When Jermaine Jamison arrived at the Beaumont Club for the Rebel Billionaire casting call last summer, his life story was already made for television.
Born to a 14-year-old, crack-addicted mother and raised by his grandparents in a small home at 28th Street and Prospect, he had a son by age 17. But then he earned a football scholarship to Emporia State University and, while in school, worked full time managing softball fields. He also took jobs managing children's cases for a mental health center and hauling bodies for a funeral home. He worked hard and studied hard, graduating with a degree in human development and family studies in 1998. With his understanding of human behavior, he realized he could make a lot of money in sales, so he joined Tek Systems as an information-technology consultant whose clients included Fortune 500 giants Sprint, H&R Block and Yellow Freight. He moved to a Lenexa subdivision and bought a Lexus.
In December 2001, though, Jamison's 23-year-old sister, Shalon, was shot to death at point-blank range near 41st Street and Wabash. Jamison was almost 30, and this was the third sibling he'd lost -- two younger brothers had died as infants as a result of birth defects brought on by their mother's drug use. Jermaine adopted Shalon's 5-year-old daughter, Shaleia.
Seeking ways to cope, Jamison discovered Solace House, a Prairie Village nonprofit center for people grieving the loss of a spouse, child, family member or friend. Its second-story suite of offices at 80th Street and State Line Road includes a reference library, rooms for adult support groups, and rooms decorated with nature themes -- sky, sea, land, harbor, garden and jungle -- to inspire children. More than 3,000 families have used the space since it opened in 1998; right now, 103 are enrolled.
But Solace House was grieving its own losses: more than $24,000 in 2003 and $15,000 in 2004.
Jamison figured it couldn't hurt to trot around the globe with other business leaders alongside Virgin tycoon and hot-air-balloon enthusiast Richard Branson, competing in a variety of daredevil stunts for a $1 million prize on the Fox network. Rebel Billionaire, broadcast last November, was the third casting of the rich-guy-finds-protégé template, copying NBC's The Apprentice and ABC's The Benefactor; Nielsen ratings put it last place among the broadcast networks in its 8 p.m. Tuesday time slot. Jamison figured he could help out the people who had helped him.
"I wanted to use the experience to motivate and inspire people but ultimately to kind of put Solace House on the map," he says.
During a round-table discussion at the Beaumont Club tryouts, he shattered a whiskey glass on the floor to illustrate a point about opportunities for minorities and the corporate world's glass ceiling. Clichéd and overly dramatic, the move got producers' attention. He moved on to intimate interviews geared to measure his personality and probe his sexuality, his phobias and his drug history.
But even though he'd highlighted his checkered past in the casting call, Jamison was typecast as the Straight Guy, one who sidestepped drama. Behind the scenes, he says, his Rebel Billionaire castmates acted like characters in a beer-soaked circus. Branson picked him to visit Nelson Mandela, and they made trips to Hong Kong, London, the British Virgin Islands, Mozambique and Zimbabwe before Jamison was eliminated in the fourth episode for failing to stay awake during a solo campout on an African safari. Despite the threat of circling tigers, Jamison took a nap while his competitor Mike, who Jamison claims was cranked on the nutritional supplement Ripped Fuel, stayed up all night, chatting continually with the camera and stoking his campfire into a bonfire.
"I'm freaking out," Jamison told a camera just before he fell asleep. "I don't know who is going to come and save me. All I know is, I want to make it back to Kansas."
Jamison's own most exciting moment -- being admitted to the hospital for a bruised and swollen testicle after a stunt in which he was strapped in a harness over Victoria Falls -- never made it on the air. In fact, most of his story didn't make it past the editing room.
"Throughout the whole show, I kept talking to the producers about what a unique opportunity they had to help people," he tells the Pitch. "I said, 'Why don't you do something for charity instead of giving away millions of dollars?'
"I really pushed my purpose," Jamison adds. "I wanted to inspire someone that this kid from the down-and-dirty hood can rub elbows with Nelson Mandela and travel around the world. But reality television is not about feel-good stories. It's about who's going to smack who and get hammered and strip on TV."
While the show was airing in November, Jamison dubbed himself "The Moral Entrepreneur" and started booking engagements on the small-time talk circuit, hitting homeless and abuse shelters and college career fairs. He tried to name-drop Solace House whenever possible.
But the organization continues to lose money. After some of its startup grants expired this year, it laid off an employee and froze salaries. (Things are rough all around for nonprofits; last year, 38 percent of local agencies eliminated positions, according to a 2004 survey of Kansas City nonprofit and philanthropic leaders.) In March, the company's executive director, Susan Klein, sent a newsletter to supporters pleading for donations, warning that the agency might be forced to stop providing its services.
In April, Jamison joined the Solace House board of directors. "Jermaine took it as a challenge and said, 'Hey we can't let that happen,' and was all over it," Klein says.
He's trying to define himself as something other than a former B-lister, helping with day-to-day operations such as pitching companies for donated goods and services. His reality-TV connections haven't helped much anyway. In May, Shawn Nelson, the show's victor-cum-millionaire, donated three of his company's custom LoveSac beanbag-style chairs to Solace House. This month, the show's runner-up, SpanX CEO Sara Blakely, pledged $500.