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Logan Scherer | Longreads | May 2019 | 12 minutes (3,274 words)
On a Sunday morning at a Chicago bowling alley, I soothed five strangers almost as desperate to manipulate people on TV as I was. Then I eviscerated them. After years of being too embarrassed to try out for Big Brother, I’d finally brought myself to attend an open-call audition. I was determined to play the social strategy game I’d followed religiously since 2005.
“I’ve only seen a few episodes here and there,” I said to the tall, gorgeous man and two normcore women standing next to me in line. “I saw an ad for this a few days ago and randomly decided to come. I have no idea what they’re going to ask us to do.”
I didn’t want them to know I had an encyclopedic knowledge of Big Brother and had done extensive research into how to manage reality TV casting call dynamics as an introvert, and that I’d been practicing this for six years. I wanted to seem harmless, to make them feel comfortable to tell me things about themselves.
“What do you do?” I asked, accentuating the effeminacy, flamboyance, and sibilance in my voice I’d spent most of my life trying to hide.
“We’re both dental hygienists,” one of the women said. She had a dolphin tattoo on the side of her neck.
“I’m a high school basketball coach in Peoria,” the man said.
I realized that I’d placed myself in line perfectly — when I stood in front of the casting director next to the towering stud, I’d look even scrawnier than I already was. I needed to seem as boyish and puny as possible. I knew that Big Brother cast the same kind of gay person each season: the sassy, puckish twink who delivered one-liners in the diary room. In reality, I was only nominally out of the closet, withdrawn, and bashful. I needed to pretend to be proud and entertaining. I wanted to play Big Brother so badly that I was willing to give the producers exactly what they wanted: America’s gay best friend.
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“You remind me of my little brother,” the dental hygienist with the dolphin tattoo told me.
Whenever the women looked my way, I bit my lower lip and widened my eyes. When the basketball coach talked to me, I nodded and kept quiet. I knew how to make straight women want to collect me and straight men assume I was one of their own.
I noticed more than a dozen other gay boys in the line, spread out among the 50 people who’d shown up early to meet the casting director. I marveled at the number of gays eager to scheme on reality TV, but it also made sense. We were all taken in by the promise of a game that rewarded secrecy and mischievousness, after hiding our identities for years. We could take the skills we’d cultivated in passing as straight and use them to win a competition for liars. But our chances were already low — they chose just 16 houseguests out of tens of thousands of applicants, and only one gay guy per year.
I sized up the twinks ahead of me: They were younger, almost as short and skinny, wearing brighter T-shirts and tighter pants. We all had the same goal: to magnify our eternal adolescence. The thing was that they were actually boys; I was just playing the part.
At 26, I was already past the peak age for a Big Brother houseguest, but still young enough to pop on TV. I’d almost used up all the stipends, teaching assistantships, grants, and fellowships in my Ph.D. program and had only a year of health insurance left. While my friends applied for professorships at liberal arts colleges in small Midwestern towns, I took a shot in the dark to get sequestered in an L.A. soundstage with 15 people handpicked to drive me crazy.
During my first decade of loving the show, I resisted the idea of becoming a part of reality TV myself. I was creeped out by the prospect of people watching my every move on the live feed and paranoid that being broadcast would ruin my life. I didn’t want to be known as a former contestant, half-remembered only by superfans who’d google me every two years and click through galleries of other ex–Big Brother players cataloging the awful media projects we tried to get involved with after the show then the office jobs we took when we finally conceded to the monotony and anonymity of the real world. But I’d discovered how difficult it was to earn and keep an elusive tenure-track position, and I realized I needed to find other subsidized ways to avoid entering the real world. I felt newly driven to do bad, fun things on TV.
Even though I was the oldest of the fame-hungry twinks, I felt like the youngest — the actually young gays around me already had a lifetime more experience than I did. I had the intellectual maturity of a fourth-year Ph.D. student, but the sexual naiveté and squeamishness of a sixth grader. In their muscle tees, they looked ready for boy-next-door night at the biggest gay club in Boystown. In my green-striped T-shirt, I looked ready to take my pre-algebra final exam.
