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Ken Tarr's Reality TV Racket 

What happens when a hoax is launched on an industry immune to shame?

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He claims to have run his first hoax at age 11. Tarr called a popular radio show hosted by psychologist David Viscott, saying that every time he took a shower, his stepmother would come into the bathroom and wink. Viscott ate it up.

At 14, while visiting his brother in Eugene, Ore., Tarr talked his way onto the set of a movie about American distance runner Steve Prefontaine. He soon was showing up on the sets of shows such as Seinfeld and Friends, and twice made appearances at the Academy Awards.

His first major hoax would come in 1997, when he and his brother, Kevin, talked their way onto Forgive or Forget, a relationship show based in New York. Just 16, Tarr got a fake ID, borrowed a shirt decorated with guns and put on that ridiculous Southern accent, then confessed to sleeping with his brother's wife.

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A year later, he and two high school friends landed on The Ricki Lake Show. They flew into New York and partied all night, Tarr says. They were still high during the taping, in which he pretended that his greatest wish in life was to sleep with his best friend's girlfriend.

Tarr would spend his 20s dabbling with college, jumping from job to job, traveling to Israel and working as a soccer blogger. But his taste for scams never abated. Friend Daniel James Howell recalls how Tarr talked his way into movie theaters even when he could afford a ticket. "Ken just kind of flouts any kind of social norm there is," Howell says. "He's totally ill-mannered in a really irreverent way. He could care less what people think. He sees through our social conventions."

Turning 30 brought Tarr a sense of disappointment with his life. So last September, he launched a bold new adventure: He would mount a serial hoax campaign.

He plucked stories from his own bent sense of humor and recruited co-conspirators. He found one woman at an L.A. marijuana dispensary and used Craigslist to round out his talent pool.

"Women are needed for a syndicated TV show," read an ad that Tarr ran last fall. "Please have a high IQ, be street-smart and able to travel this week, all expenses paid." Three thousand responses poured in but few were worthy. Most didn't understand the assignment, weren't quick enough on their feet, or feared the prospect of scamming a TV show. In the meantime, Tarr bombarded producers with phone calls and emails, pitching fabrications tailored for daytime melodrama.

"I am Muhammad Ali's illegitimate son."

"Watching Dr. Oz made me fat."

"I stole my son's fiancée."

Gypsy characters became a recurring theme because, he says, "No one really knows what they're about, so you can make up all kinds of things."

Though some shows required guests to affirm the truth of their stories on video, it soon became clear they were far more desperate for titillating sagas than authenticity. As one veteran television producer said, "They don't have the time or the desire to really check people out. They need to book the shows. The beast needs to be fed."

Joey Skaggs agrees. The 67-year-old New York performance artist may be the country's most inventive hoaxer. He memorably fooled The New York Times into covering his campaign to rename the gypsy moth because it was offensive to gypsies, and he once duped WABC into airing a report on his "Cathouse for Dogs," in which horny pooches could get their groove on for a fee.

"These are shows cast with morons, produced by morons, and watched by morons," Skaggs says of reality TV. "They want you to do their work for them."

Under federal law, the shows have no legal responsibility to present true stories. Tarr even found that he could pitch different scenarios to the same producers. They didn't realize — or didn't care — that all these stories were coming from the same person. At one point, he pitched a producer for The Maury Povich Show using four different names but she didn't appear to notice.

Nor is the screening process heavy on verification. While the "producer" title connotes a TV bigwig, many are recent college grads, 20-somethings with the misguided notion that working dawn to dusk booking a reality show is going to lead to bigger things.

Tarr told the producers of Unfaithful: Stories of Betrayal that he was an "international security expert" who used his spy skills to catch his cheating girlfriend. It was a claim easily dispelled, but it appears no one bothered to check. "They were a lot more interested in lascivious emails," he says.

Once he got to the tapings, he watched producers relentlessly prep guests — telling them what to say, instructing them on how to exaggerate or embellish their stories, prodding them to get angry or upset.

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