I Was A Contestant On The Worst Reality Show Ever
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Reality television is synonymous with sleaze nowadays. We've read so many terrible stories -- about possible sexual assault on The Bachelor, or an entire show which straight-up abandoned its contestants in the woods -- that it's hard to imagine a time when the format was viewed as anything but a crotch-kick on a cart ride to Hell. But there was a time when reality TV was, if not respectable, then at least considered innocuous. And then there was a turning point: a little show called Joe Millionaire. Our source today is former cast member Sarah Kozer, and holy shit does she have a tale to tell.
We Had No Idea What We Were Getting Into
Joe Millionaire aired back in the halcyon days of 2003, when none of us knew any better (though we really, really should have). The premise was that a group of young women would go on dates with a young, sexy millionaire at a chateau in France, until he finally picked one of them to marry. The hook was that "Joe" wasn't a millionaire at all. He was a normal guy with pretty good cheekbones named Evan Marriot.
Pretty good. Not great.
If that sounds "incredibly shady" and "what the hell dude, no" to you, good news! You're a human being with a functional moral compass. That puts you above the producers of this show. One of the contestants was Sarah. According to her, the whole "not really a millionaire" thing wasn't where the surprises started. Fox went out of their way to hide the basic structure of the show from the women.
"And they also give you these contracts at the laaaaast minute, and you don't have time to get them reviewed. It's all a trick. Everything was a lie. I remember I had one of the female producers say to me, I kept trying to get information out ... we were told it was not a dating show, but you had to be single so that you'd be open -- what if you meet someone? Y'know, anything like that, but we were never told it was a dating show."
At one point, Sarah was told it was a cooking show. Sloppy Joe Millionaire! Brilliant! "Y'know, they said everything. Everything but a dating show." Sarah was a law student in Los Angeles. The producers said that, in part, was why they were interested in her. "They said, 'We're only casting professional women. The show was for role models, for little girls, we want really strong women.'"
Evan and the "winning woman" were each supposed to walk away with $500,000 at the end of the series. The more cynical among you might think that was why Sarah signed up to be on the show, but it turns out they also hid the fact that there was any prize at all. "We didn't know that there was any prize money, so it certainly wasn't a factor ... they just don't tell you anything until you're super hyped that you've just been cast on this awesome show, and it's this free trip to France with these other amazing women, and it's gonna be great, and a good, positive show."
Sarah got the contract 24 hours before she left for France. "They keep saying things like 'We're not sure you've got the part yet' ... they don't want you to have any advice."
No One Believed "Joe" Was A Millionaire
The premise of this show was supposed to be "A bunch of gold-diggers learn the guy they're swooning over is actually poor!" And then both Evan and the "winning woman" who doesn't care that he's broke would walk home with half a million bucks each. So none of the women could know about that prize money. According to Sarah, the only reward they were promised was jewelry:
"We did realize at a certain point that you received a 'gift' of jewelry if you 'passed' a round. So considering that we weren't being compensated for appearing on the show, the necklaces could've been a motivator to want to get picked. It also went along with their 'romance story' BS, so [it] seemed less skeevy than if we had known all along that there was prize money. They basically sold it as Evan was the big prize, so to speak, and that certainly wasn't a motivator."
According to Sarah, none of the women ever actually bought Evan Marriot as a real rich dude.
Millionaires don't need to rent a tux.
The producers did a really bad job at making Evan Marriot look the part. According to Sarah, there were tons of tells: "I think at one point on one of my dates, he went ballistic because he thought somebody stole a 20-dollar bill out of his wallet. I thought they couldn't find anybody and they hired him. I didn't think it was a joke on us. I thought they hired some actor to pretend he was a millionaire for the sake of the storyline."
Joe Millionaire himself was inconsistent about his backstory: "Evan told us he was a pro wrestler -- like currently, not as in 'in the past.' He made a huge mistake about where he lived ... I don't remember now, but basically couldn't keep his story straight with me on a date, and I actually covered for him. He told me he worked as a doorman at the Four Seasons or somewhere, and he told me secretly, covering his mike, that he had no intention of marrying any of these girls, and asked me if I was 'cool with that,' if he picked me ... Overall, he wasn't exactly convincing as a Prince Charming Millionaire."
But as the Doorman, a pro wrestler gigolo? Absolutely.
