What it was like being on a reality show with Scott Baio

Feb 24, 2016 at 7:00 p.m. ET
Image: Dr. Cooper Lawrence

Living in New York City, nobody cares that you know famous people — everyone knows famous people. It’s just not all that impressive. So, you can imagine how knowing nine people who used to be famous went over with my friends. Like a coffee shop without Wi-Fi — just don’t go there.

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Still, it was very exciting to be cast as the expert on the VH1 show Confessions of a Teen Idol . The premise was simple. Seven former TV idols decide if they want to be famous again, then hosts Scott Baio (Happy Days, Charles in Charge) and Jason Hervey (Wonder Years) help them achieve it. I was brought on as the “fame expert” (is that even a thing?) to talk these guys through the psychological trials and tribulations of being a celebrity now, since it has changed since their day.

I had a master’s degree in psychology, a pop culture–filled syndicated radio show and had just published my book Cult of Celebrity. I was as qualified as anyone to talk about fame and celebrity culture with a group of guys who, at that time, were doing less TV than I was. I had just finished two years on Tyra and was a regular talking head on a bunch of news and entertainment shows.

In fact, that was my first bonding moment with Baio. We were having lunch under some big blue tents (presumably put up to protect our supple, ageless faces from the California sun) when he came over to sit with me: “What’s Bill O’Reilly like? Is Neil Cavuto as nice as he seems?” I had been on both shows back in New York to talk about the latest celebrity drama.

It seemed Scott was a big fan of Fox News and was truly curious. He engaged me for a while, talking about other hosts and topics he had seen on the channel. I was too embarrassed to tell him I had only been there a couple of times to talk about Angelina Jolie and Lindsay Lohan, and that was the extent of my political engagement. I was just glad to have this movement with him. Up until then, I didn’t think we’d click.

Months earlier, I had been auditioning for the show almost weekly. It moved fast. It started with one casting person, then a week later a second casting person, until more people joined. The final audition was a conference call with Baio, Hervey and a bunch of executives from VH1 who riddled me with “what if” scenarios and questions about fame. I felt like I nailed it, plus I had immediate chemistry with Hervey and the producers. Baio was a harder nut to crack.

I heard nothing for months and figured it was a no-go. Finally, I got a call asking if I could start filming on Saturday. It was Monday. Hervey was awesome. He rented me a place to stay at the renowned Oakwood Apartments. He said he had stayed there early in his career and thought I would get a kick out of it. He was right — I did. The apartment complex was filled with soon-to-be-famous kids and their stage moms. Often, I would be at the gym on the treadmill next to a 15-year-old with a script, talking it through by phone with an acting coach.

Meeting my castmates was very cool, too. It was Billy Hufsey (Fame), Adrian Zmed (T.J. Hooker), Christopher Atkins (The Blue Lagoon), Eric Nies (The Real World), David Chokachi and Jeremy Jackson (Baywatch) and, the person I was the most excited to meet, Jamie Walters of Beverly Hills, 90210. If I’m being honest, while I knew who Scott Baio was, I had never seen him on TV. I remembered Eric from The Real World, and I was a big fan of 90210 but somehow Baio had escaped my radar.

We began shooting that Saturday, and I worked closely with Laura, the clinical psychologist/producer on set. Each week we would plan the next episode: “This week Jamie meets with producer Steve Tyrell to see if he’d like to record again.” Then we'd discuss what our therapy sessions would be. On my first day of shooting, I was led to my chair, mic’d and given a small wireless earbud.

“Here ya go,” the sound guy said. “What’s this for?” I asked.

He called over my producer, Rob, who explained that he and Laura would be in my ear. They’d be telling me what to say. What?

I learned that reality TV does that with hosts and experts, especially shows with such a large cast. For instance, once while I was talking to Chokachi about a casting director disrespecting him, I missed Zmed nodding behind me. Rob caught it and said in my ear, “Ask Adrian if she did the same thing to him.”

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Producers work hard to produce the heck out of a scene — they don’t need a host derailing it. I remember seeing Britney Spears with an earbud on The X-Factor, and I’m now convinced that every Bachelor and Bachelorette has worn one — although I have no evidence.

My favorite non-lesson, however, was an experience I had with Baio. There was one day he took me out to a picnic table for a chat, just him and me. He coached me to be tougher on the guys, to not be afraid to go after them. Then he leaned in to confide in me that, “Reality TV isn’t real.” I respected him as my boss and as someone who had been in the business a very long time, so I withheld replying with, “Duh!” and instead thanked him for his feedback.

The next day, Hufsey pulled me aside to apologize for what was about to happen. He told me, confidentially, that he was cast as “the villain” and would be creating some drama at our next session.

Then there was the editing. One promo included a moment where it looked like Chokachi called me a “disrespectful little bitch” and I seemed shocked. Except his words were from a roleplay exercise we had done in session, and my reaction was from a different day.

Nies had the most reality-TV experience of all of us and was very good at getting attention. We had been shooting a scene on Robertson Boulevard near the famous restaurant The Ivy. Eric pulled out a coconut and a meat cleaver and sat himself down on the street — and the image was on TMZ the very next day.

Mostly, TV is a lot of waiting around for shots to be set up. That gave us a chance to sit, tell stories and laugh. It’s the type of environment that helps you feel comfortable, so you end up sharing more than you had intended. In the end, it was an intense experience that lasted one short season. I still keep in touch with pretty much everyone from the cast and crew. I didn’t let the experience jade me, so I can still enjoy a season of Big Brother and all the Housewives, which I am convinced are 100 percent real.

Here’s Hufsey and me on Today promoting Teen Idol.

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