Always speak in the ‘I’. This is the First Commandment of the New York Reality TV School.
There are other commandments — eight of them, in fact, which school founder Robert Galinsky has compiled in a handout he’ll pass around the class later in the evening. This first one, though, is the most important.
“Speak using the word ‘I’ instead of ‘you’,” Galinsky elaborates, standing in the center of a non-descript Chelsea studio space surrounded by some two dozen pupils and a smattering of camera crews. “If I’m saying ‘you’, I’m telling you what you’re doing. I’m not telling you what I’m doing. I’m not claiming all my power. I want to stand out, so I’m going to speak in the ‘I’.”
It’s tougher than you might think. Even for the kind of hardened egoists like those gathered here this evening. For instance:
“He smells really good,” says a petite black woman about a fellow classmate after having been prompted in an exercise to say something provocative about someone else in the room. “His smell makes you want to move around.”
“Makes who want to move around?” Galinsky asks.
She pauses for a moment, then rephrases.
“Makes me want to move around,” she says.
“Yeah,” says Galinsky. “Now I know what the smell does to you.”
Galinsky (who, as it happens, has no trouble whatsoever speaking in the “I”) is a shortish, forty-something man with dark curly hair and a jaw covered in what appears to be a carefully cultivated layer of stubble. He’s dressed in jeans, a loose-fitting black button-down and a pair of black-frame glasses. He looks, in short, like the sort of guy who’s probably working on a screenplay.
He launched the Reality TV School last June after pet groomer Jorge Bendersky asked for his help in preparing for an upcoming appearance on the new Animal Planet show Groomer Has It. He worked with Bendersky for six weeks, drawing from his years as an acting coach and corporate trainer to put together a program. The groomer finished in the show’s top three (which, as Bendersky notes, essentially makes him “reality TV royalty”), and Galinsky realized he had a potentially hot property on his hands.
Of course, the New York Reality TV School isn’t simply about getting people on reality television. Rather, it’s about Galinsky himself getting on reality television. In a John Barth-meets-Mark Burnett meta-textual twist, about a month or so after the school’s founding some British television producers came across it and decided it would be the perfect setting for a show. A few weeks later, Galinsky was in talks with Roy Bank, head of Merv Griffin Entertainment’s television division. Several weeks after that, they shook hands on a deal.
“The idea is that there are two structures to it,” Galinsky says of the putative show. “The superstructure is the school — that there’s this guy Galinsky who’s been toiling in relative obscurity in New York for 20 years and finally in some ironic way finds his work being effective through the filter of a reality television school. So, one thing that the audience will be watching is the school as a business and how it grows and the staff and all the crazy stuff the staff has to go through in order to make the school work and operate.
“And then the other structure will be following people and watching them go into the school, watching them as they journey to casting calls and put their tapes together and run through the school’s curriculum.”
“It’s just a natural place for drama and story,” Bank says. “The people that go to this school are the same people who are on reality television shows. They’re people willing to expose a raw and real side of themselves to get exposure on television for any number of reasons — whether it’s to win money, become famous, start a career — they all want something, and they’re willing to go on television to get it.”
Not too willing, though. There’s a definite reluctance in the room to cop too readily to reality TV dreams — a self-aware recognition that there’s a certain ridiculousness inherent to the enterprise.
“I’m here as an observer of the human condition,” one student quips when asked what he hopes to take away from the evening. “It’s interesting. You put a bunch of strangers in a room, something always starts.”
“Honestly, I don’t really know what I want out of this,” says a one-time online dildo salesman who refers to himself as “The Poon.” “It’s just always kind of fun being in the spotlight of others.”
Actors make up about half the students in a typical class, Galinksy estimates. “Authenticity” being the name of the game, however, most of them try to fly under the radar.
“I’m in promotions,” says a thin, goateed man when I ask him what he does as we talk in the hallway between sessions. As the evening draws to a close, though, he approaches with a promo card for a movie in hand. He gives the room a quick sideways glance before slipping it to me.
“Actually,” he says. “I’m an actor. I just wasn’t sure if I was supposed to tell you that back there.”
