Sex Work Goes Mainstream on Reality TV
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Just 10 years ago, if you saw a real-life working girl on TV, chances are Bill Kurtis was filming her with a hidden camera. But now, in the era of reality TV, the cameras -- and the hookers -- are out of hiding.
'Make Sure One of Them's a Stripper'
Prostitutes, strippers and porn stars are to cable what doctors, lawyers and cops are to network TV. It's a phenomenon that started with a little sideshow called "The Real World" way back in 1992. The premise was simple: Take seven people from diverse backgrounds, lock 'em up and watch 'em melt down. During casting, the producers, Van Nuys-based Bunim/Murray Productions, reportedly had only one requirement: "Make sure one of them's a stripper." The result? The longest-running series in MTV history.
Sure, the show's exploitive, with the participants getting drunk, nasty and generally humiliating themselves, but the exploitation works both ways. Just last season, exotic dancer Brianna Taylor parlayed her appearance into a lucrative recording career. She's one of many to emerge from the mosh pit of reality TV as a legit actor, model, writer or even Playmate.
This is the only payoff most participants get. Even sex workers work for free when they appear on reality television. "Real World" players, due to the months-long commitment, do get a small stipend, but by and large, there is no compensation for on-camera appearances, and no legal protection if you get in trouble with cops, lawyers or the IRS for anything you say and do on air.
Over the last few years, the "Real World" one-stripper minimum has been expanded by other reality shows to include those in the porn industry. On "Flavor of Love," the girls fight about which, if any, have stripped or done porn. (Our man Flav has no objections -- as long as the girls don't "dissemble" about it.) On "Rock of Love," last year's stripper finalist blamed "bad editing" on her 11th-inning loss of the affections of Poison rocker Bret Michaels. And on "Celebrity Rehab," adult entertainment star Mary Carey kicked up a ruckus during a run-in with a recovering Baldwin brother.
This year, Bunim/Murray raised the bar: After 20-some seasons of "Real World," they finally noticed that the strippers got the best ratings bump. So they created what is basically the same show, minus the virgins and any semblance of coherence, and dubbed it "The Bad Girls Club." Let the catfights and crying jags begin.
"It's gross. It's retarded," is how Portland's Liv Osthus, whose strip-club persona is Viva Las Vegas, dismisses such fare. "I don't like to see women brought down to the harpy level. We are not these Howard Stern, hypersexual, punch line characters," she says. "We are really entrepreneurial, healthy and intelligent and do this by choice."
But Osthus, an acknowledged exhibitionist, has herself felt the reality show siren call and recently auditioned for a yet-to-be-named reality series. Shot in Chicago, the show takes troubled couples (ideally with "sexual issues") and subjects them to intensive on-camera counseling. Osthus thought it might be a good venue: "I like the idea of presenting my opinions in a wider forum and enlightening society as to what strippers really are all about," she says. Plus, it was a way to score a free trip to the Windy City for herself and her mortgage broker main squeeze.
When Osthus got the casting people on the phone, told them she was a Williams College grad, in a rock 'n' roll band, and -- oh, yeah, a headlining stripper, the producers immediately put the couple on a plane. Once there, Osthus got the feeling they were in: "I definitely felt like they were intrigued; they wanted us on the show." But Osthus came down with a serious eye infection that almost blinded her. That physical handicap, combined with her boyfriend's cold feet ("He clammed up in the therapy sessions,") was enough for them to take themselves out of the running.