01.26.10

Reality TV and Porn Collide

Both unscripted television and pornography call for their exhibitionist stars to expose themselves in intimate ways—and now the space between the two genres is collapsing.

From PBS' An American Family in 1973 to today's proliferation of reality television, unscripted TV has always fed viewers' desire to watch others in intimate moments. Not unsurprisingly, then, unscripted television and pornography have a long history of overlapping.

So when Bravo's Chef Academy debuted in November, and one of its cast's work in porn quickly surfaced, this was nothing new. More than a few people have put on their clothes to appear on unscripted programs: Survivor Thailand winner Brian Heidik had appeared in soft-core movies, Conveyor Belt of Love contestant Kekoa Nalu did hard-core gay porn, and Ozzy Lusth, also a Survivor competitor, had sex on Playboy TV's Foursome.

While the reality stars from Tool Academy were willing to subject themselves to possible further humiliation for cash, the production company that gave them their fame was apparently not willing to suffer any perceived humiliation that might come from the cast members it had previously humiliated.

The space between what reality TV offers and just watching people have sex has collapsed over time, which was perhaps inevitable for two genres that blur fantasy and documentary, asking subjects to expose what are usually secret parts of themselves in artificial contexts. Our attraction to reality TV stars' private lives has led to the inevitable, as reality TV begins to embrace porn and porn embraces reality TV.

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Emmanuel Delcour (Bravo)

Reality television series have tended to ignore their contestants' appearances in porn. For example, Design Star contestant Mikey Verdugo said he was disinvited from the HGTV show's finale and reunion in 2008 because he'd appeared in gay bondage porn. Late last year, however, Bravo's Chef Academy embraced Emmanuel Delcour's past after fellow contestants conveniently discovered his adult film resume. The network and show then exploited it, from a publicist referencing his stage name, Jean Val Jean, in an e-mail blast (it said Delcour "is raising more than Cosette...if you get my drift!") to the episode in which Delcour wore only an apron to deliver dessert to a challenge winner, a woman who promptly placed her hand on his bare, uncensored butt.

And now, contestants are increasingly and publicly going from "reality star to porn star," which is what the box says for Big Brother 10’s Steven Daigle's recently announced hardcore gay movie.

But the most significant shift came last month with the debut of a pornographic Web site starring only former reality show people. "You've always wished you could see reality TV stars naked... Reality Revealed will make that wish come true!" the new site declared. Reality Revealed teased videos featuring six masturbating men who'd previously appeared on VH1's Tool Academy seasons, and one who also appeared in MTV's bisexual dating series A Double Shot at Love, though the shows aren't named.

The site is produced by Bait & Tackle, a cleverly named company whose marquee site is Straight College Men, which features men both alone and interacting with each other in ways that don't seem very straight. It advertises for models by offering plane tickets, a limo ride, a Las Vegas Strip hotel room, and $500 cash to "get naked" and "get your 15 minutes of fame." Straight College Men makes that money back by offering renewable and one-time-only memberships to view its videos that range from $17.95 for five days to $90 for 90 days.

On the same day in mid-December that Reality Revealed debuted and officially turned reality stars doing porn into a business, Gawker coincidentally claimed in a post that "reality TV took the shame out of pornography" and insisted that "people are free to go from one genre to the other without impunity."

That may have been a premature declaration.

Days after launching, Reality Revealed posted a cease-and-desist letter from the attorneys for 495 Productions, which produced Tool Academy. It said, in part, that the men "are all under binding and enforceable written agreements with 495 that prohibits them from in any way participating," and "[t]heir past and continued participation in the Web sites are material breaches of their agreements with 495 and subjects them to a myriad of damages." The reality stars, according to the lawyer's letter, "have each been contacted and instructed to immediately cease and desist."

This from the producers of a show, Tool Academy, that deceived its male stars into thinking they were on a competition to be named "Mr. Awesome," but instead were nominated by their girlfriends because, in VH1's words, they were "strutting, preening, over confident alpha-males who lie, cheat, and treat their girlfriends like door mats."

