Relax for a moment and imagine a place where women's curly locks bounce on their shoulders like perfectly spiraled ribbons atop beautifully wrapped presents. A mother-daughter outing means a trip to the plastic surgeon. On an average date, a high-heeled twentysomething might find herself riding a privately reserved McKinney Avenue trolley while sipping booze and chatting with a man as charming as he is handsome. Beauty is currency. Imagine a place where home decorating means bedecking beds and desks with peacock feathers and crystals, where couches are upholstered in the richest fabrics and rooms adorned by the boldest accessories. The owner of such a home might attend a charity gala, spending thousands for a seat.
But how could one attend such an affair without a designer gown and fresh manicure? Money is no object. Imagine a place where everything is luxuriantly super-sized. Hair styles are voluminous — those bouncy curls, those bouffants. Men who wear cowboy boots and drive enormous pickups are the grandest gentlemen. Women, though well-groomed, are as brazen as their husbands. If single, they're just plain ballsy. Everything is enormous. This fantasy world isn't such a stretch if you glance around certain pockets of Dallas.
It's especially true if you watch cable television, where the city's essence is reduced to its most pungent distillation, like strong floral perfume that pervasively lingers. This year alone, about 10 Dallas-based reality shows made it to air (Most Eligible Dallas, Donna Decorates Dallas, A-List Dallas, Big Rich Texas and Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team, to name a few), many on high-profile networks.
The Dallas Film Commission, part of the city's Office of Economic Development, maintains a list of shows that either filmed or held casting calls here, and since 2005, there have been more than 300 filmings and castings. While some shows are based primarily in the city, the Film Commission also counts those that film an episode within a series — The Biggest Loser, Intervention, Man v. Food. Since Cheaters, the locally produced show in which adulterers are busted on camera began 11 years ago, Dallas has gradually become a hub for unscripted television production, gaining in quantity and stature to the point at which nearly every prominent reality television network has aimed its crosshairs at Texas, specifically Big D and its 'burbs.
Bravo, network king of reality programming, recently finished airing the first season of Most Eligible Dallas, which follows the dating and nightlife of six young socialites as they drink, prance and date their way around the city. Before green-lighting Most Eligible, Bravo snooped around the Dallas area for a reality show for more than a year, says Shari Levine, the network's senior vice president of production. "It's about interesting people who are doing things that you want to watch. ... They're smart. They're fun. They are surprising, and they're entertaining — bottom line," she says. "It's always about characters, but characters really represent where they're from. They represent social networks; they represent communities. We were intrigued by Dallas. ... There's a flavor that permeates all of their choices and their questions that feels different, and that's the Dallas part of it."
While New York and L.A. have been stampeded by reality film crews and New Jersey's moment of fame came, fist-pumped and crashed, Dallas moved on up for the reality treatment. Where the trend is going, it's tough to say. "Three years from now, I don't know that it will be Dallas," Levine says. "It'll be something else. But right now it is Dallas." So grab a Shiner Bock and settle into your Texas-sized easy-chair.
Out of all the potential characters and shows that could be mined from the Dallas area, and there are many, Levine and her fellow Bravo execs chose one show, one cast, six people as the network's biggest reality foray into North Texas.
"I think it's sort of where they are at this point in their lives. A group of people in their late twenties," Levine says. "They were all single. They were all looking for sort of the next thing in their lives. They were looking for love. They were looking for relationships, permanent relationships. They were at a transition point, and it's always interesting to spend time with people who were at transition points. They were an aspirational group. They all knew each other. ... They had a group dynamic, with the perfect sort of backdrop to say, 'Let's put our cameras there and see what happens.'"
Ed Bark, former Dallas Morning News television critic and founder of independent television blog Uncle Barky, isn't impressed. "I can't think of any reality series where the city hasn't been portrayed as this gaudy citadel of rich people, creature comforts and basically vacuous people," Bark says. "I watch it out of morbid fascination," he says of Most Eligible Dallas. "Car-wreck television is kind of what it is. I think all in all the representation of the city is another kick to the groin."
Courtney Kerr, the impeccably dressed, wine-drinking, bubbly Most Eligible cast member, joined the show because it involved a group of friends with whom she was already comfortable. Her sexual tension with her best guy friend, Matt Nordgren, the former college football player who works for his father's energy company, was the show's strongest narrative thread. In fact, it was Nordgren who roped her into the show in the beginning. "He's like, 'Oh my God, you have to meet my best friend Courtney,'" she recalls, speaking energetically as though someone would steal her words if she didn't spit them out quickly enough.
