In the tradition of 13 bachelors, 5 bachelorettes, Flavor Flav, Tila Tequila and the rest of the copycats, here comes Luke Conley, another young man on a very public quest for love. But there are dating shows, and then there's "More to Love," the reality show for people who would never be cast on "The Bachelor" or "Dancing With the Stars."
From the start, Conley's search was different. The casting call was for "curvy and voluptuous" women -- size 2's exit to your right -- who would compete for the heart of a "big, broad" man. Enter Conley, 26, a former college offensive lineman, who wants to find a wife more than he wants to be the next reality star.
You've heard that before. We know. We also know it's hard to trust Fox when it comes to reality show gimmicks. (Remember the lying bride in "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance," who got hoodwinked herself by the groom, who was an actor?)
A reporter was along for two days of filming of "More to Love" last month, observing Conley as he speed-dated 20 ladies in 25 days while living in the top-secret bubble of a Bel-Air mansion, without a phone, a TV or the Internet -- and in front of 150 crew members, 10 fixed cameras that record 24 hours a day and 10 additional cameras that are on the move.
Not that being filmed around-the-clock bothers Conley, a real estate investor from Santa Maria and ham by nature, who is prone to uttering lines like, "If she's got a big behind, she's a friend of mine." Conley says he's never watched the scores of dating shows that preceded his. But when he came upon a Craigslist ad seeking men who love full-figured women, he sent an e-mail on a lark that began, "Sugar, look no further. I am the man for you!"
By then, production was 10 days from beginning and the search had been narrowed to two men. "We totally switched," says executive producer SallyAnn Salsano. "We all fell in love with Luke beause he is so genuine. He makes the girls feel comfortable."
A few days later, Conley, 6-foot-3 and weighing 330 pounds, moved into the Mulholland Drive mansion, hoping to meet the love of his life in front of millions of Americans.
Selected from a pool of 5,000 applicants, the bachelorettes range in ages from 21 to 37 and in weight from 180 pounds to 279 pounds. Some are students, a few are teachers, and there's even one rocket scientist. Most told producers they seldom date.
"Every girl in America feels self-conscious and uncomfortable," Salsano says. "But these girls have lived it for so long that this is almost like a safe haven for them. Everyone was afraid to come on this show and be made fun of."
Because the women have struggled in the dating scene and Conley has had only one serious relationship, the tone of the show is different from executive producer Mike Fleiss' other dating shows. ABC's " 'The Bachelor' is about beautiful people living a beautiful life and hopefully finding a beautiful love," he explains. "This show is like a sporting event. You're rooting for someone to find love." It premieres July 28 and will run for eight weeks.
Conley's dating whirlwind began at the mansion with a mixer, which ended with five women going home and the rest receiving promise rings and an invitation to move in. "To do this amount of dating and meet this many amazing women would probably take two to five years of my life," Conley says later. "And God knows how much money."
June 4, Day 9
Conley and six of the women arrive at the five-star St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point for a spa group date. Their entrance to Spa Gaucin is filmed a few times and so is Conley's welcome. Outside by the pool, Salsano asks the hotel staff for other food because the spread "doesn't look luxurious." When the ladies arrive, they sit down for sandwiches, salad, wine and conversation for 45 minutes, with the cameras rolling.
"No one has ever eaten a morsel of food on 'The Bachelor,' " Salsano says later. "On this show, they go and they have dinner."
The ladies, whose last names are not used on the show to protect their privacy, tell Conley stories about how they pass time in the house when he's on dates. Fitness instructor Mandy, 26, confides: "We're in this incubator and, in general, not being around you is really hard." (Other women stayed at the mansion.) Conley pours more wine and says he wants to enjoy himself without thinking about having to send someone home.
Supervising producer Mark Allen (one of 20 producers on the show) calls Conley over to tells Conley it's time for one-on-one spa treatments. Mandy is thrilled to learn she is first. They head for hot stone massages and cozy up on a sofa, holding hands. She brings up Conley's relationship with God.
"I am who I am because of my relationship with the Lord," he tells her. "I pray every day and I read the Bible, and it's important to me to meet someone that shares my faith."
Mandy seizes an opening: "Just so you know, not to be competitive, but no other girl in the house has a Bible. . . . To me, God is a third person in the room."