The first time it happened was in 1993. I loved Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and as I watched one night, the Fab Five worked their magic on a guy who lived only a few blocks from my apartment. I’ll admit to a little thrill as I saw my bus stop on TV. Fast-forward 10 years, and now it doesn’t surprise me at all to recognize a storefront or restaurant interior, or to see a camera crew on Washington Street. It seemed that an inordinate number of people from our neighborhood have been featured on reality shows. What is it about the Hoboken area that attracts these shows? And how do they choose who will be on them?
The most obvious answer to the first question is financial. Production companies based in New York looking for an atmosphere other than Manhattan don’t have to travel far to get a different state, with a different look and feel from the city. Last year, Hoboken issued 46 film permits. Industry standards define “out of town” for film crews as any location outside a 25-mile radius from Columbus Circle, and crew costs can include paid travel time, meals or per diem, transportation, and lodging. This makes every shooting day far more expensive. The Hoboken film commission works to accommodate permit requests; the revenues they bring in can be significant. But to find out how these producers find people who supply their stories, I asked some of our neighbors who have stepped before the cameras.
The Borelli Family
Alison and Brett Borelli are the proud parents of twins Stella and Gibson, age 11, and Hudson, age 9. They were all pretty excited when they were invited to a birthday party that was to be filmed by the Cake Boss. Had they seen the show before? “Plenty! We were big fans,” says Hudson. They were even more thrilled when, on the recommendation of the birthday girl’s dad, the producers asked to interview them for a possible episode. “They came over and explained the process, took pictures of us, and we all talked about story ideas,” remembers Alison. The one that emerged centered around their recent move to a brownstone, and one of Gibson’s favorite foods, Pop-Tarts. Buddy could create a cake that looked like a row of Hoboken brownstones out of Pop-tarts, and embed a real working toaster in it. About a month later, the family got a call in their hotel room in Florida, saying they had been chosen. “We all screamed so loud!” says Gibson.
The production company arranged everything for the presentation of the cake at a block party, from permits to hula hoops and cotton candy. The hardest part of the day? Stella says, “Keeping up with the chaos! But it was really fun, they treated us very special.” Not long after, another reality-show opportunity came up, again through a friend, this one involving Hudson participating in a hidden-camera experiment on stranger safety for NBC’s Dateline, with Alison watching via remote. “That was scary, but I’m glad we did it,” she says. Overall, the family rates their reality-show experiences as great fun. Having racked up three appearances and counting, they would love to do it again.
Chris Morelli and Tad Eaton
Last fall, Chris Morelli and Tad Eaton were ready for their close-up. The longtime friends and owners of the Frayed Knot, on Observer Highway bordering Hoboken and Jersey City, had won their spot on A&E’s hit show Storage Wars, NYC edition. Their colorful personalities, strong business acumen, and mascot Dottie, a particularly telegenic one-eyed Jack Russell terrier, were just the right combination for the reality series, where bidders at auctions of abandoned storage lockers, fight for hidden treasure. They had six episodes in the can and were hopeful that the exposure would bring in business.
Then Hurricane Sandy hit. The pair chose to ride out the storm in the loft over their store. At first, they could see the flood waters rising, creeping up the legs of their lovingly restored antiques. Then the power went out, and “it was like being on the Titanic,” says Chris, remembering the sounds of glass breaking and rushing water. When the water receded a few days later, they had lost most of their stock, and the watermarks were more than three feet high. The show had not yet aired.
In the months since, Chris and Tad have, like so many business owners, patiently rebuilt. Their store is a mesmerizing avalanche of vintage and midcentury furniture, on which they practice their first love—restoring and re-upholstering old pieces with fantastic, wild fabrics. Those one-of-a-kind pieces were what first attracted the reality world’s attention, when designer Cortney Novogatz of 9 By Design visited them repeatedly. But it took Chris answering an ad on Craigslist to land them this show, and a year and a half later, the deal was finally done.
While some reality shows will admit to being “loosely scripted,” Chris says, “Storage Wars is not. Basically, they call us the night before and tell us where to show up the next morning. We bid using our own money. People do overpay sometimes; they get caught up in the moment.” But this is Chris and Tad’s livelihood, and they try to keep it professional. Tad says the hardest part comes after the cameras stop rolling. “We might buy several lockers,” he says, “but not all of them are interesting enough to make the show. It’s about 75 percent junk. And after the shoot, I still have to clean them all out. When the cameras go off, that’s when reality sets in!”
