The packed midtown television studio of The Bill Cunningham Show was pimped out in the fake-wood paneling and industrial gray paint of a New Jersey office park. On its stage sat a geeky white guy, his hair moussed in a dated faux-hawk. He was furious.
He called himself K.T., claiming to be a prince of the gypsies, which entitled him to certain extracurricular liberties when it came to romance. His essential theory: He could cheat on his girlfriend, Cynthia, as much as he wished. Cynthia, on the other hand, should be strictly bound by Victorian rules.
Then came the twist: K.T. had recently discovered that the wealthy Cynthia was cheating on him with his boss. Now all three sat onstage, prepared for the cathartic confrontation that only reality talk show hosts like Cunningham could provide.
“I cheat on her but she can't cheat on me,” K.T. announced in a Southern accent of mysterious origin. “I am a Magyar gypsy and leader of my caravan. All gypsy men are allowed to cheat, as long as they are honest about it.”
The crowd booed lustily. Cunningham, a man of alarmingly hawklike features, perched at the edge of his leatherish chair like an eager child watching a car accident.
Despite his fury, K.T. admitted that he was only using Cynthia for her money.
At that, she jumped from her chair, reached down her blouse, ripped a gel pad from her bra and shook it at the audience. “If I was so rich,” she bellowed, “Why would I be wearing one of these? I'd have my boobs done!”
The audience gasped. Cunningham had once again lived up to his show's motto: “Real stories, real emotion, real drama. It's daytime talk for real.”
Or maybe not.
What the host didn't know is that K.T. was actually 31-year-old Ken Tarr, a budding mastermind of the reality TV hoax. Over the past five months, working out of his modest Los Angeles apartment, Tarr had talked his way onto eight different shows taped in five different cities — each time cloaked in a different persona. He'd become a dissonant saboteur in the machinery of sleaze that sprawls across our televisions.
For Judge Joe Brown, he pretended to be a drunk gypsy clown who trashed a bathroom at a kid's birthday party. On The Trisha Goddard Show, he played Eddie the Trucker, a discount lothario who ran up $70,000 in debts by bedding hookers and playing the lottery. For Unfaithful, a show produced by Oprah Winfrey's OWN, he was an international security expert who was cheating on his girlfriend — who was also cheating on him. And on The Sit-Down, a show in which ex-mafioso Michael Franzese mediates disputes over dinner, he played a mope whose best friend had seduced his girlfriend and crashed his car.
In just a few months, Tarr had become one of the most prolific television hoaxers in U.S. history, merrily running an insurgent's war against an industry seemingly immune to shame. He was fueled by a hodgepodge of intellectual challenge, a dissident's sense of humor and, yes, a quest for some measure of fame.
“Television insults and manipulates us all the time,” he says. “So I thought I might as well come up with my own hoaxes and demonstrate how you can manipulate them.”
In the beginning, there was darkness. Then, in 1970, Phil Donahue emerged from the gloom to invent the reality talk show.
The format was simple: Guests aired their problems, and the earnest former newsman tried to fix them.
Donahue reigned over the genre for the next 16 years, working a G-rated formula that, compared to today's salacious fare, was akin to Masterpiece Theater for the trailer-park set.
His invention would make for a minor gold mine. TV execs discovered they could shed overhead on things like actors, scripts and filming on location. All they needed was a host and a studio audience. America's inherent weirdness would cover the rest.
But 1987, the Lord decided that good needed a balancing evil — especially since evil might be capable of better ratings. And this gave rise to Morton Downey Jr.
Downey brought his own commandments to talk TV: adultery, greed, fights, competitive chair-hurling. His show would breed a throng of disciples like Jerry, Geraldo, Sally, Montel and Maury.
Elsewhere in the kingdom, the Lord called upon Los Angeles Judge Joseph Wapner to create an everyman's court, where folks could settle their disputes on national television.
The People's Court debuted in 1981, equipped with the voice-over, “What you are witnessing is real.”
Today, the show survives into its corpulent 30s, having birthed little jurists along the way, including Judges Mathis, Judy, Brown and Alex.
Ken Tarr was born into this era, right about the time Wapner taped his first season. He grew up in Alta Loma, a web of subdivisions 40 miles east of Los Angeles.
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.
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.
As the months passed, Tarr became so familiar to some producers that instead of him calling them, they started calling him to see if he had some other tawdry life experience that would fit a particular episode. The tail was now wagging the dog.
The first show Tarr scammed was Fox's Judge Alex, hosted by Florida jurist Alex Ferrer. Tarr pretended to be a plumber who got locked in a mortuary overnight, and then got stiffed on his bill. A friend named Sean agreed to play the mortuary owner.
