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Romance Novels Are Alive. Reality TV? Not So Much 

Thursday, Apr 21 2011
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Inside the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, a line snakes around the third-floor balcony from the atrium all the way to the California Ballroom. A cross-section of women — young, old, hip, frumpy, black, white — chatter with companions as they wait, happy to be inching closer to the doorway, excited to have their tote bags full of books signed by romance novelists they adore.

Inside the RT Convention's packed hall (RT = "Romantic Times"), scores of authors sit at a dozen long rows of tables, greeting fans, signing autographs, passing out chocolates. Sure, a few of the book covers feature the classic image of a hunky beefcake dipping a love-struck maiden wearing a fluttering gown as moonlit waves crash behind them, but giddy imaginations have pushed the genre to ever more exotic locales: criminology labs, outer space, sorcerers' castles, werewolf lairs, parallel universes.

Some of the books, like Prom Dates From Hell, would be suitable for your 14-year-old daughter, while others, like BDSM fantasies Make Me, Sir and The Doms of Dark Haven, wouldn't.

click to enlarge Steve Stevens and Josie Stevens of E! reality series Married to Rock
  • Steve Stevens and Josie Stevens of E! reality series Married to Rock

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Not far away at the L.A. Convention Center, the central lobby's polished tile floors are noticeably gleaming, because there are so few feet to scuff them. Inside, fellow human beings are sparse enough to make you wonder if you got the date wrong. But after you wander the center's wide hallways to its far west end, eventually the presence of a few milling employees in matching T-shirts affirms that the Reality Rocks Reality TV Expo is, in fact, happening today.

Two or three people stand out in flashy, Hollywoody attire. Excited announcements echo through the loudspeaker: "See the stars of Hardcore Mom and Secret Millionaire in room 515A!" At what seems to be the busiest booth, an exhibitor named Damien grouses that the convention is "dead. Absolutely dead. We were told there was going to be 20,000 tickets sold, and we're kind of upset about the fact that there's nobody here."

Upstairs, a panel discussion has brought together several former American Idol contestants — including the 11th-place finisher of Season 5, the 10th-place finisher of Season 8, the 7th-place finisher of Season 9 — in a room with hundreds of seats but just dozens of occupants. The JumboTrons flanking either side of the dramatically lit stage hardly seem necessary, since anyone who wanted a better view could simply meander up to the front row and take a seat.

The only room with any energy is the one in which people know that "energy" is a requirement: the "How to Become a Reality Star" workshop.

During the Q&A, a middle-aged guy whose shirt reads "Dangerous Dave" tells the panel his dream is to be on Wipeout.

A casting director asks, "What makes you dangerous?"

Dave replies, "I traveled in Europe with a bunch of other people and I brought them over to Munich, and we went on a bunch of castle tours, we went all over the place. Then I went back to Chicago, and then I went to Europe by myself."

Casting tells him, "You need to work on that answer. "

A visitor to these two conventions might conclude that books are more popular than TV, that romance novels grab a bigger market share than reality shows. Reality Rocks Expo's turnout might be due to a lack of publicity or its schedule conflict with the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Vegas, or it might just be that an event like this doesn't belong in Los Angeles. L.A. has its share of reality fans, but in a city where you can see A- and B-listers shopping for groceries, how big of a draw is the Season 4 cast of Road Rules?

Marc Marcuse, a talent manager who helps reality stars book gigs after their shows have ended, says many efforts to monetize reality fame haven't panned out. Signing autographs at a poorly attended fan convention isn't the best or the worst possible outcome for the hundreds of former cast members the reality machine churns out annually.

Shorty Rossi from Pit Boss, for example, had a life before reality TV: He rescued pit bulls and worked as a talent manager long before he became famous for doing the same thing in front of cameras.

A worse outcome was that of Ryan Jenkins, who killed his model girlfriend and himself not long after appearing on I Love Money.

Most reality stars wind up somewhere between those extremes. Aspiring actors often find reality TV has hurt rather than helped their careers, and they have to struggle to throw off a poisonous connection. Marcuse explains that post-show depression is so common for reality casts that many networks now require psychotherapy visits at season's end.

"You walk down the street and people are mobbing you for your autograph, but you're just the most famous person in line at the WalMart," Marcuse says. "They get let back out into the world a changed person."

Those who started out with some sort of life beforehand can continue with it afterward, but those who put all of their eggs into the TV basket can be in for a hard fall into post-reality reality. This particular brand of celebrity has an incredibly short shelf life.

"Some of the ones I contact, they say, 'I don't need management. I'm going to be the biggest star ever,' " Marcuse says. "Six months to a year later, they call me, but at that point it's too late to do anything."

Back at the Bonaventure, the RT conventioneers are getting dressed up. Each night of this four-day convention ends with a costume ball, with themes including Venetian masquerade, vampires and Bollywood. It's a chance for these inflamed fans to move their rich fantasy lives outside of their heads and into a party, which tonight will begin immediately after the winner of the "Mister Romance" pageant is crowned amid a shower of lust-soaked cheers.

There are a few costumes at the Reality Rocks Expo as well. At the "How to Become a Reality Star" workshop, panelists call on a young man, blond, in a thin polyester Green Lantern costume. He stands up and says, "Hi, I'm Kickass!" Then Kickass takes off his mask, revealing his secret identity and the fact that his black eye is only makeup.

"I recently got out of the Air Force, and I'm at UCLA now, and ... um ... I don't really have a question." The room laughs. To keep it going, he tacks on, "Um, can you sleep your way to the top?"

Reach the writer at linda@ljwilliamson.com

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