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Cruising the TV Love Machine

The women’s dressing-room is as hot as an armpit, and everywhere one looks it’s a Prom Night orgy of bosoms and thighs. We’re behind the scenes at a TV dating game show where the media machine will churn out lovematches faster than a Wild West bordello.

Original publication: SL, 2000.

dating shows

By the time midnight rolled around and the day’s shoot was wrapped up, the studio audience had become so impassioned by the spirit of romance, so captivated by the mysteries of love unfolding on the stage in front of them, that it seemed as if only a baton-charge complete with teargas and dum-dum bullets would make them haul their voyeuristic asses out of there. I hadn’t stuck about long enough to witness the frenzied finale – after spending seven hours on the set of e.tv’s dating game show Love at First Sight I was literally love-sick – but I’m told that the audience, numbering well over a hundred, grew ever-more festive and riotous in the Utopia of TV-land, until at last they were unwilling to leave.

In large part it was the doing of one man – the warm-up artist and stand-up comedian Alan Committie. It’s his job to explain the show to the audience, entertain them when technical hitches interrupt filming, and rev them up into a cheering mob so that the folks back home, drooling on their beer bellies, will comprehend that they’re watching a game show, not the weather report or a documentary on microbiology.

‘You’re LATE! You BASTARDS!’ Alan shouted into his mike earlier on in the evening as a horde of audience members filed into the darkened cavern of the studio during a break in recording and took their seats on the bandstands. One moment Alan and I were chatting in the wings of Cape Town’s Sasani Studios; the next thing I knew he’d slipped a jacket on over his canary-yellow tie and sailed into the crowd with the force of a wrecking ball. It was as if he’d dropped a gramme of coke in the few seconds between leaving me and greeting his audience.

‘Ladies and gentlemen!’ he screamed as he made his way to the centre of the amphitheatre bounded on one side by bandstands and a brightly-lit stage on the other, ‘please put your hands together for the extraordinary, the multi-talented, the one, the only – Alan Committie!’

Ironic applause rang up to the rafters, to the cables and warehouse girders overhead, and he went on: ‘They had high hopes for this show. They wanted Pieter Dirk Uys and Mark Banks, but found me instead, working at a petrol station.’

He broke off: ‘Sir – why aren’t you clapping? You don’t even know me. That’s rude – you BASTARD! We want to fill this cold place with warmth and love, don’t we?’

The audience roared back in assent.

Soon he would have them chanting, ‘Cleone Polony! Cleone Polony!’, an ambiguous tribute to the show’s presenter, Five FM deejay. Cleone Cassidy. She is the deity, the Venus, who presides over the erotic energies that are presumably sparking back and forth between the contestants. Her ad-lib repartee is quick and wild: when a female contestant giggingly describes herself as ‘impatient’, Cleone replies, ‘Oh, like, ‘I want my orgasms and I want them now’?’  One of the two scriptwriters working off trestle tables at the back of the studio looks up from her computer. ‘Thierry’s going to be pissed,’ she murmurs through a mouthful of cigarette smoke, referring to the producer Thierry Cassuto.

The audience, though, laps it up. Inhumanly beautiful and perfectly self-possessed, Cleone stands on centre-stage with a gaze fixed at the camera, pausing to adjust a tress of hair and have her nose powdered before smiling on cue again as the camera goes live. She’s even more statuesque than the two silvery statues mounted in alcoves behind her. To her left is a buxom sculpture of a female nude; to her right is its male counterpart, resembling a mannequin in a Sea Point hairdresser’s. It’s anatomically exact, except that it doesn’t have a dick. There the three of them stand – Cleone and the stylised Flash Gordon statues, icons of desirability in a world of boys and girls, guys and gals.

A swathe of glossy black linoleum separates stage from bandstands, the sublime from the mundane, and like plebs calling across a moat to the princess in her castle, the audience chants: ‘Cleone Polony! Cleone Polony!’ Who takes game shows seriously, especially the dating genre? No one and everyone. They are real-life soap operas – universally enthralling for the schoolday fantasies on which they draw, universally laughed-off for the same reason. They incite ambivalent reactions, and when the audience chants to the celebrity, they are courting her amused affection, wanting to join the party on Planet Cool, and yet in an undertone taking the piss out of a media world that’s so unreachable, so all-controlling.

If the mindset of a studio audience is this complex, one wonders what on earth goes on in the psyches of the contestants themselves, who voluntarily risk embarrassing themselves on national TV. Are they just looking for an easy lay after having exhausted the normal hunting grounds of pub and club, or have they have been seduced by the promise contained in the show’s name – love at first sight?

