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'The Surreal Life' and its ilk can pump fresh air into even the stalest of careers. And all it costs is a little self-esteem.

June 26, 2005|Meghan Daum | Special to The Times

Remember the days when B-list celebrities and flash-in-the-pan television and music stars were relegated to the stages of dinner theaters in Cleveland and traveling productions of "Grease"? Those seem like medieval times now, for semistars who once relied on supermarket openings to connect with their fans now have the benefit of that vast frontier of opportunity known as reality television. And they don't even have to be able to sing "Beauty School Dropout" to score one of these gigs. They must simply give themselves over to a very New-Age-sounding career path you might call "being."

Indeed, what the current plight of reality TV's B-listers shows -- even more dramatically than any on-air couch-jumping by Tom Cruise, say -- is that celebrity is now more extreme sport than fine art. No longer the exclusive domain of the most talented, it demands more in the way of sheer guts than God-given abilities.

VH1's hit show "The Surreal Life," whose fifth season finished shooting recently, has been the ultimate semi-celebrity be-in since long before the likes of Cruise began asserting their off-screen essence with such alarming zeal. But this season, which airs beginning July 10 at 9 p.m., has the benefit of coinciding with the moment at which the rest of the culture has caught up with the show's cracked vision of modern celebrityhood.

On a sunny Monday in late March, the cast of the fifth season gathered to simmer in its collective juices for 12 intense and often inebriated days and nights in a multimillion-dollar house in the Hollywood Hills. From the first moment of shooting, they found themselves at the mercy of crafty producers and a very surreal, carnival-themed house (think huge clown mouth encircling the door and an AstroTurf carpet). As they arrived, each reacted in his or her own way to the bizarre furnishings, shared bedrooms and the not-yet-regulated climate control, which made the house at least 80 degrees. It was a situation uncomfortable enough to make most of us glad we're not famous. But if there's a single quality shared by "Surreal Life" casts, it's that nothing can make them wish they weren't famous, not even a 12-day captivity in an overheated house with a bunch of strangers. Talk about commitment.

For those who need reminding, "The Surreal Life" is quasi-celebrityhood's answer to "The Real World"; instead of filling a house with seven young people whose collective life experience could barely fill the first chapter of a college textbook, its more experienced, often hard-living cast makes the show feel like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" with Botox. Its four previous seasons have included evangelist Tammy Faye Messner, Vince Neil of Motley Crue, porn star Ron Jeremy and "Beverly Hills, 90210" actress Gabrielle Carteris. Unlikely friendships have been forged (Messner and Jeremy are now reportedly close friends), and the show has sparked its share of sexual intrigue. The bizarre third-season romance (or at least a strenuous effort to enact a romance) between actress-model Brigitte Nielsen and Public Enemy's Flavor Flav spawned the spinoff show "Strange Love" and last season featured a flirtation between Christopher Knight (a.k.a. Peter Brady) and Adrianne Curry of "America's Next Top Model."

Stocking the room

As has been well reported by now, the new cast is yet another hodgepodge of larger-than-life personalities, including rapper Sandra Denton (a.k.a. "Pepa" of Salt 'n' Pepa), "the world's first supermodel" Janice Dickinson (now known for being the meanest judge on "America's Next Top Model"), extreme motocross athlete (and boyfriend of musician Pink) Carey Hart, actor Bronson Pinchot of the 1980s sitcom "Perfect Strangers," "Apprentice" pariah Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth (who generally goes by her first name), British model Caprice Bourret (also a first-name-only celeb) and, representing the producers' biggest coup, former baseball player Jose Canseco (who, incidentally, arrived late on the first day because of a parole meeting).

Back in mid-March, before the cast was announced, producers eagerly discussed the show but were nothing short of paranoid about leaking who'd be arriving at the house come shooting time. "Sometimes we have people booked and they find out someone else is going to be on the show and then they try to back out," said executive producer and co-creator Mark Cronin, a former writer for "The Howard Stern Show." "They can even be in the car on the way to the house and their manager will call and say 'So-and-so's gonna be there' and then they don't want to do it."

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