On a June morning at Malibu's Pepperdine University, a horde of reality TV's most memorable alumni The Real World's Coral Smith, Big Brother 2's Will Kirby, Joe Millionaire's Evan Marriott, and 29 more mill around in color-coded sweat suits. This uniformed assembly could mean one of three things:
1. This is an Island-like future in which reality clones are harvested for egos.
2. Someone stuck a finger down my TiVo's throat, and this is what came flying out.
3. It's the first day of Battle of the Network Reality Stars.
Yes, Bravo has resurrected the 1970s-80s' Telelympics that pitted Gabe Kaplan's Afro against Adrienne Barbeau's chest in swimming, racing, and Simon Says, but this time the contestants in the six-week event (premiering Aug. 17 at 9 p.m.) are all mouth. ''Some would argue that the big stars of TV are the reality stars,'' says Bravo's VP of production and programming, Andrew Cohen, who also knew today's increasingly image-conscious celebs are no longer willing to look silly on TV. ''[Reality stars] know who people expect them to be, and they're game.'' So while no one on The O.C. may want to lose a televised tug-of-war, reality stars will dive in the mud precisely because cameras are there.
The players have been split into four teams, making for such odd teammates as Project Runway's Wendy Pepper, The Bachelor's Tina Fabulous, and Amazing Race 6 wife-pusher Jonathan and his pushee, Victoria. They're competing for a $10,000-per-teammate prize, but it's often unclear whether the players are fighting more for the cash or the camera. ''Everybody's a 15-minute heat seeker,'' says Big Brother 5's Will Wikle. ''Some of these folks'll get naked and do a dance on their grandmother's grave if they think they can get an extra five minutes.''
These exhibitionists have accepted that there's likely no acting career around the corner, but there's always some gig as themselves. Battle is the third reality show for American Idol's Ryan Starr, and No. 7 for Real World's Mike ''The Miz'' Mizanin, his first off MTV. ''I've lived off it for four years, and I make more money than my college friends,'' crows The Miz, now a WWE wrestler. ''MTV has given me this opportunity not to have to go to college and I'm not saying don't go to college. But I get to move to L.A.... I've been to the Playboy mansion many times.'' Suck that, higher education!
The contestants know just what's expected of them: to act as memorably as they did on their original shows. So Survivor's exhibitionist backstabber Richard Hatch pulls his pants down and points out that Idol's chain-smoking, hyperactive Nikki McKibbin is ''insane,'' while the acid-tongued Coral sneeringly calls Average Joe 2's Brian Worth a ''dork.'' Most have learned the hard way to play down their most irritating traits when the camera's around. ''You know exactly what comes off terribly,'' says RW's Melissa Howard. ''[Now] you're a caricature of your best self.'' That lesson apparently hasn't reached Race's Jonathan, who yells at his teammates and blames CBS for ''upsetting America'' by televising him berating his wife.
But a reality TV careerist's most valuable asset is a lack of shame. Knowing this, Bravo's Cohen persuades the men to wear Speedos for the water activities. But there is at least one holdout: BB2's Kirby, now a dermatology resident. ''I'm very proud of my penis size, and I'll put it in print, but I'm not wearing a Speedo,'' he says before the dunk-tank portion. ''I am thrilled by my occupation, and I'm not gonna compromise my patients' confidence in me.... I'm not gonna run around in a dong thong, a banana hammock, or a plum smuggler.'' But nearly every other guy on the team stretches one on. They know that to get the camera aimed in your direction, you've got to show you're nuts.