Manufacturing Reality

Mirror, Mirror

Reality television depends on charismatic contestants, and the Ganz sisters, a pair of identical-twin casting agents, are among its chief suppliers. The first article in a series on the hidden workings of reality TV.

Does she have medical coverage? How much does she weigh? Does she have brown teeth? How many teeth is she missing? Does she have facial hair? Does she know you’re calling? I’d love to see a picture of her. Tell me how she thinks the show will change her life.

These are the kinds of questions casting directors Debbie and Lisa Ganz are used to asking about people who want to appear on a reality makeover show like Fox TV’s The Swan. If the conversation seems bizarre to either of them, they don’t show it. Maybe that’s because their own shtick borders on circus performance. I first saw Debbie and Lisa Ganz when I watched an interview with them in a documentary about reality TV being produced by New York-based Acme Pictures. Co-director Michael Nigro is a friend who knew I’d written about reality TV before. “You’ve got to see the Ganz twins,” he said, setting me up to watch some of the raw footage. It was difficult not to be hooked. Dressed in low-cut tops and slacks, they sat confidently before the camera identical twins with New York accents who search for reality TV contestants. You’d think they’d seem slick speaking so quickly, finishing each other’s thoughts, answering cell-phone calls in mid-sentence to deal with reality star wannabes, flashing gorgeous smiles but they actually came across as polite, respectful, gracious, enthusiastic, and real. As partners, they worked together seamlessly. Even when one hesitated or expressed a doubt or a misgiving like a doubles tennis player accidentally lobbing a soft shot the other made up for it with a joke, a quick rebuttal, a hard smash that sends the ball whistling past you on the court.

“I’m Debbie Ganz.”

“And I’m Lisa Ganz.”

“We are the identical twin owners of“

Twins Talent.”

Mesmerized, I called them up and asked for an interview to discuss how they cast applicants for reality TV. First, I talked to Debbie, who said she’d get back to me. Instead, it was Lisa who returned my call. “Do you know what I’m calling about?” I asked, wondering if she’d been filled in on the details. “We’re twins. What do you think?” she answered. She told me to go ahead and do the interview with her solo, then write it up as though I’d talked to both of them. Fortunately, I had my transcript of their documentary interview to supplement my notes. To be honest, if Lisa had coughed and passed the phone over to Debbie during the distraction, I doubt I would have noticed the difference.

The Ganz twins are frequently called on by the industry to help fill reality TV’s ranks. Their résumé lists 38 shows in their body of work, although I was unable to confirm how many people they have successfully placed on such shows. These days, they list ABC’s The Bachelor, Wife Swap, and Fix My Husband; Sí TV’s Urban Jungle 2; TBS’s Love Thy Neighbor; Fox TV’s Nanny 911; Bravo’s Party Moms and Dads; and an untitled show described as Average Joe meets Real World for an unnamed production company as current clients.

They base their ongoing success in the business on their ability to find ordinary but quirky Americans who fit the representative demographics but somehow also transcend them. “Anybody can find actors. We find real people,” Debbie (or was it Lisa?) declared flatly in the documentary. Here’s how it works.

A reality television show starts with high concept. Sixteen strangers in a house, their every move scrutinized by hidden cameras: Let’s call it Big Brother. Fat slobs are racing to lose weight; the one who loses the most weight the fastest is—get it?—The Biggest Loser. Mother can’t control her unbelievably rambunctious kids, let’s call Nanny 911. Ugly duckling gets transformed (with the help of a half million dollars of plastic surgery) into The Swan. Like any effective high-concept idea, the pitch is self-explanatory, creating the kind of instant visualization that would make a gestalt therapist proud. You can almost see the way the show will run, guess where the contestants will confront challenges, and know how the rules will work. But you need great characters to hold the viewers’ attention.

You can’t walk up to a woman and tell her you think she’d benefit from extensive plastic surgery.Each reality show has its own approach to casting depending on its needs, relying on submitted video tapes and lengthy application forms, in-house and external casting directors, and open casting calls, where thousands of people show up to audition for even the most obscure pilot. Very few of those random walk-on applicants actually make it onto the short list; if you’ve ever seen an open casting call, it’s easy to understand why. In terms of glamour, atmosphere, and imagination, they’re up there with a dentistry convention in St. Louis: drab hotel conference rooms, stale pastries, cold coffee, hallways full of strangers. By the time production person and applicant meet across a table, one side is burned out and going through the motions while the other is trying to tap dance as hard as she can. What’s your background? What do you do now? Why do you think you should be on reality TV? Every applicant starts to look and sound the same. The ranks are filled with vanilla-flavored actors and models searching for side-door exposure on big-time TV. Authentic characters who will surprise and entertain us with their genuine idiosyncrasies are rare.

Identifying who will work on reality TV is a rigorous process involving casting agents, psychologists, and many layers of production people. As external casting agents, support casters, and casting consultants, the Ganz twins have been contracted to supply production companies with applicants who fit the bill for shows like ABC’s Wife Swap or its pilot Fix My Husband, Bravo TV’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, NBC’s The Biggest Loser, and Fox TV’s Nanny 911, Hell’s Kitchen, and The Swan. They credit their success to their ability to market to niches: Their first business was a Manhattan-restaurant called Twins (launched in 1994 and now closed), where all the staff were twins and customers were drawn by their own connection with the twin-world, or their own fascination with it. “Twins are scary,” Lisa says, by way of explanation. From the restaurant world they got into television, then fell into production and talent management and later into casting. They’ve also produced or hosted various twins-related events over the years, and appeared at many more. Today, aside from their work on reality TV, they cast twins, triplets, quadruplets, and quintuplets in commercials, television shows, and movies. Need albino twin pre-teen girls with Australian accents for your horror movie? Debbie and Lisa Ganz can probably find them for you. Recently, they cast the twin boys on Cameron Crowe’s movie Elizabethtown and all of the twins providing spooky ambiance in the thriller Stay with Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts.

