They're in the holding tank at RSVP, a mini-film studio off Independence Avenue. They wear numbered stickers on their chests so that the producers don't have to learn their names.
Execs from Denver-based Starz Studio are casting a new reality TV show called Looking for Stars. One lucky amateur will end up with a part in a movie produced by Revolution Studios, distributor of such classics as The Benchwarmers and Daddy Day Care. The series has an American Idol-style format, but instead of songs, contestants deliver one-minute monologues that they've written themselves. Their attempts are evaluated by a trio of judges that includes former MTV VJ Alan Hunter, who will also host the show.
Hunter, wearing a T-shirt and sport coat, springs into the room. A boom mic, spotlights and cameras follow his movements.
"Once again, Kansas. Land of the desperate," he says to the contestants. If the contestants feel insulted, they don't show it. For his part, Hunter seems oblivious to the fact that he's actually in Missouri.
Earlier, the rookies had stood before a generic city backdrop and butchered their readings: a love poem, a drug-overdose scene, a suicide scene, a wedding proposal, and three pretend infomercials for assorted products. One tottering old lady dressed in sequins sang show tunes.
Like a guy about to dump his girlfriend, Hunter looks nervous. The contestants lack what he calls the "no-big-deal quotient" visible in the poker-faced wannabes who show up to reality-TV auditions in Los Angeles; New York; and Orlando, Florida. In those cities, would-be contestants shrug off failure like seasoned actors after bad auditions. In Kansas City, these people look unguardedly hopeful. Worse, the wide-eyed contestants take it personally when Hunter dishes out barbs.
As Hunter announces who will return, the contestants hold hands. Most of the 16 winners shriek, cry, jump and hug.
"That's the best reaction we've had in any city," Hunter tells the Pitch. "They were more eager for something fun to do."
That mentality has made Kansas City a B-list jackpot. Honchos from major networks including MTV, NBC, CBS and ABC agree that Midwesterners have that X factor: the hard-to-define chutzpah it takes to make it on reality TV.
"Kansas City is the new, more interesting place to cast," says Sasha Alpert, vice president of casting at Bunim/Murray Productions, the company behind the granddaddy of reality TV, The Real World. "You get a less jaded, more real group of people."
That tell-it-like-it-is mentality translates into ratings, says Scott Salyers, casting director for NBC's The Apprentice.
Robyn Kass, casting director for The Bachelor, agrees. "I don't want people on these shows who are too savvy for the process," she says. "I want to go to a place where people haven't auditioned before and they don't know what to expect, and you get more real reactions from them."
So, with Hollywood hoping that normal and naïve people can spin more drama than fiction, Kansas Citians will be playing a major role in America's obsession with watching itself.
But after the camera is off, what happens to people made famous for being themselves? And how has B-list status changed them? In the spirit of the paparazzi, the Pitch beat our own streets, looking for the real scoop.
Former Apprentice wanna-be plots to trump the Donald
It's been less than a year since silent tears rolled down Felisha Mason's dimpled cheeks in Donald Trump's boardroom. She didn't bawl, but she looked pretty victimized after a co-worker backstabbed her. During the fourth season of The Apprentice, The Donald himself scolded her as "not tough enough for New York" before he swung the ax.
Since that nationally televised embarrassment, Mason has worked to build a real estate portfolio, hustling to prove herself worth more than just one outlandish, made-for-television moment.
On a recent morning, Mason struts to the counter of the Sherwin-Williams paint store in Westport to chat with an employee whose shirt is stitched with the name "Bobby." Mason's blond hair is pulled into a ponytail. The 29-year-old wears a white coat, sweater and designer jeans. She sips her morning indulgence: a nonfat venti latte, no foam, with five pumps of hazelnut syrup. The Starbucks barista knows by heart her name and order.
Mason is, as usual, crunched for time. She manages a four-story office building at 4010 Washington (the one with the Budweiser billboard on top). She also has invested in the remodeling of the former downtown University Towers building at 700 East Eighth Street into high-end condos, and she often sprints off to Lafayette, Louisiana, where she rehabbed a 100-room Econo Lodge Inn & Suites.
