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Relax --
It's Just TV

Relax --
It's Just TV

1010_reality

This summer brings a slate of new reality shows featuring gay participants, but forget about positive representations. As Choire Sicha finds out, it's all about the crazies, and in the end, that's the real progress.

Back in the 1980s and early '90s, gay people used to talk a lot about "representation" in the media. Depictions of gay people were considered "good" (employed; adopting children) or "bad" (murdering; slutty). The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation -- founded back in 1985 -- made a regular fuss about "negative portrayals" of gay people. Then America became a reality show utopia and that whole good gay/bad gay structure blew up.

Yet still we turn to these old ideas as a reflex. Jackie Warner, the Los Angeles fitness impresario and star of Bravo's Work Out, has gotten heat this season -- the show's third -- for firing a mouthy trainer and for going along with a joke about a client's fake breasts; the latter incident supposedly caused Gatorade to drop its ads from the show. (It should be noted the show is shot in Los Angeles, where mocking implants is a part of daily life.)

Never mind that Warner is an accomplished businessperson who mentors overweight, self-esteem-challenged clients as part of the show -- and one of the few lesbians on TV. Some gay viewers were still appalled by her behavior; she was branded a "negative icon" for the LGBT audience, and a petition even circulated for the show's cancellation. Clearly, someone forgot that reality TV is only a simulacrum of reality!

"This season has been bizarre," Warner tells me by phone in mid May, on her way to O'Hare airport after doing publicity in Chicago, including an appearance at a gym where the line of autograph seekers was out the door. "I gave more passion and energy to this [season] than I have in the past, so it's really odd the producer went down a negative route. Ninety-nine percent of the work I did was left on the cutting-room floor. It was a bad decision."

Not that she's totally surprised. "The producers are constantly trying to mess with me," she says. "They betray you over and over. It's all about the content of the show. They want the most dramatic and crazy show at all expense to anybody else."

The producer who went all negative on her? He'd better watch his back. "Oh, his ass -- he's lucky I don't hunt him down," Warner says. "I'm beyond disappointed in his work, in every way."

We're a long way from the early days of reality TV, when it was a breakthrough just to have Norm Korpi on the debut season of The Real World or Pedro Zamora, the show's unassailable, adored, HIV-positive San Francisco cast member, who died in 1994. Two years later, as the industry matured, reality shows were turning identity politics inside out for commerce.

"The cameras would come on and we would talk in sound bites," says Dan Renzi, who was the gay guy for The Real World's Miami season in 1996. Since then he's appeared in MTV's follow-up competition shows -- when they'll fly him somewhere good, at least. "And then the cameraman's arm would get tired and he'd put the camera down, and we'd go back to normal. We were performing our way through the show. Then, when the cameras were off, we'd be like, 'Oh, let's go smoke a joint and relax.' "

That's how reality TV has spurred social change: As gays (and Asians and the overweight and the drug-addicted and fill in the blank) have let it all hang out over the years, the public has come to embrace us (and them). The latest and best example: This March, crazy-haired micro queen Christian Siriano, who had just triumphed on the fourth season of Project Runway, was booked to work the red carpet for Access Hollywood at Nickelodeon's Kids' Choice Awards.

"That's incredible," says Kate Aurthur, television editor for the Los Angeles Times (full disclosure: I sometimes write for her). "This is a young gay man being solicited through a corporate sibling of the show that made him famous" -- Access Hollywood and Bravo are both part of NBC Universal -- "being asked to interview children. That's actual, actual change." She adds, "We're far away from The Children's Hour at that moment. And what people -- what most elected officials -- make us do is get closer to The Children's Hour."

Even GLAAD, which one could easily imagine lambasting Siriano if he were a fictional character, gets it. "The volume of unscripted programs out there," Damon Romine, the group's entertainment media director, e-mailed me, "creates more spaces for different members of our community to be seen in the mainstream media, which helps to challenge expectations and show that there's tremendous diversity within the LGBT community.... Just the sheer volume of images out there helps to break down myths and stereotypes by presenting more of us more inclusively."

And it's actually true. The revolution is getting to see a hot tranny mess on the air, not watching two lawyers pick out china.

