What it Was Like to Be a Finalist in the Search to Discover the Next Oprah on Her New Network & How it Inspired Me to Reinvent Myself
December 31, 2010 - Linda Grasso
Me, back in July, before heading off to an audition for Your OWN Show
I got People today and, for the first time in months, I actually looked at it. Typically, I toss it aside thinking who are all these people with weird names like Snooki and why would I be interested in any of the Kardashians? The reason for my sudden interest? The magazine had an article profiling the 10 contestants on Your OWN Show – the upcoming series to pick and groom “the next Oprah.” My interest in the reality show was more than casual.
It all started back in July. “Hi, Linda, this is Emily from OWN.” I'd answered my cell as I drove along the 405 Freeway. I immediately thought of thought of my sister, Lisa. Yeah, it was her – being a smart ass. She’d recently encouraged me to enter the OWN contest by putting my reel up on the network's site. I feigned sincerity, “Hi Emily. Is Oprah with you right now?” “Excuse me? I’m calling from the Oprah Winfrey Network. We really liked your tape and we want to talk to you about possibly becoming a finalist to compete on the show. What???
The on-line contest had been going on for months, but I’d only put my tape up a week ago. While some hopefuls had garnered thousands of votes by the deadline date, I had a paltry 800. But sure enough, it was OWN. Would I be interested in going through a series of interviews to determine if I’d make it to “Finals Week” - a competition of 40 contestants in Los Angeles? From that group OWN would then select the final 10 for the show. Keep the car on the road. The kids are in it. “Yes, I would!”
I was shocked. Sure, I had some on-air experience - a lot of it. I’d started as a news reporter and anchor and then got a job as a correspondent/host on E! But I hadn’t been on TV much since quitting E! more than 6 years ago to spend time with my two young sons. Plus, celebrity reporting had gotten downright silly and I was having a hard time faking interest at the new crop of “stars.” When did talent get taken out of the equation? Having been off-air for so long and now in my mid forties – conventional wisdom told me I was not employable. Heck, I couldn’t even get my longtime agent to return an email – even though I paid her in full when I asked to be let out of my contract - despite the fact she hadn’t even gotten me the E! gig. Like every job I'd ever had, I got it myself.
As I fought the urge to phone everyone I knew with the exciting news (a confidentiality agreement awaited me when I got home), I wondered if this were an omen to get back into TV? I’d certainly been thinking about in the past year or so. But what would I do with my skills? Hard news, which for me in LA almost always meant standing on the side of a roadway doing live shots about weather and crime, didn’t interest me anymore. Nor did chasing self-absorbed celebrities. I was caught in something of a conundrum.
In the early post E! years, I loved being with the kids full-time. I drove the boys all over, attended sports games galore and was on time for all school activities (new!). My boys and I had long talks at bath time and spent leisurely summers with grandparents on the east coast. Then, on a dime, I was robbed. I can easily pick the thief out of a lineup: The Teen Years. My boys suddenly grew up. Now 15 and almost 13, their lives took off – without me. When they weren’t in school or doing sports, they wanted to be with friends. I often pondered my dilemma. So, lemme get this straight, I dumped my big time career for my kids and now they’re dumping me. What now?
I started filling the void with SheSez. A year or so into it, my sister – always the little voice in the back of my head – said, “Stop hiding behind your blog and get out there!” So, I started posting not just articles - but videos on the site. Once I got used to seeing my new on-camera face, with more lines and without hair and make-up (Oh God, is that really me?), it felt good to be back in the saddle. And then it happened. I started to miss TV. I missed the sharing and storytelling – with immediate feedback. Even though SheSez’s numbers were growing nicely, running a website is often like shouting into a canyon, is anyone out there listening? There's also a lot of solitude. I missed the rush, the deadlines, the connection, working with others, getting dressed and going to work each day. In short, I wanted back in. But I was afraid. I feared rejection – and even worse – being laughed at.
I was haunted by several conversations I had as I was making the difficult decision to leave E! A close friend, who was also in the business said, “You’d better be okay with never working again because no one will hire you if you leave now.” I also thought the comments of an acquaintance - a fashion/beauty TV correspondent who was a few years older than me. She too cautioned me about quitting, as I was about to turn forty, “When you’re in your forties, no one wants you. Even if you still look good. Believe me, they know your age and they'll constantly use it against you.” Or, I’d hark back to the time I stood in a powerful TV executive’s office staring at a monitor playing a tape of a cable show hosted by Nancy O’Dell. He quipped, “She’s pushing forty and we’ve got to get rid of her. We need someone younger.” Staring at the monitor, I was aghast. Nancy was beyond beautiful and, to me, she looked in her prime! How could he be writing her off? Sure enough, a short time later Nancy was replaced by a woman some 20 years her junior. These harsh comments crippled me. Every time I even considered putting a toe in the water, I remembered those comments and others and I quickly put a wool sock on.