She has been up since dawn, working in her office, proving her credo that all hours are for business. The place is functional but the size of a walk-in closet. A thrifty choice because she doesn't pay herself rent.
She's at Sherwin-Williams to pick up a couple of gallons of paint to test for the Towers project. Bobby isn't moving fast enough.
"Tell me who's slacking!" she growls gamely as Bobby gropes for a color palette.
He passes the palette and asks if she needs help using it.
"I think I'll be all right."
"I'm sure you will you were damn near the Apprentice," he answers playfully.
Actually, she was almost the Apprentice twice. Most don't know that Mason first applied to the show in 2004. At the time, she had been renovating a downtown office building with her business partner and ex-beau, Matt Abbott. Mason's mom died of cancer when Mason was 12, and when her father died unexpectedly of a heart attack, she surrendered to a moment of whimsy and tried out for the show in Chicago. Her audition was memorable: She argued with other contestants, barking that a businesswoman should disclose a pregnancy to her boss. That incensed some female candidates. Her hard-nosed tactics and heartbreaking back story carried her as far as the final auditions in Los Angeles, where she was cut. It was hard for Mason, who had poured her heart out and considered the casting crew "pen pals for life."
She popped up the following year at a tryout for The Apprentice in Kansas City. After standing in line, she answered just one question on the show's questionnaire.
Q. What's the most embarrassing thing you've done?
A. Stand in this line.
Next stop? New York City. After the show, she declined the lecture circuit and the offers from major development companies. She instead returned to Kansas City and bet on her business prowess.
Bobby tries to hand Mason a fistful of business cards for painters. She responds: "I can't use small-time painters. I noticed some of these other guys are like, 'Leave a message.' That's not the kind of business I do."
When Bobby personally recommends a particular painter, she adds, "You'd never guess it from his cards.... What I can't handle are guys who aren't already experts."
She takes one of the cards, orders her selection, gathers her paint cans and heads downtown to meet with Abbott and a security contractor at the Towers. "At my age, you can't walk into Manhattan and do shit," she says later. "This is the city to be in if you want to be somebody. You get us and our architects into a meeting with bankers, and it looks like a college frat party. But it's awesome because we are the ones changing the face of Kansas City."
The Towers project should be completed by fall 2007. She has named it the Manhattan.
Can a dance prodigy outrun the curse of child stardom?
Aaron Wedgeworth bursts onto the YMCAs basketball court at 70th Street and Troost sporting white tails that are pure Fred Astaire. The 17-year-old has written his stage name, ShoTyme, in glittering letters across his back. The thing you gotta remember is youre never too early, never too late, Wedgeworth says. The superstar is always there on time.
Other rules ShoTyme lives by since appearing on Americas Most Talented Kid in 2003: It doesnt matter who is in the audience; always give 110 percent. Give more praise to God, because without Him there is nothing. Remember to pause for a photo op before you bust a blurry move.
ShoTyme jumps into motion as if on fast-forward. Hip-hop beats from a nearby speaker as he pops to his toes like a ballerina. His bling twinkles a gold chain, diamond studs and a grill of silver braces.
When rapid drumbeats bang, he does his Matrix impression, bending backward at the hips and backstroking air with his arms like Neo dodging bullets. When the speakers blast fake automatic rifle shots, he flails wildly like a patient having a finely coordinated seizure. When he flips and lands on his back on the gym floor, the crowd hoots wildly.
The fans, the frilled duds it wasnt always like this. ShoTyme is the first to admit that national television molded him. Before cracking the top 15 finalists on Americas Most Talented Kid, he didnt even place at a Lees Summit High School talent show. After his TV success, he was booked on The Today Show, Extra! and a three-month gig at the Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City. He doesnt have to rent tuxedos anymore; he is sponsored locally by Andersons Formal Wear.
I saw that as a chance for me to keep going, ShoTyme says of Most Talented Kid. I just felt that would show the world what I had to offer. I felt that it gave people the impression that Kansas City does have something to offer other than just sports teams.
ShoTyme is more than this flashy shtick. He stays grounded with his gospel troupe, Prince of Peace. He teaches step and drumbeats to kids his age in the Kansas City Marching Thunder. He also has his own squad of stylish, fast-footed dancers who storm local talent shows and go by the name SPY: Men of Distinction. He dreams of choreographing music videos in Los Angeles and bringing hip-hop to Broadway.
