- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Battling roommates, red-carpet catfights, gluing of hair extensions, scrambles for hot-tub time with the “Bachelor” - we’ve known for a while that reality-TV contestants have no shame.

But after two recent incidents - the “balloon boy” hoax and, now “gatecrashergate” - in which the lust for cheap celebrity has motivated actual or potential criminal conduct, it’s beginning to look as if reality TV aspirants also have no fear.

Just in case you hadn’t heard: Tareq and Michaele Salahi, a Virginia couple trailed in recent months by a television crew from cable’s Bravo network, reportedly in preparation for roles on “The Real Housewives of D.C.,” somehow finagled their way into a state dinner for the prime minister of India. They managed to shake hands with President Obama, pose for frat-party-like pictures with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel - and brag about it all on their Facebook page.

The White House says the Salahis did not have an invitation or clearance to be there. The Salahis say they did. They are scheduled to testify about the matter at a House hearing on Thursday.

“There isn’t anyone who would have the audacity or the poor behavior to do that,” Mrs. Salahi said on the NBC’s “Today Show” on Tuesday. “No one would do that, and certainly not us.”

Whether they did or not, the social-climbing Salahis are way more famous now than they ever were for organizing polo matches or, reportedly, leaving a string of unpaid bills from Georgetown to Front Royal, Va.

In a world where no-talent narcissists hunger for fame, perhaps it should come as little surprise that reality TV beckons as an irresistible shortcut for many.

Shawn Mitchell, chief executive officer of HNE Casting, which represents reality-show contestants, says he sometimes gets 1,000 reality-show applicants a day. Mr. Mitchell, who does not represent the Salahis, says he only takes clients who are willing to try for several shows.

“At the end of the day, they don’t really care what show they are on, they just want to be on TV,” says Mr. Mitchell, who has placed clients on shows such as “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race.”

“Everyone we see wants 15 minutes of fame, with the possibility of making money or an impact or becoming the next star,” he says. “Everyone seems to think they can … but not everyone can. A lot of times when you tell someone that, they just flip their lid. For lots of people, especially if you are in your early 20s and have a great body and are good-looking and have been told you should be on TV - and if you don’t have any acting talent - this has become a viable option.”

Steve Rosenbaum, a veteran television documentary filmmaker, says the prospect is attractive to all types. Look at the Heene family of Colorado, who in the hopes of sparking interest in their own reality show, last month perpetrated the hoax that one of their children might be trapped aboard a runaway weather balloon. That stunt led to criminal charges as well as realization that the Heenes’ desire to be on TV was in part caused by shaky finances.

“Desperate people see reality TV the same way an inner-city kid sees a basketball scholarship,” said Mr. Rosenbaum, founder of the multimedia company Magnify.net. “There is an underlying sense of desperation we have not seen before.”

And what’s to stop determined would-be reality stars from testing the limits of acceptable - or even legal - behavior? Given our ever-shorter attention spans, Bravo may not even feel the need to sever ties to the Salahis, said Ted Johnson, managing editor of the Hollywood trade paper Variety.

“My guess is that Bravo will try to wait this out before deciding in a couple of months whether to feature the couple on the show,” Mr. Johnson said in an e-mail. “This could be long forgotten by then.”

Washington is ripe for opportunists, Mr. Johnson says. In fact, party crashing probably goes on all the time, he adds. This time around, though, the brazen and immediate Facebook images posted by the Salahis - along with the sightings of the film crew - probably are what sparked the uproar.

“Had they not been prospective reality contestants, this may not have been noticed,” Mr. Johnson said in an e-mail.

In the recent past, reality TV about Washington hasn’t translated well, Mr. Johnson explained: Policy wonks, budget hearings and tight security do not make good viewing. But with the shot of glamour provided by the Obamas and the influx of Hollywood stars excited by a Democratic administration, the timing may now be right. “The Real World” recently finished months of filming here, and the “Real Housewives of D.C.” is slated to air next year.

“It is inevitable, given the concentration of the media in D.C. and the proliferation of outlets covering celebrities in D.C., as well as the growth of the night-life scene,” said Mr. Johnson, who also writes the Wilshire & Washington blog on Variety.com. “It’s ripe for it, even if these personalities never really have a chance of making it into the real power and social circles of Washington.”

After all, the last thing the D.C. power elite needs is for the rest of the country to learn what it really does and thinks. “The true power players either are too reluctant to appear or, if they do, will be extra cautious,” he said.

But since when does “reality television” have to be about anything, you know, real?

“Shows like ‘The Real World’ and ‘Real Housewives’ may be the better approach, but the onus will be on the producers to come up with the right casting,” Mr. Johnson said. “If it works, it won’t matter whether these reality players really are Washington players. A good story is a good story.”

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