Even when my sister called with the Oprah contest, I hesitated. Would anyone laugh at me? Hmmm…maybe no one has to know. I’ll just do this for fun, slipping my tape in under the radar. But deep inside I had a serious motive. Please someone out there tell me my talents and all those years of experience are still worth something. Please pick me so I can fill the void that has suddenly appeared in my life and return to doing what I love. It all did feel a little ridiculous - entering, of all things, a reality show contest to try and jump back into my profession? But conventional job-hunting methods hadn't proved fruitful. I'd had hit a wall and needed a way to get around it.
My son Nick, the one who's almost 13, is sensitive and deep. First, as he shot some of my submission tape for me, he was enthusiastic. Then, he got scared. “Mom, I don’t want you to do it. What if you don’t get picked and you feel hurt?’ Read my mind little man. “Look, Nick, the thing is you have to try stuff in life – even when you feel scared. You have to put yourself out there and give it a shot – even if it’s a long shot. The real crime is not to even try.”
Over the next two weeks, Emily and I spoke every couple of days. “Now, look Linda, don’t get too excited. We looked at 20,000 tapes and yours stood out. You’re charming, funny and warm on-air. But you’re still among 200 and there’re only 40 spots for Finals Week.” I did phone interviews and filled out lots of questionnaires. They wanted to know everything – from my favorite movie to how I met my husband to details about my show idea. I actually had two ideas. One was a TV version of SheSez and the other was a show about women, post child rearing, reinventing themselves and being mentored by someone famous along the way. Emily said to submit both and if I made it to Finals Week, they’d pick their pony.
At one point, I started getting emails from Mark Burnett Casting. Puzzled, I called Emily, “What does Mark have to do with the show?” “He’s the producer.” My heart sank. My husband and I had been friends with the wildly successful producer (Survivor, Apprentice etc. ) and his wife for years. We’d socialized on numerous occasions. I ran into my husband Charlie’s office and voiced my concerns. He downplayed it, “Oh c’mon Lin, you think nepotism is a problem in Hollywood? I’ve got two words for you: Julie Chen.” He was referring to the wife of CBS chief Les Moonves who’d recently gotten her own show on the network.
Finally, the call came. “You’ve made to Finals Week!” While the most of the other contestants were being flown in, I’d be allowed to commute to the LA hotel each day from my home in Encino. Each night I’d get a call letting me know if I would advance to the next round the following day. Contestants would be eliminated until there were only 10 – who’d compete in the reality show contest.
Now, I really wanted it. Every decision became colossal including the ever so important what to wear. Time to assemble my team. My husband and my boys spent a full evening of heated debate as they weighed in. That makes you look too old! That one is trying to hard! That one doesn’t show off your figure! We hate flats! You need to look sexy like Heather Locklear (the mother of one of my son’s classmates)! Jeez, they were worse than a bunch of women.
The artisanal cheese platter with fresh figs and dried hibiscus that I took to Finals
I showed up at the hotel at 9am. I brought a fabulous artisanal cheese platter my friend Barrie Lynn (The Cheese Impresario) helped me make. Why be shy? I figured I needed to strut my stuff! Emily was waiting for me in the lobby with a warm smile. “Sit here until I come get you and then we’ll go upstairs for your first interview. You may not talk to any of the other contestants at any time during the week.” I was seated on a sofa with a man in a banana yellow suit and thick glasses. Another contestant spoke to him at one point and he angrily hissed, “We can’t talk remember?” There was also a blond woman in a ballet tutu, boots and clutching a book to her chest.
Finally, Emily led me into a suite. Three guys sat on a sofa facing me. One seemed to be in his twenties, one in his thirties and one in his forties with graying hair. I had a sexist moment. Men? What were they doing here? I thought it was going to be a chick fest. What do men know about picking a woman to be the next Oprah? Well, at least it wasn’t Mark Burnett. I guess he’s not showing up for finals week, I thought to myself. He did say he was slowing down when I saw him at a dinner party last year. He’ll probably just come to the first day of taping. Then he’ll see me and he won’t be able to cut me. It’ll be too late!