When I arrived at the studio for the 1.00 p.m. call-time, there was little sign of the mass hysteria that would later envelope the place. Male and female contestants are segregated prior to filming, as if on the eve of a wedding, and I followed the signboards directing me to the guys-only entrance. I was greeted by a suitably macho sight, something like the loading zone behind a factory or hypermarket. Crew wearing T-shirts with the show’s thunderbolt-logo milled around mobile broadcast vans; a nearby room served as a makeshift cafeteria, and a cabal of trendies in vests sat shooting the breeze, relaxed in the rugged guy-ness for which they’d been recognised, honoured and set apart.

Journalism is the art of the free lunch, so I headed for the coffee urn and Styrofoam cups. The trendies were joined by a production assistant, a barefoot woman in jeans and skimpy halter-top. I’d been anxious not to be mistaken as a contestant, which would open me to ridicule for delusions of adequacy, and my fears came true when, behind my back, I heard some bullnecked guy point me out to the woman with a laugh: ‘That one’s taken already!’ I reached into my jacket for the Glock 9, but stayed my hand.

Outside the cafeteria, on a concrete driveway leading into the building, members of the audience were gathering in the stifling heat – the contestants’ mums, dads, buddies, and awkward teenage sisters. I introduced myself to an Afrikaans guy and his girlfriend.

’You’re from SL? Yissey!’ he whistled in awe. ‘Do you make the magazine yourself?’

Singlehandedly, china – cover to cover.

‘Do you think it will be just as hot inside the studio?’

I replied with worldly-wise authority: Nah, fuck, they keep it cool.

He tugged his girlfriend’s sleeve. ‘Hey, haven’t we seen this ou’s picture in SL?’ The two of them studied my visage for a short eternity.

Now I, too, was a celebrity, Mr SL possessing coveted know-how on sex, dating and air-conditioning: I’d acquired the self-confidence to square up to the contestants. First up was André, 25, a model and interior designer who’d been approached for the show via his agency.

He summarised the rules of the game. Three boys and three girls meet on set, answer questions and do a bit of role-play to demonstrate how they handle various non-porno dating scenarios. Then they choose their partners – if boy A and girl B both choose each other, yes, it’s a lovematch. They’re taken by Rolls Royce for dinner at Ratanga Junction, and in the second round, questions test how much they’ve learned about one another. If they answer correctly, they’re in line for prizes, including an overseas trip.

Does André expect to fall in love on the show? ‘My friends mocked me and asked me if I have to go on TV to get a date. But I’m just going out to have fun. Besides, lots of interested people will see me on TV. If I could, I’d wear my phone number on my shirt!’

Sounding like a Yorkshire barman, I ask if he’s afraid of making a tit of himself. Shock at my wording flickers on his supremely photogenic face before he picks up that this is guy-on-guy badinage. ‘No, no,’ he laughs. ‘I’m used to the camera. But it’ll still be an adrenaline rush.’

Litha, 21, however, confesses he’s nervous about being on TV. When I assure him that he’s a natural, he misses my drift. ‘Yeah, I’m a natural, down-to-earth person,’ he says, reflexively describing himself in a dating sound-byte, as if I’d invited him to commodify himself as some Valentine’s Day package. I change tack: does he believe TV will deliver the miracle of love at first sight? ‘No ways,’ he says. ‘Everything takes time. I’ve always believed that.’

So much for the guys; now the girls. The studio publicist arrives to lead me down a walkway into the very epicentre of sex, the women’s dressing room.

‘Are you all dressed?’ she shouts in warning as figures in undergarments flee into the recesses. We plunge into the hairdresser’s room, which is as hot as an armpit and giddy with Prom Night excitement.

About five gals are packed in here. One of them, Natalie, was a lovematch on a previous show. With her hair in curlers, she praises her lovemate’s blonde eyes, blue hair, satanic charm, or whatever – just the guy she would’ve chosen in reality.

Laura, though, is a newcomer. Recently divorced, she’s on the show to rebuild her self-confidence: ‘I want to see how far I can push myself by doing something wild and whacky, and if I find the right guy it’s a bonus.’

Won’t she be hurt if nobody chooses her?

‘There’s no rejection worse than divorce,’ she answers.

I’m finding it hard to concentrate. I don’t know where it’s polite to look: all I’m seeing is an orgy of bosoms and thighs. At the same time I’m aware of coming in for some hard appraisal myself. There are no civilians in the dating game, and you can’t expect to klutz into the women’s dressing room on Prom Night, of all times and places, and not have your guy-ness sized up for you.