At the limit of immaturity, I was also on the verge of finally becoming a real person, on a rite of passage into my version of adulthood. I knew that if I became a competition reality TV contestant, I couldn’t be quiet or shifty about my gayness like I usually was. I’d have to be open about my homosexuality in a new way. Tasked with becoming telegenic, I had to be in-your-face flamboyant.
In groups of six, we appeared before the curator of guilty pleasures. She welcomed us in the back party room of the bowling alley, beaming. There was a curtained-off stage behind her where I assumed singing animatronic bears and mice rested, awaiting the next birthday party. “Smile, have fun, be yourself, and leave with no regrets,” she said. “ I just want to get to know you guys.”
She turned to the basketball coach. “Tell me a little bit about yourself. And tell me why you want to be on Big Brother: for the money, the fame, or to play the game?”
Before he could answer, I delivered a crueler, longer, more deranged version of the speech I’d been writing in my head for a month. I’d read on the blogs that you needed to show up to the open call with a fully formed character, ideally one that called on conventions of past archetypes but that also added something producers hadn’t seen before. I’d combined my excessive academic credentials with my homosexuality to create an elitist gay evil genius. Every season they cast a mastermind, and he was always a straight guy: a doctor, an undercover cop, a web designer. I wanted to break barriers. I wanted to show America that gay men could be brilliant lowlifes, too.
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I’d intended to deliver my speech in measured doses, with increasing intensity after each question, but the two hours of sleep, the three hours of waiting in line, and my escalating paranoia about being unmemorable caught up with me. I suddenly became so overrun with ambition and hateful enthusiasm that I couldn’t wait for my turn to be heard.
I blacked out, but I think I said something like this:
Let me save you the ten minutes of trying to get to know all five of these completely unremarkable, forgettable people who have no chance of even getting on one of those prank shows on truTV, let alone CBS’s flagship summer ratings juggernaut. The two dental hygienists over there are so basic they have no idea that dental hygienist has become the second-most overused occupation on competition reality TV, that it’s the new NBA dancer. These two men are less articulate versions of every other meathead you’ve had on the show and there’s an 80 percent chance that the quiet girl at the end is in school studying to be a social worker and will shut down the first time she has to tell a lie.
I’m a gay man with all the venomous hate of the queeny personal stylists you usually cast but with a nuanced understanding of the game like you’ve never seen before.
In just one morning of waiting in line with these people, I managed to totally disarm them. By presenting myself as a timid boy, I made them feel even more falsely confident than they already were, all to prepare them for this very moment when, humiliated, paralyzed, and preempted by the truth-telling of the would-be loser, all they can do is continue to simulate self-assurance. Even if they fire back, everything they say will still be all about me. I lie and manipulate all the time in my everyday life. If I do all this with no cameras around, just imagine what emotional havoc I’d wreak in 100 days in the Big Brother House.
My new enemies looked at me with varying levels of disgust. The casting director lit up with silent glee.
While my opponents tried to discredit my character and argue for their own goodness, I stood back and took it like a reviled Real Housewife at a reunion show who’d already spewed enough hate to guarantee herself a returning spot next season. They didn’t understand that this wasn’t like a job interview, that this wasn’t a place to showcase your best self, that the real point was to polarize, that an awful impression was better than no impression at all.
“Who would you vote out first if you were all playing Big Brother right now?” the casting director asked the group. Everyone pointed to me.
“You all had five minutes to impress this casting director and you’re all still talking about me,” I said.
“Well that’s it, everyone,” the casting director said. “We’ll get in touch with you within the next 24 hours if we want you to come in for a call-back interview.”