Chris and Tad have seen a slight uptick in business, but it’s likely there will be a lot more down the road, especially if they are called for more episodes. They just received their first piece of fan mail—a very good sign.
Anthony and Claudia Orlando
For Anthony and Claudia Orlando, condo living in Hoboken posed one huge problem. Most kitchens seem to be designed with club-hopping twenty-somethings in mind, not big, extended Italian families cooking Sunday dinners. With two kids and a third on the way, they knew they were going to have to renovate. Then, a friend told them that the Brunelleschi Construction Company was going to do a kitchen-renovation show. They submitted their name to HGTV and were chosen for the first season of Kitchen Cousins.
Cousins John Coloneri and Anthony Carrino, handsome and personable, present the perfect personas for HGTV’s female viewers. Claudia had something special in common with them, being a first-generation Italian. “I’m born here, but I didn’t speak English until the first grade,” she says. Her mom was in the apartment during the initial meet and greet, and the Orlandos didn’t realize at first that the crew was interviewing her. Carrino’s father Alfonso is from Florence, so when he met Claudia’s Roman dad, Sergio, the two hit it off, and their conversation in Italian made the show. The Orlandos had little to do with the redesign of their home. “We picked the accent color, but that’s it,” says Claudia. “The rest was a total surprise.” She was shocked and moved when the cousins revealed a wall mural of Italy extending through their living room. Product placement entices manufacturers to offer deep discounts, but appearing on a home-renovation reality show is far from getting a free ride. The Brunelleschi’s relationship with an exclusive cabinet maker out of Florence helped quite a bit, but the Orlandos were asked what their budget was for the new kitchen. Then, the cousins proposed their redesign and a budget. “And we met somewhere in between,” says Claudia.
The episode’s crisis came when the custom countertop couldn’t make the corner into the condo. The only solution was to lift it up through an exterior window. Claudia saw it happening as she came out of the Shoprite, arms full of bags, with Hoboken off-duty fire fighters pitching in to help.
According to Anthony Orlando, the hardest part was being displaced for a month. “If you’re in a house, you might be able to live through a major renovation by keeping to a different floor,” he says, “but the entire condo was taken over during the compressed time period.” The family had to move out, and Anthony had to commute to take care of his patients in his office at Orlando Physical Therapy. Still, many of those patients were excited to have seen Anthony and his family on the show. “Once, I even had a stranger, a lady at the Rite Aid staring at me while I was buying batteries,” Anthony says. “She actually recognized me from TV.” Claudia also had a long-lost friend reconnect with her after having seen the show.
A year after their taping, Anthony’s brother appeared on Food Network’s Fat Chef. He has a CKO kickboxing franchise on Staten Island and had become trainer to the Fat Chef. As for the cousins, they have a new show, Cousins on Call, which features entire construction jobs by the Brunelleschi Company. Episodes have featured celebrities like Khloe & Lamar and Vanessa Williams, and the cousins were contacted by Ellen DeGeneres to restore a Long Beach Island family’s house that had been wrecked by Hurricane Sandy.
There are untold numbers of people eager to appear on screen. Unlike those described above, some reality shows set about to embarrass, encouraging misbehavior or using editing to create conflict where there isn’t any. (I’m talking to you, Andy Cohen.) In the paradigm of our time, notoriety usually trumps reputation. But, as the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity, and the rewards can be great. Bethenny and the other Bravo-lebrities have reaped huge benefits and spend many episodes at launch parties for their clothing lines, perfumes, cocktail mixes, and so on. Cupcake shops across the nation boast lines out the door. You could argue that reality TV has helped upgrade our city’s image. If you want to be on a reality show, you might hear about a casting session from a friend, see a posting on Craigslist, or receive a blanket email at work. If there’s a specific show you want to target, most networks list contact information on their websites. Whether the aim is to promote your business, fix up your house, gain personal fame, or just have fun, for those of us in the Hoboken area, the odds are tilted in our favor.—07030