On the way out I’m shown Cleone’s room. She’s not in, but the Cassidy boudoir is fragrant with the traces of her being. A slavering devil forms on my shoulder – gimme five minutes in there, he whispers, five minutes …

But Cleone appears in the flesh soon enough, borne on-stage by waves of snow-coloured smoke. Sitting in the audience beside the Miguels and Pninas of Clifton Beach, I clap on cue from the floor manager as Cleone launches into her routine. The nude statues revolve on their pedestals, and behind them out pop the guests, who seat themselves on stools straight out of Pop’s malt and burger joint in Archie Comics. In the male line-up are Chad, Andy and Andile; the girls are Cindy, Lauren and Lesedhi.

There’s some getting-to-know-you banter – like Andile, Andy aspires to be a basketball pro but he’s half Cleone’s size and can hardly make it to the top of his chair. This is followed by multiple choice questions that are designed to slot contestants into broad character typologies; and next up is the role-play session, in which boy and girl come face to face to act out marriage proposals, lovers’ tiffs, shit like that.

This is the moment when your toes curl and you think, O, Death, where is thy sting? But I’d lapsed into my usual TV-torpor and the questions floated past me. They seemed to run something like this: Guys, on a date you get lousy service at a restaurant. Do you (a) pay without fuss (b) beat the waiter to death to impress your date (c) get shitfaced and throw up as usual? Girls, your guy forgets your birthday. Do you (a) blow your brains out (b) blow his brains out (c) blow his friends?

It’s bright and breezy fun, but in the soft-porn subtext of dating shows it’s foreplay to the moment when contestants reveal whom they’ve chosen and viewers learn if things have turned out as they wished – whether, for example, Chad would hit it off with Lauren, who was my own choice. This would let me reach her through him, as though he were my proxy-player in a virtual reality game. The guests’ choices are processed by computer: Lauren does like Chad, but Chad the cad likes Cindy, and because Cindy likes Chad back, we’ve got a lovematch. Chad likes Cindy, he says, fucking it up, because she’s so ‘simple’. Poor little Andy – he also had his eye on Cindy, but no one at all liked him. For Andy, it’s back to the old hand shandy.

‘I was a bit disappointed,’ Lauren laughs afterwards, putting on a brave face. ‘I felt, ‘What’s wrong with me?’’ Love-hunting seems to be the last thing on the contestants’ minds – most claim to be prize-hungry party animals, and like Lauren, many are aspiring actors or models looking for TV exposure. But as she says, ‘There’s always that little hope inside.’ Was Chad her ideal? ‘He was the best out of those options,’ she admits, already seeming to feel better.

Based on a British show of the same name, Love at First Sight has been adapted for several other countries, among them the US, Poland, Holland and Russia. Its local version took a year to get off the ground, during which period some 500 hopefuls were auditioned. Now that things are rolling, its 13 episodes are being shot back to back, night and day, in the course of a single week, and in no time at all, contestants for the next show have lined up. The girls are Alicia, Colleen and Carmen. The guys are Monde, my old buddy André, as well as another familiar face – the guy who pulled dating-rank on me in the cafeteria.

Cheered on by his pals in the audience, his name is Maxim or something or other, and Cleone induces him to say a few romantic words in Italian. Next she has Monde, a black opera singer, serenading platinum-blonde Carmen. ‘A guy with musical abilities can make me fall on the floor in a heap,’ Cleone says encouragingly, an image I find hard to shake.

But another image’s forming: Italian … opera … Carmen. Get it? Much is left to chance on the programme, and when the contestants gaffe their words as though drowning in a telephone booth, a fool can see this is ad-lib stuff. The choice of contestants for each show is, however, meticulously orchestrated to create the best synergies – and romantic possibilities. As the producer Thierry Cassuto says, selecting these combinations from a pool of more than a hundred prospects is ‘like playing God.’

So it must have come as a shock when Cleone teased Colleen into revealing whom she thinks is the sexiest man in the universe, and Colleen, with her dreadlocks swept back in a ponytail to expose a face as radiant as the rising sun, answered in purest innocence: ‘My boyfriend!’

Fuck me, you could’ve heard a pin drop. Even unflappable Cleone missed a beat. Contestants sign a form attesting that they’re not engaged or going steady. This is, after all, a dating game show, and during a break someone in the audience could be heard to utter the dread word ‘bimbo’.

