Lisa Schwarzbaum
July 21, 2000 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Meet ”Big Brother”’s coolest cast member

Unlike the 43 other columns you’ve recently read in this space pondering why so many of us are mesmerized by ”Survivor” and ”Big Brother,” and what the craze says about the sorry, shallow state of our hypnotized, TV-numbed souls (not to mention the sorry, mediocre state of so many movies this summer), and whether spoilsport hackers have indeed uncovered the ”Survivor” winner, and whether the ”Big Brother” house doesn’t flaunt the ugliest, most psychosis-inducing decor since ”Pee-wee’s Playhouse” — this column is a bouquet of admiration for one woman who has figured out how to play the game with grace.

I refer, of course, to Cassandra, classy Cassandra, the most dignified member of the ”Big Brother” commune. Did you see how she ruled this past week? On Monday night, she gave hotheaded William a firm but calm talking to, encouraging him to hop off his ”here’s how black men see the world” soapbox once in a while. As the only other African American guest in the house, Cassandra knows she wields particular power with the man who calls himself ”Mega.” But she also knows that communication requires respect, and she respected him. She knows that change is difficult, and she encouraged him. When he was full of hot air, she looked through the smoke he blew. Best of all, Cassandra got William to change, and she praised him for it — all without falling into the permanent, self-effacing role of Big Sister.

Then on Tuesday, when the show’s puppetmasters directed the housemates temporarily to switch identities and behave accordingly, Cassandra did a canny imitation of Jamie, the Wonderbread beauty-pageant princess: It turns out Cassandra — the reserved, cultured, attractive, professional (who, at the first group meal, had to explain that not every black person in New York City lives in Harlem) — is also a riot!

We know little about her, and yet she’s an integral member of the household. (We know she works at the United Nations; how much would you give to hear Eddie engaged in a discussion on diplomatic efforts in Eastern Europe?) She doesn’t share sensational secrets or act out dramatic neuroses, and yet she’s always real. She’s even turned down the invitation to ”cuddle” with Brittany, Josh, and Karen (a ship of fools that defies conjuring in real life), and yet she comes across as someone who would be a pleasure to spend time with.

Cassandra is so classy, indeed, that I sometimes forget: This is a private citizen who willingly — I assume eagerly — applied for the opportunity to live in a house with nine other strangers for three months, forfeiting all privacy 24-7, so we could watch her and talk about her. Few acts of modern celebrity are more exhibitionistic, more crass and grasping. Does she do it for the challenge, the adventure, even simply for the money?

I like to think Cassandra has joined this summer’s TV circus to demonstrate that maintaining a sense of personal privacy is always possible, even when the camera never blinks. One EW colleague has suggested that when she’s sprung from the house, Cassandra should have her own TV talk show and, indeed, I’m sure she’ll be weighing media offers when her 90 days are up. But I hope she’ll pass, with a gracious thank you, and return to her regular, undocumented life. I’m counting on Cassandra to demonstrate that it’s possible to live in the spotlight and then leave it without retaining an agent to line up product endorsements.

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