Reality TV as Performance Art

Why would a sane person want to appear on a TV dating competition?

Cartoon drawing of a house's facade.
Benjamin Frisch

The following is an excerpt from the latest Decoder Ring podcast. Listen to the full episode using the audio player below, or via Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play

In 2009, Ann Hirsch was getting her MFA in video art at Syracuse University. She was 23 and particularly interested in the way women presented themselves on social media. She had done an 18-month project—she called it Scandalishious—in which she had posted videos of herself on YouTube, using a pseudonym and playing an exaggeratedly sexual character.

In 2008, YouTube was still in its infancy, and this sort of performance, playing around with identity and anonymity, femininity, and sexuality, was still relatively new. For the time, Hirsch’s videos were very successful. They had hundreds of thousands of views and an engaged commenting community sprung up around them. They got picked up by 4chan, the infamous meme-generating message board, and Hirsch found herself with fans and with haters, all curious about who she really was and what she was trying to do.

Hirsch found this experience stressful, but fascinating. For her next project, she wanted to explore these same ideas about women and self-presentation, and how people respond to them, in an even more heightened context: reality TV, a format she thoroughly enjoyed. But Hirsch didn’t just want to make performance art about reality TV—she wanted to make performance art about being on reality TV.

The show she tried out for was called Frank the Entertainer in a Basement Affair. It premiered in January 2010 on VH1, and starred Frank Maresca, a muscular and handsome 31-year-old Italian American, who lived in his parent’s basement. The very premise was a kind of parody of The Bachelor. Instead of a group of women competing for a fairy-tale hunk, they were competing for a dude whose mom still did his laundry.

And that intrigued Hirsch. “There was a level of patheticness [to the premise] that made me think, ‘Oh, I could have a chance,’ ” Hirsch recalls. She decided her best chance of getting on the show would be to play a familiar reality TV stereotype, the sexually provocative, self-obsessed, anything-goes girl. In her audition tape, she wore a hot-pink bikini and gyrated to Beyoncé.

Her performance worked. Eventually, she made it through to the final round. The production company brought her to New York, took her cellphone, put her up in a cheap hotel by the airport, and made sure she didn’t encounter any of the other women before filming began. She was only supposed to be there for three days, but it ended up stretching into six—six days she spent mostly alone, barely going outside, watching reruns of Full House, eating food that was delivered to her door. People would come and interview her occasionally, and it was at this point that she met the producers. They told her the show would be taped in the house where Frank lived with his parents. When she asked where that was, they said Brooklyn.

Hirsch had done her research. She knew Frank’s parents didn’t live in Brooklyn. “So in that moment I realized these people will lie to me about everything, and they’ll do it with the biggest smiles on their faces,” she says. “In that early moment, I knew I couldn’t believe anybody. I think it was good to realize that—but maybe I would have been better off if I hadn’t.”

Hirsch didn’t know it at the time, but right down the hall was another contestant, who had a totally different set of motivations but a very similar story.

In 2009, Cathy Nardone was also 23 years old. She was from Staten Island, and she’d already been on a reality TV show called I Survived a Japanese Game Show. Nardone loved the experience, and it left her hungry for more. Or as she put it, “I just want to be on TV, and I want to be on TV more, and I want to be on TV more.”

Nardone was trying to work as a model and an actress, and she was auditioning for a music video when she heard  about a casting call for a reality show starring Frank the Entertainer. Cathy knew him from TV. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I actually think he’s cute, and he’s funny. He’s the only person who I probably would have gone on a dating show for.’ ”

Nardone may have had a crush on Frank, but she also had grander ambitions: She wanted a spinoff. “I didn’t even want to win,” she says. “I told somebody, ‘I just want to get second place, because you know they pick the most entertaining person on the show to get a spinoff. … I don’t care about the guy. I want the spinoff!’ ”

Because of her previous experience, Nardone knew just how to approach the audition process in order to optimize her chances of getting cast: “You have to act like you’re a complete idiot to get on reality shows, because they want to be able to manipulate the shit out of you.” Does that mean pretending to be stupid? “100 percent,” Nardone says.

Nardone wasn’t knowingly doing performance art, the way Hirsch was, but she had arrived at the exact same strategy for getting on the show: posing as the sexually provocative woman. This persona, and the way these shows encourage and judge it simultaneously, was part of what Hirsch was so interested in exploring, but Nardone had come to it intuitively. And just as with Hirsch, the persona worked. She, too, got cast on the show.

So here Hirsch and Nardone were, both with their very own reasons for going on the show and with very specific ideas about what would make their experience a success. And then filming started.

To learn what happened next, listen to Episode 4 of Decoder Ring, “The Basement Affair.”