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Wearing a flowing, strapless blue dress and stiletto heels, 27-year-old Scottsdale resident Jenni Croft steps out of a stretch limousine and struts toward a posh Malibu mansion. As she approaches the estate’s lush backyard garden, the beautiful brunette turns her glance to her boyfriend of six weeks and smiles.

Brad Womack, a successful 34-year-old Texas entrepreneur, is standing at the end of a stone path. On a pedestal next to him lies a single red rose.

Jenni is expecting an unforgettable romantic evening with the man she adores. Just the day before, he had introduced her to his family and she had, through a flurry of tears, professed her love for him. But Brad is about to reveal a secret.

Brad takes Jenni’s hands and looks deeply into her eyes. Her heart sinks when he utters the words she is not expecting to hear—she is being dumped.

“I hate to say this,” Brad says, wincing, “but I want something more that I can’t find with us.”

Jenni drops her head, her eyes welling with tears. “I want to say so many things, but I can’t get them out,” she says, sobbing.

Moments later she confesses privately, “I honestly don’t know what went wrong.”

Had Brad chosen another woman? Did he get cold feet? Or had it possibly been the cameras, producers and two-dozen other single women that got in the way?

After all, their dramatic break-up was filmed as part of the 11th season finale of the ABC reality show The Bachelor. According to Nielsen ratings, more than 11 million viewers tuned in for the episode.

That same afternoon, Brad went on to dump his other “girlfriend” DeAnna Pappas, making history on the show by becoming the first bachelor to reject both of his final suitors. Brad became an instant reality-show villain and is widely regarded as the show’s most hated bachelor.

Jenni, meanwhile, returned to Scottsdale and to her job as a Phoenix Suns dancer, though she says the show’s exposure left her permanently dubbed “Jenni from The Bachelor.”

 “I definitely thought he was going to pick me,” Jenni says, now three years later. “I was so shocked when I found out he didn’t pick either one of us. I thought, ‘Oh my god! Are you serious? This guy’s crazy!’”

As reality shows have multiplied over the past decade, coming to dominate primetime programming, dozens of Valley residents, like Jenni Croft, have found reality stardom. But when the cameras stop rolling, coming back to reality can be quite surreal.

Unreal

Over the past decade, reality TV has become a massive pop-culture phenomenon. In 2010, the top three television programs were all reality shows, and Americans spend approximately a third of their free time watching television, 67 percent of which are reality shows.

The success of these programs has turned the Valley into an increasingly popular destination for casting agents searching for their next reality stars, says Chandler resident Mark Yawitz, founder of RealityWanted.com, a website that hooks up wannabe TV stars with shows looking for participants.

“Here in Arizona they can find good people with good stories,” he says. “The people here, the proximity to Los Angeles and the cost—all of those things are very beneficial for casting agents to find good people in Arizona.”

Television producers from nearly every major network and several cable channels have all held casting calls in the Valley. Over the years, many local residents have been featured on popular shows including FOX’s American Idol and Hell’s Kitchen, NBC’s The Biggest Loser and The Apprentice and CBS’s Survivor and The Amazing Race, among many others. But for most of these contestants, the fame is fleeting.

“Being on a reality program doesn’t mean that you are all of a sudden going to be rich and famous,” says Yawitz. “A good majority of people we never hear about in the media because they go on the program, loved it and then they went on with their lives.”

Still, a few local reality-show contestants have managed to turn stardom into their actual realities.

After losing 112 pounds and winning the fifth season of the weight-loss competition The Biggest Loser, Mesa resident Ali Vincent became the featured spokesperson for the fitness chain 24 Hour Fitness. As the show’s first female “biggest loser,” she not only took home the $250,000 grand prize, she has also made a career of touring the country and speaking about her philosophy and experience.

Twenty-one-year-old Glendale resident Jordin Sparks rose to fame as the winner of the sixth season of American Idol. Her subsequent 2007 debut album went platinum, selling over 2 million copies worldwide, and in 2009 she was even nominated for a Grammy.

In 2008, Arizona State University graduate and Scottsdale resident Ryan Bader won the eighth season of Spike TV’s UFC competition The Ultimate Fighter. For knocking out his competition in round one, he won a six-figure UFC contract and is currently ranked the No. 6 light heavyweight in the world.

But it’s not just reality-show winners who have found success; even a reality-show loser can become an instant celebrity. For William Hung, less than five minutes on television transformed him into a pop-culture icon.

“I want to make music my living,” Hung, a geeky buck-tooth Hong Kong immigrant told the judges while auditioning for the third season of American Idol in September 2003.

The 23-year-old college student then started to sing in a broken Asian accent and clumsily dance to the Ricky Martin hit “She Bangs.” As the judges tried to restrain their laughter, British music executive Simon Cowell remarked, “You can’t sing, you can’t dance, so what do you want me to say?”

