ON THE CREATION OF REALITY TV CHARACTERS AND THE MOST VULNERABLE KARDASHIAN
Discussed: An Enormous Pewter Bracelet, Bravery, TLC'S Extreme Poodles, Googling “Fat Rob Kardashian”, Family Therapy, Authenticity, Frankenbites, Elevating Superficiality, Eating a Banana, A Flipbook of a Life Spent Flaunting and Hiding, A Steam Kettle.
Robert Galinsky makes characters for a living. People come to him as themselves, leave as something a little… more. Galinsky invented and still runs the New York City Reality Television School, the first and only of its kind, preparing hopefuls for their cattle calls, like a Lee Strasberg reconceived for twenty-first-century ambitions. When I meet him, he’s guarded—the only press coverage he’s ever gotten has been brutal. But after I tell him (sincerely) that I find his critics to be pearl clutchers, he becomes animated and jumps right into telling me about one of his best students.
“There was this girl I had come in,” he tells me. “She walked with a cane and she had a service dog. I asked her, ‘Who are you?’ She said, ‘I’m the girl who has a prescription pill addiction because I’m mentally ill.’ She asked me if that was okay, and I asked her if she was okay with it. And she said, ‘Oh yeah, it’s true. That’s what I’m bringing to the table.’ And so we went with that.”
Galinsky finishes his anecdote with a proud shrug and leans back into a leather couch. We’re in a coffee shop in Alphabet City that seems to serve as his home base. He comes out of experimental theater and improv, speaks in those terms, wears jeans with flip-flops and red sunglasses that are a bit of a personal trademark. The barista kids know he always orders a macchiato.
For a long time he was just an improv coach. He started teaching reality when a Argentinian dog groomer called the number on his website and said he had a month to prepare for an audition for a show that would end up being called Groomer Has It. Galinksy lets that name hang out there like I’ll recognize it. Remarkably I don’t, but no matter. If I’d seen the show, I would have seen Jorge become the star. Out of all the groomers, it was Jorge whom everyone wished good things for. He played the whole damn season from hero position, just like an improv game, the way Galinksy taught him to, and he killed it. He didn’t win the show, but he won affection, he proved to be watchable, and after his season, he landed a roll on TLC’s Extreme Poodles.
“He was never the guy who threw the glass at the wall,” Galinksy tells me. “He was the guy who went up to the glass thrower and said, ‘Don’t do that; why’d you have to do that? What are you feeling that made you do that?’”
Galinsky figured out pretty fast that the same principles he’d always taught improvers applied to reality shows—that willingness to constantly stoke the story forward, that in-the-moment fearlessness, sustained commitment above all else. A common misconception among people who deride reality performers, he tells me, is that nobody’s interested in the ones who don’t get into fights. That they provide no intrigue. The truth is, and any seasoned on-the-fly performer knows this, if you jump into the middle of a fight to break it up, you become a hero. Or you become someone trying to be a hero, and as long as it seems genuine, everyone wants to see someone try to be that.
I agree with this, and then we both try to come up with that F. Scott Fitzgerald quote about heroes, but we can’t quite remember it so we go back to TV, and what makes for a great performance of self.
We speak of Rodney King breaking down on Celebrity Rehab, Galinksy’s favorite of the shows. And the guy from Taxi. And the drummer from that grunge band. They were so fucked up, these men. They were so pained, and they had been pained for so long, telling the story of their pain like every day of their lives had been an audition for the moment they could finally be that pained for an audience.
“I don’t know if you should exactly call it talent,” Galinsky says. “But, yeah, it always helps if they’ve got some really fucked-up lived material to draw upon.”
That’s a scab that he can pick at, help turn into the blood that an audience tunes in for. We’re back to his pill-addicted, cane-using pupil. I ask Galinsky why she wanted that to be who she was on a television show. And did it work?
Galinksy can’t remember, but he’s pretty sure she hasn’t made it onto whatever show it was she wanted to get on. Doesn’t matter. Those producers must be insane, he says, and the important thing anyway is that she went into her audition clear-eyed and armored. She would be an active storyteller. She would be the one valuing her trauma, valuing it enough to lead with it, as opposed to letting some producer ferret it out and then define her with it.