As he dances, ShoTyme ditches his jacket and pulls his vest over his head. He even loses an earring. When the tunes finally stop, ShoTyme has danced out of half his clothing.
The kids yelp that they want him to teach them some moves, so he runs a 30-minute clinic. He shows them how to move each joint in their arms hand, elbow, shoulder, elbow, hand to create a rocking wave. He calls out beats five, six, seven, and eight to teach them a box step.
Most important, he dishes a street-appropriate pep talk thats short but effective. After all, this is his hood. He still lives just a few blocks away with his mom.
Who here has big dreams? he asks the crowd. Most kids around the room carefully raise their hands.
Thats where it starts: big dreams! When I was young, I wanted to be James Brown! Am I James Brown? No, Im ShoTyme! Did you enjoy seeing what I do?
The kids howl in appreciation.
Good. One day I want to see what you all do.
Then, after his mom takes his gold tie and hands him a bottle of water, ShoTyme leaves the building.
VixenArialBolds red-hot personality make-over! And her scary brush with death!
On a recent Sunday night, Frankie Abernathy hops onstage at the Trouser Mouse, a smoke-filled bar in a Blue Springs shopping center. It's karaoke night, and lonely-looking cowboys have been crooning beer-drinking anthems and love songs for hours.
She grabs a microphone with one hand, faces a monitor and takes a swig from a bottle of Miller Lite. She looks mod, tricked out in a polka-dot dress and fishnets. A ring pierces her lip, and her polished fingernails are licked with tiny painted flames.
She revels in the fact that most people here don't know her as the Frankie. Most everywhere else, she is recognized as the one-woman blooper reel from Real World: San Diego.
The Blue Springs resident's on-air experience was the kind of coming-of-age train wreck that reality TV producers dream of. Her first night in the Real World house, she got drunk and puked. She smoked, even though she has the lung disease cystic fibrosis. Roommates caught her with a kitchen knife in the bathroom and learned that she habitually cut herself. She broke down because of a phobia of large boats.
When she got a visit from her hometown boyfriend, tattoo artist Dave Duly, the two looked head-over-heels for each other. But Duly would later watch, along with the rest of the country, his girlfriend make a drunken pass at a roommate. Twice.
Abernathy bailed out of the Real World before taping finished. When she did, viewers and her former housemates wondered: Would her relationship with Duly survive that full-scale meltdown?
After Abernathy left the show, she moved in with Duly for a few months. The couple bickered, once so loudly that they were confronted by cops in a parking lot. Then, at the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards in Miami, Abernathy was arrested on charges of assaulting an officer who was trying to boot her from a party that she had crashed. Prosecutors reduced the charge to misdemeanor assault, she says. Her record is now clean.
Watching herself on television, the 23-year-old saw a caricature. But she also saw an opportunity to reflect on the person behind the "Drunk Frankie" character.
"If we were all followed around with cameras all the time, we'd learn a lot about ourselves," she says. "When you see everything you hate about yourself magnified by five, you think you should change that behavior."
Abernathy was unsettled by being well-known for accomplishing nothing. "It's a really weird thing to have fame and have never done anything to deserve it," she says.
She quit smoking and decided to stop drinking as much. She flirted with DJing for KRBZ 96.5 (the Buzz) and modeled for an independent label in California. Eventually, though, she decided to cash in her 15 minutes and find work that didn't trade on her pop-culture status.
She and Duly hooked up with the Art Intensity Network, a tattoo media company that creates DVD magazines of pricking conventions. She worked as a broadcaster for expos in New Orleans; Detroit; and Cocoa Beach, Florida. Duly inked at most of them.
Then Abernathy's life got complicated again. In December, a flare-up of her cystic fibrosis put her in the hospital, where she stayed for three months. Sickness had reduced to cameos her part-time sales work at places such as Guitar Center in Blue Springs. After she was released from the hospital, she moved back home and applied for long-term disability.
