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As a path to fame, 'reality' bites

Life on a desert island or with a 'millionaire' is one thing, surviving in show biz is another.

August 24, 2003|Robert Strauss | Special to The Times

Atlantic City — The crowd in the lobby of the Tropicana Hotel-Casino was primarily Tuesday afternoon Atlantic City geriatric, but 10-year-old Tiffany Evans smiled cheerily with every autograph or photograph request. She stood at the end of a receiving line with her new cohorts -- the Chinese New Dynasty Acrobats, a few magicians, a comic juggler and a muscular aerial act.

Just this May, Tiffany had won the grand prize on CBS' "Star Search" and now was the star of a summer variety show at the hotel. Five or six times a week, she belted out the last two numbers of the Ed Sullivan-like show and retreated to the lobby for the autograph session while a production assistant at a table next to her sold Tiffany-autographed posters for $5 and "a limited edition" Tiffany pin for $25. Even the most effusive of fans ignored them.

It may seem all that exposure on a network show hasn't taken Tiffany very far. Yet at least she's in show business, which can't be said for many other reality TV-created celebrities. Though the television landscape has been dominated lately by instant celebrities who once trod the byways in blissful anonymity, few have made much progress on their entertainment resumes thereafter.

Are you paying attention, any of the remaining contestants on "Last Comic Standing" or "Cupid's" Lisa Shannon ... to say nothing of the thousands of singing wannabes auditioning for Round 3 of "American Idol"?

"If you think any one of 260 million Americans can become a star at any given time, then fine, believe that," says Bernie Brillstein, the legendary talent maven of Brillstein Grey Enterprises. "This is just no way to prepare for stardom. You can't find it under a rock. Under a rock, friends, is dirt."

While there are a few recent reality-show folks who have made some post-show headway, in most cases, the gains are limited. Richard Hatch, the first "Survivor" winner, got a radio talk show in Boston but also got himself arrested in a domestic assault case (he was ultimately acquitted). His "Survivor" nemesis, Rudy Boesch, wrote a book, "The Book of Rudy: The Wit and Wisdom of Rudy Boesch," but his scheduled book tour coincided with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their aftermath, so he was out of the news loop. Another "Survivor" star, Colleen Haskell, made a Blistex commercial and appeared opposite Rob Schneider in the movie "The Animal" but is now apparently much happier behind the scenes on the production team of "The Michael Essany Show" on the E! network.

"Every time one of these shows is on, the individual value of one person is diluted. There have now been six or seven winners on 'Survivor' alone. Who remembers them?" asks Robert Thompson, the Syracuse University professor who runs the Center for the Study of Popular Television. Thompson adds, echoing Brillstein's sentiments, "If you want to be a star and you are thinking, 'Should I take tap dancing lessons and keep on singing or should I get on a reality TV series?' then you should probably just learn how to act and dance and take your chances that way. The chances of you making a long career in show business from a reality show are really, really, really small."

BACK TO SCHOOL

Helene Eksterowicz excused herself to close the door of her office. The noise from the hall was making it hard to hear on the phone. It's not the office of a Hollywood production office, as some may have predicted after her long run on "The Bachelor," where she successfully got a marriage proposal from the moderately hunky Aaron Buerge. She is the psychologist at an elementary school in a small southern New Jersey town, working in the same office she had before she was on the highly rated ABC show.

"I'm sorry. It's busy, at least with paperwork, even in the summer," Eksterowicz says. "Otherwise, things are fine."

Earlier this year, Eksterowicz saw her relationship break up over coffee at a nearby Starbucks. Buerge apparently got cold feet and, while she was upset, the 27-year-old Eksterowicz is moving on. She does some public appearances in and around Philadelphia, mostly for charities, like Manna, which feeds AIDS shut-ins in the city. Oddly enough, the person whom she pals around with most these days is Gwen Gioia, one of the show's runners-up.

"People can't believe we are friends, but when I found out she too was from near Philadelphia, we had an immediate connection," Eksterowicz says. They are working on a book together about their "Bachelor" experiences and, though the appearances and such are rarer as time goes on, Eksterowicz is grateful for the experience.

"More reality shows are starting seemingly daily, so all this will eventually go away," she says. "But my view of life is that you take the opportunity as it comes and see what you can do with it. I'm always open to something different. The other day, I joined a new gym, and even that is exciting. I will always remember this as something that way."

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