"[The familiarity] created a realness," she says, talking to the Observer with a Bravo publicist listening on the other line as required by the network. "It's very authentic." It wasn't "eight strangers picked to live in a house," the Real World premise and tagline. Curiously, that show hasn't set up shop in Dallas, not yet anyway. Kerr, who lives downtown, dismisses the ever-present reality-show rumors that the cast members don't actually work and are a bunch of flighty, vapid socialites. "I still have to pay rent," she says. "We actually all work really hard."
She trains employees for Sunglass Hut, traveling often; in her words, she "gets paid to play with designer sunglasses."
"If I worried what everyone thought of me, I wouldn't leave the house," she says. "It's like Tony Romo. Dallas either hates him one week or loves him one week." The Dallas Cowboys are yet another reason why the rest of the country is so oddly fascinated with this place. Bark calls Cowboys games the longest-running Dallas-based reality show.
"We're a city of football, big hair and cowboy boots," Kerr says. The Dallas attitude is "the bigger the hair, the closer to heaven," she jokes.
Now, people in the street recognize Kerr from the show. "It's becoming a little surreal," she says. Unfamiliar thoughts pop into her head. "Are they analyzing what's in my grocery basket?" Once, she ran into a man at the grocery store who was there because he lost a round of rock, paper, scissors with his wife to decide who would run out for milk. He instantly recognized her and gushed that his wife would be so jealous. "My wife makes me watch," he told her.
As for what the show does for Dallas, "It's created such a great buzz for the city, and I couldn't be more proud to be in the city and represent the city." She's also excited about Top Chef Texas. "All I do is eat, drink and shop, so it's right up my alley," she kids.
While Kerr enjoys her flirtation with reality stardom, the waitresses and bartenders at Twin Peaks, the Dallas-based chain that's essentially a more polished, lodge-themed Hooters, hope that the yet-to-be purchased show about their service industry drama will launch them along a similar trajectory. Dallas-based AMS Pictures, which bills itself as the largest full-service production company in the Southwest, produced a sizzle reel for a show the girls hope will be their ticket to small-screen stardom. The reel, a nine-minute sample of catty Twin Peaks girls working, partying and bitching, has generated some network attention, but so far, the dotted-line remains unsigned. The show's title: The Breastaurant.
Watching the girls in short shorts and low-cut tops bicker on television in a screening room at AMS Pictures, producer Katie Dunn laughs. "They just can't help themselves. ... Even when they're being nice to each other, they put in a dig." Dunn had come up with the idea for the show after a network executive mentioned he'd be interested in a behind-the-scenes show about Hooters. Twin Peaks was just up the street on Belt Line Road, and it was chock-full of characters. Dunn set up a meeting with restaurant owner Randy Dewitt, and AMS filmed the sizzle reel a short time later.
"If someone gets in my friend's bubble, they're gonna go titty to titty with me," a plasticine bitchy girl says in the reel. "I work at Twin Peaks, and I'm the real fucking deal," the badass introduces herself.
That badass is Geneva Faidley, who watched the sizzle reel for the first time weeks ago with her fellow Twin Peaks girl, Brittany Wilkerson. Sitting at a bar table, they huddled around the screen of Dewitt's laptop, struggling to hear their voices over the restaurant's classic rock soundtrack.
"It's amazing how they get put together," Faidley, a fan of Jersey Shore and Basketball Wives, says as the shots cut from one girl's bitchy comment to Faidley's sarcastic eyebrow raise. "I don't take back anything I said. ... That was all real." Faidley's shift had just ended, though with full eyelash extensions, bubblegum-pink lips, a cropped sequined black jacket and a small star stud where Mairlyn Monroe's mole would be, she looked ready for a night out.
Wilkerson, petite and fresh-faced, hadn't worked that day and appeared understated in a modest sleeveless blouse. "It's pretty cool. I like it," she says of the reel. "I would try not to get too drunk on a TV show, but I know they're gonna make that happen," she says, already resigned to producers' penchant for inciting television-worthy antics. The shy-looking blonde hopes people will "see that we really are the girls next door," though, she adds, "all of us girls like drama."
Wilkerson's unassuming manner makes it hard to imagine her at the center of reality show cat-fights as Twin Peaks' "mouse-pad girl." The 23-year-old's is the face of the restaurant chain's mouse pad — a popular souvenir printed with a photo of her in a skimpy red and black checked Twin Peaks shirt, filled with two rubber half-spheres that plump breasts upon which people can rest their wrists, or in a pinch, use as stationary stress balls. "At first I was embarrassed, but I'm like, 'I help people with carpal tunnel!'" she says.
