My Life on TV: A Cautionary Tale

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If I had not recently become aware of hard-to-believe reality TV shows like “Parking Wars” and “Extreme Couponing,” my phone call from a woman named Jeanette who claimed to be the producer of “Ship Happens” might have seemed to be a joke. “Ship Happens,” Jeanette explained, is a new show about the shipping industry, set to premiere this fall.

I thought I knew why she was calling. “So…is this about the fountain?” I asked.

While visiting Austin, Texas, I had fallen in love with a four-foot-high fountain in the shape of Grecian maiden holding an urn. Though it seemed fairly reasonable at $385, I didn’t buy it because it would cost a fortune to get it to Baltimore. The store clerk had suggested I try posting on uship.com, a kind of eBay for shipping, where both professional outfits and people with room in the backseat would vie to bring your stuff to you.

I followed this advice, but there was no vying. I got a single bid for $894, then nothing more, until Jeanette.

On one hand, the call was a stroke of good fortune. I could have my fountain after all. On the other, as I told Jeannette flat out, I didn’t want to be involved in anything that might embarrass me or my family.

“Oh, no,” she assured me. “You would hardly be in it. It’s about shipping.”

The last time someone asked me to be on a reality TV show, I had to fight my whole household to get out of it. The show was “Trading Spouses,” where two completely incompatible families were selected and the mother from each went to live with the other family for 10 days, during which she attempted to reform them according to her diametrically-opposed beliefs. At the end of the ordeal, each family received $50,000, but they had to spend it as outlined in a letter left by the visiting mom.

“You’ll be the atheist family,” the producer told me, and our counterparts would be fundamentalist Christians.

My husband, both my sons and even six-year-old Jane just knew we had to do it. As soon as it aired, we would become America’s most beloved atheists, rich, famous, and sought after, with our own spin-off series. Like the Osbournes!

More likely, I thought, my husband and I would split up (I had already heard one remark too many about “hot Christian moms”), the boys would run away from home and little Jane would be hospitalized after playing with a box-cutter left lying around by the crew. And I sincerely doubted the other mom was going to let them spend the 50K on weed, cars, and the deluxe edition of the My Little Pony Stable.

Anyway, I knew from experience that whatever happens when you are on TV, the chances that you’ll feel good about it are slim. To get high ratings, television requires conflict, embarrassment, heartbreak, and scandal, and that, my friend, is why they invited you.

*

I lost my TV virginity on “The Today Show,” which I visited to promote my first collection of essays, Telling. In preparing me for the show, the producers explained that Katie Couric would not have time to read the book. She would ask questions from a list we’d go over in advance. That sounded fine. I would memorize my answers and I’d be all set.

“The only thing is, if she does read the book, she’ll nuke the script and just ask whatever she wants,” the producer warned.

Unfortunately, that is just what happened: She read the book, nuked the script, and what she was dying to talk about, she said as she whisked me from the green room to the set, was –HEROIN!

I was stunned. Dope was mentioned briefly in just one of the 30 essays in the book, it was nowhere in the list of questions I’d memorized the answers to, and as naive as it seems now,  it had never occurred to me that I could end up having to talk about it on live national television at nine in the morning.

And so the camera found us: Katie, radiant, smiling, eight months pregnant; me, with an expression on my face that made deer in headlights look like they were relaxing by the pool. She introduced me, said she liked the book, and mentioned some of the topics it touched on– having babies, snow days, childhood summer jobs. She identified with a lot of it, she said warmly, but … “Tell us, Marion, how did a nice girl like you end up doing heroin?”

I gulped and started mumbling about the 70s and 80s being a very different time, a time of experimentation, and um, well, a lot of people, well… “You didn’t do it, did you, Katie?” I finally blurted.

Katie’s eyes popped. No, she told America firmly. She did not!

Shortly after, I was on “Politically Incorrect.” Now this was exciting. I was with Martin Short, Jimmy Breslin, and Caleb Carr, the author of The Alienist. But during the pre-show chitchat, I began to see the problem. Short was funnier than me, Breslin more of a character, Carr both smarter and cuter. Why was I there?

I finally figured it out. I was The Girl. I had rarely been The Girl before, but easily fell into the role. I crossed and uncrossed my legs, laughed hysterically at their jokes, reacted with vivid facial expressions to every remark. In the final edit, I don’t offer a single witty comment about Whitewater or the new ban on smoking in public places, but every time someone else says something funny, there’s an immediate cut to me, rolling my eyes, slapping my knee, doubling over with hilarity.

Soon after that I was on a show called “Bertice Berry,” then known as the “Baby Oprah.” The topic of the show was family secrets; I was supposed to be one of the experts–maybe because my book was called Telling. I could see no other reason. This thing was truly a circus.

The main guests were Katherine Anne Powers, who had driven an SDS getaway car when she was barely out of her teens and been on the FBI Most Wanted List for 16 years. She had just come out of hiding to turn herself in. Joining her on stage were the members of a deeply inbred Southern family in which the sister was actually the mother and brothers were the fathers. Some were just finding this out for the first time.

