A Dose of Reality TV
Graduates break into a popular genre, starring in roles with ubiquitous cameras capturing every moment of their competitions, social experiments and lives
— Story by Chris Casey
With the proliferation of reality TV shows and their popularity among audiences — American Idol, The Voice, Dancing with the Stars and Survivor ranked in the top 10 shows among coveted audiences in 2010-11 — UNC alumni have found themselves in front of the cameras to test their skills or just have a “what-the-heck” experience. Northern Vision contributor Chris Casey caught up with five of those graduates, who reflect on their moments in the spotlight and life after their appearances.
Anthony Navarro, One Man Army: Finished first on One Man Army in fall 2011. Graduated from UNC in 1996 with a degree in Nursing.
Anthony Navarro, Discovery Channel’s One Man Army
Anthony Navarro has always admired the service branches.
That interest, combined with his fierce will to win, prompted him to apply to be on One Man Army. The show bills itself as “a competition series where the toughest of the tough go head-to-head in events that would sideline regular contestants in an instant.”
For five days of taping, Navarro, 41, was pitted against men who were half his age and had military experiences that he lacked.
Each day, Navarro looked for their weak spots and exploited them, then iced his knees to prepare for the next day’s physical challenge. In the final challenge, he and another competitor worked to disarm IEDs.
“I’m literally about to pass out in the suit — it was so hot and had no air, Navarro says. “It was insane … I would do it all over again, all five days. As competition drags on, most people start to drop off. I start to pick up.”
The hardest thing for Navarro to pull off was keeping his improbable first-place finish a secret while the show aired in September. For each episode, his friends and family — Navarro owns Colorado Shooting Sports in Greeley — filled a sports bar to watch him pull, tug and grind his way to the win.
“They were fearful for me,” he says of his fans, who knew he’d blown an ACL and broken an ankle not long ago. “I was getting shredded. In one challenge I sacrificed my knee rather than lose the match. I would rather have an injury than lose.”
That competitiveness was stoked early in life, when Navarro, a wrestler, was frequently told he was too light to compete.
He won $10,000 on One Man Army, with a good chunk going to taxes and the rest going to his daughter’s braces and other family obligations. He continues to be inspired by his son — who has been in Special Operations in the military in Afghanistan — and his 10-year-old daughter.
Navarro says he’d go on another reality show in a “heartbeat” as long as it was the right challenge.
“It’s literally like I have something chasing me,” he says. “I have to keep moving or it will catch up. You can’t sit still is the whole idea here. You have to keep trying to get better.”
Kim Dawson, Sing Off: Appeared in fall 2011 and her singing group, Urban Method, finished third. Dawson graduated from UNC in 2005 with a degree in Music-Vocal Performance. www.kimdawsonmusic.com www.urbanmethod.com
Kim Dawson, NBC’s Sing Off
Kim Dawson realized she’d been elevated to a new level of stature when she was at Disneyland last December and was recognized by a girl who asked to take a picture with her.
Just weeks earlier, Dawson and her singing group, Urban Method, finished third on the popular NBC show Sing Off. The show begins each season with 16 a cappella groups vying for a recording contract and a $200,000 prize.
The eight-member Urban Method is made up of mostly professional singers from the Denver area, Dawson says. She also performs with two other groups, including her eponymous jazz quartet group.
Following Urban Method’s selection after submitting an audition video, taping for Sing Off took place during 2 ½ months last summer. Because the final two shows are done live and Urban Method was among the finalists, the band returned to Los Angeles for three weeks at the end of 2011.
For most of the season, a judging panel selects the groups that advance in the competition. It’s up to TV viewers, however, to select the winner from the three finalists.
“We don’t really look at it ever as a shoulda, coulda or woulda,” Dawson says of finishing third.
“Nobody was unhappy with the way it went.”
Dawson says she didn’t do the show to achieve a measure of celebrity, and she doesn’t plan to do another one.
“It was something to see what it was like and how we’d do,” she says. “I was already singing pretty regularly and professionally.”
For Urban Method, which was put together to audition for the show, Sing Off did become a springboard.
“It has given us national exposure, which is always a good thing,” Dawson says. “And we get good gigs because of it.”
Wayne Johnson, Iron Chef: Left UNC in 1980 after completing 3 ½ years of school, studying accounting and business. Finished runner-up on Iron Chef America in summer 2011. Photo by Paul Ishii.
