VH1's 'Flavor' is a show its fans admit they hate to love

Chuck Barney
Contra Costa Times

Steve Manning, a suburban husband, refuses to tell friends that he's hooked on VH1's "Flavor of Love" because "it's sad and embarrassing and they'd disown me."

Brittany Ticer, a teen, was admonished by her mother for watching the show, but then Mom herself got sucked into it, all the while claiming it`s "a habit I`m trying to break."

Renel Brooks-Moon, a Bay Area radio host, did her best to resist the series before finally succumbing to addiction. In her defense, she reasons, "we all make mistakes."

These and other similar shame-tinged testimonials are the norm for "Flavor of Love," an outrageous reality dating show teeming with catfights and wild make-out sessions that gives new meaning to the term guilty pleasure.

The series, which wraps up its second season on Sunday, has been described as a "ghetto-fabulous" version of "The Bachelor." It stars flamboyant Public Enemy rapper Flavor Flav as the unlikely harem-keeper to 20 women vying for his affection. The show's Season 1 finale in March attracted nearly six million viewers, making it the highest-rated show in VH1 history. More than three million have tuned in on a weekly basis this season, but not all of them are proud of it.

"I'm a little mortified to tell some of my co-workers that I'm into the show," Toni Rasavong, an intern at CBS5-TV in San Francisco, says sheepishly. "They work on news programs with serious subject matter. And `Flavor of Love,' ... well, it's just kind of trashy."

Trashy - and abhorrent, according to the show's many critics, who accuse "Flavor of Love" of portraying women in a degrading manner and wallowing in racial stereotypes.

"It's the worst thing I've ever seen on television," says Mekeisha Madden Toby, TV critic for The Detroit News, who has described "Flavor of Love" as a "modern-day minstrel show" that sets African Americans back culturally and socially. "And not just black people should be offended. Women should be. Anyone with an IQ above 5 should be. On so many levels, it's just so wrong."

"He (Flav) makes a spectacle of himself and the women make spectacles of themselves," adds Melissa Camacho, a professor of broadcast and electronic communication arts at San Francisco State. "It has a freakish, carnivalesque atmosphere to it. It's a show that's very easy not to like."

But Kanisha Singh, a "Flavor" fan who regularly watches the show with her husband, Ryan, insists the critics don't get it.

"Just because certain women want to act ghetto and disrespect themselves, it doesn't mean all black women are like that," she says. "You can't take it too seriously. TV is all about entertainment. That's what it's for."

Jeff Olde, senior vice president of production and programming for VH1, says the show is nothing more than a pretension-free spoof of "The Bachelor" that flips the genre on its head while offering viewers a hilarious Romeo and women who are "refreshingly real."

"It appeals to people are tired of seeing the same old thing," he says. "It does amazing ratings among African-American females, who are always telling us that they know women like those on the show - strong women who have strong opinions and say what's on their minds ... Women who aren't Barbie dolls."

Not exactly. The drama queens who participate on "Flavor of Love" would be right at home on "The Jerry Springer Show." They regularly tangle in verbal and physical spats. They dress in skimpy clothes and spew bleeped-out profanity. And they do just about anything to get Flavor Flav's attention, including rump-wriggling lap dances. In this season's cringe-inducing premiere episode, a contestant lost control of her bowels and defecated on the floor.

As for Flav, 47, he is part wide-eyed suitor and part amorous court jester. Instead of roses, he awards his chosen favorites with oversized clocks (his trademark). Instead of taking his dates on a romantic forays through the European countryside, he'll drop in at a bowling alley. And rather than don a boring suit and tie, he prefers flowing velvet robes and/or a set of golden Viking's horns.

Flav claims to have trouble remembering his paramours' real names, so he provides them with monikers like Deelishis, Toastee, Krazy and Buck Wild. Occasionally, he'll test their willingness to please. In one episode, for example, he took six contestants to a soul food restaurant and put them to work as staff.

"There's a pimp mentality to much of the show," says Madden Toby. " ... On one hand, you laugh because you can't believe they're actually showing this on TV. On the other, it infuriates you."

But the fans who tune in every week say they just can't help themselves.

"It's just one of those things where you can't believe your eyes," says Holly Rios of Fairfield, Calif. "It starts out with you casually coming across it while flipping channels and having your interest piqued. That turns into, `OK, this is something we should start recording.' And then that becomes, `Omigod, it's `Flavor of Love' night! ... It's a real slippery slope."

Rios usually avoids reality TV like the plague. But she figures that "Flavor of Love" has hooked her because "all the "drama fills some kind of need" in her rather stable life. And though she hates to admit it, she digs the catfights.

"I love it when they get in each others' faces and beat the crap out of each other," she says. "I know if I was in that situation, I couldn't even make it through one night. So I think it's kind of interesting to watch how people cope on that level."

Ticer says the big draw for her is Flav. "He's weird and funny, but I could see myself being friends with him," says the 19-year-old. "I would never want to date him, but I'd love to hang out with him. There's something about him that seems very real."

Like many "Flavor of Love" fans, Brooks-Moon feels conflicted over her devotion to the show. On one hand, she recognizes its flaws ("It's horrific. This is not what our ancestors fought so hard for - to be represented like this.") And she won't talk about it on her 98.1-FM morning show unless a caller brings it up.

On the other hand, it represents an hour of mindless escape.

"I don't get a lot of time to sit down and relax with my husband," she says. "It's an hour to laugh and go crazy. It's my massage for the week."



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