You've seen him around town, but you can't quite place him. Maybe he's your coffee barista, or the stranger you played darts with at The Villager, or the guy you passed on the running trail at Shelby Bottoms yesterday.
And then it dawns on you: He's that guy — the one from that reality show.
Not unlike animals escaped from the zoo, a substantial amount of former reality stars are running around the city. Some of them are trying to extend their 15 minutes in the spotlight. Others are content to settle into post-reality "real" life. Many have become household names, like Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Kellie Pickler, and — lest you think being a pretty blond singer is requisite for achieving post-reality show success — Dr. Travis Stork, also known as Dr. Bachelor.
But being on a reality show isn't as easy as it looks. Waking up with a boom mic over your head is a drag, and having a camera crew track your every move — and then hand the footage over to editors and producers who can portray you however they choose — is exhausting and somewhat terrifying. (Unless you are a Kardashian, and hence comfortable spending entire episodes on the size of Kim's butt or — apologies for the visual — Khloe's camel toe.)
While reality show participants have different motivations for temporarily signing away their lives, once the show and their dirty laundry have aired, the impact on their individual careers, relationships and lifestyles is monumental. We tracked down six Nashvillians who endured everything from semi-kidnappings to "panty soup" during their respective reality-show tenures. So if you've been wondering where they are now, here they are.
- Photo: Eric England
SCENE: PEACE, LOVE & LITTLE DONUTS, THE ARCADE, DOWNTOWN NASHVILLE — MORNING
Garbage from the previous evening's debauchery litters the sidewalks on this sticky late summer morning, stirred by exhaust from the Green Line bus. As the Arcade comes into view, the reek of cigarettes from nearby alleys marinating in puddles of stale beer yields to another smell — freshly baked doughnuts. The cloying scent (nearly visible, like in a cartoon) leads to Arcade storefront No. 12, anchored by a psychedelic vintage Volkswagen Beetle in the front window.
Buddy Jewell sits at the front table of Peace, Love & Little Donuts, a tiny bakery with vinyl records lining the walls and classic rock blaring from the speakers. He's a tall, imposing figure, but friendly and genuine. He's still instantly recognizable as the first winner of Nashville Star, the country-themed singing competition that ran for five seasons on the USA Network.
After claiming victory over a strong challenger — third-place finisher Miranda Lambert — Jewell seemed destined for the gravy train. His first single, "Help Pour Out the Rain (Lacey's Song)," released just after his win in May 2003, was the highest charting debut by a new country artist since Nielsen SoundScan's launch in 1990. His self-titled release on Columbia reached No. 1 on the country chart and was certified gold. But reality-TV stardom proved short-lived even by Nashville's brutal standards.
Before Nashville Star, Jewell was making a living as a demo singer, but he couldn't land a publishing deal after being deemed "too country" by numerous publishers on Music Row. When he heard about Star, he was reluctant to try out for it.
"I'd been on Star Search, back in the early '90s, and I'd done my share of talent contests," Jewell explains, as foot traffic wanders past the storefront. "My wife said, 'We moved here and said we'd turn over every rock to get you a record deal.' So I went to the audition."
After landing a spot on the show, Jewell, then 41 and married with three children, moved into a house off Music Row with the other contestants. He describes that setup as "Big Brother meets Survivor meets American Idol."
"They wanted all of us living in this house together, so they could show the interactions, and they hoped we'd get in catfights and all of that," he recalls. "They brought us all in the house at the same time. After looking at the rooms on the first floor, all the girls ran up to the second level. Turns out all the guys got the bigger rooms because the girls weren't satisfied — they thought something bigger was upstairs. I guess it's like shopping for a dress; they usually don't buy the first dress they try on."
Surviving the show and its frat-house living arrangements turned out to be the easy part. When Jewell won, he also won a contract with Columbia, which immediately pushed him into the studio with Clint Black as producer. They cut his album in just 10 days. During the CMA Fest that year, he played to thousands of fans at The Coliseum — now LP Field — just days after the release of "Help Pour Out the Rain."
