American Idols: Mormons and Reality TV

When brothers Ryan and Craig Simmons auditioned for the CBS reality show "The Amazing Race" in 2003, they hoped the novelty of their religion would give them an edge. Their audition tape showed them outside the Mormon temple in Provo, Utah, while the narration played off those classic Mormon ads ("Family: Isn't it about time?") with a question for the casting directors: "Mormons: Isn't it about time?" It certainly is now. Since then Mormons have colonized reality TV as if they'd been assigned there by Brigham Young himself. They've won "The Biggest Loser," "The Rebel Billionaire" and "Survivor" (along with two second-place finishes on "Survivor"). These days you can't turn on "So You Think You Can Dance" or "Dancing With the Stars" without seeing at least one, and often several, members of the church. And they're closing in on the biggest reality TV prize of all: cherub-faced Mormon David Archuleta is one of four finalists left on "American Idol," and his chances just soared following the elimination last week of Brooke White. White is Mormon too, and now that she's off the show, the two of them won't have to split the faithful's vote anymore.

Wholesome, likable Mormon competitors are now so plentiful that some viewers have taken to playing Spot the Mormon. Former "Idol" contestant Carmen Rasmusen, herself a Mormon, says one of this season's early episodes set off her Mormon radar when she heard White tell the judges she'd never seen an R-rated movie. "My husband and I just looked at each other and said, 'She's totally Mormon.' I mean, who else would say something like that?" With all its conniving, back-stabbing and sexuality, reality TV may seem like a strange place for Mormons to congregate. That cultural disconnect is obviously part of the attraction for viewers and casting directors alike. Take the strange spectacle last month of a beautiful young Mormon woman—the "Idaho virgin," as she came to be known—sucking the toes of the eligible bachelor on MTV's racy "That's Amore!" Or the contestant on this year's "America's Next Top Model" who said maybe her elimination was for the best, as she would have been uncomfortable doing a nude shoot. But for Mormon contestants themselves, the motivation is more complex, whether it's testing the limits of their religion, showing America that Mormons aren't the insular community they're often perceived to be, or the one that crosses all denominations: the hunger for fame.

In reality TV terms, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in a sweet spot demographically: still small enough that members get excited to see one of their own in the spotlight, but large enough that when they watch together and vote they can affect results and ratings. Mormons reserve Monday nights for Family Home Evening, and when Marie Osmond competed on the family-friendly "Dancing With the Stars" last year, she benefited from having the voting fall on a Monday each week. In fact, all three Mormon contestants made it to the final four that season.

While "Idol" votes on Tuesday, some Mormons around the country still get together for viewing parties and pour in the votes after each show. "Idol" producers won't disclose voting numbers, but Rasmusen says producer Ken Warwick once stopped her before a results show and told her she usually did pretty well in the East Coast voting but that her "numbers just soared" when the Mountain States kicked in. "I was so happy to hear that people were voting like crazy and supporting me," she says. "Utah does a great job rallying around its people." Lauren Faber, an eighth-grader in Provo, votes for Archuleta as many times as she can each week for at least 20 minutes, "no matter what—even when he messed up that once." That will undoubtedly be music to Archuleta's ears, although last week Osmond spoke out in the church-owned Deseret News, saying that White and Archuleta should be judged based on their talent, not their religion. "I mean, you don't hear other people saying, 'One of the finalists is a Catholic' or 'One of them is a Presbyterian' or 'One of them is Jewish'."

Mormons don't do well only on shows where the audience votes. "There must be something about the Mormon community that makes these people so self-confident and so open," says Lynne Spillman, a casting director for "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race." She thinks that coming from a large family probably helps in a game like "Survivor," with its complicated group dynamics mirroring sibling rivalries. "They also have these incredible experiences through their missions," she says, "and can relate to being dropped off in the middle of somewhere they've never been and having to make it."

But reality TV success sometimes comes at a price. The first Mormon reality contestant—and still one of the most memorable—was Julie Stoffer, plucked from Brigham Young University in 1999 by "Real World" casting directors on a mission to find a faithful Mormon for the show. Before filming began, Stoffer even received a blessing from her bishop that she would be "an example to the world." For her troubles she was suspended by the church-owned university for living with housemates of the opposite sex on the show, a violation of the school's honor code. "I wasn't wearing the Osmond smile all the time. I said things that were wrong sometimes. I was human," Stoffer says. "I don't think I did anything against the church's teachings." She says that for years afterward she felt as if she was still wearing a "scarlet M," thanks to her suspension. And Todd Herzog didn't exactly receive the approval of the Mormon community either. When he was cast on "Survivor" last year, the Salt Lake Tribune's headline read, 'SURVIVOR' TROTS OUT ITS LATEST 'GAY MORMON', sparking a debate on the paper's Web site over whether someone could even be gay and still be a good Mormon. Herzog went on to win the million-dollar prize and says that while he hopes he opened people's eyes about the church, he also hopes he opened some Mormons' eyes about the real world.

Some tension may still exist between the Mormon community and mainstream America, but considering that earlier in this country's history Mormons were a small, persecuted band, it's remarkable that America may now be poised to crown a Mormon as its new "Idol."