The stars of the shows say what they’re doing is groundbreaking.
By CHUCK BARNEY
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
First came “The Bachelor,” with its gallery of fair maidens, its very handsome — and very white — Prince Charming and its classy, fairy talelike flourishes.
But in the ever-changing world of reality TV dating, that’s just so old school.
These days, television is teeming with outrageously offbeat dating shows that not only turn the idealistic premise of “The Bachelor” on its finely groomed little head, but depict romance in all its wild and colorful variations. They thrive on shock value and titillation and they appeal to viewers more interested in theatrics than romance.
Witness, for example, VH1’s “I Love New York 2,” an offspring of “Flavor of Love” that follows a scantily clad, cleavage-baring, profanity-spewing black woman who gets courted by a diverse group of men that included blacks, whites and even a little person. The show routinely features racy make-out sessions and tension-filled altercations, one of which had a contestant spitting on another.
Then there’s MTV’s “A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila,” a show built around a bisexual Asian-American Internet queen who chooses from a pool of free-spirited paramours made up of both men and women. How uninhibited is Tila? On a recent episode, she gave a lap dance to the grandmother of one of her wooers.
And soon to bring an even more radical twist to the genre will be Logo’s “Transamerican Love Story,” a show tethered to a 36-year-old transgender woman who meets up with eight guys who are well aware that their would-be lover was once a man.
It’s certainly easy for critics to dismiss this brand of television as freakish, trashy or just plain silly. But L.S. Kim, a pop culture expert at the University of California, Santa Cruz who has written extensively about reality TV and race, claims they deserve to be taken seriously on certain levels.
“They’re intriguing examples of how television is widening its view of what proper love and romance is,” she says. “They present a very different kind of moral universe — one that greatly deviates from the all-American status quo. And it’s significant that this is a world that doesn’t totally revolve around a white male hero.”
Indeed, both Tiffany Pollard, aka New York, and Tila Tequila (born Tila Nguyen) consider themselves TV trail-blazers of sorts, even if many among their audiences see them as role-playing characters than “real” people.
“Shows like ‘The Bachelor’ are very safe. They don’t step out of the box,” Pollard says. “We were really the first show to demonstrate that love knows no color, no barriers.”
“What we’re doing is groundbreaking and it’s good to be the first one,” says Tequila. “I’ve gotten a lot of letters from people who think what I’m doing is great and who say I’ve helped them come out.”
Kim says it’s noteworthy that both Pollard and Tequila are “smart, savvy” women who became self-made successes in a media world that isn’t always hospitable to women of color.
“Obviously, we haven’t seen a lot of black women in significant television roles, except for the occasional sitcom,” she said. “And the only television roles we see Asian-American women in are as newscasters.
Pollard first gained notice as a volatile drama queen who was spurned not once, but twice, by scrawny rap star Flavor Flav on the outlandish “Flavor of Love.” Her emotional outbursts, gaudy wardrobe and outsized personality made her an immediate candidate for a spin-off.
“From the first piece of tape we ever watched, we just loved her. Everyone else paled in comparison,” says Jeff Olde, a senior vice president of programming for VH1. “She’s someone who says exactly what’s on her mind. She can be absolutely fearless, but also strangely vulnerable. It’s a compelling mix.”
Tequila, a petite model-singer, made a name for herself by crafting a sexy, risque Internet image. Along the way, she accumulated more than 2 million “friends” on her MySpace page and caught the attention of MTV executives.
“She’s quite a little dynamo,” says Drew Tappon, an MTV programming chief. “She crosses all [demographic] lines and hits a sweet spot with our audience.”