For two hours, I wandered the streets of Chicago, alternately horrified at and elated with the person I’d momentarily become. I’d done something worse and more thrilling than getting sucked off by a stranger at Steamworks. I blasted Teenage Dream and the menacing Creative Commons music they played in the background of Big Brother nomination ceremonies in my earbuds, skittering through a city I’d never been to before and didn’t care to learn anything about.
Before I boarded the 6 p.m. bus home to Ann Arbor, I received my request for an encore. In the Greyhound station, an L.A. area code appeared on my phone. I thought I might die. “Are you alone right now?” the low-level dream-maker asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m waiting to get on a bus.”
“Talk low and don’t mention the topic of this conversation out loud. We want you to come in for a one-on-one semifinal interview in two days.”
I cried a little bit as the woman who believed in my ability to torture people gave me complicated instructions about meeting her in a hotel room.
For two days, I walked up and down the streets of Ann Arbor calibrating my flamboyance. I strutted, hissing quietly to myself in an attempt to revive the sibilance I’d suppressed while still closeted. The challenge was to charm yet disturb, provoke but not alienate, disgust but not repel, and to have enough soul to get Middle America to tolerate a twink. I stood in front of the mirror, experimenting with varying degrees of puss expressions alternated with faint smiles. I went through my six-step plan to manipulate single moms, former beauty pageant contestants, homophobic welders, and male models. I recited to myself the people in my life I was prepared to betray if I were competing against them for a large cash prize: my mom, my dad, my brother, my grandparents, all the girls I called best friends, and all the straight men I secretly worshipped.
I loved keeping my secret, walking around anticipating my date with a perky woman who could make my dream come true at a hotel in Chicago.
I thought: I’m living a double life.
I haven’t had to keep a secret like this since I was in the closet.
The real secret is that I wish I were still in the closet.
I miss the thrill of hiding.
“The first part of my Big Brother strategy is to lie about my identity,” I said into the camera the casting director set up in the hotel room. She hadn’t even asked me a question yet, but I’d immediately gotten into my plot to annihilate my competition.
“I’ll get close to all the women and start an alliance with them, taking advantage of straight girls’ susceptibility to gay charm. Then I’ll get in with the men, making secret final-two deals with each of the muscleheads. With dudebros looking out for me and cocktail waitresses coddling me, I’ll be protected by a shield of straight people at all times. I’ll purposely lose every physical competition all season to make people think I’m not a threat and let the men and women fight each other and eliminate themselves. They’ll do the dirty work for me, all while I cackle in the diary room and make mean jokes about their obsession with integrity and poor taste in T-shirts.”
She smiled, but told me to take it easy. She said to slow down. She asked me to start from the beginning, to tell her how I got into Big Brother in the first place.
We talked about my relationship with my family, my friends, my decision to go to grad school. The whole time, I tried to keep up my put-on swagger and extroversion.
“How would you react to another gay guy in the house?”
“I know if I get on, I’ll be the only gay person in the cast, because there’s always only ever one gay guy on every season of every competition reality show.”
“You don’t know what we have planned. So what would you do if we did?”
I was quiet for a few seconds — for too long. I’d heard that silence during a reality TV semifinal interview was worse than an inconsistent or a bad answer, that dead air was an immediate casting death sentence. I started talking again without thinking, exhausted, furiously desperate to keep her attention: “Actually, putting another gay man on the show with me would be the one thing that might throw my game off, that might actually drive me crazy or make me feel genuinely uncomfortable. I guess you can say I’m a self-hating person. It’s probably where my weird desire to manipulate people on national TV comes from. I’ve been out since 2007, but I’ve never been in a relationship with another man. I’d rather fantasize about straight men than get close to other gay men.”
I hadn’t expected to get this real with this purveyor of reality. I had no cute-gay or mean-gay left in me. I’d short-circuited to the point of becoming something like myself again. My unintentional exposure was my reality karma. After 14 years of getting off on other people’s in-game meltdowns — tearful diary room sessions after 14-hour endurance competitions, heated confrontations about broken deals and disloyal alliances, devastated post-eviction interviews in the face of total blindsides — I was giving back, having a meltdown of my own. Still, my freak-out felt darker. Letting out my sense of self felt like it was in a different category of abject.
