a butler to Diana Spencer, then a best-selling retailer of her secrets—pointed out to me which of the girls were "thoroughbreds" and which were "donkeys." Sorry, but I don't think the help should talk like that—and I say this in the knowledge that the girls wouldn't give a whit about service knowing its place. The girls, harboring dreams of becoming pseudo-royalty and yet instinctively as democratic as Walt Whitman, came to American Princess secure in the belief that if you can sing of yourself, then you're the equal of any royalty.
The production assistants herded the girls downtown to a photo studio where they sat for publicity shots. An executive producer filled the photographer in on the girls' personalities. ("Well, LaToshua's very arrogant," said the EP. "Oh, perfect," said the shootist.) The girls struggled to find something appetizing on Balthazar's takeout menu. A person whose vast pile of yellow hair extensions did not quite cover her wild eyes plopped down across from me and introduced herself as Kirsten. "I'm the crazy one!" she said with pride. Those AP viewers fortunate enough to catch Kirsten's musical belches and ridiculous flourishes of emotions—in her opening scene, she hugs the bellman who opens her taxi door as if he were a dear cousin—will not rush to challenge her self-assessment.
As the crazy one—indeed, in her very eagerness to announce herself as the crazy one—Kirsten is just an especially noisy exemplar of the new normalcy. With her background in the arts—the publicity materials list her occupation as "singer/ actor/ teacher/ dancer/ creates dog tutus"—she's a peer of castmates Cassie (drama major), Crystal (minor-league football cheerleader), and Nakia (booty girl in hip-hop videos). They're all born performers, and they've been born into an age when they no longer need an art. When I asked the girls if they thought their spot on AP would lead to their big break, they each gave a nonchalant "no." This isn't a step on the road to stardom, just a chance to perform on a larger stage, and who wouldn't want that? When I asked the girls if they'd had any second thoughts about turning their private lives public for the sake of a cable show, none of them understood the question.
I sought out Tara, a 19-year-old theater major billed as "the smart one." (She had just taken her publicity photo posing with a copy of Jean de La Fontaine's Fables in the original French.) Tara is the type of person who uses the word plethora with great frequency and grating enunciation. I asked her to please put on her dork cap and explain what goes into constructing a reality-TV persona. She answered, "When the camera turns on, it's not let's act. It's focus, play your intention." Thus, if your intention is to win the tiara on American Princess, then you'll project those qualities the judges want to see as you struggle through your lessons with soupspoons and receiving lines and proper curtsies. Her approach is obviously sensible, but reality television just as obviously is not. I parted ways with Tara and her gang asking more questions yet: How do things shake out if you're not so level-headed about your intentions? What's it feel like to play yourself?