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Within the first two hours of being, in her mind, "the best P.A. ever," then–20-year-old Gabriela Tavakoli realized that directing traffic on a busy street was just not going to cut it. Instead of risking her life for someone else's show, she wanted to be the one behind the camera, producing her own reality television.
Today, the 30-year-old Iranian-American has become the backbone of such reality masterpieces as Basketball Wives, Re-Inventing Bonaduce, Celebrity Fit Club and, most recently, VH1's The X Life, a docu-soap exposing the physical and domestic wounds of extreme-sports athletes.
By her early 20s, she had earned the coveted role of producer in an industry hyperdominated by men.
"As a woman, you want to be heard and respected in your field, and that's sometimes hard when you're surrounded by a group of powerful men," she says. "So you work harder. You wear your high heels but still get down and dirty on the field with your crew to prove yourself."
She has been fortunate to have as her mentor Hayley Babcock, a prominent female producer, as well as male allies such as executive producers Richard Hall and Bruce Toms, who took a chance on her when most considered a woman in her 20s a risk in such an emotionally volatile industry.
It's Tavakoli's emotional perspective, however, that accounts for her success: Her natural feminine inclination to sympathize, question and "talk things out" in order to sincerely connect with and earn cast members' trust has been her greatest asset.
Early in her career, she had to confront Celebrity Fit Club contestant Willie Aames for neglecting his workout. Tavakoli rounded up a cameraman and a personal trainer to proceed with what was to become the biggest ambush since the Trojan horse. OK, not really. But watching a livid, scantily toweled Aames hose down a camera crew at 6 in the morning made for pretty riveting viewing.
"I felt terrible, but I knew no matter what, I had to get him to do this segment," she says. What TV viewers might not have seen is Tavakoli incessantly mouthing an apology to Aames. After she appealed to his softer, more vulnerable side, Aames proceeded with the workout; he even thanked her later with a bottle of vintage wine.
While we continue to regard reality TV stars as the bottom-feeders of entertainment, Tavakoli — who's now working on Bravo's upcoming Most Eligible: Dallas — insists we should be appreciative of the cathartic experience of watching the personal lives of strangers unravel before us. "I'm always grateful to my cast, especially after an emotional shoot," she says.
There is an altruistic attribute to Tavakoli's method of producing, but "at the end of the day, I'm creating entertainment," she says. Her passion for people and their stories has resulted in shows that bring us laughter, sadness and the comfort of knowing that celebrities face as much adversity and humiliation as regular folk. They just look better doing it.