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Reality TV Competitors Feel Glow and Anxiety of Spotlight

Individuals skilled in culinary arts, fashion design, and other creative fields have been able to stretch 15 minutes of reality television fame into exciting professional opportunities.

During the past few years, there has been an influx of reality TV competitions ranging from cooking shows (Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen) to fashion-based shows (Project Runway and The Cut) to photography contests (The Shot). Most of these shows are presented as a job search in which competitors perform a variety of challenges based on their skills. Contestants are repeatedly judged – and kept or eliminated each week – by a single expert or a panel of judges, with the ultimate winner usually earning a contract to perform their work on a grander scale.

For some competitors, the exposure and recognition can open many doors.

Chef Jamika Pessoa appeared last year on Season 5 of the Food Network’s The Next Food Network Star. An alumna of The Art Institute of Atlanta, Pessoa says that not only has business picked up at her Life of the Party personal chef service since the appearance, but she also receives more invitations to do motivational speaking and talk to audiences about healthy cooking and nutrition.

“I have fans now and that is really what blows my mind,” she says. “Now when people call, they say ‘I saw you on TV and I want you to speak not just cook.’ ”

“With all the cooking shows on TV now, people are beginning to see the full range of what chefs do and they actually want to hear what we have to say,” she adds.

Kevin Gillespie, also a graduate of The Art Institute of Atlanta, was a runner-up on Season 6 of Bravo’s Top Chef. He’s the executive chef and partner of the Woodfire Grill restaurant in Atlanta and, like Pessoa, has seen steady business since being on a reality TV show. But he says instant celebrity has not gotten to him.

“[Woodfire Grill] stays booked, which has been a good thing,” he tells. “But personally, my first priority is being a chef and not a TV personality.”

Fashion designer Logan Neitzel, a contestant on Season 6 of Project Runway, says he has a clearer view of where his career is headed since being on the show. However, he came to the program armed with a clear artistic vision and fashion design skills.

“[Project Runway] advanced people’s ideas of my career more than it advanced my career,” the Art Institute of Seattle graduate says. “It put me in an interesting place of being a young designer with some very valuable opportunities that I might not have had otherwise, or that I might have met a decade into my career.”

For many of the reality TV contestants, the tasks assigned to them on the shows were not the biggest challenges. After all, they create works of art in the kitchen or design studio every day. But living with other contestants and being followed by cameras most of the day is another story.

“It is the mind game that gets to you,” Pessoa says. “You are away from your family and with 10 other people you don’t know and since it is a competition, you don’t know who to trust.”

There is also the anxiety of competing in situations and environments that are completely unfamiliar. Neitzel says it was difficult for him to be removed from his typical design process and forced to create.

“The entire setup and filming process limited creativity and then I wasn’t designing for myself or my client,” he shares. “But, being forced to adapt to the conditions was an interesting learning experience and it’s something that I think is important in any career path.”

The pressure of having chef Gordon Ramsay breathing down your neck and watching your every move has made many culinarians crack, but Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale alumna Paula DaSilva stayed strong and finished as a runner-up in the fifth season of FOX’s Hell’s Kitchen. She admits it was tough not having contact with family and friends during the show’s filming.

“You really don’t have anyone to go home to at the end of the day to vent and support you,” the Fort Lauderdale chef says. “You learn a great deal about yourself and how much you are capable of handling when put in such situations.”

Photographer and Art Institute of Seattle alumnus Dean Zulich says he enjoyed the variety of challenges when he participated in Vh1’s The Shot, a 2007 reality TV competition to find America’s next hot fashion photographer. Zulich and other finalists got the opportunity to shoot singer Joss Stone in a challenge involving a campaign for Marie Claire magazine.

“I had no idea where my skills and technical abilities were before I did the show,” says Zulich. “Just knowing I proved myself on a high level and the fact that I was a runner-up boosted my confidence levels as a photographer.”

Confidence also goes a long way before auditioning for a show.

“You may watch a reality TV show and think ‘I can cook, I have a great personality, and I am funny,’ ” Pessoa says. “But it is more than that. I had to prepare myself and build my confidence before doing the show.”

Gillespie says that although cameras only capture snippets of who someone is and what they do, true talent still shines through.

“If you have passion as a chef or artist, others will see it,” he says. “Ultimately, you need drive or you will find your work to be difficult and never be able to take advantage of all the rewards that may come to you.”

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AIPD 2010 - 2011 CALENDAR


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