I ask Galinsky if he’s proud of that anecdote. It’s a leading question and gets the expected answer. He helped, in his own way and in his own view, to give this woman some combination of the three qualities any teacher wants to provide to their students: authenticity, confidence, power. He tells me he teaches two classes at Riker’s Island, and he tries to provide the soon-to-be- paroled with the same qualities as the soon-to-be-on-TV. We sit silent for a moment, and I consider the two neat, though flawed, parallels he’s set up: reality performer as prisoner; reality show as the world. Which makes him some combination of shrink, parole officer, and career counselor.
This all smacks of new-agey-self-empowerment in a way that would ordinarily make me uncomfortable. It still does a little, as we sit in the kind of coffee shop that guys like us always sit in, drinking our macchiatos and sneering about shows like CSI because they have no life, no guts to them. Guts, we agree, come from people like Galinsky’s pill-addicted, cane-using student. He prodded her to reveal, to a circle of fellow wannabe stars in class, the tagline that she would put on her life and, regardless of its manufacturedness, it worked because it was nakedly pained, because it made you worry for her or tsk at her. And this exercise prepared her to repeat that story in an audition, to repeat that story as the official one—recorded, hopefully broadcast and commodified.
“If she wanted to be that brave,” Galinksy says—and he leans forward on “brave” like he really means it—“if she wanted to be that brave, then good—she was ready to tell her story.”
Brave is a tough word to accept, I think, and bravery a tough concept. The lines between bravery and arrogance or ignorance or stupidity or, worse, desperation—sometimes it’s hard to trust that those lines are there. But what else to call such an act? To put a name on yourself that marks you a freak or an asshole or a reclamation project and then to step in front of a blinking red light, open source material for the Frankenbiters to do with what they will.
Maybe I’m using bravery to describe what is really the internal calculation of how much attention one wants (or sometimes believes that they need) and how much one is willing to risk to be seen. But I want to be seen, to be known, somehow; I dream of it, and I’ve never risked anything like that, and so that act of risk makes this woman at least a little extradeserving of whatever it is that she wants. And whatever she wants seems less important in the face of what she’ll do in the service of the wanting.
“It’s not the car wreck people are looking for,” Galinsky says, and I’ll admit this sounds a little rehearsed. “It’s that moment when the car wreck is inevitable and we’re wondering if someone will survive.”
So the camera turns on: Crash. And then.
Ask me for a tragedy and I’ll point you to Rob Kardashian.
I can’t imagine it’s easy to be younger brother to Kourtney, Kim, and Khloé, older brother to Kendall and Kylie—each one so forceful and beautiful and impervious to wilting. Even in the earlier days, the happy times, Rob always stayed at the edges of the screen, darting into scenes as a gentle foil or affable peacemaker. He operated as sort of a cipher for vaguely appealing normalness—often doofy and jovial, occasionally pouty, typically vain, always incompetent but sincere.
I say this not to take away from their talent or work or personalities, but there are no bodies in the world more elevated or important than the Kardashian bodies. For a decade they’ve been omnipresent, simultaneously idolized and scrutinized, and constantly in flux. Kim’s ass alone is important—it has racial implications and enormous financial ones; it invites both slobbering and vicious whispers; it cannot be seen without an accompanying conversation about its authenticity. Now we talk about her little sister Kylie’s body—at seventeen is it appropriate to be fucking a twenty-five-year-old? Is it okay to get those super intense lip injections, even if the injections make those lips as famous as Kim’s ass? And of course there’s Caitlyn—how public her physical transformation was made, how triumphant the result.
I’m not the first person to argue this, but to say that their success is superficial is a disservice; they elevate superficiality. They are so good at it, so committed, so fully and captivatingly bared. So productive. They make no effort to make it look easy. It can become exhausting to tune in to.
Not Rob. Rob is attrition and apathy. Rob is trapped in the way that most compelling characters are trapped, in the way that I often feel trapped. Rob changes in directions that he does not want to change. And all of it is seen.
Let me just admit this right away: I like to Google “Fat Rob Kardashian” to look at the image results. You know this. I think you do it, too. There are many results. If you wanted to (and I think someone should), you could make a collage of these images that runs around all the walls of a giant gallery space—tens of thousands of images with no break in between, many of them almost the same but not quite. It would be as though he were never not viewed, like a flipbook of a life spent flaunting and hiding himself at the exact same time, his eyes always peering out from under a baseball cap to see who is looking, and it’s hard to tell whether he’s checking to see if he’s safely alone or checking to make sure that someone still cares to watch.