But she doesn't want the mouse pad to be her entire persona."I want to show the world who I really am and not just the mouse-pad girl." She formerly worked at Hooters and studied to be a cosmetologist; she plans to pursue that career when the fun of working in a breastaurant wears off. "I really am the girl next door," she says, smiling at what quickly became her catchphrase.
Though Wilkerson would love to see the reality show happen, she has work to do. "You put it in the back of your head," she says. As Twin Peaks has opened more franchises at a fast clip, she travels to the new locations to train the staff. Though she tries not to fixate on it, the attention of a show would be nice, she says. Plus, she wouldn't mind pursuing an acting career if it worked out that way.
Faidley has her own plans. "I'm trying to get rich. I mean, who isn't?" She's not shy in discussing her personal life or her life at Twin Peaks and, consequently, why a show about the girls' lives would be entertaining as hell, if not highbrow. "I'm not a PDA person. I don't talk about my sex life. I get freaked out when people talk about that," she says. "A lady in the streets, and a freak in the sheets, that's what I say."
Faidley, who has a long-term boyfriend and whose father is a lieutenant colonel in the Army, prides herself on honesty, albeit a very loud unfiltered version of the virtue. "It's like three quarters image, one quarter personality," she says of being a Twin Peaks girl. Before each shift, management rates the girls on a fairly brutal scale, assigning letter grades to categories that include hair, make-up, fitness and costume. To work here, a girl must look good. Body must be tight, otherwise management gives "the talk," when they tell girls to lay off the chicken-fried steak and consider taking a run now and then. "It's bad," Faidley says. "I've seen it get out of hand. I've seen it get to the epitome of insecurity."
Then again, everyone knows what they're signing up for when they fill out the application. "You work at Twin Peaks, not Flubby Peaks," she says to no one in particular. And it's not an easy job. "Suffer a double [shift]; see what we go through. We bust our ass."
After all, Dewitt says, the place is made for reality television — skimpy uniforms, pretty girls, constant drama. "If we had a camera crew here all the time, they'd have a field day," Dewitt says. But it's bigger than just that. "People around the world are just interested in Texas," he says. "People just live their lives out loud in Texas."
"Go big or go home," Wilkerson chimes in.
As often as an idea like the Breastaurant will leap from an AMS producer's mind, a wanna-be reality star will spring into the AMS inbox. Take a look at some of their pitches:
"I take pride in the fact that I everyone I know calls me crazy. How am I crazy or how can I "really show it up", well for example sometime I like not sleeping for 2-3 dayish just to give me a lil bit of am edge, I firmly believe that I am A-sexual, I enjoy flirting with people and then acting like nothing ever happened aka being a tease."
"Was prior Special Forces in the military, Just turned 21 lol Big mistake, I love to party and want to be Fuckin Fames."
"Because i live with crazy people in my life and come from a crazy family and i think if Kristen Stuart can act so can i."
Viable ideas don't often throw themselves at production company creatives, which is why AMS holds biweekly development meetings. Dunn, the AMS producer, stood at the dry-erase board at a recent brainstorming meeting, during which 10 AMS employees plotted ideas network by network. One client was interested in a re-enactment series based on a true story. Scorned women became a hotly discussed topic for another network (Dunn requested it remain anonymous), which led to retaliation and murder — or perhaps attempted murder would be good enough; even an incredibly compelling revenge plot could be great.
"Sexy, salacious stories," Dunn says, coaxing the group's thoughts out of their minds and onto the white board.
"Because, you know, murder is so sexy," an intern jokes.
The group laughs. It doesn't have to be murder, they agree, throwing out snippets of plots. "Lorena Bobbitt stuff is OK," Dunn says, referring to a woman who severed her husband's penis with a knife. "Women scorned stories." This particular network is all about them.
One group member offered up a story about a teacher whose mistress ruined his life, foiling his every attempt to get a new job by calling employers with highly personal horror stories. The inappropriate relationship conversation spirals.
"Wait a minute ... " the intern interjects again.
The group moved on to another network's interests. "What are some jobs of the future that people are doing now?" Dunn asks the group. Gears shifted. How about a guy who looks like he's playing a video game but is actually controlling a robot on a battlefield overseas, someone suggests.
"Anything to do with spying, that kind of thing," another throws onto the table.