The Ganz twins have always been obsessive collectors of people’s information, keeping track of friends, clients, customers, and interesting strangers they’ve met all over the world. Having such a network has never been so useful as when reality TV dropped into their lives. Many casting directors are regional or city-based, and few are specialized at reaching beyond professional actors and the young and the beautiful. Reality TV, however, requires people who are more obscure, authentic, and original types who are different enough to stand out on television while also being somehow representative of a particular segment of society. The problem is: How do you find such people?

Each show has its own challenges. If you’re casting for The Bachelor, it’s easy to walk around New York, stop handsome men on the street and ask them if they’re interested in learning about the show. But if you’re casting for The Swan, you can’t walk up to a woman and tell her you think she’d benefit from extensive plastic surgery. Instead of target-marketing ugly people, the Ganz twins have their own methods: putting thousands of fliers on cars at a suburban mall on big sale days; tacking up posters at Curves, a chain of gyms for women who are new to working out, and at weight-loss centers; and trolling Yahoo groups for obscure issues like “military wives who don’t feel attractive.” While casting for Nanny 911, they went to toy stores, Targets, and Wal-Marts looking for the screaming mother with five children hanging off her arms. For Hell’s Kitchen, they stopped people in Starbucks, at grocery stores, and at cook-outs. Do you know anyone who’d be great on the show? And no matter how obscure or strange the pitch sounds, people are thrilled to be asked. It’s TV. It’s a chance at fame. A casting director is a ticket to entry. Everyone is flattered.

Reality shows are doomed without unusual, compelling, “brandable” characters. Hell’s Kitchen is a grueling culinary boot camp where chefs compete against each other while being ripped apart by Michelin-star-rated chef Gordon Ramsay, a man who could perhaps be described as American Idol’s Simon Cowell with a butcher knife. Hell’s Kitchen wouldn’t be very interesting if it were populated only by expert chefs from the best restaurants in the world. In casting both Ralph and Dewberry for the show’s first season, the Ganz twins nailed the kind of variety that makes for good TV. Ralph, a tough-talking Italian-American chef and restaurant owner who grew up in New York City, showed up for his casting screening wearing a brown pinstriped suit with a brown shirt and a yellow tie. When they asked him what he would do if Chef Ramsay started screaming at him, Ralph answered: “Take a good look at me. What do you think Gordon Ramsay’s going to say?” For fans of the show, Dewberry needs no introduction. A sensitive, caring, gentle giant of a biscuit baker from Atlanta, Ga., Dewberry was easy to root for but didn’t last long; overwhelmed by the stress, he had a breakdown on the second episode and got fired. On the final episode, Dewberry was brought back as a member of Ralph’s team. Celebrating their accomplishments at the end of the cook-off, Ralph hugged Dewberry and yelled, “You’re my rock of Gibraltar!” Dewberry replied: “I’d rather be Brad Pitt’s wife!” Sensitive to journalistic accuracy, I asked Ralph to confirm this exchange. Ralph said: “Quote unquote.” He added: “When the show was over and we were drinking champagne, I grabbed him by the cheeks and kissed him on the lips.” The two contestants remain good friends today.

Part of what helps the Ganz twins place their recommendations on shows is their talent for prompting people to open up on camera. Everyone gets nervous when film is rolling, but the Ganz twins do their best Barbara Walters routine to make people forget where they are, and encourage them to reveal what makes them vulnerable and interesting. Families applying for Nanny 911, for example, attempted to be on their best behavior in the Twins Talent office, so Debbie and Lisa jacked the children up on candy, put tempting toys and breakable objects around the room, and squeezed the entire family onto an undersized couch during the interview. Before long, the family’s real behavior was exposed for the camera.

Most people who vie for reality TV spots are looking for their 15 minutes of fame. Some are in it for the money or because they think it will launch their performance careers or businesses. But then there are shows, like The Swan or The Biggest Loser, that are in the business of changing something essential about people’s lives. When ABC’s Extreme Makeover and The Swan premiered, reality programming seemed to be reaching new extremes of bad taste. How could such people expose their vulnerabilities so publicly? When the sister of a recent Extreme Makeover hopeful committed suicide, the family attributed it to bad feelings stemming from the show. “The hardest casting I’ve ever done was The Swan,” Lisa says, “because I have never ever heard so many horrible stories in my entire life.” But those applicants desperately wanted to be on TV, which they saw as offering them their best chance at a better life. Similarly, the idea of participating on The Biggest Loser may seem humiliating to some, but it’s the top-rated reality TV show because it’s inspirational to many others. Lisa was amazed by the dedication of the people she interviewed: “Not one person when I put them on camera asked about money, how much they’d be paid a week, how long they’d have to take off from work. They did on every other show. It’s like it’s their last resort.”

“We change people’s lives with these shows,” Debbie says. “Even people who don’t make it on say thank you.” Five years after the launch of Survivor, which kick-started the current reality-TV boom, the genre shows no signs of losing steam. Indeed, the virus-like proliferation of new shows and new incarnations guarantees that at least a few will succeed and continue to breed more offspring. As Lisa says, “Not every show is for everybody. But that’s the way the world works.”

In other words, you may dismiss, ignore, or hate reality television, but its producers are relentless. Eventually they may find a show that appeals to you, and who knows? You may even want to apply. But don’t be surprised if some day, while you’re shopping at Target, working out at the gym, or jogging in Central Park, a pair of twins finds you first.