In one way, I was glad they were men. The cheese was a huge hit and they gobbled it up. Then the interview started. They leaned forward on the edge of the sofa gazing at me and listening to my answers intensely. While I’d been nervous in the lobby, I suddenly felt a strange calm. It was like bring it on. I was no longer afraid. No one was laughing at me. I had something to offer and they knew it. Otherwise why would they have picked me? It felt damn good and I reveled in the moment.
The questions came rapid fire – some were pretty probing. Tell us about why you really left E! How come you haven’t done TV since then? And from the gray haired guy, “Why should we give it to you? Some might say you’ve already had your shot at fame and that we should give his opportunity to someone 20 years younger.” Ouch, that hurt. I swallowed hard and locked on his eyes. “Wow, I don’t really think of it that way. I’m not looking for a shot at fame here, guys. I’m simply looking to share what I know with other women in a venue that I have experience in and happen to love. Why not me? In my twenties, I was trying to figure out who I was. Now, in my forties I know who I am. I believe I’m better now than I’ve ever been. I’m smarter, deeper and I’ve got more soul. I will resonate with Oprah’s viewers and they’ll relate to me because I am them. I’m a mom, a wife and I try hard to juggle all the balls. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail. Plus, like so many of them, I’m also trying to figure out the next chapter of my life.” The gray haired guy - still locked on my eyes - smiled. I knew I’d made it to the next round.
When Emily called me later that night, she said they wanted to go with the reinvention show rather than the lifestyle/home show, as it was more unique. She said I’d gotten a “hall pass” on Day 2, and that I was advancing to the next round - Day 3. She said to arrive on Day 3 with a play-by-play, well thought out treatment for my reinvention show, as I’d be expected to make a presentation for OWN executives. She didn’t mention Mark Burnett. I'm safe!
At my computer working on my show pitch before my presentation to OWN executives. Notice the sheen on my face? I have a 4-hour-pore-tightening-uber-moisturizing-collagen-infused face mask on!
From that moment, I morphed into an obsessed woman. I sat at my computer and worked on my reinvention show non-stop – and practiced my pitch on my husband. I only stopped for a brief shopping excursion. Now, I really needed to look great. While I would have loved to try some injectables, I knew it's be just my luck to be one of the miniscule few to experience some catastrophic side effect like facial paralysis. I couldn't chance it.
My friend Linleigh Richker, who some of you might know from her articles on SheSez, is a wardrobe consultant. I asked if she would help me pick out something. Together, we selected a killer navy blue, Mad Men type dress. And to make my boys at home happy, I picked out some heels – not too radical though. No matter how sexy Vogue (and my husband) thinks platforms and four-inch heels are - they still make me feel like I’m dressing up to be a hooker for Halloween. I wanted to look nice, but like myself.
photo left: Linleigh and me in the dressing room shopping at Bloomingdales. I'm wearing the Mad Men dress!
When I arrived back at the hotel for Day 3, I was ushered up to a conference room filled with rectangular tables that seated two contestants each. Everyone brought books and magazines to fill time as we’d been warned it'd be a long day. I quickly took stock of my fellow competitors. There were exactly 19. Ahhh, so we’re down to the top 20. Butterflies. Several were eccentric. There was a man who looks like a shorter, older version of the American Idol winner Ruben Studdard. Another man who, with his towering Afro (with a hint of grey – yippee I’m not the oldest person here!), must have been 6½ ft tall. He had a dour expression and was dressed in a gaudy silk jacket with large red roses and a black and yellow print on it. The tutu and boots gal was wearing the exact same outfit as before – and carrying the same book. I could now read the title, Women, Food and God. Maybe she's doing a show about eating disorders? As they relate to ballet? Random! Another guy had a Bob’s Big Boy inspired hair-do that stood straight up at the center part. There was one – only one – very pretty girl. She had striking, long dark hair. Another thirty something gal had waist length, flat-ironed hair. I noticed in the bathroom she was wearing a wig.
“Okay we’re going up to the 4th floor where Mark Burnett wants to talk to all of you together.” My heart sank. Elvis is in the house. Despite my concern about Mark's presence, I chuckled to myself in the elevator. We went up in two groups – everyone squished together – peering closely at each other – but unable to talk. As soon as we entered the suite, Mark hopped up to stand on an upholstered chair to address the crowd. I had another private giggle. Is that really necessary? We’re all scared shitless. As the undisputed king of reality TV, do you really need to tower over us? Mark, who is typically a pretty well mannered guy, immediately launched into a rather harsh soliloquy. “When you make your presentation to us you’d better be ready. I don’t want to see any shit and I don’t want to be bored. I’ve seen some real crap over the past couple of days. People who haven’t really given their show much thought. Well you’d better be thinking about it now. Because the minute I’m bored I’m throwing your ass outta here!” The contestants all looked paralyzed with fear. I thought it was all pretty funny - so campy theatrical. As Mark rambled on and on I tried to catch his eye to get a reaction. He looked at each contestant as he spoke, but never at me. I was in trouble.