"It was an experience ... only people who win those kinds of shows get to have that experience," Jewell says. "To go from walking in Walmart and nobody cares, to walking in and your kid says, 'Dad, there's a lady whose been following us for six aisles!' It's a weird thing. It's cool, I mean, it definitely fed my ego. I'd be a liar if I said it didn't."
But the machinery that delivered Jewell's first record so fast wasn't built for the long haul. By the time Columbia released his second album Times Like These in April 2005, he was already telling CMT that he didn't always agree with the choices that "the powers that be" at his label made. The first single, "If She Were Any Other Woman," only reached No. 27 on the Billboard country chart, and the second single failed to chart at all. While his self-titled debut went gold, the follow-up sold only 80,000 copies. Columbia dropped Jewell later that year, around the same time that Epic — which, like Columbia, was under Sony — made Miranda Lambert's single "Kerosene" the highest-debuting single of the week in October.
Yet Jewell remains grateful for what Nashville Star did for his career. He still tours overseas, recently returning from Poland, and he and his wife Tene actually own Peace, Love & Little Donuts, which is part of a Pittsburgh-based franchise. But while Nashville Star opened many doors for him, it also peeled back the curtain, exposing the not-so-sweet machinery of Music Row.
"[Nashville Star] made most of my dreams come true," Jewell says. "It was the things that I'd found out about the music business ... I wasn't as enamored with it after I got in the middle of it as I was before the show. My record debut was No. 1 on the [country] charts, 13 on the pop charts. As it is with Nashville, you're only as good as your last project. I've actually had to pray to God to give me the willingness to forgive some people for making some bad decisions about my career."
Then again, his career move from breaking records to making mini-donuts has provided unexpected benefits.
"It's fun — I've always enjoyed connecting with people," Jewell says. "One day I was going through the drive-thru at Burger King, and the girl inside looks at me and says, 'I smell donuts.' I'm sitting in the car, and she's inside Burger King, and she can still smell the donuts. I guess I save money on aftershave."
- Photo: Eric England
Survivor and Nashville Star
SCENE: HOME STUDIO IN FRANKLIN — LATE MORNING
It's an unseasonably hot autumn day on Williamson County's winding back roads. After a couple of meandering wrong turns, a home studio is sighted. Outside, eager to start her recording session, a petite blonde sits in the shade.
Whitney Duncan survived near dehydration and starvation, sleepless nights being eaten alive by mosquitoes, and four weeks of beginning every day sans toothbrush. Perhaps most impressive of all, she learned to navigate Music Row's treacherous waters as a teenager.
Signed to Capitol Records at the age of 17, she landed a duet with country legend Kenny Rogers (whom she calls "a great, great guy") in 2004. After parting ways with Capitol, she auditioned for the fifth season of Nashville Star in 2007, hoping it would put her in front of a large audience and build her fan base.
"I just thought, why not?" Duncan recalls. "I'll give it a try."
Duncan got to fifth place on Star — country's current It Girl, Kacey Musgraves, hit seventh place that same season — and co-wrote every song on her self-released album later that year. She penned tunes for artists including LeAnn Rimes and Lee Ann Womack and collaborated with top writers such as Hillary Lindsey, Gordie Sampson and Kara DioGuardi. But after a couple of years of woodshedding, a sense of adventure led her to audition for Survivor: South Pacific in 2011.
"I had no expectations for Survivor," Duncan says. "I've always been a huge fan of the show, but I simply did it for fun. If it affected my music career, great. If not, I took a shot at a million dollars and played a really hard game pretty dang well." She acknowledges that she might have fit a certain "type" the producers were looking for, but insists she was in it to win it.
"I mean, I get it, it's TV," Duncan says. "Even on Survivor, they have their characters. They knew they needed a Southern [girl], probably blond, and I fit the type."
Duncan endured 28 days on an island in Samoa. She was eliminated after her tribe was blindsided by John Cochran, who had flipped his loyalty to the other team. (Cochran was later eliminated, but won Survivor: Caramoan the following year.)
"He took the coward's way out," Duncan says of Cochran. "I told him that he disgusted me; that was my shining moment in the season, and I was actually proud of that. Sometimes you've got to let somebody have it, and then get over it. But it's a game — I don't hold any grudges today."
