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The Monitor: A breakout star on VH1?

Forget Chad Ochocinco — the ultimate catch on the football star's VH1 reality show might be Tara.

August 01, 2010|By Jon Caramanica, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Welcome to the humanist era of VH1. "I don't know anyone who goes in a relationship saying, 'I don't need openness, I don't need honesty,'" Chad Ochocinco said in the premiere episode of his new dating show, "Ochocinco: The Ultimate Catch."

As celebrity daters go, Ochocinco is on the holistic end. A star wide receiver with the Cincinnati Bengals, and also a well-liked participant in the most recent season of "Dancing With the Stars," he's sufficiently famous. Yet on the first few episodes of this show, he often appears slightly dorky, as if he were still excited that he could have this many attractive women at his beck and call. There's a touch of stiffness in his intonation, a la Denzel Washington. And he's a bit quirky, as you might expect of a person who legally changed his surname from Johnson to Ochocinco.

He talks with the women about getting hurt by others and "them nights you can't stop crying." He admits he was unfaithful in his last relationship: "I messed up."

He even offers a twist to the structure of the competition, placing the top 16 women, winnowed from an initial pool of 85 (his uniform number) in an athletic-competition-style bracket — a legitimate innovation, as reality dating-competition shows go. ("Don't just watch the show — make money off it," Chad jokes.) It streamlines the elimination process and heightens the sense of direct competition between contestants who are seeded against each other.

Ochocinco's eccentricity has already proved to be a liability in some quarters. Of his top 16 women, only three are black, which has raised the ire of talk show host Wendy Williams and others. In an interview with Essence.com, Ochocinco pleaded self-interest. "I deal with all types of women. My mind-set is that I think outside the box. I'm all over the place and I want to experience everything," he said. "I'm not trying to appease you on my show. I'm trying to find happiness for me, and it doesn't come from just dealing with one type of woman."

Fair enough. But as dating shows go, Ochocinco's diversity goals do little to increase tension: He's collected a meandering, often dull set of characters. Save for one, that is: Tara, a mouthy blond, has all the makings of a young Megan Hauserman, who parlayed a win on Season 3 of "Beauty and the Geek" into steady reality show work ("Rock of Love With Bret Michaels," "I Love Money"), culminating in her own show, the ill-fated " Megan Wants a Millionaire." Like Hauserman, Tara is a breakout star who will someday look back at her time on "Ochocinco" the way LeBron James looks at his high school team: a necessary stop in the minor leagues before pop domination.

She's spinoff-worthy. She may be sitcom-worthy.

She's mastered the way certain people have of speaking with celebrities to make them feel comfortable, a sort of overconfident obsequiousness. She addresses Ochocinco by his first name in an authoritative way. She's committed to eye contact.

Plus, she's eager to rib. She teased Ochocinco about her being white and him being black. "Baby like chocolate?" he asked. She assured him Baby did. Then he asked what her mother would think if she brought him home. She replied, "Is he black? Is he robbing the place?" Potentially touchy, but she pulled it off without malice. (In the premiere, she toyed with the preternaturally dull Terrell Owens, another football player and VH1 reality star, who was helping Ochocinco make his decisions. When he asked whether her parents would mind her dating a black man, she replied straight-faced, "My parents are black. I'm adopted.")

Last week, when facing elimination against Katie, who was seeded far lower on the bracket, Tara was ribald. "I think it's pretty Donna Martin 90210 that Katie's a born-again virgin, but to each their own," she said. When Katie reaffirmed that she wouldn't compromise her values for Ochocinco, Tara assured him that she had no such hang-ups: "I'll get down!" — at this rate, for many shows to come.

calendar@latimes.com

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