Hung meekly replied, “Um, I already gave my best, and I have no regrets at all.”

When the episode aired in January 2004, Hung rapidly gained a cult following and wound up with a record deal. He has since starred in a number of commercials, TV shows and low-budget movies. Today, he actually tours the country singing and dancing.

“I want to continue to do the show business as much as I can, but basically I will just take it as it goes,” Hung told The Times after a recent Valley performance. “With this business, it’s unpredictable.”

Rags to Reality

Last summer, 24-year-old ASU college student Hayden Moss was working as a landscaper, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. The shaggy-haired, darkly-tanned Tempe resident had always planned on playing baseball, but after a severe knee injury ended that dream, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do next.

As chance would have it, he was approached by a casting agent who asked if he would be interested in starring on a reality show. Moss auditioned and earlier this year was cast for the 12th season of CBS’s Big Brother.

For 83 days, from July to September, he was isolated in a house with a group of strangers while cameras monitored his every move.

“Being in the house was tough, actually,” Moss says. “I was completely cut off from the outside world. No Internet, no radio, no telephone. Nothing. Not even a newspaper. I had no idea what was going on.”

Throughout the season, Moss strategized, formed alliances and ultimately won the game, taking home the $500,000 grand prize. He says it has completely transformed his life. These days he travels the country speaking at events and signing autographs. He says he’s recognized practically everywhere he goes, including on a recent trip to the Bahamas. Moss now has an agent and plans to pursue a career in television.

“It was surreal going from being a poor college kid to having money in the bank,” Moss says. “I’ve had opportunities come out of it that have just been amazing.”

Still, instant fame can be bizarre at times, he says. When people learn you have half a million in the bank, suddenly you are in high demand.

“Everybody comes out of the woodwork—old friends, old girlfriends, people that I’ve never talked to,” he says. “People watched me on TV three nights a week for three months straight. My face was out there, everybody knew. You hear from a lot of people you don’t want to hear from.”

Although the response has been almost entirely positive, there is at least one downside.

“I was pretty straight-laced and honest on the show, but I still have people that hate me and bash me and even bash my family,” Moss says. “Basically I’m under a microscope a little bit now. I’m not like Brad Pitt or George Clooney, but I definitely need to be more careful with what I do.”

Harsh Reality

While reality fame has been a positive experience for Moss and many others, the quest for stardom can sometimes become unhealthy.

“It is an addiction,” says Dr. James Huysman, a psychologist and founder of Aftercare TV, a counseling program that provides support to former reality-show contestants. “I think the guests who go on these shows certainly have a high need for self affirmation by having the cameras focus on them.”

Television exposure, however, can often come at the cost of notoriety, he says.

“There are very few people who are ever going to get picked to be in a reality show, but people see this as a way to get your celebrity status,” Huysman says. “Notoriety has now taken the place of celebrity.”

Several of Arizona’s former reality stars have experienced a dark side to the fame.

In 2005 when Bryan and Nichol Okvath’s family was featured on an episode of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, it seemed like a dream come true. Their nine-year-old daughter Kassandra was battling cancer. To assist the family, the show’s producers transformed their modest Gilbert home into a 5,000-square-foot, million-dollar mansion that even included a full-size backyard carousel. The mortgage was paid off, allowing the Okvaths and their eight children to own the home outright.

But the newfound fortune soon became a nightmare for the family. The house was expensive to maintain, and when the bills began to pile up, the Okvaths took out a $405,000 adjustable-rate mortgage on the property. Soon the payments became too much to handle and the house fell into foreclosure. The Okvaths are now reportedly headed for divorce.

“It’s been frustrating,” Nichol Okvath told The Arizona Republic in 2009. “When the cameras go off, it’s just a different… Everybody thinks everything’s happily ever after.”

The Okvaths did not respond to interview requests from The Times.

For Bryan and Jenny Masche, of the We TV network show Raising Sextuplets, reality fame began with a miracle blessing. The Lake Havasu couple gave birth to America’s 13th set of surviving sextuplets, born at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix on June 11, 2007.

Shortly after the sextuplet’s first birthday, the Masches signed a one-year contract with the network to document the raising of their brood. The family was promoted as more positive reality role models than Jon and Kate Gosselin, and when The Times interviewed them in late 2008, a few months before the show’s premier, they appeared quite wholesome.

 “If there’s any way I can encourage other mothers out there and maybe make them laugh at how crazy having six babies can be, that’s what I want to do,” Jenny told The Times.

Sadly, in September, the couple’s six-year marriage imploded after Bryan was arrested for domestic abuse related to an incident in which he allegedly yelled obscenities and threatened his family. He later pled guilty to misdemeanor counts of threatening, intimidating and disorderly conduct. In October, Jenny filed for legal separation.