Wayne Johnson, Food Network’s Iron Chef America
The “what-the-heck” experience started when Johnson got an invitation from one of Iron Chef America’s producers. The program opens with competing chefs learning the surprise ingredient they must work into each of five dishes in 60 minutes.
“Probably the most intense part was trying to create recipes somewhat on the fly,” Johnson says.
As soon as the ingredient was revealed — cucumbers — and the clock began ticking, the former UNC wrestler’s competitive drive and composure kicked in.
“I grabbed the salmon and once that knife went through the salmon it was like ‘game on,’ ” he says.
His years at Marriott — moving from Vail to San Francisco to Santa Clara, with promotions along the way — taught him how to cook fast.
His team didn’t win the competition, but Johnson feels they “did a fantastic job” and should have won. “The guys we were up against had been on the set time and time again so they knew their way around. I’m working on going back again.”
He credits his TV credentials for being named executive chef at Seattle’s iconic restaurant Ray’s Boathouse following his appearance on the show.
“I wasn’t looking, that’s for sure. They just knocked on the door,” he says of Ray’s, where he’s in charge of serving 400-500 lunches a day in the cafe and guests in the specialty boathouse restaurant at night.
“I think there’s probably more to come [from being on the show],” says Johnson, who’s also been invited to perform cooking demos on Caribbean cruises.
Mike Manning, The Real World: Appeared on Real World D.C., a show that doesn’t have a competitive format, from January to April 2010. Graduated from UNC in 2009 with a Business degree. Photos courtesy of MTV. www.mikecmanning.com
Mike Manning, MTV’s The Real World
Mike Manning was in the home stretch of earning his business degree in 2009 when a fellow student asked if he’d be the “wingman” in his audition for The Real World.
Manning had done some theater, so his friend sought useful audition advice.
“I wasn’t going to audition,” Manning says.
“They called me into the room, and I chatted it up with the casting director. That led to another session and another session. I had never even watched the show before I was on it. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”
Manning was among the eight strangers chosen to live together in Real World D.C. The non-competitive show is a social experiment to see what unfolds in the housemates’ lives. It aired from January to April 2010.
Manning’s nascent political career — he was involved with Students in Free Enterprise and other UNC school groups — blossomed on The Real World.
“I ended up working for the Human Rights Campaign,” he says. “I lobbied Congress for equal rights for people. That was kind of my shtick.”
Manning still isn’t a fan of the reality circuit.
“They film you all day,” he says. “No cell phone. No radio. No TV. It’s very, very intrusive.”
But he acknowledges it opened doors. A working actor in Los Angeles, Manning will appear in three independently produced movies this year.
“It made me realize I could have a career in front of a camera,” he says. “If it were not for this show, I’d probably still be in Colorado. … working in a bank, because that’s what I studied.”
Cassidie Sheets, Sweet Home Alabama: Appeared in fall 2011 on Sweet Home Alabama. Made it until the sixth episode of eight. Graduated from UNC in 2010 with a degree in journalism and mass communications. Photos courtesy of CMT. www.cassidiesheets.com
Cassidie Sheets, CMT’s Sweet Home Alabama
Like Manning, Cassidie Sheets’ reality TV experience was born out of a random conversation with another UNC student.
“It was more or less a fluke encounter,” she says. “My roommate and I were up one night watching an episode of The Bachelor when
she thought it would be a good idea to enter my name in The Bachelor online application.”
Not expecting a response, Sheets got an email requesting a video audition. She sent a video and was soon invited to audition for a different show, Sweet Home Alabama.
She had never seen the show, so she watched episodes online from Season I. The premise is grouping 11 girls from the city with 11 from the country in hopes that one of them ends up being selected “the girl” for the country boy from Alabama — in this case, Tribble Reese, former quarterback at Clemson University.
“Honestly, my expectations of actually finding someone that I had a connection with were slim to none,” Sheets says. “Shortly after we began filming I realized that I was in for an unexpected ride. My feelings for Tribble were strong, and we ended up having a good connection.”
Sheets lasted on the show until episode six of eight. Only four girls were left on the night she was sent home.
“I wasn’t by any means expecting this experience to skyrocket my career,” she says. “However, I have been blessed with opportunities that I know I wouldn’t have had if it weren’t for being on the show.”
Sheets earns her living as a social media and public relations specialist in San Diego. She also runs her own fashion blog, Sa-vor, which she started in 2008, and she appears in fashion segments on TV news stations.
She says she’d love to appear on another show.
“It is such a unique experience and really enables you to form relationships with people that you might not otherwise,” Sheets says. NV
—Chris Casey is a Denver freelance writer.