At the Trouser Mouse, Abernathy has been waiting for Duly for more than an hour. She takes the stage to sing Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself for Loving You," seemingly an appropriate choice. Abernathy swivels her hips, adding sultry uh-uh-uh-uhs between verses. Her body is etched in a coloring book's worth of new tattoos, including a Hello Kitty on her right shoulder, oversized cherries on her forearm that were designed by her grandmother, and a dagger and rose that cover her cutting scars. There's also a heart wrapped in a clover that reads "Davey's girl at last" emblazoned on her left butt cheek. (She jokes later about the ass tattoo: "We'll be together. I know we will because I have his name on my ass.")
Abernathy is tired of others second-guessing her relationship. "If you've seen me out and not necessarily being Dave's girlfriend it's probably because I wasn't at the time, even though I still love him."
Her eyes are closed as she reaches the chorus of her song, which she knows by heart: I think of you every night and day/You took my heart, and then you took my pride away.
Some women with crisp perms clutch lit cigarettes and testify in a corner: Umm-hmm.
When Duly finally arrives, he appears to be so intoxicated that he has trouble getting served. Abernathy is only one beer deep and has switched to soda, her normal routine to avoid re-enacting the antics that made for good TV. Duly says he got stuck at band practice.
She forgives him.
Unlikely role model returns to her deadly habit
Brenda Hawkins, Blue Springs resident and star of Cold Turkey II, admits that she's suffered a setback. The 62-year-old former trucker, best known for kicking her chain-smoking habit on television, relapsed last October, just weeks shy of her one-year smoke-free anniversary.
The return of her vice is linked to a new addiction: Texas hold 'em.
On a recent Thursday night, Hawkins smiles as she scoots up to a poker table at Wise Guys, a hole in the wall on Woods Chapel Road. She's here at least twice a week and has done well enough to win prizes, including chip sets, her own poker table, and a gold plaque for earning the most points in a February tournament.
She sips water from a Styrofoam cup and shields her cards with her hands. She usually plays both matches, four hours straight. Tonight, her opponents include a firefighter and a La-Z-Boy salesman who calls her "Granny."
"You show them, buddy. What do you got?" Hawkins says as she calls the bluff of a long-haired Eddie Vedder look-alike. She rakes in the chips from her first win and lights a Virginia Slims. Laughing, she exhales.
Hawkins says she never volunteered to quit smoking on Cold Turkey II. She was duped into it. It started with sadness: In June 2003, her husband, Bennie, died of lung cancer. The couple had spent years crossing the nation, first in 18-wheelers, then in a smaller van as nonstop expediters, carriers who would drive all night to deliver packages. After Bennie's death, she was haunted by their years and miles together and committed herself to trying to make new memories. She started taking weekly acting classes and took a job driving a limousine. Those worlds collided in a rare opportunity when one day after work, she stormed into Kona Grill on the Plaza to meet some acting friends who happened to be munching with a reality-TV director. "The rich don't tip. The poor don't have it. And the limo driver gets screwed!" she remembers shouting.
Ranting in her chauffeur's uniform left an indelible mark: The director later called to cast her in an upcoming reality show. The producer deliberately kept the description of the show sketchy. Thinking she might be trapped on an island for the shoot, Hawkins splurged and bought herself four cartons of smokes for the trip.
After a few days on the set, Hawkins learned that Cold Turkey was about getting people to quit smoking on national TV while answering trivia questions and competing in challenges. Hawkins was less than excited but figured she was there and might as well try to quit. She endured 24 days of shooting to earn $13,700 in prize money.
At her victory party, Hawkins learned that her miniature pincher, Minnie, had been run over. She ran shrieking and crying through a motel parking lot. But she didn't smoke. She finally broke down months later, when she says something triggered a memory of her late husband.
"I don't like it that I started back," she says. "There's many a time that I've noticed my voice is getting raspy again, and that bothers me."
A minute later, she adds: "But other times, a cigarette really relaxes me. I still enjoy it."
Once a two-packs-a-day smoker, she's down to two packs a week mostly consumed while at poker tables.
At Wise Guys, Hawkins tells another player that she wouldn't go on a Cold Turkey III. She wants to quit again but says it won't be on national TV. "I don't want to tell anybody, in case I fail," she says.