Though these meetings don't always revolve around Dallas-based ideas, AMS, which has 70 full-time employees and a satellite office in Austin, has had quite a few local shows result from development conversations. Ma's Roadhouse, a reality show about Strokers, a motorcycle shop, bar and tattoo parlor run by Rick Fairchild and his 70-year-old, outspoken, chain-smoking mother, aired for one season last year, as did the bridal show Girl Meets Gown.
Fairchild says filming Ma's Roadhouse turned out to be a great business move, broadening the appeal of his brand. "The TV shows have put us in a position to where we're recognized not only by motorcyclists but we're also recognized by Joe Q public," he says. Merchandise sales increased by 50 percent, and he's had tourists visit from as far as Italy. "The show was basically a huge plug for the business," he said
The Breastaurant awaits a network, and four other shows are in development, though they're not far enough along for AMS to discuss.
"For our brand, it's about quality storytelling. That's all," says Mark McGovern, vice president of creative services at AMS. "We spend a lot of time saying, 'Why is it watchable, why will somebody care?'"
A show's success is also a matter of timing, Dunn adds, and right now Dallas is in the spotlight. "[You can't] sit back and say, 'Oh, we'll have plenty of time for Texas to be hot,'" Dunn says. It will already be over. "[Dallas] still has that trendy feel of New York and L.A., but it's still that home on the range feel that is kind of different.
"Everybody has a BMW. But do you have a BMW and a horse? ... Adding that one little Texas flavor makes it homegrown," Dunn says. Depending on the occasion, both modes of transportation feel appropriate. "You can be in a big city, and a half an hour later you can be in the middle of nowhere," she said.
Then there are the economic reasons for filming here. "There are no unions here; permits are easy; getting around is easy," Dunn says.
Until 10 years ago, AMS Pictures, which was founded in 1982, primarily served corporate clients, creating promotional videos for the likes of Texas Instruments and Frito Lay. When reality television was barely gaining traction, AMS' founder and chief executive, Andy Streitfeld, began taking his business in that direction, poising the company for the genre's explosion and its current rampage through Dallas. "We have an expertise in Dallas," Streitfeld says. "When we talk to the networks, they want to know, 'Well what have you got in Dallas?'" While reality television has been the bread and butter of AMS for several years, the company is still working to land a long-running series.
"Dallas is sort of representative of what people think of Texas," Streitfeld says. "That's obviously because of the TV show, the Dallas TV show. And so Dallas is a perfect location." TV critic Bark, Kerr from Most Eligible and Levine of Bravo all count the original Dallas as a reason for the current reality television boom.
Janis Burklund, director of the Dallas Film Commission, also credits Dallas with the reality fallout. "The number one rule of marketing is they need to know your name. The original Dallas got us that in spades." Now, the Dallas remake is filming in the city. "We're talking television history was made with this show. Now having a second one is like getting hit by lightning again," Burklund says.
With the name recognition from Dallas, the decline of the commercial industry shrunken by the recession and the rise of reality programming, the city of Dallas ended up where it is today, with cameras following Joe Citizen's every move. Just as AMS got its start in the commercial industry, Burklund says, until the recession, industry jobs also supported a base of freelance film crews.
Letty Gallegos, who has done assistant camera crew work as a freelancer since graduating from SMU in 2006, says she and others in her field have made the switch from commercial work to reality television production. It was the most practical way to stay employed. "[Networks and production companies] don't have to worry because, one, we're prepared; we have really good crews; we can handle it, and two, we have a really relaxed mentality ... people can come here and get what they want."
Unscripted television shoots also help students entering the industry get an employment foothold, says Sean Griffin, chair and associate professor in the film department at Southern Methodist University. "For my students, it's giving them a chance to get a leg up in the industry. [Reality television] is getting people interested in the area again, and it is bringing work to the area."
"That is definitely a sales pitch that we use, that we have good crews," Burklund says. "We have exactly what they need here."
The film commission falls under the city's Office of Economic Development, and that's its focus — to bring filmmakers to the city to stimulate the local economy and to create buzz. Reality television, with its relatively small budgets and short turn-around time, tends to be a financial wash for the city, though it does generate hype.
Often, unscripted television production budgets are too small to qualify for production incentives from the state, which start at budgets of $250,000. But just as the cost of living is more affordable in Dallas than many other cities, so is cost of filming — cheaper car rentals, hotels, equipment rentals, location fees.
Burklund's office doesn't keep numbers on the economic impact reality television has on Dallas, but, she says, "If they're coming in and spending money and hiring people and not going away having created damage," they're doing just fine, even if they happen to be here to capitalize on local stereotypes. "It's a different stereotype they want to portray, and if they can't find it they'll make it," she says. Despite what you may see on television, there are, in fact, hardworking career women in Dallas.
