The New Real World
In Idol creator Simon Fuller’s Web experiment, If I Can Dream, young showbiz aspirants live in a house where their lives are broadcast in real-time. Richard Rushfield pays a visit.
Typically, when a reporter profiles a hot, up-and-coming star, the interview is held in some sort of conference room or public space, the questions tightly circumscribed, a publicist standing at the ready to intervene if the conversation drifts into any danger zone.
In other words, reporting on a hot, up-and-coming star generally does not involve being given a tour of their private bathroom and time to linger over their personal hair products and toiletries.
While likable and engaging, a dinner table of Dick Cavetts they are not. The conversation drifted aimlessly from football to how they spent their day, to the number of pillows in the house.
But that was before If I Can Dream, the new Web experiment from American Idol creator Simon Fuller, which marks perhaps the first time the entertainment industry has taken the social media age’s promise of a world without boundaries at its word. If I Can Dream pushes the ties of interactivity at the molecular level into every crevice of its stars' lives.
On the surface a cross between American Idol and Big Brother, both the series and Web site are set largely in a five-bedroom mansion located behind security gates atop one of Los Angeles’ ritzier canyons. The mansion is populated by five young aspiring stars (three actors, a model, and a musician) who have volunteered to have every aspect of their lives recorded 24/7 as they attempt to break into show business. While en route to fame, their every movement, conversation, and nose scratch is captured by the 60-some cameras that cover the house in an airtight surveillance net. Only the toilets and showers hide behind discreet curtains.
The lives of the dreamers are available to the public in two basic forms. First, and always, the cast is shown on a Web site that allows visitors to take full control of the cameras—a user can choose which person to watch and follow their favorite inmate from room to room, even selecting a specific angle to view him or her (or the group) eating dinner, loafing on a bed, or strumming a guitar on the couch.
Second, when they leave the house and go about their breaking-into-the-business work about town (acting classes, meeting with agents), the dreamers are tailed by a video crew with the highlights cut into weekly episodes viewable on Hulu.
But this being the social media age, the cameras are just the beginning. The dreamers post video blogs, communicate with fans on their Facebook pages, and are available to answer questions whenever they are awake (and you can check whether they are) on the in-house feed, which is posted on a giant video screen in living room.
Justin Gaston, the house’s hunky young musician (and Miley Cyrus’ ex-boyfriend), recalled one particular night when he was fooling around with his guitar, responding to tweeted questions from a young woman in Israel, who soon began requesting he play particular songs. “Wait,” he remembered it suddenly occurring to him. “I asked her, ‘Are you watching me?’”
Beyond the technology, the production has stripped the format down as close to “reality” as the reality-TV age has yet come. At the Dream house, there are no contests, relay races or bug-eating challenges. The machinery is all revealed: When the producer talks with a cast member, it’s all there on the house cameras. When I came to interview the dreamers, I was filmed and broadcast, too. There is no format to speak of, no weekly or set events. There is no season and no end date. When asked how long they will live there, the dreamers shrug, unsure. There is nothing driving the narrative beyond the day-to-day lives of a group of young people attempting to break into show business.
Michael Herwick, the show’s producer, said: “ Big Brother, that’s not real life. We’re not cutting them off from the real world, we’re bringing them into it.”
Likewise, the casting eschewed the usual mélange of trouble-makers, loose cannons and borderline personalities. The Dream house residents are uniformly both exceptionally attractive and, thus far, exceptionally not drawn to the dramatic flare-ups that are the foundation of reality television. Of their casting criteria, Herwick said, “We were looking for people with a legitimate chance of becoming stars.”
Spending some time watching the feed from the house, consequently, is more like Andy Warhol’s documentary experiments than an episode of Survivor. Life with the dreamers is on one level hypnotic, showcasing a raw mundanity that can be extremely hard to turn away from, and on another, feels almost too much like hanging out with a group of young actors/models/musicians as they sit around the house. They chat, they gaze into their laptops, and they spend long, long sessions applying their makeup and adjusting their hair. (A 45-minute visit to the makeup mirror was recently clocked by Giglianne Braga, the model.)
While likable and engaging, a dinner table of Dick Cavetts they are not. The conversation drifted aimlessly from football to how they spent their day, to the number of pillows in the house. Kara Kilmer, the house sprite, sang a song snippet from South Pacific over and over throughout the night (“You gotta have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true”).
The If I Can Dream experiment’s popularity a few weeks into its run is hard to gauge. Hulu does not provide viewership statistics. Herwick said the production’s goal is for each weekly episode to be viewed by a million people, and he feels that is within reach. Justin and actor Ben Elliott report they have not yet been recognized in public. Each of the stars’ Twitter followings number in the low thousands, except for the hunky Justin’s, who from the Miley days has more than 125,000 followers.
However, the project has an asset that could extend both the show’s audience reach and the dreamers’ career progress: the empire of Simon Fuller. Over the past few weeks, the house has received visits from American Idol champions David Cook and Kris Allen, who hung out, played foosball, led jam sessions, and took Twitter questions in the living room, giving Idol fans a taste of the Dream experiment.
This week, the synergy increased when the house took on a new resident, recent Idol eliminee Alex Lambert. After Lambert, to the shock of many viewers, was cut in the semifinal round a few weeks ago, a grassroots movement sprung up on the Web to get him back on the show. While the movement was not able to rewrite the strictures of American Idol, it brought his nascent popularity to the attention of Fuller’s 19 productions, which quickly pulled him back from obscurity and brought him to If I Can Dream.
And the Fuller connections are also set to kick in on another level, with the dreamers’ careers. Ultimately, they will each rise or fall on the million factors that fuel a life in the entertainment industry, but 19 Entertainment is giving them all a foot in the door, which should guarantee that they won’t just be festering in agents’ waiting rooms forever. And some drama greater than counting the pillows on Alex’s bed should be in store.
“We know that the way Hollywood is, they’re not all going to make it,” Herwick said. “But we want to show people that the journey and the heartaches that come with trying to break in. And hopefully, some of them will make it and you can look back and see their first acting class, their first big audition. Imagine if you had had 60 cameras following Johnny Depp when he was starting out. Imagine if you had had 60 cameras following Lady Gaga. That’s what this could be.”
Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a recent memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost.