I’m a reality TV show junkie. Bravo is my visual drug of choice. My husband and I watch Top Chef as if it were a contact sport. My friends and I have parties for every Real Housewives reunions. I’ve already set my DVR for the latest season of Million Dollar Listing. Being mildly obsessed with one of cable’s leading reality networks, it came as no surprise when I stumbled across the latest Bravo casting call for a new show tentatively titled What If.
Reveille Productions, the same people who produce MasterChef, Tabatha’s Salon Takeover and The Biggest Loser, is looking to cast professional women who “want to connect with their past in order to change their future” for this new concept show. The idea behind What If is to find women in their 30s and 40s who may have passed on Mr. Right a few years back, but want to rekindle that relationship and see if there’s a future with this man. While it has all the makings of salacious reality programming, is digging up your past on national TV really the best way to snag Prince Charming?
My initial thought is “No,” because I have been one-half of a dating couple on a Bravo reality show. Back in February of 2006, I had met a guy on Match.com, but immediately knew this would be a difficult relationship to cultivate because I lived in New York City and Eric, the guy, was located two time zones away in Denver, Colorado. But Eric and I slowly developed an intimate friendship, over emails and phone calls. Because meeting for coffee on a whim was out, we shared our online dating dilemmas with each other and built a tight connection in a very 21st-century manner.
When I came across a Craigslist ad seeking “online daters who’ve never met face-to-face,” I was intrigued. The ad wanted to take two long-distance daters and set them up on a mini-cruise where they could finally meet in person, and be filmed for a reality TV show. “Why not?” I thought. Free vacation. Free way to meet Eric. I emailed the ad with our story and was immediately contacted by Scout Productions. As a reality know-it-all, the name “Scout Productions” struck a chord because I knew they produced my favorite reality show ever: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I wasn’t sure what Queer Eye had to do with the cruise, but if it meant I could meet the gays and be on TV, I was in.
This was indeed for an upcoming episode for Queer Eye, but the cruise idea fell apart. Instead, the production company decided to send Eric to New York and put him up at a swanky downtown hotel and give both of us a physical makeover for our romantic date. Oh, and my apartment would also get a facelift. I had scored reality gold!
Unlike real estate shows you see on TV, the physical transformation of my apartment and the execution of the date did not take place in one day – it took a week. Monday was a travel day and pre-date interviews at the studio. Tuesday was spent tearing apart my apartment and trying on clothes at a SoHo boutique. Wednesday was a special “spa day,” when I was filmed getting a full-body massage au naturel. (Can you say nightmare to watch on TV with your friends and family?) On Thursday, Eric filmed a food segment, while I had the day off – and Friday was the day of our actual date.
During filming, I was 25 years old and Eric was 30. Of course I wanted to meet someone special and see if he’d be good long-term material, but I never anticipated the kind of pressure the producers would place on my shoulders. Every second the cameras were on, the cast would ask, “What if he’s the love of your life and you have to move to Denver?” “What if you fall in love and get married?” For an entire week I kept hearing What if…WHAT if…WHAT IF?!?!
By Friday I was barely able to stand under the pressure of meeting this one man. Our date was to begin at the top of the Rockefeller Center Building in Manhattan – the nod to the films An Affair to Remember and the remake Love Affair was not lost on me. The cinematic background set, I stepped into the elevator to ascend 70 floors to the observation deck. As the elevator rocketed upward, I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. Pulling a Spiderman and climbing the wall of the elevator to escape seemed like a good idea. As the elevator doors opened, I looked up: Before me were crowds of people standing behind red ropes and, at the end of a red carpet – Eric.
It would have been nerve-racking enough to meet Eric for the first time at a Starbucks, but now our initial meeting was being filmed by a major cable channel before a bunch of tourists who had gathered on the deck to simultaneously film us with their personal digital cameras, and I had let it happen.
As with every first date, there was plenty of nervous, inane banter. Here we were, two strangers trying to act natural with all these unnatural circumstances bearing down on us. He was a Colorado boy stuck in New York for the first time, meeting a girl he wanted to impress, while a camera crew was trying to tell him where to stand and how to move. Little did he know that after several days of filming, the producers had completely talked this girl out of the idea of actually wanting to meet him. This date was doomed before it ever began.
Eric could have looked like Ryan Reynolds, talked like Hugh Jackman, and acted as suave as George Clooney, and I still wouldn’t have liked him. I was so committed to getting through that date as quickly as possible, the poor guy didn’t stand a chance. What was caught on film was possibly the worst first date in history, coupled with some childish behavior on my part and narrated by a bunch of gay guys who said, literally: “Miss Cleo has spoken, she’s not in to him.”
Luckily, Eric and I were able to get a good laugh out of the whole experience, but not until a year later. By the time the show aired, 18 months later, we were both engaged or married to other people. Who knows what would have happened if we had met under normal circumstances. I’m still not sure we would have worked out, but I’m sure I would’ve been much more willing to entertain the idea without all the “What ifs” built into the conversation.
Looking for love on reality television is just that – made for TV. There’s a reason that in 21 combined seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, only two couples have ever married. None of the relationships on Millionaire Matchmaker has ever looked legitimate to me. If you want to fall in love on reality TV, I suppose it can happen, but falling in love for real requires all the realistic circumstances that no seasoned executive producer could ever fabricate.