I worried that I’d told the casting director too much. I worried that she’d never cast a gay man with no pride. I worried that I’d revealed my biggest fear — if I did make it on the show, they wouldn’t make me eat something gross or throw me in a pit of tarantulas or play loud alarms to keep me up all night, that they’d turn to a form of torture far worse. They’d unleash on me a guy as gay as I was.
As I frantically went through the possible repercussions of my honesty, the casting director was thanking me profusely and talking about flying me to Studio City.
“OK,” I said too quickly — miserably, uncontrollably expectant.
The bad news came in an email. I wouldn’t be locked away for the summer with my agency taken away from me. The automated message told me not to be discouraged, that I just didn’t fit the pieces of the puzzle.
I finished my dissertation. I watched the 16th season of Big Brother. They’d stunt-casted this year’s token gay: the twink who’d taken my spot was Ariana Grande’s half-brother. He had pink hair and screamed with irrational excitement every moment he was on camera. He had more pride than a parade. He called himself a social media mogul. America loved to hate him.
I doubled down on my dream. During the season 17 casting cycle, I sent in an audition video instead of going to an open call. I filmed myself raving about my propensity to backstab, my backdrop an arranged pile of books about 19th-century women writers. I dramatized my overeducation. I thought: Maybe if they went for a pink-haired fame whore last year, they’ll pull a 180 and go for an intellect this year.
When that led nowhere, I went to another open call. I wore the same T-shirt I wore to my first audition. I had the same flair in my eyes, the same manic, mean energy running through my veins. I gave almost the same speech, but it didn’t land. The casting producer assigned that season was obviously turned off by my mastermind-villain shtick, and I didn’t expect to get a callback.
On the evening bus back to Ann Arbor, I had the crazy idea to go to Nashville open call.
I thought: a new city, a different casting producer.
My cattiness will stand out there more — the people will be nicer.
The gays will be sweeter.
My competition will be easier.
Maybe I should just be nicer.
Maybe I should just be as quiet and calm and sweet as I usually am.
What the hell is wrong with me.
Oh my god.
I’ve already gone 500 miles twice in three years for this.
I have to stop.
Alongside the dark cornfields of northeast Illinois, I realized I wasn’t ready to confess. The confessional is the hallmark of all compelling reality TV — competition games, docu-soaps, self-improvement shows. They all hinge on first-person interviews with cast members, recounting, narrating, confessing. I was willing to wear the embarrassing costumes, eat slop, take cold showers, sleep in the same room as 12 strangers while strangers on the Internet watched me, scheme for 99 days, but I didn’t want to confess. I didn’t want to be myself.
At the Michigan City, Indiana Greyhound rest stop, I thought about double lives. I thought about what it means to be out of the closet yet hanging on to secrecy. I thought about rites of passage and comings-of-age and their opposites: relapse, regression, a return to boyhood.
In the gas station bathroom, I looked at my reflection: flushed, red-eyed, hair rustled, and sweat at the collar of my boyish T-shirt.
I did something I’d never done before — I took a selfie. I was a mess, yet I kind of liked what I saw. I looked somehow innocent and naughty. I looked like an elementary schooler whose mom forgot it was picture day. I looked like I’d just been ravaged to the point of total submission, and I was now embarking on a walk of shame home across the Great Lakes. At the end of shame was, maybe, the beginning of confession.
* * *
Logan Scherer’s writing has appeared in Tin House and online at Catapult, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Atlantic, The Baffler, The Awl, and elsewhere. He is currently writing a book about romantic friendship and the tragic love gay boys have for straight guys.
Editor: Katie Kosma
Copyeditor: Jacob Z. Gross