[17 December 2007]
Contra Costa Times (MCT)
A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila
First came “The Bachelor,” with its gallery of fair maidens, its very handsome - and very white - Prince Charming and its classy, fairy tale-like flourishes.
But in the ever-changing world of reality TV dating, that’s just so old school.
These days, television is teeming with outrageously offbeat dating shows that not only turn the idealistic premise of “The Bachelor” on its finely groomed little head, but depict romance in all its wild and colorful variations. They thrive on shock value and titillation and they appeal to viewers more interested in theatrics than romance.
Witness, for example, VH1’s “I Love New York 2,” an offspring of “Flavor of Love” that follows a scantily clad, cleavage-baring, profanity-spewing black woman who gets courted by a diverse group of men that included blacks, whites and even a little person. The show routinely features racy make-out sessions and tension-filled altercations, one of which had a contestant spitting on another.
Then there’s MTV’s “A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila,” a show built around a bisexual Asian-American Internet queen who chooses from a pool of free-spirited paramours made up of both men and women. How uninhibited is Tila? On a recent episode, she gave a lap dance to the grandmother of one of her wooers.
And soon to bring an even more radical twist to the genre will be Logo’s “Transamerican Love Story,” a show tethered to a 36-year-old transgender woman who meets up with eight guys who are well aware that their would-be lover was once a man.
It’s certainly easy for critics to dismiss this brand of television as freakish, trashy or just plain silly. But L.S. Kim, a pop culture expert at the University of California, Santa Cruz who has written extensively about reality TV and race, claims they deserve to be taken seriously on certain levels.
“They’re intriguing examples of how television is widening its view of what proper love and romance is,” she says. “They present a very different kind of moral universe - one that greatly deviates from the all-American status quo. And it’s significant that this is a world that doesn’t totally revolve around a white male hero.”
Indeed, both Tiffany Pollard, aka New York, and Tila Tequila (born Tila Nguyen) consider themselves TV trail-blazers of sorts, even if many among their audiences see them as role-playing characters than “real” people.
“Shows like `The Bachelor’ are very safe. They don’t step out of the box,” Pollard says. “We were really the first show to demonstrate that love knows no color, no barriers.”
“What we’re doing is groundbreaking and it’s good to be the first one,” says Tequila. “I’ve gotten a lot of letters from people who think what I’m doing is great and who say I’ve helped them come out.”
Kim says it’s noteworthy that both Pollard and Tequila are “smart, savvy” women who became self-made successes in a media world that isn’t always hospitable to women of color.
“Obviously, we haven’t seen a lot of black women in significant television roles, except for the occasional sitcom,” she said. “And the only television roles we see Asian-American women in are as newscasters.
Pollard first gained notice as a volatile drama queen who was spurned not once, but twice, by scrawny rap star Flavor Flav on the outlandish “Flavor of Love.” Her emotional outbursts, gaudy wardrobe and outsized personality made her an immediate candidate for a spin-off.
“From the first piece of tape we ever watched, we just loved her. Everyone else paled in comparison,” says Jeff Olde, a senior vice president of programming for VH1. “She’s someone who says exactly what’s on her mind. She can be absolutely fearless, but also strangely vulnerable. It’s a compelling mix.”
Tequila, a petite model-singer, made a name for herself by crafting a sexy, risque Internet image. Along the way, she accumulated more than 2 million “friends” on her MySpace page and caught the attention of MTV executives.
“She’s quite a little dynamo,” says Drew Tappon, an MTV programming chief. “She crosses all (demographic) lines and hits a sweet spot with our audience.”
Both women have also hit a sweet spot in the Nielsens. “A Shot at Love” is MTV’s highest-rated series among viewers 12-34, the network’s core audience, and has finished among the top 5 telecasts in cable the past three weeks. “New York,” which averages about 4 million viewers an episode and ranks as VH1’s third highest-rated series ever, behind only Season 2 of “Flavor of Love” and Season 1 of “New York.
So what’s the secret to their success? The women say they offer something different - but also relatable.
“Everyone has ADD. They get bored and want something new,” Tequila says. “... But at the same time, you have to be real. I’m not fake. I’m true to myself.”
“Secretly, whether they want to admit it or not, people all have a little hint of New York in them,” Pollard says. “I’ve had corporate lawyers come up to me and say, `I love your show, but just don’t tell anybody!”“
Akilah Monifa, a communications executive from San Francisco, is one devotee who isn’t ashamed to proclaim her love for New York - or Tila. While acknowledging that the shows have a “train-wreck” quality to them, she also insists that they present “fascinating glimpses” into human psychology and emotions.
“These shows are more raw and rough and real than `The Bachelor” ever will be,” says Monifa. “And the contestants come from different cultures, different backgrounds, different classes. They’re not a bunch of cookie-cutter pretty boys.”
Still, there are some, like Tenia Morrisette, a UC Berkeley student from San Francisco, who crave the shows purely for their entertainment value.
“I’m dealing with classes and exams all the time and the stress that comes with that,” she said. “So it’s just kind of fun relaxing with these shows. You don’t have to think too much.”
Oakland resident Antoine Davis can relate. “They lure you in with all the fights and the craziness and all the cursing and the drama,” he says. “And Americans have got to have their drama.”
Kennette Hoke, a Cal student from Hayward, says she does her best to resist the dating shows, but finds herself prone to indulge when her dorm mates are all huddled around the TV.
“I think the shows are fake, but they’re awfully fun to watch,” she says. “Besides, you get to see all these people fight over one girl at the same time. Where in real life do you get to see that?”