East Bay Reality TV Contestants Tell All
Diablo goes inside the weird, wild world of reality TV—with insights from the East Bay contestants who experienced it firsthand.
In 1992, producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray came up with a brilliant idea: Forget scripts and screen-writers; capture real people in (supposedly) real-life situations to score TV ratings gold. The result—MTV’s The Real World—is not only the longest-running program in MTV history, but it’s also been credited with launching the modern reality television genre.
Ever since, East Bay natives and residents (along with people from around the country) have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the reality TV universe—searching for love, scheming to win cash, singing, dancing, cooking, and toiling in front of millions of viewers nation-wide. Walnut Creek resident Sonja Christopher has the distinction of being the first person voted off Survivor: Borneo in 2000—the pioneering reality-competition show’s premiere season. (“How many people can say that?” Christopher muses. “I chose to enjoy it and wear it as a badge of honor.”) And most recently, Danville’s Grant Vandevanter competed to win the heart of publicist Becca Kufrin on the latest incarnation of The Bachelorette, which aired this summer.
Diablo caught up with some former contestants with ties to the East Bay who filled us in on the reality behind reality TV.
Show: Top Chef
Known for: Being cast on the same season as her then girlfriend.
What she does now: Partner and executive chef at Shakewell restaurant in Oakland.
Q: What is something people don't realize about Top Chef?
A: You’re totally sleep deprived. You never know when they’re going to wake you up in the middle of the night and call you down for your interview to review whatever happened that day. They would wake you up at two or three in the morning, or they’d tell you your interview was at one, so don’t go to sleep. And those were long days! As chefs, we’re used to long days, but there were, like, 14-hour days. Sometimes, you’d just be sitting in the van or standing around waiting—that “hurry up and wait” thing in film. There was a lot of that, which can be exhausting.
Grew up: Berkeley
Show: Project Runway Junior
Memorable: Fashion guru Tim Gunn saved the then-16-year-old Fernandez in the final four, bringing him to the finale.
What he does now: Studies at the Parsons School of Design in New York.
Q: Are there any moments you wish had aired that didn't?
A: To be quite honest with you, I’m not sure what moments made [it to] air because I didn’t watch it. It was a little too cringe-y for me to watch myself. It can get a bit awkward. I wasn’t really ready for it, I guess. Maybe in 10 years, it’ll be like a time capsule or something. As of now, I don’t have any interest in watching it. I did watch the first episode with all my family and friends, and I was just laughing the whole time.
Shows: Survivor: Fiji and Survivor: Micronesia
Seasons: 14 and 16
Aired: 2007 and 2008
Place: Fourth and 17th
Memorable moment: Chan won a truck then agreed to give it to Dreamz Herd in exchange for the immunity necklace if Herd won the last immunity challenge. Herd did win but kept the necklace for himself.
What he does now: Retired from his tech job at UC Berkeley, he works part-time at Seawood Photo in San Rafael.
Q: How does the show misrepresent reality?
A: Those interviews with the field producers … last a half hour to 40 minutes, [but] on TV they show 10 or 20 seconds of it. Sometimes, it’s out of chronological order. If you watch the whole season, you’ll see us getting more and more dirty because we didn’t take a shower or wash our clothes. Then, suddenly, there’s an interview where we look clean. That’s because that interview took place earlier in the season, and they splice it in later.
Show: American Ninja Warrior
Seasons: One to 10
Place: Has reached the finals three times
Memorable moment: In season seven, Kretsch fractured his leg in three places on the tilting table.
What he does now: Works at Apex Movement NorCal, a parkour and ninja warrior gym in Concord, and trains for American Ninja Warrior.
Q: How has the series evolved since season one?
A: The first season was in a parking lot behind a Best Buy. The obstacles were kind of small-scale. They ran like 300 people to try to whittle it down to 15. Today, they’re going to six different cities; they’re going through about 800 people, trying to get to the top 100 or so. The scale of the obstacles has increased; the difficulty of the obstacles has dramatically increased. I think the fan base has also grown exponentially because now, it’s a pop culture phenomenon. It’s insane how many people … are inspired by this show.