The scene was reshot minus the offending comment and soon contestants were logging their choices. It’s hard to overstate the surprising potency of this moment, or the voyeuristic hunger with which the audience seems to lean over in their seats. When Maxim was asked why he chose Carmen, I’ll grant that he showed integrity in his bullshit-free reply, however cruel it was to this woman who appeared authentically interesting. ‘She’s blonde,’ he shrugged. Carmen chose André, praising his eyes. Cleone did a double-take: ‘They remind you of what? Grape vines?’ she said, which is what I’d also heard. ‘No,’ Carmen said, repeating herself, ‘Ray Fiennes, the actor.’

André, however, liked Alicia who liked him back, and later on the pair waited glowingly alongside their Rolls Royce like a virgin honeymoon couple, shy but triumphant in this little pocket of immortality with which Planet Cool had blessed them. Poor Carmen – hell, poor Maxim, chosen by none. There’s a rough justice in dating games, and for viewers it offers the gossipy spectacle of a Greek tragedy played out in schoolyard kitsch: Who likes whom? Who will conquer, who’ll be hurt; who’s in, who’s out?

‘The whole notion of a dating game is fascinating,’ says the warm-up guy Alan Committie, ‘but you should see it as a fun, superficial jol. You can’t give it too much meaning. If you’d asked me beforehand what kind of people come on the show, I’d’ve said, ‘Quite desperate people.’ But we’ve got a lot of self-confident people out for the fun of being on TV or winning a free meal. It’s not about looking for a lovematch, although we’ve had returning couples who look like they’re really into each other; others said, ‘We had a good time and that’s where it ends.’

‘I still wonder about the ones who don’t get chosen. Let’s be honest, it’s about looks – it’s the pretty boy who’s chosen even if he can’t string a sentence together. And you never know, he might not even like girls! We had one guy, though, who was a bodybuilder and had worked for NASA – he literally was a rocket scientist! Who does he choose? A waitress from Benoni with a lisp. Can you believe it?

Dating shows produce some unexpected combinations, but these perhaps are subordinate to the central combination they make, the cross-over between a rosy Valentine’s Day ideal and the ordinary world. Here ordinary mortals have a shot at transcendence, and it’s the discrepancy between this ideal realm of super-cool and contestants’ all-too-human fallibility that makes us cringe at their blunders, their all-too-familiar vanities.

Outside the studio, police have erected roadblocks on the main access to the VA Waterfront, evidently part of a security tightening-up after the Blah Bar and St Elmo’s bomb blasts. Inside, the love factory is getting into full gear, churning out lovematches faster than a Wild West bordello. Soon Alan would have the burgeoning evening audience chanting ‘Cleone Polony!’, have them straining to project themselves over the moat to the princess in her castle.

But before wading into the audience, he grins at me with a knowingness shared by every South African. ‘Only in South Africa would you think about this,’ he says, ‘but we’ve got an intriguing situation. Two white guys, no white girls, and one of the guys was in the Navy.’

Earlier on, when (black) Colleen chose (black) Monde over the other (white) contestants, her explanation that she found him ‘cute’ was cringe itself, and a (black) dude next to me groaned, ‘Oh, please!’ In Verwoerdian terms, who else would she choose? Will guests stay in their racial comfort zones, will they run against type, and what awkwardness will arise when there are two white guys, one ex-Navy, and no white girls – when contestants must negotiate the divide between an ideally non-racial world and the habits of ordinary South Africa?

But then again, the previous lovematches – Chad-Cindy, André-Alicia – were mixed couples, and the last show I see is no exception, though it couldn’t be otherwise. Does big and blonde Craig choose (coloured) Mary? Does black and bubbly Portia choose (coloured) Rob? They choose each other. Jesus, you can almost see Orania shaking its fist at the TV; other viewers might think: if they can do it, it’s viable for me, too.

Craig and Portia stand at the rear of the studio, briefly left to their own devices after having been packaged and assembled by the love machine. Portia can’t wait to boast to her friends about her blonde amour, built, as she says, ‘like a rugby player’. I don’t probe her motives; I don’t ask what her acquisition of Craig represents to her, nor do I ask Craig the same of Portia. They’re hot to trot, playfully squabbling as if they’ve long been an item.

An instant romance – instantly formed with its special little quirks and rituals, instant perhaps in other, more poignant senses. ‘After being hyped to a crescendo, finishing the show’s a bit of an anti-climax,’ Craig admits. Love-as-seen-on-TV is a commodity like any other, interchangeable with the prizes of cameras and dream vacations. When the shine wears off, and the Eden of TV closes behind you, you have to find your own way, alone with each other.

 

 

* Names have been changed.

 

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