Of all the nice people I meet at the "Big Brother" auditions last spring, my favorite contestant is a woman named Emillan. She arrives for her big date with Hollywood dressed from head to toe in black lingerie, which she purchased for $200 from Frederick's of Hollywood. "I work in the sex industry," Emillan tells me. Really? How? Actually, Emillan holds three different jobs. "I'm a stripper. I'm a foot-fetish model—that's where I make money—and I specialize in domination." Really? How? OK, I'll spare you the details. I ask Emillan if she has any reality TV experience. "I auditioned for 'Coyote Ugly,' where they were looking for a bartender/singer, but I didn't make that. My friend told me I was sneaky and conniving and I'd be perfect for this." It's settled. If I make it into the "Big Brother" house and so does Emillan, we're definitely forming an alliance.
Tonight marks the eighth season of what I think is the greatest reality TV show of all time. "Survivor" has its rats and "American Idol" its Sanjayas, but only "Big Brother 8" can promise the ingeniously ridiculous premise of boredom. Think about it, you don't need to sing or dance with a star or even pretend that Donald Trump is (haha) actually powerful. On "Big Brother 8," you can sleep in, sit around an air-conditioned house, lift weights, play cards, drink beer and watch your other housemates vote each other out over petty arguments like, "Shannon used Hardy's toothbrush to scrub the toilet!" while they leave you as the last man standing, to collect $500,000. I've been to other reality TV auditions before as part of my job, but "Big Brother" is the only show I'd actually want to be on. Where do I sign up?!
The West Village, said the CBS Web site. On a Saturday morning last April, I drag my friend Jodie through the screening process. She's never seen the show before, but I assure her as a lawyer, taught to manipulate the laws of our society, she'll do fine with the tricky rules of the "Big Brother" house. But I also warn her that the entire population of New York City will be leaving their homes at dawn for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so we need to get there early. We both accidentally sleep in, and stumble out of our cab at 3 p.m. I'm expecting crowds, and pushing and screaming, and host Julie Chen on a stage, trying to spot the pretty people to join her on TV. (At least, that was the scene at "The Apprentice" auditions, back in 2005.) With "Big Brother," though, the entire stretch of sidewalk outside the audition building is completely empty.
We walk up the stairs, into a gym with a boxing ring. "They're to make us fight!" Jodie panics. (Hm. That usually doesn't happen until you're on the show.) The "Big Brother" sign-up lady tells us that the grunting men are just New Yorkers working out—they have nothing to do with the show. She puts our names on the waiting list, photocopies our driver's licenses and says it will be hours and hours, and in the meantime, will you please fill out this application, which weighs about as much as the last "Harry Potter" book. We head to a diner downstairs to get cracking.
The questions are hard. And by hard, I mean not so much. "Have you ever been arrested, charged with a crime, and/or subjected to disciplinary action?" No. "Have you ever had a restraining order issued against you?" No. "Have you ever had a restraining order issued against someone else?" No. I'm starting to worry that my application lacks personality, so I try to spice up my answers. "What are your thoughts on religion?" "Big Brother" is my God, I say. "How do you deal with someone who intimidates you?" I vote them out of my life. "My life's motto is ..." Expect the unexpected. (OK, that's the "Big Brother" motto too, but that's a coincidence, I swear.)
Jodie answers most of her questions honestly. And by honestly, I mean boringly. We go back to the gym, where they direct us to the back room for wannabe contestants. Oooh! Even though the entrance smells like sweaty socks, I picture a land of aspiring models, rock stars and (Answer No. 57: "Who is your hero?") Janelle from season six. But once we're there, my first thought is, why does everyone looks like an extra from that "Felicity" episode where she's stuck in the subway? Scratch that. These people look like they actually live in the subway.
From my experience, reality TV-show contestants are a different breed of human. They're always performing, smiling, fighting and fixing their hair, as if they're about to walk on stage at a beauty pageant. For some reason, though, the poor contestants who audition for "Big Brother" look way too old (like 43) to dream the impossible dream of reality TV stardom. Plus, they're all frowning. Plus, there aren't even that many people here. Maybe 50—from the entire New York area? Every 15 minutes, Clipboard Lady comes to the door and calls two or three more people to a top-secret room. The rest of us tremble, and wait.
I'm standing in the corner, next to a guy named Trey, 26, from Halifax, Va. "I have ADD so it's hard for me to sit here," he says. "I'm so nervous. I'm sweating. I usually get botox under my arms." He tries to relax by focusing all his energy, like that book "The Secret" tells him to. "Have you read 'The Secret'?" I haven't. "Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, they all knew about it." I nod. He looks down at his belt. "Do you think this is too much?" It's very Chris Daughtry, I assure him. Suddenly, Jodie is screeching: "I think I caught a STD in the bathroom!"
Huh? Apparently, Jodie was in the bathroom, when she overhears Emillan the stripper talking about shopping at Frederick's, which totally freaks Jodie out, and then Jodie says, "Peace out." Nooooo! Now I'm stuck here alone. I want to ask Emillan for an alliance, yet all the older dudes are macking on her, so I'm squeezed out. But like Danielle from last year's Tree Hanging competition, I refuse to let go. By 7 p.m., the room has emptied out to just a few people. Trey's name is called, and he looks terrified, as if he's about to enter the black hole of a Julie Chen interview. I try to remember all the difficult challenges the show could throw at us tonight. Maybe it's a Head of Household competition, where we'll have to dig in the bushes for a hidden gnome. Or maybe I'll have to answer true or false questions about myself. Whatever it is, it's going to be hard.
I decide this, because as Trey heads home, he looks red in the face, and mouths, "It's hard." And then, it's my turn. Clipboard Lady leads me down a narrow corridor, past the boxing ring, past the smell of socks, into the darkness of ... a room with ... a video camera!?!?!?! "Tell us about yourself." That's it? Five hours of waiting for "Big Brother," and my time in the spotlight is prerecorded in 90 seconds. I don't take notes, so I can't tell you what I said exactly. But, as I remember it, it included these points:
(1) "Um, Hi."
(2) "So I really like 'Big Brother.'"
(3) "We should get Rosie O'Donnell to come live with us, because she's a fan of the show."
I don't understand why CBS never called me.