In a recent interview, Bryan admitted the reality show “added stress” to their relationship, but maintained it “was not the sole reason for their split.”

 “I think the pressure and pace of both our lives just got too much and we stopped putting each other first as a lot of married people do,” Bryan told RadarOnline.com.

As reality has proliferated, emotional stability has not always been a casting requirement, says Dr. Huysman.

One Valley man even committed suicide after having been featured on a reality show. On October 12, 2007, Phoenix resident Nathan Clutter, 26, jumped to his death from a cellular tower within weeks of wrapping up production on the canceled FOX show Paradise Hotel 2. Clutter, a sales manager, had reportedly battled depression and a bi-polar disorder.

Clutter is just one of at least 12 former contestants worldwide who have reportedly committed suicide since 1997.

“I think the people who are chosen for these shows are chosen for eccentric issues and possibly also have mental-health challenges. It makes for more ratings and better reality,” says Huysman. “Reality is anything but really reality.”

Cancelled

For Phoenix resident Cris Rankin, the reality-show cameras focused on a very difficult period in her family’s life.

In 2006, she was cast on the CBS docu-soap Tuesday Night Book Club, a show that followed the lives of Rankin and six other Scottsdale women who met weekly under the premise of discussing books, but instead chatted about sex, marital woes and wife-swapping. Each woman was type-cast as a particular character including “The Trophy Wife,” “The Party Girl” and “The Divorced Mom.”

Because Rankin’s husband was struggling with substance-abuse issues, she was labeled “The Loyal Wife.” While in the beginning she was reluctant to make her martial problems public, ultimately she says she hoped it might do some good.

“My husband was battling back from a very big problem,” Rankin told The Times. “I felt that if this was happening to my family, it could happen to a lot of good people out there.”

For nine weeks cameras followed the women, placing them in various staged situations to escalate the drama.

When the show debuted in June 2006, reaction was overwhelmingly negative. The show was widely criticized for being sleazy, stupid and phony. One review called it “Tuesday with Morons.” Scottsdale officials worried publicly that the show would ruin the city’s reputation.

“The media really bashed it,” Rankin says. “A lot of the girls got pretty slammed in the paper and were embarrassed.”

But the spotlight didn’t last. The ratings were poor and the show was cancelled after just two episodes.

Normal life slowly resumed for Rankin, and for the next three years her marriage survived. Still, even a “Loyal Wife” can only take so much, and Rankin says that after her husband suffered a relapse, she decided to a call it quits. The divorce was finalized last month.

As for the show, she says it’s bizarre to imagine how life would be if Tuesday Night Book Club had become a phenomenon like Bravo’s Real Housewives.

“I don’t think the show was that bad. It was kind of fun,” she says. “It just didn’t really have enough time to get off the ground.”

The Dating Game

Despite pouring her heart out only to be dumped in front of millions of viewers, Jenni Croft says The Bachelor was an amazing reality-show experience.

Throughout the show’s six-week season, Jenni’s sweet, effervescent personality endeared her to fans and seemed to make quite an impression on bachelor Brad Womack. She was his first show kiss, and they even discussed the possibility of a long-distance relationship. While some of the other contestants questioned her sincerity, Jenni swore that she was there for love.

Later, she admitted that she got a little caught up in the game.

“After being there and spending time, the competitive side of you comes out,” Jenni says. “When there are lots of other girls there, you just automatically start feeling that way.”

Brad’s decision to reject both she and his other final suitor created an overwhelming media stir and reaction from fans. Three years later, she says she still hears about the show.

“I get recognized all the time. At least once a day someone will say, ‘Are you Jenni from The Bachelor?’” she says. “It’s kind of fun. Everyone says, ‘You’re my favorite. You’re so awesome.’ So that really makes me feel good.”

While she didn’t find love on the show, Jenni did eventually get her own happily ever after. After leaving the Phoenix Suns, she took a job at a dentist office where she met the man of her dreams—Scottsdale dentist John Badolato. They were wed in October, and today she says she is quite content with her new reality.

“It’s been wonderful. He loves me so much and I can tell it,” Jenni says. “I’m very, very, very lucky.”

As for The Bachelor, Jenni will make at least one more appearance. For the 14th season of the show, which will begin airing this month, Brad is returning to continue his search for love. Jenni can currently be seen on the commercials confronting him.

“I was very embarrassed,” she says, glancing at a nervous-looking Brad. “You know I felt I went into this thing with an open heart. I think I was just confused about why would he even do that?”

While she will forever be linked to Brad in reality-TV history, she says there are definitely no hard feelings.

“He was a villain for a little while, but I think people will change their mind,” she says. “Now he’s getting his chance to rebuild his name and show people he’s a good guy with good intentions. I’m sure it will probably work out for him.”

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