"All Dallas isn't rich women with big hair," she said.
Career women are rarely subjects of Dallas-based reality television, though there are plenty of such females behind the scenes. But interior designer and former contestant on HGTV's Design Star, Donna Moss, defies this trend — somewhat. While she's blond, impeccably dressed and likes eyelash extensions as much as Faidley from Twin Peaks, she owns her own home-decorating boutique, That's Haute!, offers complete interior design services and works nonstop. Moss gets shit done — in high heels. Donna Decorates Dallas on HGTV is Pimp My Ride for the upper-crust design set, and it centers on souped-up rooms and custom-designed furniture rather than tricked-out cars.
"Dallas is just intriguing to people around the country," says Moss, who alternates between a BMW and a Ford pickup. "I think J.R. started it, the show Dallas."
On a September afternoon of filming, the petite blonde, wearing a purple dress and matching purple floral heels, stood surrounded by choreographed chaos in the beautiful entryway of a Keller home. A black pole jutted from a doorway, holding a hovering microphone above her head while two cameramen danced around her finding their angles, and a producer, make-up artist and crew members watched. She was flanked by Ashley, one of her two daughters who work with her on and off the show, and her client, whose round entry table, starkly decorated with a candlestick and an urn, was the subject of this day's filming. Moss has worked with this particular client for years, before Donna Decorates Dallas was even a thought.
The decorator's TV-ready style centers on rich prints, bold accents and the use of feathers and crystals at any appropriate opportunity, and to Moss, an opportunity exists in almost every room. "I think the people here in Texas, they're just fun ... we have fun with our clothes; we have fun with our homes," Moss says. During the filming, the producer told her that she needs to dial down her usage of the word "bling" at the network's request. But that's the show's shtick. It's big, it's rich, it's beautiful — it's Dallas, or some version thereof.
"In Dallas, or Texas in general, we have a unique style," Moss' daughter Ashley says. "The bigger, the blingier, the better. It's kind of like the big hair ... [but] a decorating style.
"One lady actually asked me one time, she's like, 'Do people actually buy this stuff?'"
As though the crew didn't exist once cameras began rolling, Moss explains to her client, "We really have to draw the eye up ... A really tall floral with maybe some feathers." Feathers, some sticking up, some bending down, would be perfect in the vase, she advises, but the candlestick was tricky. The client had only one. "I love repurposing things," Moss says, explaining that she would head to a home improvement store, buy a lamp kit, and turn the candle stick into a beautiful light fixture — the perfect home-decorating Cinderella story.
"You don't think subtle when you think of Dallas," says HGTV's general manager, Kathleen Finch. "It's just one of those places that kind of calls out for a TV show." She says her network focuses on "unscripted television about a very core subject. ... You won't see people yelling and screaming and flipping tables on HGTV. We don't just look for characters because they're crazy characters."
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"To me, if I've picked a very good character, there's nothing to stage," says Melanie Wester, founder and executive producer of Dallas-based 12 Forward Productions, which created the show. "And that's what I love about Donna." Wester's company has two shows on HGTV, Donna Decorates Dallas and Interiors, Inc, a design show based in Nashville, where the company's satellite office is located.
The crew on Donna Decorates Dallas mainly consists of freelancers, most of whom have worked with 12 Forward for years. They're a tightly choreographed troupe, stringing wires across the room, raising lights and synchronizing cameras and monitors in a well-rehearsed pattern. The production company, with a full-time staff of fewer than 15 people, consistently uses a mix of freelance and staff, while AMS Pictures uses mainly staff.
"There's a heck of a lot of production going on right now," Wester says. "We have two shows on the air right now, and we're very proud of that as Texans." Wester, a fifth-generation Texan, is a little biased about her homegrown company, which is developing four Dallas-based reality shows. When outside production companies come to Dallas, she says, "It's so stereotypical. I mean we're always just cowboy hats and big hair. It's like we haven't moved beyond Dallas, the show Dallas."
Whether reality television is true to Dallas, a mockery of the city or, if we're being honest, a hearty mix of both, producers and network executives are spinning Dallas characters into shows at a galloping pace. Perhaps a network will wave its wand over Faidley from The Breastaurant and make her the next Courtney Kerr. It can happen in an instant. There's a constant need for unscripted stories, McGovern of AMS pictures says. "Whether it's a production company like ours that's here or someone from New York or L.A. ... They come here and saddle up."