As for acting, she wants to do more. Her hair has been trimmed off her shoulders for a recent head shot. Last month, she wrapped a TV commercial for a Masonic lodge in Wichita.
After an hour, three of her eight opponents have cashed out empty-handed, and Hawkins' pile of chips has dwindled. She admits that she desperately needs a rally. Searching for inspiration, she reaches into her purse. Hawkins grabs a pack of cigarettes and lights up. She places the pack next to her on the table. Her hands are accessorized with a pinky ring and a gold watch she bought on a cruise. They're reminders to quit smoking she bought them with the show's prize money.
KC most eligible bachelor off the market!
Late one afternoon, Joel Burton effortlessly curls a 90-pound barbell at 24 Hour Fitness off Ward Parkway. Mirrored walls catch his Abercrombian reflection: trim, tan and built. He has blue eyes and a blond frock of messy-on-purpose hair. He has sheared off all visible body hair. Decked in a fitted black tank top and cut-off sweats, he stands confidently, as though ready for his laid-back close-up. He barely breaks a sweat.
No wonder he was cast to play the role of KC's most eligible bachelor. But six months since his appearance on Elimidate, he's still trying to shake that reputation.
"How was St. Patrick's Day?" asks a brunette cruising by.
"Fine. I didn't drink," he says.
"Didn't drink? Why not?" She coos.
"I'm trying to be a good boy," he says, flashing a big, toothy smile.
Before his Elimidate appearance in the fall of 2005, Burton was blowing a year to "have fun and chill" after getting a business degree from University of Missouri-Kansas City. He and his older brother and a high school buddy from his hometown of Moberly, Missouri, rented a small house off Harrison and decorated the pad Animal House-style. The living room held a wet bar, and the floor was open and uncluttered, ideal for mingling.
Between sets with the barbells, Burton bounces up and down to exercise his calves. He says he didn't audition for the show. Recruiters had staked out local meat markets for undiscovered talent. They plucked him from the singles scene on a Wednesday night at Charlie Hooper's in Brookside, where he was on a double date.
He switches to "supersets," alternating between biceps curls and triceps presses. His initials, JAB, tattooed in script on one shoulder, flex with him.
Burton took Elimidate's ultimate alpha-male challenge, dating four women and dumping three to find the one worth keeping. He never expected to find love. He just wanted to see how outrageous he could be. Like a method actor, he says he took his own persona and amped it. "It was the lifestyle I lived at the time," he says. "They wanted a party-animal guy, and that's what I gave them."
His appearance had more plot than most Elimidate episodes. Burton proclaimed that he would disprove Kansas City's reputation as a bad place for dating. Riding on a party bus from the River Market toward the Plaza, he ditched the wallflower and the prude. He and his final two dates jumped into the J.C. Nichols Fountain, where he peeled his shirt open. In the end, he chose the wildest one, but the affair proceeded no further. There was never a closed-door rendezvous, and the two parted ways after taping stopped.
Meanwhile, he had landed a job as a bartender at the Blue Moose in Prairie Village, part of his continued quest to be a slacker. When the show aired in September, Burton threw a bash at his pad. Among those who came was a petite blonde, his new belle. She's part of his effort to settle down and, he says, "do the girlfriend thing."
"She thought it was funny," he says. He also emphasizes that his behavior shouldn't count because it was before he met her. "I'm more reserved now," he says.
The show was enough to make him a familiar face and send his nightlife status skyrocketing even if most who recognize him can't figure out how they know him.
At the gym, a redheaded fitness instructor walks by and drapes a 24 Hour Fitness poster like a towel over Burton's shoulder. Burton checks out the promo's spokesman, Olympic skier and NFL hopeful Jeremy Bloom.
"Who's that? Jeremy Bloom?" he asks rhetorically. "I'm jealous. I want to do the NFL, and he is!"
The redhead holds the poster up to Burton's chest, as if comparing their physiques. Burton smiles.
"It's just not in the cards. I'm all right about it," he jokes of his pro-ball dreams.
Earlier this month, he decided that he was ready to get serious about a career, too. He landed his first sales job at Dick Smith Ford in Lee's Summit. He left Elimidate off his résumé.