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Reality Rocks Expo: America’s Next Top Empty Convention

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By Olga Khazan on April 11, 2011

A convention for reality show fans seems, on the surface, like a brilliantly simple idea. After all, the genre already appeals to the amateur anthropologist in all of us, affording the rigorous study of sad hoarders, diminutive beauty pageant contestants, and cartoonish Italian-Americans who make dazzling cakes.

A chance to meet these subjects of our common fascination, to probe them further and get ever closer to “reality,” would logically draw the television audience out in droves. Turns out, not so much.

This weekend, the Los Angeles Convention Center hosted “Reality Rocks,” a convention for reality shows. (Full disclosure: I’m not an avid reality show viewer, but I have been known to gaze slack-jawed at multiple installments of “16 and Pregnant,” waiting for the teen couple to make just one good decision.) The gigantic arena was largely empty, save for a few former contestants, lots of vendors, some press and a few hundred die-hard fans making the rounds. Lines for the roped-off autograph section were mostly nonexistent.

But really, what better opportunity to have an extended chat with someone who could have been America’s Idol or Top Model? Even if you can’t get them to talk smack about Simon Cowell or Tyra Banks.

I didn’t learn much this weekend, but I did learn two important things about the reality industry:

Being on a reality show doesn’t actually change your life

“Swamp People” is a show about Louisiana men who hunt alligators. Their table was dotted with miniature alligator heads, as well as some merch for sale: camouflage-print visors embroidered with one of the show’s catch phrases: “Shake and Bake.”

Joe LaFont, the master alligator hunter, and his trainee stepson, Tommy Chauvin, looked like out-of-place country cousins as they squeaked around the expo in white rubber ‘gator-hunting boots. They both love their job and plan to keep it going for generations. The toothy beasts, they say, are not even that hard to kill (“Just shoot ‘em,” Chauvin explained), except in the summer months when the Louisiana sun gets especially fierce.

They may just be good actors, but it seems as though killing alligators, not being celebrities, is still what gets these two excited. When producers approached the duo about being on the show, Chauvin said he didn’t care much either way.

“I was like, ‘O.K….Stay outta my way,’” he said.

I asked him if his life had changed since the show began.

“Naw,” he said in a deep Cajun drawl. “You can only change if you wanna change.”

Chauvin’s maxim could have been part of the “regular swamp guys” schtick his show banks on, but it seemed to hold true for contestants across the board.

Jessica Koussevitzky was on the second season of “You’re Cut Off,” a VH1 show in which “spoiled” young women have most of their belongings taken away and are made to perform blue-collar chores. There’s also a “life coach,” who serves a nebulous purpose, and the requisite inter-girl drama. Since the show ended, Koussevitzky has returned to her comfortable life as a real estate agent in Florida. The only difference, she said, is that charities she works with are slightly more successful now because of her mild notoriety. Does she do her own chores now? She has a housekeeper. But then again, she always did.

But even if Koussevitzky’s life had radically transformed, it’s doubtful fans of the show would take note. (Unless someone made another reality show about it).

The conference was startlingly empty, and I got the feeling that it was because the public just doesn’t much care about people who lose on reality shows. The most telling evidence of this was during the “American Idol” panel, in which runners-up from season nine were interviewed about their experience. Plush conference chairs filled the room, but nearly all of them were empty. A few dozen people sat listening to the contestants, who just months ago had the undivided attention of 24 million Americans. Outside the room, people milled about in a food court. Two big screens flanking the stage looked bizarre, projecting the Idols’ faces out to nobody.

To Richard Rushfield, an author who wrote a book about “American Idol,” the sight underlined the ephemera of reality fame.

“A year ago, these people wouldn’t have been able to walk down the street without being swarmed,” he said. “But after the initial fame is gone, there’s nothing left.”

To a lot of people, funds matter more than celebrity

With the sole exception of the 40 or so people lined up for porn star Ron Jeremy’s autograph, by far the most enthusiastic fans at the expo were those looking to become rich and famous, not those wanting to meet someone who was. One blond, Hawaiian-shirted man from Orange County said he was there to audition for the obstacle-course show “Wipe Out” because “it looks easy and you can win a lot of money.” Fashion photographer Jim Jordan prowled the arena for hours with his mini Yorkshire terrier, Jisele, in his arms. Jordan is in talks with producers about “several different reality show ideas” centered on his fashion photography career.

The most energetic panel discussion was the one in which attendees could pitch business ideas to empresarios (and “Shark Tank” stars) Mark Cuban and Daymond John. The audience sat straight up and waved their hands in the air, waiting to be called on by the “Sharks.”

Cuban owns the Dallas Mavericks, Landmark Theaters and HDNet. John is the CEO of FUBU. Both are sitting on mountains of investment capital, and it seemed they definitely won’t be parting with it anytime soon.

One woman held up a bone-shaped pad that protects floors from puppy urine. She said she had already manufactured several thousands units.

Cuban’s response: “You’d better have a big garage.”

“It’s a Tie-not!” said one man in a colorful costume. “It’s a tie with a knot that you slide up without having to tie it!”

“Buy a clip-on,” Cuban said without batting an eye. The tie man sulked out of the room.

The fascination with business savvy extends even to reality stars who didn’t appear at the conference. Two women, who were decked out in leather bustiers, fishnet stockings and miniskirts with the word “KISS” emblazoned on them, said their favorite show was – no surprise – “Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels.” But although they said they love the music and flamboyant stage presence of Kiss, what they really seemed enthralled with was Simmons’ “marketing genius.”

Simmons was the bassist for Kiss before going on to write books about the experience and produce a number of television shows.

“I mean, he even has condoms with his face on it,” said one of the so-called “Kiss Army Vixens,” Arlene Sacco.

“And caskets!” said the other, Carol Port. “As he likes to say, ‘he wants to get you coming and going.’”

They erupted in laughter and walked off toward the autograph booths.

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Olga Khazan is a writer living in, where else, Los Angeles.

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