The show's producers were interested but they wanted some proof. Tarr found a mortuary and phonied up a bill, complete with technical specs he lifted off the Internet. The producers found Sean less convincing.
“They call back and say, 'It doesn't even seem like he owns a mortuary,' ” Tarr says. So he recast Sean as a mortuary employee.
The producers wanted the owner of the mortuary to sign off. Tarr made up a story that an Indian billionaire named Sunil Syon had recently bought the business. He created a fake business license for the company, and made a fake ID for Syon, who couldn't be reached directly because he lived in Bombay. Nervous that he might get caught, Tarr went to the production offices in L.A. His worries were for naught. “I walk in and there's my photo on their scheduling board,” he says with some pride.
During the taping in Houston, Tarr won this fake case, earning $1,137. The show aired last February.
Since performers on court shows get paid by the show itself — not the losing party — there's an obvious incentive for “litigants” to collude. Especially when they can earn up to $5,000.
That's what Tarr did with collaborator Naomi, a singer and DJ from Oregon who responded to his Craigslist ad. On The Judge Mathis Show, he played a notary public who claimed that Naomi not only jilted him at the altar during a romantic European getaway but also destroyed his computer. Naomi countered that Tarr never reimbursed her for the airline tickets, and that she didn't plan to marry him anyway.
During the Chicago taping, Mathis called Tarr a “smartass,” laughed at his story and ruled in Naomi's favor for $2,700. The duo split the money.
Since reality shows pay for travel, food and hotel expenses — and generally provide a cash payment of about $200 per appearance — Tarr had found a way not only to scam them but also to get them to pay him to do it.
Throughout it all, Tarr had repeatedly pitched The Trisha Goddard Show, hosted by a 55-year-old British transplant who once worked as a flight attendant.
He peppered NBC Universal for days until he finally found traction with a character named Eddie the Trucker, a lottery addict who was cheating on his fiancée with prostitutes. The first producer listened intently and told him, “I really relate to your story, and I want you to get the truth out there.”
“At no point does she say, 'Is this for real?' ” Tarr says. “She's taking it all at face value. Very little verification other than talking with us. You would think they would at least Google my name.”
The second producer was a little more skeptical, but Tarr outwitted her by getting indignant. “This is a serious issue,” he bellowed. A third producer asked about his mental history, any prior arrests, visible facial scars or tattoos and — evidently most important — whether he was missing any teeth. She told him to submit a photo ID and a headshot to prove his teeth were intact.
Last fall, with Naomi once again along for the ride, he was retrieved via limo and flown to Stamford, Conn., for the taping. The show used the same studios where Maury Povich and Jerry Springer film their shows. The segment would be called “My Double Life Ends Today … I'm Ready to Tell the Truth.”
In the green room before his segment, Tarr came across a spiral notebook in which guests were told to write down what they are going to say — part of the coaching process. “If you didn't treat your boyfriend like shit, he wouldn't have felt the need to cheat on you,” one guest wrote.
Penned another: “I met her online. … She was new in town. … So I went to the strip club … booty call. And I told her I have a Chevy Tahoe. … Hotel on wheels. We had sex that night.”
And then there was this: “Fernando, I love you with all my heart and I want to believe you, but my son told me you hurt him. … What am I supposed to do when my son comes back with marks on him and he is saying daddy hurt him?”
He overheard producers telling guests what to say and making them repeat it to their satisfaction. He watched as one Povich guest pleaded with the producers to let her see her daughter before the taping. “She's begging, 'Can I see my daughter? Can I see my daughter?' And they're blocking her,” he says. “They won't let her. That was disgusting.”
Finally, he and Naomi were called to the taping. Goddard first questioned Naomi, who said, “I know he's keeping a secret from me.” Affecting his Southern accent, Tarr declared, “I'm $70,000 in debt and they're looking to repo my truck. I drive up and down the coast and see call girls. I go to a place just past Fresno. It's a cathouse.”
“When was the last time you slept with a prostitute?” Goddard asked.
Tarr waited a beat, then deadpanned, “Monday night.”
The audience hooted.
Goddard wondered how he was going to fix the relationship. But Eddie the Trucker had his go-to move at the ready. “I'm going to seduce her like I normally do.” Naomi pretended to cry, but Tarr offered comfort. “We would have beautiful children,” he told her. “We could produce some nice product.”
“You need to learn some empathy,” Goddard interjected. “ 'Empathy'? What's that word mean?” Tarr asked, knowing exactly what it means.
