Being Famous for Being Famous 

The original reality TV show looks for talent in Berkeley and shows that even valedictorians crave the drug of arbitrary validation.

The KYLD promotions team provided the atmosphere, blasting Kanye West's "Gold Digger" and shoving bumper stickers at passers-by. But MTV was why the kids lined up outside UC Berkeley's Bear's Lair on the morning of October 8. Network casting directors had flown into town and organized an open call for the eighteenth season of The Real World, America's first foray into reality TV. In case you thought licking Jell-O shots off a stripper's boobs in front of millions of people was played out, hundreds of locals and college students came to prove you wrong.

Some, like freshman Brittany Berg, showed up for the spectacle's kitschy delight. "I think I'm going for, like, I don't know, quirky meth addict or something," she said of her strategy, adding that while she didn't have an eight-by-ten glossy, "I have my manager on the line. He's gonna fax it over." Others were set on showing the world how fabulous they were. "I wanna be on TV," said Preston Mason of Oakland, sporting a G-Unit T-shirt and blinged-up dog tags. "I wanna be seen. America needs to see Preston."

Mason had a plan: If he got on the show, he'd either piss everyone off or suck them off. "I'm gonna be mean to everybody," he vowed. "I'm gonna be on MTV, I'm not gonna talk to nobody, be friendly to nobody. I'm gonna drink, talk shit, have sex. ... I'll wear their clothes, I'll eat their food, I don't give a fuck." If he gets a chance, he'll deflower a few straight boys while he's at it. "They're straight until they get drunk," he said.

Being famous for being famous has been around since the advent of television, but it took The Real World to turn it into an industry. Judging from the numbers of people who stormed the casting call, it still has plenty of room to grow. For all our sneering at television's transparent staging, most of us are still suckers for the bright lights. Even high-achieving Cal students crave the crack cocaine of arbitrary validation.

A few nonstudents spent hours on the road just to audition. Angela Brewer clutched her application and waited patiently; her dyed-black hair, shoulder tattoo, and facial piercings screamed alternachick. "I've never lived outside of Napa," she said. "I live with my parents now. But I'm hoping to move soon. ... I attend beauty school, but I'm on a leave of absence right now. I owe so much money, I can't go back till I pay it off."

Brewer thinks she's got an edge, if you will. "Like, I'm straight-edge?" she explained. "And everyone on there is big partiers and drinks? So, like, I go out and, like, have fun. I just don't, like, drink or do any drugs or smoke. So it's a different, like, thing." Her friends refused to support her dreams. "I had to come down here by myself," she said. "No one would come with me. They were like, 'Oh, I don't wanna do that.' I was like, 'Okay, like, when I'm on the show, it's like, I know who I won't be inviting.'"

Inside the Bear's Lair, supervising casting director Damon Furberg surveyed the applicants. "People are, like, 'Oh, do you only pick good-looking people?'" he said. "We don't. If you're good-looking, you'll get a second look. But if that's all you got going for you, it's not gonna happen. ... It comes down to expressiveness, you know? I think there are some people who, when they tell you something, you can tell exactly how they feel about what they're saying by what their face is doing, their body language."

Still, there was more than charisma on Furberg's mind. "Berkeley is known for, like, kind of being a really diverse, progressive -- you know, it's very representative of the West Coast mentality," he explained. As kids filed into the cafeteria and sat down for the audition, Furberg and his staff kept an eye out for indeterminately ethnic, spoken-word poet types who would riff off of Brigham Young sorority muffins. "It's all about differences," he said of the show's dramatic tension. "People here have very different values than people in Nebraska."

The auditions threw Berkeley's rising stars for a loop. Most people expected one-on-one videotaped interviews, but with only three casting directors to handle hundreds of people, Furberg organized applicants into groups of ten, who sat around a table fidgeting with their Corona bottles. Moderator Toby Ross, a blond perkmeister who has mastered the art of letting people down gently, started things off by asking what made each of them unique.

Ricky bathed the table with his soulful eyes, his moussed black hair spiking toward the sky. "I'm an outdoorsman, but I like to, like, party too?" he ventured. "I like to go to clubs and stuff? And I don't really find people that like to go outdoors and like camping and hiking and stuff like that."

Cesar, a skinny boy from the Philippines, played the swishy card. "Hi, my name is Cesar Gabriel -- emphasis on gay!" he said. "I'm not gonna sit here and say I'm auditioning for this role because I'm cute. I'm auditioning because I'm ugly! And I want to be part of The Real World so the ugly demographic will be represented."

Lisa represented another cohort. "Interesting thing about me -- I burp a lot," she said. "I never burped before, like, once a year. All of a sudden, I started burping obsessively. I'll have a drink of water, and I'll burp. I don't know what it is, the doctor's don't know. But as long as it's not acidic, they figure it's okay."

After a brief discussion about the legalization of pot and the ethics of cheating, Toby asked them to sum up their characters in one word. One by one, they made their pitches: "Fresh." "Crazy." "Open." "Compassionate." "Eccentric." "Eclectic." "Bitch."

Toby sent them on their way: "We're doing callbacks tomorrow. So we'll be calling you back this evening if we need anything else. So you need to check your messages. Thank you guys so much! Go enjoy your day."

Outside, three kids knew they hadn't made the cut. "It sucked!" said Sherena, a mother of a three-year-old. "If I was to be on the fuckin' Real World, I'm not gonna fuckin' sit there and fuckin' talk about all this fuckin' bullshit. I just wanna have fuckin' fun! They just drink on that show -- all they do is go out to clubs."

The lure of standing out from the crowd, even if it's based on less than five minutes of a stranger's scrutiny, can still lead to heartbreak. "There's no way, like, they could really know who we are in, like, five minutes," Lester grumbled. "I think it was really biased, like those people with the VIP passes? ... I think they even had different packets they were filling out."

By all accounts, the fame of The Real World is overrated. The humiliation of waking up in your own puke has gotta sting. Strangers rip you apart in chat rooms. But if you play your cards just right, Furberg says, you can carve out a new career as a motivational speaker. "They'll speak about topics that they had a problem with on the show," he said. "If somebody got in a lot of fights, they'll go around speaking about conflict resolution. If somebody did a lot of drinking, you know, they'll go around telling people not to drink."

What could be more real than that?


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