The Producers Set Up Hidden Cameras To Secretly Record Contestants
Somehow, it gets shadier. "We weren't allowed out of the hotel, or out of the chateau. Everything had to be run through the channels of production. So we were losing our marbles, because we'd been locked in our hotel room independently ... You were by yourself for, like, 48 hours, locked in a room." Sarah and her fellow contestants demanded they at least be allowed some gym time, because they are all much healthier people than anyone writing for Cracked. The producers agreed, but ...
"We were guarded. And they kept saying it was because they didn't want the surprise to be ruined. They were keeping us under lock and key, but pretending it was our own benefit. They were taking us collectively ... to work out downstairs. And I was like, 'Oh my god, I forgot my something,' and I went up ..." Somehow she managed to lose the "bodyguard" who was supposed to tail her, and Sarah wound up heading to her room alone. "And I remember hearing voices in my room, and thinking, 'Well, nobody should be in there ...'"
So Sarah unlocked her door. She had an adjoining room with another contestant, Melissa, who was out on a date with Evan. "And they were in her room, and in my room, and they were talking about us changing, talking about us doing yoga, and basically setting up hidden cameras. And I caught them. I went and told the other girls. Things had been going bad, but this was ... way worse than I had thought."
The cameraman directly threatened Sarah: "He flat out said, 'If you fuck with me, I run this camera. I will fucking ruin you.' And I didn't get it, I was so naive, I said, 'Go at it, I'm not being bad.' I just didn't get it at all. I was not that savvy." But wait, why didn't she and the other girls simply leave at this point? That's the reddest flag we've ever heard of, and boy howdy was it a-wavin'.
They Took Cast Members' Passports When They Tried To Leave
Sarah "threw a fit," and "kind of rallied" the other contestants to demand a production meeting. "And that's where I tried to leave, tried to go home ... at one point, I asked for my passport back in Paris, and they wouldn't give it to me." We here at Cracked are whatever the opposite of legal experts are, but even we know that taking someone's passport so they can't leave is ... frowned upon? Like, it's a legal sad face, right?
Sarah claims the director's strategy was to shame her into letting this stupid show happen: "The director was like, 'Listen, people are gonna lose their jobs if you leave. We're not going to be able to use this footage. We'll have to recast it. These guys have families. This cameraman's gonna lose his job.' They really lay it on thick and coerce you ..." The producers' main concern was keeping the "reveal" of the show intact. If one of the contestants were to leave, that put it all at risk. Locking them all in a hotel far away from civilization was their questionable solution. That created some problems:
"This was right in the beginning, we were in the hotel waiting to be taken out, the first day ... somebody was trying to fish around -- 'Does anybody have a tampon?' Everybody was kind of trying to pool resources, because we weren't allowed out. So I remember ... this one girl literally didn't have tampons, and I think the response time for that might have been ten hours ... before somebody took her out to a store to get some supplies. It was a kind of rude awakening, right away."
They Fed Contestants Booze To Make Them Pliable
Sarah says the show's producers relied heavily on alcohol to lubricate the ol' social gears. This is an extremely common strategy for reality shows. Drama and lust keep viewers watching, and alcohol facilitates both. Check out this screengrab of a normal dinner on the set of Joe Millionaire:
Breakfast was Lucky Charms in a bowl of whiskey.
There's almost no food on the table, but both women have multiple glasses of wine. That was intentional. "I think part of it was, they want you to be hungry, and they want you to cooperate because you're tired, and so that you'll be fed. And they want you to drink on an empty stomach, for sure." But Joe Millionaire was cast in a more innocent time, before reality producers had their jobs down to a sinister science. The women were a little older, and they knew how to handle their liquor: "I felt like we drank 24/7, and mostly everyone maintained their composure."
But it was obvious to Sarah what the producers were trying to do. "I see it in other shows. I don't think in my show ... to be honest, nobody had sex with Evan. Nobody got in fights. Our girls were really composed. I just think we were bored and steadily drinking the whole time. I think it made us more cooperative than we otherwise would [have been]. Now I look at other shows, whatever just happened with The Bachelor ..."
She's talking about a scandal from earlier this year on Bachelor In Paradise, wherein one cast member drank seven shots of whiskey, an entire bottle of wine, and went sort of nuts. He had "an aggressive makeout session" with one cast member, insulted another who was missing an arm, then passed out on the beach and soiled himself.
