Reality TV: America’s Next Top Mormon

A few months ago, "American Idol" alum Carmen Rasmusen (second season, sixth place) was watching her old show when she heard Brooke White tell the judges that she'd never seen an R-rated movie. "My husband and I just looked at each other and said, 'She's totally Mormon'," says Rasmusen, who is as well. "I mean, who else would say something like that?" Apparently, Mormons aren't too hard to spot these days. In fact, so many have colonized reality TV's landscape, it's as if they've 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"). You can't turn on "So You Think You Can Dance" or "Dancing With the Stars" without seeing at least one. And they're closing in on the biggest reality-TV prize of all: cherub-faced David Archuleta is one of three finalists left on "American Idol," and his chances just soared following White's recent elimination. Now they don't have to split the faithful's vote anymore.

With all its conniving, backstabbing 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 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. Some are testing the limits of their buttoned-down religion. Others—OK, probably all of them—want a taste of that nondenominational elixir: fame. But for some, there's also a longing to show America that Mormons aren't the insular community they're often perceived to be. Considering that earlier in this country's history Mormons were threatened with extermination and driven from the United States, it's remarkable that America may now be poised to crown a Mormon as its new "Idol." "One of the good things that will come out of this is that it's getting people talking about Mormonism," says Julie Stoffer, a Mormon who appeared on "The Real World" in 1999. "If it takes a couple kids going on 'American Idol' to make that happen, well, damn it, good!"

In reality-TV terms, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in a sweet demographic spot: small enough for members to get excited over seeing one of their own in the spotlight, but large enough that they can affect results. Mormons reserve Monday nights for Family Home Evening, so 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 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 nonstop for 20 minutes each week, "no matter what—even when he messed up that once."

That will be music to Archuleta's ears, but reality-TV success can sometimes come at a price. "Real World" casting directors were on a mission to find a faithful Mormon when they selected Stoffer. Before filming began, she received a blessing from her bishop that she would be "an example to the world." For her troubles she was suspended by church-owned Brigham Young University for living with housemates of the opposite sex. "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." "Survivor" winner Todd Herzog didn't exactly receive the approval of the Mormon community either. When he was on the show late last year, a Salt Lake Tribune headline read, 'SURVIVOR' TROTS OUT ITS LATEST 'GAY MORMON,' which sparked a debate on the paper's Web site over whether someone could even be gay and still be a good Mormon.

But there's another reason you see so many Mormons on reality shows—they're really good at them. Coming from a large family, as many of these competitors do, probably helps in "Survivor," with its complicated group dynamics that can mirror sibling rivalry. "They also have these incredible experiences through their missions and can relate to being dropped off in the middle of somewhere they've never been and having to make it," says Lynne Spillman, a casting director for "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race." But it's not just the competitive shows. Spillman says that Mormons—maybe it is those Osmond-like smiles?—just make for great TV. "There must be something about the Mormon community that makes these people so self-confident and so open," she says. And dare we say it: so like an "Idol."