The Reality of Reality TV: Jillian Hopke’s Sweet Victory in the ‘Cupcake Wars’

Jillian Hopke has a good track record for making her most cherished dreams come true. When she was three years old, she watched the Walt Disney World Christmas Day Parade on television and knew that she someday wanted to be a Disney performer in that parade.

Orlando, Florida, is a long way from her hometown of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and although most three-year-olds are little stars to their family, the reality of becoming a performer tarnishes most children’s dreams long before they grow up. Not so with little Jillian, who continued to work toward her dream. At university, she earned degrees in both dance and marketing, which would prove to be a winning combination in her future careers. By 2007 she had achieved what she now calls her “previous lifelong dream” as a Disney performer in the televised holiday parade. Recently she joked that “lucky for cupcake lovers everywhere, I’ve had a new dream since then.”

Hopke’s talent and perseverance, first at Disney and now as an entertainment specialist who develops and directs the characters and live entertainment at Legoland, guided her to success in her second career, as baker and creator of Orlando-based cupcake company Jillycakes. In fact, the skills gained as a performer and through her first television appearance helped her and colleague Daylyn Graff win the 34th America’s Cup challenge on the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars.

The Jillycakes duo’s secret ingredient for success in the stress-inducing reality TV baking competition sounds simple: Improvise! That word became Hopke’s mantra during the multi-month process of being selected for the show. She learned about the online casting call when a good friend suggested she audition. “At first I didn’t take him very seriously, but, knowing of our years of experience performing for local theme parks, he said ‘we already know you make the best cupcakes, plus you would make great television.’ So I took his advice and wrote [an essay] from the heart. I never dreamed they would actually choose us!” After Jillycakes made the first cut, “the video audition tape that was requested by our casting agent didn’t come until many months later.”

In their humorous audition video, which can still be seen on YouTube (see below), Hopke persuades the Food Network to bring Jillycakes into Cupcake Wars because, in addition to baking exquisite cupcakes, she and Graff are “good improvisers.” Hopke knew that they “both have a natural comfort in front of an audience. We have had so much experience speaking and performing for large groups of people that we don’t exhibit much of the nervous energy that many people do on camera. I just thrive on anything creative, so to be able combine my love for the stage and my passion for cupcakes was a natural fit for me.”

Talent and performance experience, no matter how valuable, can only take contestants so far in their preparation for reality television. Cupcake Wars pits teams of two bakers against each other during several rounds of competition, with one team going home after each round. Cupcake warriors never know the ingredients or design themes that may be part of a round’s baking requirements. Hopke emphasizes, “believe me when I tell you that nothing can prepare you for what might be on that inspiration table or for the chaos that ensues.”

No one told her what to wear, either. What advice would have been most helpful prior to filming the episode? “I wish someone had told me to wear non-skid shoes,” she laughs. While they waited to hear when they would be on the show, Hopke and Graff carefully developed a strategy to handle the twin challenges of a baking competition and on-camera performance. “We knew it was going to be a think-on-your-feet game,” Hopke explains, “so we spent months perfecting just the right vanilla and chocolate cake recipes that we knew could be turned into anything if we were to finally get on the show. We wanted to be ready—or as ready as you can possibly be when someone tells you to put fish in a cupcake!”

When Jillycakes arrived on set, the episode’s theme was the America’s Cup race. The first of three rounds of competition required the bakers to select an ingredient from a table of oceanic delights—perfect for dinner but not typically for dessert. Hopke chose tilapia, which went over surprisingly well with the judges. In fact, Hopke and Graff sailed through the first round but had more difficulty in the second, which required them to use fillings and flavors more typically associated with cupcakes, such as champagne (for toasting a Cup victory) or strawberries (to go swimmingly with that champagne).

The bakers thought they had a winning, well-decorated cupcake assortment to present to the three judges, but one expressed a difference in taste. French pastry chef Florian Bellanger “was upset by how unnatural things tasted. With the exception of the champagne extract, everything else was made from actual fruit, just a little too much of it, I guess, [but] he had the insight to know we could do better. I thank him for that now. I think our cupcakes have been refined to a more balanced flavor now, so it was a critique that hurt [at the time] but helped in the long run.”