Duncan may not have walked away with the million dollars, but her former tribemate and current fiancé, Keith Tollefson, wasn't a bad consolation prize. During filming, in the summer of 2011, the couple had vainly attempted to hide their blooming romance from both the cameras and their tribemates.
"[The producers] wanted to show me and Keith as part of the storyline, but we just wouldn't give it to them — it's not a 'showmance,' it's not for TV," Duncan says. "I told Keith, 'We are way too normal for this; we're not exciting enough.' We weren't really shown a ton; we had a couple of returning players on our tribe, and that took a lot of the airtime and a big part of the storyline."
She'd likely have gotten more, however, if viewers had known something that didn't leak until later: Duncan, portrayed as single on the show, had been secretly married since August 2010 — to a wannabe country singer she'd dated for less than two months. Their divorce was final in November 2011, just as the episodes were airing.
"Being young and impulsive led to things I am certainly not proud of, like running off and eloping with someone I had dated for a month," Duncan says. "Marriage is sacred. It is not something you take lightly, and I learned my lesson. There are times we all wish life had a rewind button, but it doesn't. But thankfully, it does sometimes allow us opportunities to grow and be better from our mistakes, and that's what this was for me."
Duncan says that unlike Nashville Star, there's no staged shooting or reshooting in Survivor, and that she's happy with the way she was portrayed. She wishes, however, that she'd had a little more screen time to show the challenges she overcame, physically and mentally.
"I was strategic and was in such a great place with my tribe, that if we would've gone to the end, I was 99 percent sure I was in the final three," she says. "[Nashville Star] wasn't as fun as Survivor. The editing, and the storylines, the video clips ... man, production can sway America's opinion of someone so easily."
Although Duncan is still doing what she did pre-Star and Survivor — writing and recording songs — participating in a reality show provided her a unique viewpoint on her actual reality, changing it forever. Duncan says that if people ever recognize her from Survivor, it's usually when she's makeup-free, like she was on the show. But if going 28 days without makeup sounds rough, Duncan remembers something even worse: panty soup.
"We had one pot where we boiled our water and where we boiled our clothes — what I referred to as 'panty soup,' Duncan says, laughing. "No bathroom, no hairbrush, no toothbrush. For me and Keith, we saw some of the worst possible things about each other from the get go. How the heck he fell in love with me like that, I'll never know!"
- Photo: Eric England
JARED ALLMAN AND TENISHA JACKSON,
GIRLS WHO LIKE BOYS WHO LIKE BOYS
SCENE: ROSEPEPPER CANTINA, EAST NASHVILLE — MID-AFTERNOON
The lunch rush is winding down at popular East Nashville restaurant Rosepepper, where two subjects linger over chips and margaritas. Afternoon sunlight illuminates the talkative duo, who laugh as they order another round of drinks.
Jared Allman and Tenisha Jackson finish each other's sentences in a way that only old friends or lovers can, though they've known each other just six years. But their bond, their engaging personalities — and an incredible capacity for drinking wine — earned them spots on Season 2 of Sundance's series Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, which filmed in Nashville in 2011.
Allman and Jackson became fast friends when working together at Red Lobster back in 2007. Both grew up in Tennessee — Allman on a 500-acre farm in East Tennessee and Jackson in Memphis — but the two appeared to have little else in common.
"He's white, he's gay and he's Mormon," Jackson says. "I'm black and Christian. We come from totally different backgrounds. But I promise you, if I need anything — it could be 3 o'clock in the morning — before I'd call my boyfriend, I'd call him, because I know that I can rely on him."
The BFFs heard about auditions for the second season of the GLAAD-nominated show, which as Sundance explained, "explored the special relationship between women and their gay best friends," through the Nashville grapevine. Both Jackson and Allman say they were personally and professionally motivated by the opportunities that the show, which featured the duo and three other best friend pairs, could provide.
"I thought, 'OK, it's reality,' " says Allman, who at the time had recently left a job in the music industry to pursue his dream of acting. "I asked Tenisha if she wanted to try out for it, and we filled out the questionnaire."
"We didn't care if we got it or not," Jackson adds.