Jeremy and Sandy Cline
Show: The Amazing Race
Background: The pair had only been dating for six months when they went on the show.
What they do now: Married and proud parents of three children. Sandy works as a nurse practitioner at a Blackhawk plastic surgeon’s office, and Jeremy runs his own investment firm in Walnut Creek.
Q: How did going on The Amazing Race affect your lives?
S.C.: When we got back, we had two garage sales over the span of six months. We wanted to simplify our lives. We felt we had too much—that there was this rat race we were living in. We were just ready to cut back. I wish we could still think of it that way because you get caught back up in life, but for a while thereafter, we really wanted to simplify things.
J.C.: Overall, it changed us, but to be honest, it was something that happened to us in our lives. It was more like we were on a path of dating, and we did this show and it brought us together. And we went on and got married and had kids, and lived our lives with no dramatic change. But it’s something that I think about almost daily. There are so many times I reflect on the amazing things we went through and did and experienced.
Grew up: Danville
Shows: The Bachelor and Bachelor in Paradise
Seasons: 21 and four, respectively
Place: Seventh on The Bachelor
Known for: Her love triangle with Dean Unglert and Kristina Schulman on Bachelor in Paradise.
What she does now: Settling back into daily life and working on a couple of business ventures.
Q: What did you learn from your time on The Bachelor?
A: The show allowed me to open up and to face things in my past that I hadn’t really talked to anyone about. It made me more aware of myself and how certain things have impacted my life. It has also really changed my dating life. [In] first dates on The Bachelor, you’re already talking about past relationships and what you’re looking for in a partner and out of life. In the real world, you have to wind back and take things a lot slower.
Show: Big Brother
Known for: Deliberately adopting an antagonistic persona in an effort to ride into the finals.
What he does now: Works in finance doing high-level investment management.
Q: In what ways has the show impacted your life?
A: It’s definitely come up at each stop during my career. It’s something I have to explain. If I had the opportunity to go back, I would be very surprised if I ever took that up. It definitely has some repercussions, and they can be negative. At the age of 24, I’m not sure I was at the right state of mind to be thinking this far down the road. You have to understand what you’re getting into by putting yourself out there. You’re opening yourself up to criticism and feedback from people who can make up their mind just based on a five-minute clip. You’re putting yourself under the microscope.
Grew up: Antioch
Show: So You Think You Can Dance
Place: Top 14
Memorable moment: Rich performed a hip-hop routine to “Forget You” by Cee Lo Green with partner Chris Koehl.
What she does now: Founder of the Rich Dance Project, a nonprofit youth dance company in New York.
Q: What is it like having your dancing critiqued on live TV?
A: While you’re actually doing the dance, you’re not even focused on that until it’s over. It’s kind of awkward because you don’t really know what they’re going to say. You give it your all, and you hope that your dance is good enough and you make it through. So, you have all these thoughts going through your head when you’re standing up there. And you want to stay positive, of course, no matter what they say. You’re like, Oh, my gosh—I’m on live TV! So, you don’t really want to overreact.
Grew up: San Ramon
Show: The Voice
Eliminated: In the knockout rounds
Memorable moment: After Rose’s blind audition, Adam Levine sat her in his coach’s chair while he and Miley Cyrus competed to get her on their teams.
What she does now: Released her first single (“Too Hard”) in January.
Q: What is a common question you get about The Voice?
A: People ask me a lot, “Do you still talk to Miley and Blake [Shelton]? Do you guys text?” People think you’re best friends with the coaches. And that’s not at all how it is. They definitely don’t give you the coaches’ numbers. [The show] gives you your own e-mail account, and then the coaches have a separate e-mail account, and that’s your way to communicate with them. … You only see them during filmed rehearsals; otherwise, you’re being coached by a hired vocal coach that’s not a celebrity coach.