Many of the pictures come spliced next to his early shots—the ones where he’s shirtless and celebrating something insignificant in a horizon pool, tattoos dotting his muscled side abs like gum splotches on a cobblestone street. And then. There is narrative just in this juxtaposition, a tragedy because, look, he used to be one way, and look, now he’s another and, look, it’s still happening, and we get to watch him face it. I love to watch him face it.
I think Rob and I are the same age; that must have something to do with it. He has been on television as himself for the exact span of time that I have loved you, and I have so badly wanted you to see me as the narrow, nubile, carefree kind of beautiful that he used to be. He used to cavort in his shots; that’s the best word for it. We used to watch him just sort of hang around the family mansion—twenty-three and still living at home, eating a banana or drinking a beer, winking at the camera in a way that read less obnoxiously cool, more endearingly incompetent. He always seemed a bit adrift, a bit bored, and I took comfort in seeing somebody enact this condition successfully, one that I felt but could never accurately convey.
He seemed not performatively ecstatic, just happy enough, happy in a way that is unnoticeable unless someone is really watching, and of course we were always watching, and there was pleasure in seeing him exist as the least remarkable person in the room. Now when we watch him, we see the way he tries to hide his enlarged self, see his family speak about him in whispers, with cruel worry. We talk about how long ago it was that Rob cavorted, and it always feels at least a little bit profound to point out the way time passes, how ominous that can be.
We were still living in Iowa the first time Rob broke down in a scene that had been clearly orchestrated for a breakdown—family therapy, held in what looked to be a vintage-furniture showroom, complete with ornate velvet couches and fur blankets draped over midcentury chairs. Rob had on a black baseball cap, as would become the norm (presumably to hide the creeping baldness), and an oversize black hoodie to hide everything else. He grew increasingly upset at accusations flying his way. He began to tear up, as the therapist coaxed him—You look sad; am I misreading you?—then fled to the bathroom. His mother and two of his sisters, immaculate in dress and posture, stayed on the couch, stoic. Another sister and the therapist, and I would guess two or three cameras, followed him. The bathroom wasn’t huge, so he was trapped, and the cameras were tight on him.
The shot stayed mostly on him in profile, newly expanding torso heaving, the lightly stubbled beginnings of a double chin accordioning as he cried. He held a hand towel over his face, and there was that drama of watching someone so closely as they show you how little they want to be watched.
All I care about is, like, saying yes to my mom and making her happy, he said, trapped in there. He looked up. And doing whatever my sisters want to make them happy. And when it comes to the easiest things, they just—they don’t, they won’t help me.
Here he buried his head back in the towel and squeaky-cried. The therapist’s bony hand was on his ample shoulder. She was kneading him, and her enormous pewter bracelet shone in the lighting. In an OTF cutaway to his mother and sisters sitting without him, his mother, stone-faced, said: I like it when he’s vulnerable because I think he needs to break those walls down. He’s so angry.
Watching it, I was struck by how much she genuinely seemed to think that she was caring for him and also how much she was consciously writing him into this sad, angry man-boy, handing him over to the viewers as such.
Of course, the next shot was back to Rob, trying to articulate that there are so many things that he wants to do, successes that he should have, that dress-sock company that showed such promise, and if his father was alive, his father might understand a little better. The therapist brushed that away, called it a top-layer issue, told him that he had spent too much time running from his feelings, from his very self.
You’re one of those steam kettles, Robert, she said. You know, sitting on the stove on the fire. You’re so full of feeling.
Then, on cue, he boiled, the squeaking louder, the wheezing breaths more frequent, burying his face again. I realized that the editors had never fully cut out the transition music, just lowered it, so there was a thumping, somber hip-hop beat carrying through the moment, like we were in an old ship’s furnace, and the panic and the inevitability were all heightened that much more.
I’ve got you, the therapist said, which again toed a line between caring, commanding, and threatening. Come on, let me see your face.
Rob obliged, moved the towel, and face exposed, camera creeping even closer, said: Nothing matters. Nothing’s gonna change.
There was one perfect beat extra, and then a cut.
Lucas Mann is the author of Captive Audience: On Love and Reality TV, out in May 2018 from Vintage Books. He is also the author of Lord Fear: A Memoir, and Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. He teaches creative writing at The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and lives in Providence, RI, with his wife.