"Before the show, I was in a really bad place," Allman says.
"We both were," Jackson jumps back in.
"Yeah, we both were — a bad place financially, and with our careers, relationships," Allman continues. "I think we were so low, we just gave it our all. We didn't care about how anyone viewed us."
Their all-or-nothing attitude caught the attention of the show's producers, even though Allman and Jackson missed their in-person interview with the network — typically not the best way to land a gig.
"We met at the Hutton Hotel," Jackson recalls.
" ... and there was free wine, so we were already in trouble," Allman says, laughing.
"We missed our initial interview, but they called us back," Jackson explains. "We were the last people they met with — it was so funny that they ended up choosing us."
One might assume the Sundance Channel has an elevated level of integrity compared to other reality-packed networks (ahem, Bravo). Also, Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys lacked any kind of competition element, leaning more towards a documentary feel than your standard reality fare. Any drinks-thrown-in-the-face incidents — and there were some — were balanced by heartfelt conversations about what it's like to grow up gay in the Bible Belt. But that doesn't mean editors and producers were laissez-faire in their execution.
"Sundance is very professional; we do like the way they handled us," Jackson says. "But they kind of did portray me to have a crush on him, which was never the case. They didn't do it in a bad way, but they played it up a little bit. But he's like my brother — he's family."
"I wouldn't even know what to do — I would hold her down until somebody got there that did!" Allman says, as Jackson laughs. "I mean, it's television. But I think the drama pales in comparison to shows like Real Housewives and some of the other stuff out there."
Which is not to say filming was drama-free. Jackson's mother didn't want to be part of the show, and was apprehensive of her daughter's participation in it.
"[My mom] was like, 'Tenisha, how are people at my church going to react if they see you on TV acting like a fool?' Jackson explains. "But we had the best time of our lives filming that show."
Post-show, Jackson just finished her second novel. Allman, who splits his time between Atlanta and Nashville, made his film debut in Watkins alum Matt Riddlehoover's 2012 feature Scenes From a Gay Marriage, and he's about to appear in a sequel. There's even a role in it for Jackson.
"I think she's a natural!" Allman says of his friend's newfound thespian skills. "When she's on camera, I'm like, 'Hey, what about me?' "
- Photo: Eric England
SCENE: BLVD NASHVILLE ON BELMONT BOULEVARD IN NASHVILLE — EARLY EVENING
During the slight lull between lunch and dinner, the front windows at blvd Nashville — large, garage-style panes — are wide open, bringing the beautiful weather indoors. Just inside the front entrance, the man in charge talks rapidly on the phone as employees buzz around him.
Arnold Myint does not slow down. If you follow Myint — executive chef and owner of PM, blvd Nashville, AM@FM and Suzy Wong's House of Yum — on any form of social media, then you're aware that he's been traversing the country a lot lately. In fact, he's been "on tour" for nine months of the past year. But in 2010, when Myint competed on Top Chef, he was cut off from all social contact for the duration of filming, which lasted about eight weeks.
"We were sequestered and not given real time," Myint says of his arrival to the Top Chef house. "As soon as I got off the plane, they took my cellphone, my computer, they took away the television in the room, we had no access to newspapers, and we basically lived in this transit world where time was not of the essence. We kind of just lived on their cues."
Myint describes himself as competitive — he toured the world as a professional figure skater in his youth — and he knew that Top Chef would be good PR and an effective branding strategy as he built his own little culinary empire in Nashville and beyond. He auditioned for seasons 3 and 6 before being chosen for the seventh season in 2010, filmed in Washington, D.C.
Myint says he easily adjusted to being on camera 24/7 — even though the lighting in the house was never dark, even in the middle of the night. While Top Chef certainly looks stressful to the viewer, Myint says that's only a glimpse of what the competitors really go through.
"The filming part of it was a relief compared to the other hours of the day," Myint says. "And craft services were a frustrating dilemma ... you'd think that on a cooking show, we would be fed well."
Myint was also frustrated by his elimination from the show, which happened after a challenge where he was teamed with fellow chef Lynne Gigliotti yielded undercooked pasta. Myint's departure was a bit of a surprise since he had been named the winner of the previous challenge.