Four hours later I returned to the suite, now filled with executives, to pitch my show. A spotlight was on my face and a camera was rolling. I wasted no time; “My show is about inspiring women in the second act of life to dream big and to make those dreams a reality….” I felt confident and enthusiastic. I felt like my old self! Again, seemingly out of nowhere, I was gripped by a powerful inner strength and it calmed me. I also felt - right there in the middle of my speech - an undisputable glee. No matter what the industry pundits or middle-aged (often paunchy!) male executives told me, no matter what how remote the odds were, or how many doors had slammed in my face, I now knew - without question - I had something to offer. I glanced at Mark a few times. He had reading glasses on and seemed to be shuffling through questionnaires I’d filled out. What are you looking for Mark? You already know my back-story. Pay attention to me up here! When I finished, a few of the OWN executives asked some questions. They nodded in agreement (encouraging!) to some of my answers and one quipped “right on!” as I spoke of how we need to be sharing inspiring reinvention stories about the multitudes of women who have successfully done it - instead of knocking down women seeking a new path and limiting possibilities. The women’s names – who we could use as mentors - rolled off my tongue – Arianna Huffington, Joy Behar, Gwyneth Paltrow, Condoleezza Rice, Ina Garten, Kathy Ireland, Tory Burch.... etc.
Mark remained stone faced. I couldn't stand it anymore. “Mark, you haven't said anything. Did you hate it?” An OWN executive quipped, “You don’t want Mark to say anything! Nothing is good. You should have heard him go after some of the others!” Laughter erupted. Mark, however, was not laughing. He took off his glasses and looked up at me. “I have two problems with you being here. First, you are a professional. You are an anchor for god sake Linda! The second issue is more problematic. I know you. I’ve been friends with you and your husband for years. You've been a guest at my home!” Mark closed by saying that ultimately it wasn’t his decision and that the network would discuss the situation after I left.
A few hours later, as suspected, I was cut. The really pretty brunette girl and the gal with the wig got sent home, too. We could all finally talk to each other but we rode down the elevator in complete silence.
I ran into Mark at the valet. “It was just too problematic Linda. Can you imagine if you’d won the thing and the press got wind of the fact that we were friends? What a mess. OWN has spent too much money on this show to have that kind of egg on their face. How’s Charlie? How are the boys?”
I drove home feeling deflated. To get so close - only to get nuked cause of a casual friendship. I just couldn’t call home. The kids – particularly Nick – would be so disappointed. Sure enough, when I walked in the door Nick ran to hug me - pulled back to assess my expression - and burst out in tears, “Mom, I feel so bad for you. I could tell how much you really wanted this! You seemed so happy while you were working on your show. I knew this would happen!” I hugged him tightly and stroked his hair. To be honest with you, I was fighting to hold back my own tears. Even though my heart felt heavy – it lifted for a brief moment - as I felt a sense of pride in raising such a unique young man - a guy sensitive enough to cry, not for his own pain, but for someone else’s. And intuitive enough to really know how much I wanted it.
I looked at the People piece for a long time. Most of the contestants in the group photo seem to have undergone makeovers. The blond traded her tutu and boots for a shiny, black mini with sky-high heels. The tall man’s Afro has been cut into a stylish short “do” and he’s gone natural - letting his gray completely show through. The dour expression is gone and I see his smile for the first time. I see a small shot of Nancy O’Dell, one of the show’s hosts, in the feature and it makes me grin. She’s only a few years younger than I. Good for her! I hope that jerk TV executive gets People.
I didn’t win a contestant spot, but I’m also different - not visually - but on the inside. I still have occasional moments of doubt, but the experience gave me back some of my old professional confidence. It also taught me to believe in myself and trust my instinct. And, it’s made me live up to my words to Nick. The worse thing that can happen is not losing. It’s not even trying. Nowadays I’m getting out there more and meeting with cable networks - pitching my reinvention show. I’ve also pitched some other ideas – all shows I’d like to make as a behind the camera producer. Still can't get a response from my old agent, but I've taken it upon myself to send out some resume tapes. I'd love to wind up at OWN which seems like a natural fit. But if not at OWN, then elsewhere. And, if it's not meant to be in my second act, who knows? I might go for it in my third.
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