Other, presumably less scandalous, revelations are more freely shared. After a few minutes of stretching exercises, Galinsky rounds his charges into a circle and calls on them one-by-one, asking each in twenty seconds or less to give their name, their occupation, and a secret. A Dutch camera crew moves around the room filming them as they speak, an impossibly cherubic anchor bouncing about the circle like some Reubens rendering of a tabloid television host.
“I have a sexual addiction.”
“I haven’t told my Dad that I’m gay.”
“I once lied and said I was Puerto Rican so I could appear in a Hispanic magazine.”
“I’m moving out of my apartment and my boyfriend doesn’t know.”
“Once I punched a guy in the face at a party because he said that it turned him on.”
“I used to be addicted to cough medicine.”
“I’m obsessed with comic books.”
“I stole a car from my senior prom.”
“I still play with Barbie dolls.”
“At night, I’m out there on the West Side Highway walking with the drag queens.”
“I just had to tear up my entire apartment because of a huge bed bug scare. And I haven’t told any of my neighbors yet.”
“Louder, people!” Galinsky yells.
“This isn’t reality TV. It’s personality TV,” he says. “Whose personality is going to pop? Who’s going to stick in our minds? This is about three things: Confidence. Authenticity. Telling your story.”
It’s about, in other words, figuring out your hustle. And as would befit any serious reality TV aspirant, Galinsky has his hustle down pat. A simple question about his start in the business launches a polished reverie that sounds less like background detail than voiceover narration from an opening credit sequence.
“I drove into the city on December 6th, 1988 with $300 cash and three months paid on a storefront on Ludlow Street…”
His pupils, on the other hand, aren’t quite so ready for primetime.
“So, mine would be called ‘Homeless Homegirl’,” says a manic-seeming blonde, taking the floor to pitch her show idea. She moved to New York three weeks ago, she says. Before that she was sleeping in a van at a campground outside of Denver.
“We’ve got it all figured out. For, like, the marketing, it would be a picture of me in front of the food stamps building over there on Fourteenth. And it would basically… the point of it is to… well, honestly, I need a little help developing it. It’s just that everybody I know who’s been interacting with me is like ‘you should be on a show, you should be on a show!’”
And, well, why not? What would be so wrong with that? It couldn’t be any worse than Big Brother. And besides, who, these days, can claim to know what people want to watch anyway. As I write, the second most watched video on YouTube is a Scandinavian blonde in a yellow bikini giving grammar lessons while canoodling with her pet Havanese.
“Watch reality TV!” implores casting director and class instructor Risa Tanania. “This is a genre that should be supported. It has offered a space for roles and characters in our community and in our culture that we are otherwise not seeing. I see absolutely no reason why it gets laughed at, mocked.”
Of course, there are quite obvious reasons why reality TV is laughed at and mocked. The business involves a level of spinning and shtick, of self-promotion and self-importance that the average person, looking on from a distance, can’t help but find at least somewhat grotesque. This, in no small part, is why we enjoy it, what draws us to it. It’s a chance to watch our peers make themselves absurd.
And yet, Tanania’s defense of the genre isn’t entirely off-base. At the end of the evening, the class takes part in a Q&A with a panel of reality personalities from shows past, and there’s something undeniably charming about the exchange between the two groups. The reality contestants are treated with a certain deference, no doubt, but it’s a modest, benign sort of thing — the way a couple of college kids might expect to be met upon stopping by their old high school to tell a group of seniors about life after graduation. The fascination isn’t with the strange, fabulous beings they’ve become, but instead with the curious things they’ve done and seen. All things considered, it seems a rather splendidly humane model of celebrity.
And who can honestly say, in this day of webcams and blog confessionals and non-stop Twitter streams, that there’s anything so deviant and bizarre about a person wanting to be on reality TV anyway? Sure, there’s something a bit monstrous about conceiving of yourself as a public character to be played or a message to be promoted or a brand to be marketed, but having been handed the means of production, we don’t seem much able to resist the urge, do we? How much time did you spend last week crafting meticulously phrased Facebook updates? Given the ongoing age of media disaggregation in which we live, you could argue that all Galinsky and his crew are doing is teaching survival skills.
“I don’t care if you’re the best singer on American Idol, he says, standing in the center the class. “I don’t care if you lose the most weight on The Biggest Loser.
“All I care about is that some way, some how, you’re noticed and remembered.”
And if everyone manages to get a little screen-time out of the arrangement, well then, so much the better.