"Considering [that] I was riding a pretty good wave prior to elimination, I was more disappointed that I couldn't continue to bond with my fellow chefs," he admits. "And I was really concerned with what my next move in life would be." Additionally, the time lapse between filming and the actual airing of the show was particularly brutal.
"It took almost half a year before the show aired; biting my tongue was awful," Myint says, admitting that he dreaded the day that the episode showing his elimination would be aired for all to see. "I wanted to puke and was sweating all day; it truly sucked a big one."
Myint remains close to several of his former competitors, including Tiffany Derry and Season 7 winner Kevin Sbraga. Also, he says participating in Top Chef helped him overcome any insecurities he had, in the kitchen and beyond.
"I learned that I made a great decision to push myself in a way that only a few are fortunate to experience," he says. "Top Chef definitely has impacted my life in a positive way; I have grown in exposure and passion. I've met so many inspiring people and have had opportunities for projects that I could have only dreamed of had I not made this leap."
Myint was already a familiar face to Nashville before Top Chef aired, and he's become even more recognizable to the rest of the country since. Although he's been spending a lot of time on the West Coast — he discreetly hints that he's "developing some things" out there — he says opportunities in Nashville have been great, repeatedly drawing him back.
"I will be traveling a lot more, but my home is still here," Myint assures.
- Photo: Michael W. Bunch
BEAUTY AND THE GEEK
SCENE: CORPORATE COMPLEX IN COOL SPRINGS — LATE AFTERNOON
A sterile office located in a corporate park strip houses multiple cubes of workers, most in their late 20s and early 30s. In one, a dark-haired young woman balances a smiling baby on her knee. The woman's desk is strewn with a mountain of office supplies, baby food, toys and her young son's shoes. Despite the mild chaos around her, she is calm and cheerful.
When you discover that former model Ty Hall was on a show called Beauty and the Geek, there is no doubt which part she was cast for in 2006.
"I was actually helping cast Season 2 when the L.A. casting agent asked me to audition," Hall explains. "I watched the first season and knew it was a funny show with a sweet premise, so I agreed, never thinking I'd actually be cast."
Beauty and the Geek, executive produced by Ashton Kutcher, was not a dating show. Billed as the "ultimate social experiment," it paired eight beauties with eight geeks to compete as teams for a cash prize. All of the "beauties" were girls who reportedly got by on their looks, and the "geeks" were smart guys who allegedly lacked social skills, so the challenges were designed to teach each self-improvement on both ends of the spectrum, ranging from assembling a computer to speed dating.
Hall, who has since married — not to a geek but a visual artist — and had a baby, speaks of the show like a fond but slightly embarrassing memory, the way someone begrudgingly admits to LARPing in high school or having a crush on Screech from Saved by the Bell.
"Being in front of a camera day in, day out was odd at first, but you slowly get used to it," she says. "What was most weird for me was being around the same camera and audio guys and hardly ever speaking — we were told not to."
Despite the fact that Hall and her teammate, Rubik's Cube record holder Tyson Mao, were eliminated in the third episode, they did get some decent airtime. (She famously confused "ESP" with "ESPN.") Though Hall was sad to leave the show so soon, she admits she was also somewhat relieved.
"I did learn that I'm a control freak," she says. "It was hard not knowing exactly what I was doing on a daily basis. Producers would corral us in a room and tell us that in 15 minutes were leaving in two different vans to an undisclosed location, and [to] please wear a dress and don't talk to each other. Sounds a little like the movie Taken."
Hall says the producers portrayed her fairly accurately, and that despite the shallow-sounding nature of the show, it was executed in a rather sympathetic (if humorous) way. If you're having a hard time swallowing the notion that Geek could have been one of the more real of the reality shows, Hall says even she was shocked by her emotional reaction to being eliminated.
"I was adamant to not be that girl who cries on reality TV, but in the end, I was totally that girl," she says. "I was shocked when I was eliminated, and of course, as soon as it happens, you are sat down by the producers for the most in-depth, sentimental interview of your life."
