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POSTCARDS FROM NEW YORK | On TV

Their 16th Minute

An unusual reunion of some of the contestants from 'Big Brother' draws about 100 paying fans.

March 14, 2001|BRIAN LOWRY

NEW YORK — When word of the event reached me, one question kept echoing through my mind: Who would go? Who would pay good money--in some instances exceeding the cost of tickets to a Broadway show--to attend a reunion of "Big Brother," the CBS series derided by TV critics through much of the summer?

While "Survivor" has achieved the status of pop-culture phenomenon, "Big Brother" remains an odd afterthought--the other staged, avant-garde premise CBS introduced, a Dutch import in which 10 people were sequestered in a house (the winners for nearly three months) and their actions monitored by cameras and microphones 24 hours a day.

Under constant surveillance, many likened the contestants confined for our amusement to lab rats, and worse yet, boring ones at that. Even CBS, seeking to explain the show's modest (though not disastrous) ratings, has implied as much, abandoning the cast by claiming "Big Brother's" results stemmed in part from mistakes in who was chosen. Executives thus insist a second version being planned for this summer will be better if, among other things, the network does a better job "casting" its inmates.

So here they were Monday night, six of the "Big Brother" alumni, at an event sponsored by the Seminar Center almost six months after the show's conclusion. The minimum admission: $40. For $65, a nonmember (it's $29.95 to join the Seminar Center) could get "VIP seating," which accounted for every row except a few in the back. Members willing to part with $115, meanwhile, were treated to a "private reception," with snacks (some flat soda and carrot sticks) as well as an "up-close Q&A and autograph session."

All told, fewer than two dozen people appeared to shell out the big money, with roughly 100 there in all. The Seminar Center Program Director Paul Scott Adamo said he was not disappointed by the turnout, though he noted the most popular sessions--often those involving "spiritual mediums," such as TV psychic Kenny Kingston--can draw well over 1,000.

"It's an unusual event," he said.

That it was. For starters, the seminar, whose location was kept secret to everyone but those registered, was held in a basement ballroom at Temple Israel of New York--a rather appropriate venue, given that people came not so much to reminisce about a TV show as worship those involved.

For the participants, it was not about money. Based on attendance, the cast members on hand--grand-prize winner Eddie McGee, Curtis Kin, Cassandra Waldon, Brittany Petros, Will Mega and George Boswell--will pocket no more than a few hundred dollars each.

Rather, it seemed merely another opportunity to extend their grasp of fame a few more hours--to be, in a sense, Madonna for a night. Some have tried to parlay their experience into full-fledged entertainment careers, not surprisingly, with marginal success. The lure of Hollywood is so strong that even Mega, who briefly spurred controversy during the show because of his ties to the New Black Panther Party, has taken to billing himself as an "actorvist."

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At this point, they remain people whose most marketable talent, from a television standpoint, was their willingness to subject themselves to isolation from friends and family in pursuit of fame and a pot of money. (Many sitcom writers do this too, though they get to sleep in their own beds at night if they choose.)

To the "Big Brother" contestants, however, adulation is invariably mixed with indignities, down to the fact that the event's moderator had clearly never seen the show. McGee finally told her politely, after a second or third recitation regarding the program's particulars, "Miss, these people are fans of the show. I think they know the statistics."

Indeed they did. And the attendees were, in their own way, far more interesting than those on stage--not only for who they were, but who they weren't. Yes, there were some who looked as if they were plucked from the most embarrassing regions of a "Star Trek" convention, but the crowd was nothing if not eclectic: young and middle-aged (two seniors, on hand initially, soon left), white and black, short and tall, obese and model-thin.

They lined up to get autographs and snap pictures. "I'm hoping to meet some like-minded people," one middle-aged woman was overheard to say, almost sheepishly. "Most of my friends don't really understand."

Technology, of course, is helping change the dynamics of being a "fan," in its most ardent sense. People have long quietly carried torches for canceled TV shows, but thanks to the Internet, viewers from all over the country--indeed, the world--are able to keep the fire burning, or perhaps more accurately, the spark flickering.

In just the last few weeks, e-mails have arrived from fans seeking to "save" ABC's modestly rated drama "Once and Again"; from a teenage girl spearheading a campaign on behalf of the WB's "Gilmore Girls"; even a group still chatting away regarding the merits of "Prey," a science-fiction series ABC dropped several years ago.

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