Tarr's next bite came from The Judge Joe Brown show. He made up a story that he was a gypsy clown named Zozo who showed up two hours late and drunk to a kid's birthday party — then trashed the bathroom, causing $15,000 in damage.
Tarr pulled fake pictures of a wrecked bathroom off the Internet and produced a bogus bill for “pigeon wrangling, snake charming and an operetta” to back up his claims. J.B., an extra he met on the set of TNT cop drama Rizzoli and Isles, played the aggrieved parent. They agreed to split their take no matter who won.
J.B. claimed that Tarr's clown outfit consisted of a fedora and a Greek tragedy mask much too scary for a kid's party. Nor was the clown in any state to entertain. “He's covered in water, he had vomit on his shirt, the toilet was overflowing, there was a vodka bottle in the toilet,” J.B. told the judge. “He says 'I'm sorry, I'm stoned.' ”
Tarr attempted to excuse his tardiness. “I am color-blind and it was an ethnically diverse area,” he told Brown. “So I started entertaining the wrong group of people. … Not every star can shine every night.”
The audience seemed confused about whether to laugh or nod sympathetically.
As the judge listed the damages, Tarr donned his scary clown outfit. “Take that thing off!” Brown barked, before ruling in J.B.'s favor and awarding him the show's maximum, $5,000.
“We're conditioned to believe,” Joey Skaggs says. “We are raised on fantasies, from the tooth fairy to Santa Claus to miracles, and it's sad. I tell people who watch these shows, 'You know this is all bullshit,' and they always say, 'I don't care.' ”
Nor do the producers themselves seem to care. Not a single show hoaxed by Tarr responded to interview requests for this story.
Tarr had taken several shots at The Bill Cunningham Show. He finally scored with a gold-digger character called “K.T.,” who was living off of his rich girlfriend and cheating on the side. Through Facebook, he found comedian Cynthia Rudd to play his girlfriend. High school buddy J.C. Bates would play his sales manager, with whom Cynthia was cheating.
Cunningham is a 65-year-old radio host from Cincinnati. According to ratings giant the Nielsen Co., nearly 800,000 people watch his program daily. The show's promo claims it has “made a difference in the lives of viewers, helping them to resolve conflicts and mend relationships, while making viewers laugh and giving them hope.”
Cunningham tapes at New York City's Penn Studios, a once-grand ballroom in the down-at-the-heels Hotel Pennsylvania on 34th Street. Audience members gather at 8:30 a.m. in a grimy hallway on the backside of the hotel. Most are tourists, but there are also regulars, walking in as if arriving for work. The audience is shuttled upstairs to a large, gloomy waiting area, where stale doughnuts and bad coffee sit morosely in a corner. Highlights of the show play on an endless loop.
After the usual crowd-exhorting and a lavish intro for Cunningham, Tarr, his hair moussed to a rooster's comb, sprawled on a chair next to Rudd, who wore a lavender blouse trimmed with fake fur.
In his phony Southern accent, Tarr made one ridiculous statement after another. He claimed that he ran whale-watching charters while also operating an escort service. “I'm a Hungarian Magyar gypsy,” he told Cunningham. “I'm the one who teaches people how to do horse archery.” The host showed no sign of skepticism.
He talked about his “caravan's” rules concerning infidelity: Men can cheat; women can't. Worse, Cynthia wasn't accepting of gypsy culture. “I don't see her dancing around bonfires,” Cunningham conceded.
In the second segment, a young, naive couple from Chicago emerged from the wings. The woman suspected that her fiancé was cheating on her and somehow convinced him to fly to New York and take a lie-detector test. He failed.
Devastated, she jumped to her feet and sprinted out of the studio, screaming, then collapsed in a wrecked heap in a back hallway. As the young woman sobbed convulsively, Cunningham left the stage and knelt reverently beside her, trailed by cameramen. A producer admonished the crowd in hushed tones. “Be respectful. She's having a hard time.”
During the third act, designed as the therapeutic segment, an in-house psychologist attempted to advise both couples on their relationships. Tarr promptly hit on her. “You look good,” he cooed. “You look good.”
“I am a happily married woman, sir,” she responded tartly. “I have a wonderful husband who meets all of my needs.”
Finally, it was over. The audience gnawed at wan-looking pizza in the waiting room, then crawled outside as if they were leaving a Rust Belt strip club. The episode aired May 13.
Tarr, Rudd, and J.C. each were given $200 in cash and ushered to separate cars, which immediately took them to the airport.
“The producers typically want to get rid of guests as fast as they can,” Tarr says. “They are your best friends, then they treat you like a whore when you are done.”
But on this day, it was clear, the roles were reversed.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.