Hall says even though she didn't get to know her castmates very well, they bonded quickly, as she spent every waking hour with the group with no outside contact for weeks on end. "I totally felt like my mom did when she dropped me off at college," she says, laughing.
Immediately following the airing of the show, Hall says, her life got crazy, but in a good way: interviews, appearances, getting stopped by junior high school girls asking to take her picture.
Nowadays, Hall says she is never recognized for being on the show — save for a random fan club in Thailand that periodically sends her Facebook messages. And she says that's just fine. Even though she didn't win the cash prize, the show presented opportunities she immediately banked on.
"I was able to pursue my dream of being a wardrobe stylist, and even assisted in a weeklong Bon Jovi video shoot because of all the connections I made being on the show," she says. "And now that I'm married with a baby, it might seem like I've given up on the 'fun career' and fame, but you never know. I might have 17 more babies and get my own reality show."
Where Are They Now?
.• Dr. Travis Stork was the hunky prize in Season 8 of The Bachelor, in which he gave a rose to Nashville schoolteacher Sarah Stone. That didn't work out, but Stork — an emergency physician at Vanderbilt University Medical Center — splits his time between Nashville and Los Angeles, where he leads a panel of physicians on The Doctors, a medical talk show. He married last year, so he is unfortunately no longer a bachelor.
• Kacey Musgraves placed seventh on the final season of Nashville Star in 2007. Her Mercury debut Same Trailer Different Park hit No. 1 on the country chart earlier this year. She also racked up multiple ACM, CMT and CMA award nominations this year.
• Amanda Valentine placed eighth in Season 2 of Project Runway earlier this year. The designer, who has lived in Nashville since 2007, is working as a stylist and putting together her next line.
• Songwriter Canaan Smith and aspiring country singer Mika Combs competed on the 15th season of The Amazing Race in 2009. They were the sixth team to be eliminated and are no longer together. Fun fact: Combs was also on Fox's widely panned 2007 reality attempt Nashville.
• What, you don't remember that other show Nashville? Only a couple of episodes ran, but if you can dig those up, you'll see Jamey Johnson and Chuck Wicks among the young hopefuls such as Rachel Bradshaw and Sarah Davidson.
• John "Chappy" Chapman of Chappy's on Church claimed that his appearance on Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares was the final nail in the coffin for the Church Street establishment. Chapman is reportedly opening a Chappy's in New Orleans.
• Chris Young won the fourth season of Nashville Star in 2006. Since then, the Murfreesboro native was named ACM Breakthrough Artist of the Year and has released four Top 10 country albums.
• America fell in love with American Idol Season 12 runner-up Kree Harrison earlier this year, but she's been a familiar face in Nashville for a while, as she signed her first record deal at the age of 10. Harrison completed the American Idol Live tour this summer and is still writing, performing and making appearances across the country — sometimes still at Santa's Pub.
• Salome Steinmann competed in Season 2 of Make Me a Supermodel. She was recently featured as the cover model on the March issue of Nfocus magazine.
• We tried to track down former Real World: Philadelphia participant M.J. Garrett, a native Nashvillian and former Vandy football player, as he reportedly runs a business based in Nashville. All emails bounced back and calls were unreturned. M.J., are you out there?
• At 21, Liz Davis won P. Diddy's Starmaker on MTV in 2009. She was signed to Diddy's Bad Boy Records at the time, but parted ways with the label to pursue country music in Nashville. In late 2012, she hit the Top 20 on Season 3 of The Voice as part of Team Blake. She is currently on tour.
• Way back in 1991, songwriter Jason White and Scene managing editor Jack Silverman appeared on Star Search with their band The Janglers. Ed McMahon described them as an "eclectic blend of music that is a fresh and exciting sound." They tied with the reigning champions, Toy Subs, but lost by audience vote later in the episode. White went on to write the Tim McGraw hit "Red Rag Top."
• Jeremy Lister led Street Corner Symphony to almost-victory on a cappella competition The Sing-Off in 2010 — which featured Nashville resident Ben Folds as a judge — making it to the final two before being defeated by Huntsville, Ala., group Committed. They released their latest album, Southern Autumn Nostalgia, this summer, and are actively touring.