"They really just slather you with alcohol. We weren't allowed to have food or tampons, but we had open access to the wine cellar, 24/7." And all that alcohol did wind up influencing Sarah's behavior. She told us about the fateful night when she kissed Evan: "On what was supposed to be a big deal romantic date, we went to a champagne/wine tasting, and then rode home on bikes (almost killing ourselves). The thing was, when you got back to the stupid chateau after a date, you still had to be filmed and hang out with Evan ... and your choices were the hot tub or a walk around the lake by moonlight. In hindsight, it was clear that Evan had been told to get me 'off camera,' because he dragged me off all of a sudden on a cue from the cameraman. We walked around the lake, and at one point we kissed for about three minutes."
Sarah notes that this "doesn't mean I liked him ... I would've probably made out with a poodle after all that champagne." That's mildly embarrassing, sure, but no worse than we've done on literally every single weekend of our short and terrible lives. But that wasn't enough for the producers ...
The Producers Edited Footage To Make It Look Like Sarah Blew A Guy
Sarah and her castmates managed to avoid doing anything terribly embarrassing. "But I remember at the end thinking, y'know, it was horrible, but I didn't do anything wrong. I was nice to everybody. I didn't embarrass myself." And then the actual show aired on television, and Sarah was portrayed as a gold-digger who gave Evan a blowjob.
Sarah says that what actually happened is that she and Evan made out for a little while, then walked off into the garden. The producers edited in blowjob sound effects later. "I don't remember anything like that. I don't remember that conversation. I realized later that the girls had been exercising in one of our rooms, and they had taken audio from our working out and put it in the conversation with Evan so it sounded like I was making sexual noises."
That's a common practice in reality shows, called "frankenbiting." Sarah's case is actually the most infamous example of it, and the editor of Joe Millionaire happily admitted to doing it in an interview.
If you're wondering why this is legal, well ... shit, so are we. But that contract Sarah signed the day before flying out apparently gave the producers the right to lie about her sex life to millions of people.
There Were Consequences, And They Lasted For A Long Time
Obviously, frankenbiting had a severe impact on Sarah's life. How could it not? "It aired three hours earlier on the East Coast, where I'm originally from, and I remember I would have paparazzi on my doorstep the nights of the viewing. I think I was doing an interview, having a viewing party, and one of my friends called and was like, 'Sarah, if you have people over tonight, cancel it. They make you look like you fuck him in the bushes.'
'Well, that didn't happen. They can't.'
'I'm telling you, cancel your party. You're going to look really bad.'"
Sarah called everyone she knew to clear her name, but to the world at large, she was the girl who'd given some schmo a blowjob on network television.
Fuck them and the horse he rode in on.
"I remember saying, 'My god, if I kill myself, it'll just boost their ratings.' It was devastating. It was bad. I couldn't leave my house. Paparazzi were on my front porch. And I couldn't defend myself, because I had Fox lawyers breathing down my neck ..."
Not only did Fox edit their footage to make Sarah look like she sucked off a stranger for money, but they also threatened to sue her if she talked. "Of course they tried to get me to sign this giant contract that -- I think it was 75 years. That for 75 years, I wouldn't discuss production, etc. etc. So that's one of the tactics, they just kinda scare you to death. Now, I had just finished a year of law school. So I thought I knew everything, and I remember thinking, 'Well, they're not paying us, so this contract will never hold ... you can't sign away all your rights for no consideration.'"
Sarah tried her best to do damage control: "I felt like my only defense was to be in the public light after as much as I could, to try to convince people I wasn't a horrible person like they portrayed. Also, some of it was kind of fun. I got to try lots of things that I wouldn't have had an opportunity to. I recorded on an Indian pop album, I starred in a Vegas dance revue, got to do other television and movie spots. I was a travel writer for a while after that ... and of course, I had the opportunity to be one of the highest-paid 'celebrity pictorials' in Playboy history ... for only going topless."
But today, Sarah is done with the entertainment industry. She runs a business from home and lives in Northern California with her husband. And "sometimes, when I've had too much wine, I tell our dinner guests crazy stories of my days in Hollywood, and my 15 minutes of infamy ..."
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