"When you look at the history of the genre, dating all the way back to Real World," e-mailed Mike Darnell, the president of alternative entertainment at Fox, "this type of programming creates a fairly accurate depiction of the cultural makeup of our society, and as a result features characters of all races, religions, and sexual orientations."

What's more, those changes have leached into "scripted" television, in part because the folks making TV have changed. I once spoke with Marc Cherry, the gay creator and show runner of Desperate Housewives, about the current rash of gay people on TV. "Whether you're a contestant on Big Brother or a neighbor on Desperate Housewives, it just feels right to the people who create TV," he said. "That's one of the things about openly gay men and women working in TV -- we don't think twice about putting these things forward."

Ugly Betty creator Silvio Horta, also gay, told me not long ago that "having a strong kind of delicious villain like Wilhelmina is incredibly appealing to gay men."

"I mean, I'm not supposed to talk negatively about Bravo," says Project Runway contestant Jack Mackenroth as he walks down Chelsea's Eighth Avenue, where he's basically the mayor. He briefly dated another reality show star, Dale Levitski from Bravo's Top Chef, which excited the network -- and fans. "But I knew going into it that I was going to exploit them and they were going to exploit me," he says. "Project Runway is a PR tool -- that's all it is. It's a reality show!"

An exceptionally gay reality show at that -- seven of the eight men in its most recent season were gay. So, naturally, when the Weinstein Co. leased Project Runway to Lifetime this spring, the gays flipped out. Never mind that the show would, contractually, most likely have left Bravo anyway at the end of the next season. (Now that season, its fifth, will be a fast one: Lifetime has said it'd start season 6 in November.) But would the gays have been any happier if the show had moved to another NBC-owned possibility -- say, the USA Network, home of Monk and, uh, some other stuff?

The hysteria caused by the change of channels was probably because people fear the show's casting won't be as consistently delicious as it is -- they suspect Lifetime will cast saps and nice ladies instead of crazy gay guys. (After all, Project Runway is for gay men what The Hills is for 15-year-old girls: people who look like people we know.)

Not to worry: The show will stay the same, says Susanne Daniels, Lifetime's entertainment president (who describes herself as the show's "number 1 fan!"). "At the end of the day, the viewers are going to feel really good about coming back to the show, and they'll appreciate it," she promises. "The format's not going to change; [neither is] the essence."

So we get more of the same. Yay! But sometimes we don't want more of the same, like the legions of reality stars who have outstayed their welcome (Lord knows we're brutally quick to abandon them). "That's the worst thing," says Andy Dehnart, who's run RealityBlurred.com since 2000. "An industry of people who have nothing else to do with their lives except subject us to them. They come out of the Big Brother house convinced that they're famous and will be an actor."

Look at Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's Jai Rodriguez, who went from that show to judging other reality shows -- and appearing on Fox's Celebrity Duets -- to, now, hosting the Animal Planet show Groomer Has It, a Bravo-style competition between dog groomers. (No, I haven't seen it, and you probably haven't either.) "It's worth watching after three or four glasses of wine," says Dehnart. "It looks like they spent about 45 cents on the thing. The most interesting thing about Jai is this giant ear piece on him."

I once asked Queer Eye's Carson Kressley about how it made some people (I meant me) uncomfortable that he acted so, well, queeny on TV. "Acted?" he replied. Good point. Maybe he wasn't mugging for the camera. And maybe I really was the only one who was uncomfortable with it -- America loves a funny gay guy.

"You can be gay in reality, but if you're the queen, the cute gay coming up with wisecracks, then people accept you," Jackie Warner says to me as our interview wraps up. "But sort of more butch dykes? It's a harder role, for sure." Which is why Warner grew her hair out for this season of Work Out -- for all the good that did her.

There may not be another season of Work Out -- at the end of this iteration, the ratings will decide. (All this hubbub about the show may be a publicity ploy to get another season.) If there's not another season, Warner says she'd still like to be on TV (natch), but she'd "never do another show where the focus is my life. It's too intrusive. Everyone in my life changes and reacts in a strange way." The whole experience has made her a "little paranoid," she says.

But as with Ugly Betty's Wilhelmina -- or Hillary Clinton -- the gay boys will always love Warner, despite her critics. "I have a lot of gay male fans," she says. "The bitchier I get, the more they like me."

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