Confessions of a reality-TV veteran
It is six degrees outside on a blustery winter day, and I've been standing for hours on the footbridge across the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass. I'm waiting for my fiancé, Rob, to propose - for the second time.
The first time he asked it was 95 degrees last June, and I was in Capri pants on this same bridge.
No, I hadn't rejected Rob's initial proposal. We are merely one of the latest reality TV couples to share - or in this case reenact - an intimate moment in front of several million Americans.
I wasn't on "The Bachelorette," nor was I one of Joe Millionaire's gal pals. And thankfully, Rob and I will not be getting "Married by America."
However, I got a small taste of how reality shows work when Rob and I agreed to be a part of ABC Family's "Will You Marry Me?"last month. It airs again this Sunday, March 30.
The show is hosted by Ali Landry (of Doritos commercial fame) and her boyfriend, Mario Lopez, better-known as A.C. Slater on "Saved by the Bell."
Rob and I were asked to be on the show because the producers heard of our story through a publicist for Classmates.com, a high school reunion website. We met in Ohio in the fifth grade and re-connected 14 years later in Boston on Classmates.com.
When we got the call to appear on the show, we were a bit skeptical at first.
Rob and I had watched in horror as Brooke of "The Bachelor" was whisked away in a limo sobbing her eyes out after Aaron rejected her. Even worse, we had seen the name-calling and catty comments made about other reality-show contestants in online chatrooms.
Did we want this kind of exposure? Would the show be accurate? Would they dig into our past and expose things we would not want aired on TV?
More important, could we get A.C. Slater to say our names on TV with the same enthusiasm he once reserved for Kelly Kapowski?
The show's premise was to spotlight five couples and the proposals. Then viewers could vote for the winning couple online. If we won, we would have our wedding and honeymoon paid for. All of this seemed as shallow as picking the homecoming court at a high-school prom. And we dreaded the idea of being married in front of several million people.
So we said, "No, thanks."
But the producers sweetened the deal. Forget the on-air wedding, they said. Just tell us your proposal story and we'll pay you $1,000, plus "other perks." With a real wedding to plan and both of us in graduate school, we thought, "Why not?"
So there I was, waiting for my fiancé to pop the question - again - in the freezing cold. We had met the film crew at 9 a.m. on a Saturday outside Anna's Taqueria - our favorite burrito place - in Cambridge, for the first day of shooting.
Rob's original proposal had been a scavenger hunt, with the "clues" scattered around our favorite Boston haunts. The second clue had been at Anna's Taqueria. (The first clue had been left at our gym, but the producers could not get permission to film there, so they cut it out.)
The first day's shoot took 12 hours: shots of Rob walking, me walking, Rob planting the clues, me finding the clues. And there was an unfortunate encounter with a hungry squirrel. On the Boston Common, the director spotted some squirrels running around the park and asked us to feed them.
"It would be such a cute shot," she insisted. We had no real food, so we improvised with little snowballs.
There was no fooling these critters, though. One hurled himself at Rob and climbed halfway up his leg before he was able to shake him off. Mercifully, the "squirrel shot" was cut out of the final product.
Our director seemed intrigued with Boston wildlife. Perhaps there are few squirrels or pigeons in Los Angeles. This might explain why she treated our shoot like a trip to the petting zoo.
Another "cute shot" was to be of me walking through a pack of pigeons. She handed me a flour tortilla to sprinkle on the ground so the rather uncooperative pigeons would gather. Then I walked, tentatively (truth be told, I was terrified) into the flock of birds and they all furiously beat their wings and scattered, narrowly missing my head. (There was no pigeon dodging involved in the real proposal.)
We each also had to submit to an interview - complete with the kind of leading questions that are guaranteed to make the interviewee sound less than ready for a membership in Mensa.
"Would you say you and Rob met through fate?" asked the director. "Sure," I said, somewhat reluctantly, knowing that was what she wanted to hear.
"Well, then," said the director, "could you say something like, 'Rob and I met through fate'?"
"Rob and I met through fate," I parroted.
And when the finished product aired on Feb. 9, we found there were other comments edited out of context. Rob learned, the hard way, that sarcasm doesn't translate on television.
The worst mistake they made was airing the wrong photo of my late mother. Every time they mentioned her on the show, they flashed a photo of my stepmother instead. This was distressing to all involved, particularly my stepmother and my mother's parents.
When I mentioned the error to them, they did correct it - but only after they had aired the show incorrectly three times.
While the show's mistake had frustrated my family, our 10 minutes in the spotlight didn't seem to generate much buzz from the outside public.
No one ran up to me on the street and asked for my autograph. There was, however, someone at work whom I'd never met who exclaimed that he'd seen me on the show. And some of Rob's long-lost friends got back in touch.
Speaking of fame and fortune, the payment we got for the show won't land us on any episodes of "Lifestyles of The Rich and Famous." First we were promised $1,000 and other "perks." But just after the segment was taped, they told us that they had never promised us any money at all. Rob and I refused to sign the contract until they "remembered" the original agreement. Then the producer told us that we would get a vacation to St. Lucia worth $2,000, plus the $1,000.
After we did the show, we were told St. Lucia was now a $1,000 gift certificate to Restoration Hardware and $2,000 cash to make up the difference. Two days later, we got our checks in the mail: $2,000 and three nights in any Wyndham hotel.
I used to watch MTV's "The Real World" and scoff when cast members complained that editing had altered the truth.
I am not laughing anymore. But we will be smiling when we spend a vacation in Puerto Rico, thanks to the hotel vouchers.