“What is this? It looks like you’ve got a bikini wax here!” That was Gordon Ramsay being witheringly British to me, in front of other people. “Nothing puts you off like finding pubes on your plate.” He handed me the oily fennel fronds I had thrown down at the last minute as I stood in front of Ramsay, the restauranteur Joe Bastianich, and chef Graham Elliott, waiting to be judged. It felt like a really bad blind date.
I had just competed against six other entertainment journalists in a faux episode of MasterChef, in the show’s Los Angeles studio. It sounded like a decent way to spend a Tuesday evening, pretending to be on TV rather than watching it. It was staged just like a MasterChef episode. Eighteen minutes was not enough so I rushed to dismantle said fennel, put my scallops on top, and spoon an over-seasoned corn-and-mystery-berry relish on the side.
Just 40 minutes earlier, Gordon had greeted us, chatting up each contestant à la Bill Clinton and Alec Baldwin–on-a-nice-day, making each of us feel like the most fascinating person in the room, which I now wanted to be. Joe and Graham also mingled, but Gordon, in his sharp grey suit and crisp gingham shirt, truly held court. The witty bon mots delivered in British put us well on the way to on-air seduction.
So when I was standing there, soggy green pubes wilting in my hand, hoping I would pass out from something the medic could easily resuscitate me from — I realized what had started off as a fake reality developed into some latent fantasy I didn’t know I had. I quietly hoped my amateur effort would impress him. I’d go from dinner party hostess to culinary star.
It was undeniable that I was flailing miserably. All I wanted was to do was disappear. I was transported back to being a shy kid. I was competing for my one shot at happiness and I had been caught wetting myself. It was a setup, but somewhere along the way it became real.
Then, suddenly, Gordon pronounced, “The sear on the scallops is perfect.” I felt worthy enough to breathe again. A tentative excitement crept in at being recognized for the adroit cook I truly was.
Joe dismissed my fruit salad, and then said, “This is not the first time you've seared scallops.” Blush. Go on. Graham echoed, “Perfect sear. And well-seasoned.” Graham! When I had physically stalled twenty minutes earlier because I never cook seafood, he gently prodded me back into motion, asking, “Do you want to practice?” I wouldn’t have had anything to present had he not come by to help me with my homework.
Yet the only opinion that counted was Gordon’s. That’s when it hit me: Reality TV is like dating in your twenties. All you want is for the mean boy to like you. You want the guy who is impossible to please to hate the way everyone else cooks or sings or makes clothes and say that you and you alone are his favorite. And you know it’s true — you are the best — because he’s so hard to please. He's a challenge. America's pickup-artistry empire depends on this roller coaster of manipulation. The proliferation of Neil Strauss's "seduction" techniques — published in The Game in 2005 — prepped the way for Simon Cowell's bringing American Idol stateside.
I’ve spent most of my thirties in L.A., so I haven’t heard the word “no” in five years. People attempt being nice, don’t express their true opinion, and it ends up wasting a lot of time. I fly back to New York to hear what people really think. In L.A., men and women alike often don’t use my name, but will touch me and call me “Pretty” or “Sexy” because they think it’s what women in this town expect to hear. Last year I spent several weeks around Simon Cowell covering The X Factor, and I didn’t find him mean. Perhaps Hollywood had dulled my palate so that I found his honesty — and his weeding out of the less talented — refreshing. What Simon really wanted was to find a star and make good TV.
More people watched Idol when Simon Cowell was judging. Sure, aside from Simon, there are other factors, but who needs Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, and Randy Jackson cooing warm fuzzies? That’s like letting Carrie end up with Aidan at the end of Sex and the City. That’s not what America wants. America wants to see a mercurial mogul snarkily taking down small people with outsized ambitions on television, all Hunger Games–like.
I’ve never really gone after the mean guy. But I do like a guy who tells me a believable truth. I recently hung out with a model/personal trainer who volunteered to stretch me daily (I know) and consistently told me how beautiful and hot I was (I know). It made me uncomfortable. Later I video-chatted with the last guy I dated — a photographer who lives abroad — who said, “You look good, Soo. Like you’ve finally gotten some sleep.” It’s not as effusive a compliment, but it’s the one I’d rather take.
By the way, I didn't win my Master Chef challenge. That honor went to an NPR producer who dusted the scallops with polenta and tossed them over lemon pasta. Gordon congratulated her for “finally having an opportunity to make more than $25,000 a year.”