Coming up with creative fillings or flavors is hardly new to Hopke, who learned to bake by helping her mother and grandmother in the kitchen. “Usually the best ideas come to me when I’m hungry. That’s how we ended up with our crazy Thanksgiving dinner cupcake. I live for the holiday sandwich from Earl of Sandwich, [but] unfortunately my craving came up a week short of its availability, so I made a cupcake that was a turkey dinner to go, complete with mashed potato ‘icing.’ We like to make cupcakes that are a true flavor experience rather than a flavored cupcake. We want you to eat them and think ‘I can’t believe that was a cupcake.’”

Improvising new flavor combinations and cupcake designs from one round to the next is only part of a Cupcake Wars battle. The top two bakers also have to design a display to hold a thousand cupcakes—and everything must be completed within two hours. The Jillycakes team sketched a sleek racing vessel to hold the tiers of cupcakes they concocted while carpenters built the stand to the bakers’ specifications. “The third round was the most difficult, for both teams, I would say. We had just been beaten down by the judges pretty badly coming off of round two, and our spirits were rather low. It took a couple minutes to realize that we had actually made it through and that we were going to have to make some significant changes to step up the game for the final round.”

The last round of fiercely intense competition takes place while camera operators circle the kitchen or zoom in for close-ups. A typical part of each episode is a baking crisis, such as a forgotten or incorrectly measured ingredient, stubborn cupcakes that refuse to rise on time, or the struggle to decorate every one of the thousand cupcakes vying for the judges’ attention. Hopke quickly learned to ignore the camera while she worked. “You have such a limited amount of time to do things [that] you get into this tunnel vision zone, and the cameras fade into the distance. It’s a lot like the scene in the Matrix where time slows down. If only the time clock would do the same,” she laments. “I don’t care how many assistants they give you. It will always be a mad dash to the finish!”

At the dramatic conclusion of Season 6, Episode 12, the camera lingered on Hopke and the other finalist as they waited to hear the winner’s name. “Congratulations… Jillian! You’re the winner of Cupcake Wars!” On television, a widely grinning Hopke and Graff briefly celebrate their victory before the show ends with film featuring Jillycakes’ display at the America’s Cup reception in San Francisco. In Orlando, the bakers’ family and friends who gathered for a Cupcake Wars viewing party likely didn’t see these final shots. Once they heard “Jillian,” the cheers and applause drowned out everything else.

Jillian Hopke (L) and Daylyn Graff (R)

The reality of a show like Cupcake Wars is that it can boost a business overnight, but celebrity also has a price. Companies promoted on TV must meet or exceed customers’ expectations for an award-winning product. Hopke and Graff embrace the opportunity to expand not only their business but their creativity in developing new flavors and cakes of all sizes. “We don’t ever want to be limited in what we offer to people, and we will be adding all three of the ‘normal’ round two flavors to our current offerings. We continue to evolve every day, and we are always open to suggestions and custom flavor requests. We made cupcakes for the grand opening of a salon/spa, and we customized their flavors to be representative of the spa experience [by using] green tea, chai, honey, and spices. Just like in the competition, it’s all about what clients need and what will best represent their theme.”

In addition to expanding business “through more community outreach and eventually through a retail location,” the company plans to offer more services, such as “a new type of in-home party for all ages with cupcake-baking demos and decorating tips.” With such tasty ideas, Jillycakes is becoming far more than an online-order cupcake company. Requests for cupcakes not only arrive from across the U.S. but now from other countries. “I certainly didn’t expect any international business, and yet people flying in from Norway on vacation have placed an order for when they arrive.”

Other types of response to the Cupcake Wars win surprised Hopke, who expected an increase in sales but had not thought about the extent to which the television episode might affect her personally. She jokes about “how much I look like Amy Poehler. I’ve been getting [that comparison] for years, but the side-by-side screenshots posted by random strangers on the Internet were certainly unexpected.”

Since their Cupcake Wars episode was broadcast in September, the company’s website has received so many congratulatory emails that Hopke posted a message thanking everyone but noting that it might take a while to read all messages. The business’ celebrity also means more television in Hopke’s and Graff’s future. Jillycakes received hundreds of votes on the Food Network’s Facebook page and will battle other fan favorites during a special Cupcake Wars’s Season 8 episode. After making two of her lifetime dreams come true, Hopke now has to set a new goal for herself—maybe a second victory in the Cupcake Wars. She assures her fans that she is “certainly up to [another baking] challenge—just let me get a little rest in first!”