Apparently porn still makes people uneasy—even producers of shady VH1 reality shows. Perhaps it isn't surprising, considering that even the suggestion of sexuality is enough to freak out some networks and shows, never mind viewers and activist groups who fire off illiterate FCC complaints.

While the stars of Tool Academy were willing to subject themselves to possible further humiliation for cash, the production company that gave them their fame was apparently not willing to suffer any perceived humiliation that might come from the cast members it had previously humiliated.

Still, despite the cease-and-desist, the videos of the Tool Academy guys are being released via Straight College Men, while Reality Revealed features only preview videos. A representative of Bait & Tackle would only say about the legal issues, "We're just working through it."

People who've become semi-famous enough to sell images of their bodies shouldn't be surprised that their bodies aren't theirs to sell. As 495's cease-and-desist letter suggests, the chance at fame, prize money, or an experience usually has a price, one that's spelled out in the pages of a contract that some cast members may not even read or understand.

Russell Wetanson, a lawyer and entertainment law analyst from TV Guide Network's Hollywood 411, said that "exclusivity is one of the most important things that producers and networks and lawyers look for" because "you want to make sure that those people are locked down and going to be available, and not just for the first season, but for multiple seasons."

He said reality applicants "don't read their contracts, they don't get a lawyer" due to their excitement over being cast or their inability to afford representation, and thus "they're missing huge issues that could affect their ability to get future jobs or extend their 15 minutes of fame."

But sometimes a person's 15 minutes can start after—or even because—they've done porn. In an interview, Chef Academy’s Delcour said that he understood why the show included his porn past as part of his storyline. But, he said, "It was really something that was part of my past that didn't represent who I was at the moment and I didn't want that to influence in any way my journey on the show." So after his fellow chef wannabes confronted him about it while on camera, Delcour said "no comment," and later wore a T-shirt saying the same thing.

While Delcour has moved on—since filming the show a year ago, he's been modeling, acting, and auditioning frequently, in addition to working as a private chef who sometimes teaches cooking classes—Reality Revealed's men turned to pornography after their appearances on TV.

The men are certainly are not alone among reality stars who go from television to porn— Amazing Race runner-up Jaime Faith Edmondson is Playboy's Playmate this month—and pornography and reality television now offer professional, corporatized ways for people to literally sell themselves, and each is feeding the other. In its attempt to cast new reality stars, Reality Revealed plays to their vanity, insecurity, and, perhaps most importantly, bank account: "So you want in the club? (Obviously, the money's pretty nice, too.)" One of the men featured on Reality Revealed who responded to a Daily Beast interview request by asking, "u gonna pay me" and later said he'd have to check with VH1 first but would want "some cash too."

A reality show cast member asking for money to talk about getting paid to masturbate may be shameless, but since a television network already profited off of their likeness, it's at least understandable to imagine they'd try to profit from their fame. Most reality show contestants don't leave their shows rich; even those who win million-dollar prizes take home just over half that after taxes.

Once back in the real world, cast members do what they can with their fame, and at least they don't have to pretend that what they're doing is embarrassing. It's just work.

In a preview video on Reality Revealed, Tool Academy’s Dan Jovicevic says that money led him to be sitting on a brown leather couch in a nondescript room, where he discusses his fame ("most of the time, people will just stare at me") and his preparation ("My nuts are freshly shaved") for his masturbation. "[My girlfriend] didn't want me to do it. I was like, it's a lot of money involved. I'm doing it," Jovicevic says.

On the other side of the porn/reality divide, Delcour now sells "no comment" T-shirts and "shake 'n' bake" aprons on his Web site, and a few hours after an interview, called back to clarify, jokingly, that in his work as a private chef who caters bachelorette and other parties, "I bring the cake with clothes on."

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Andy Dehnart is a writer, TV critic, and editor of reality blurred. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.