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 T. 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 a local street. How do the producers of reality shows choose who will be on them?
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. 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 Jersey City film commission works to accommodate permit requests; the revenues they bring in can be significant.
Back in 2005, Matt Brown and Lindsey Lohmeier were just starting their life together, buying a three-story townhouse in Jersey City. Their listing agent had been contacted by TLC’s Moving Up in hopes of finding two families that fit their very specific format. The show follows buyers who purchase a home with the intent to renovate, then bring the sellers back to react to the changes. Next, we watch the first sellers renovate their new home, and bring the old owners back to critique their efforts. Matt and Lindsay’s townhouse was owned by a family moving to a country farmhouse that needed a lot of work, and everyone was on board.
Matt was no stranger to renovation. A real estate agent himself, he had done some very successful flips with partner Peter Cossio. He had the connections, the expertise, and would be able to be onsite to oversee the work. But the timeline was a killer. This show doesn’t design or perform the work; it only documents the process. Brown had not originally planned on tackling the kitchen or the backyard, but the producers made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: deep discounts on custom cabinets and a free outdoor kitchen, supplied by manufacturers who wanted the exposure. Suddenly, the job encompassed the entire parlor floor, kitchen, dining room, living room, deck, and yard. “The outdoor kitchen weighed 2,000 pounds, and had to be lifted in by crane through a neighbor’s driveway,” Brown recounts. It was one of the most extensive renovations ever attempted on the show. They would have 12 weeks for construction.
Matt’s professional knowledge of permits and contractors would prove invaluable given the compressed time frame. “But we could never have done it without Lindsey’s family,” he says. At one point, the whole clan flew out to help, and her father, a master carpenter, installed the kitchen in a week. It was down to the wire, Brown recalls. “The day before the reveal, we were all still up at 3 in the morning, with guys out back finishing the deck in the rain.” Ultimately, the reveal was amazing, and the show has rerun several times.
Since then Matt and Lindsey have married and had a baby, Sydney. Last year, Brown was approached by MTV to be the agent to Snooki and JWoww, showing them apartments in Jersey City for their spinoff show from Jersey Shore. He declined. “That’s just not the image we want to project, not who we really are here,” he says. In the long run, the couple says they are glad they took the Moving Up challenge “because,” Brown says, “it was a good experience, and the great thing was we were in complete control.”
There are untold numbers of people eager to appear on screen. Unlike Moving Up, 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. 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 Jersey City area, the odds are tilted in our favor.—JCM