The other expert was a pompous psychologist who tried to hit on me throughout the taping by whispering insights into my ear–“The death of the family is the resurrection of the individual, don’t you think?”–then boldly slipped his business card into the pocket of my silk blouse. My opinion on family secrets was not consulted until the very end of the show, when I was introduced as someone who had done drugs, had an abortion and wrote a book about it. (By now I understood that this was what my book was actually about.) People seemed interested but before I could speak, the credits rolled.

Still, I didn’t know how low it could go. I had yet to meet the mother of all Oprahs, Oprah herself, which happened after my next book, a memoir of my marriage to a man who died of AIDS. The day I was on her show, Oprah had a cold and was in a bad, bad mood. “Where’s my tea?!” she shouted at her minions. They scurried to find it. Shit, I thought. Could this be the tea I had drunk in the booth where I recorded the awful voiceover to my photo montage?

Yes, it was.

From the moment I saw the yammering throng of guests in the green room, I suspected things would go awry. There was a frightening woman from Montreal who looked like Elvira, black hair, red nails, spandex shirt, dragging behind her a petite, bald partner.  “He’s bisexual!” she explained brightly. There was a young military couple from Florida–he had cheated on her with a man one night, then infected both her and their unborn daughter with HIV.  There was a teenage girl who had made a documentary about her dad dying of AIDS. And there were many more. The audience, it seemed, would be composed of runner-up guests, to be called upon if the stories of the main guests failed to fill up the hour.

I had been told this was going to be a show about my memoir, First Comes Love. If I had any lingering hopes in this regard, they were quashed when I heard Oprah’s intro to the program. “TODAY WE MEET WOMEN WHO HAVE HAD THE EXPERIENCE EVERYONE DREADS, WHEN THEY HEAR THEIR HUSBANDS SAY THESE THREE WORDS: HONEY, I’M GAY!”

Most of the women on the show had discovered late in life that their husbands, clergymen and lawnmower salesmen, were into guys. Not me! As Oprah told the audience when she introduced me and my book (which she had clearly never seen before), we would now hear about “the strange life of a woman who actually WANTED to marry a gay man.”

“Why did you want to marry a gay man?” she asked with concern. “Did you ever have sex? Did your husband need to be really drunk to make love to you?”

“What?!?” I stammered in horror. (Once again: not on the approved list of topics.)

She repeated the question, and I thought briefly of hitting her.

Our one moment of “connection” occurred off-camera, when she took a close look at my periwinkle silk shantung Isaac Mizrahi blouse. Her face lit up and she asked me several enthusiastic questions about it.

This show was so boring and lifeless it aired about two years later and, as far as I know, never sold a single book. In fact, the only time I sold any books from a TV appearance was when I was on “The Today Show” a second time, for Rules for the Unruly, and Katie made a comment about the buffness of my arms. This was the highlight of my life, probably, and drove my book up to #51 in the Amazon rankings. It plummeted back to #1,098,394 when consumers learned that it did not contain my buff-arm secrets.

In any case, you can see why I was a little paranoid about “Ship Happens.” Could it really be about…shipping? What was the plot? According to an article in Variety, the series featured “the independent trucking biz and the strange cargo (goats, houses, airplanes) that indie shippers find themselves saddled with.” The article also noted that “Ship Happens” was a working title. Whew.

When I met my own “indie shipper” things began to make a little more sense. One evening, a lovely young woman with false eyelashes and a Victoria’s Secret figure clothed in a form-fitting turtleneck and jeans knocked on my door. “Howdy, ma’am,” she said sweetly. “Ah’m the Texas Cowgirl and Ah brung your shipment.”

Sure enough, a giant semi was parked in the street. With the Cowgirl were a cameraman, a director, and a production assistant, but they all stood aside as she and I dragged the heavy statue into the house.  Then I interviewed her, and found out that my fountain had traveled with a live camel, a grand piano, a guy who shipped himself, and a historic church bell. The Cowgirl herself had only recently become a trucker, when she tired of working indoors and started itchin’ for the open road. She had driven a horse truck as a young girl on the ranch, she said.

At one point, the producer mentioned that some of the “Ship Happens” staff were fans of my writing. Though I was happy to hear this, I sure as hell didn’t want to end up talking about my drug-laced literary productions, so changed the subject quickly. My goal was to get through the experience without saying or doing anything that would ruin my life, and I am still a little worried about that camera shooting from below us as I carried my end of the statue up the steps in my red sundress.

Tune in this fall.

Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.

Marion Winik

Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik writes Bohemian Rhapsody on the first Wednesday of the month. She is the author of "First Comes Love," and, forthcoming in fall 2018, "The Baltimore Book of the Dead." She is the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her monthly email at marionwinik.com.
Marion Winik


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16 COMMENTS

  1. Lying in bed laughing. Just imagining you asking Katie Couric if she ever did heroin… This column is so wonderful. You make every writer proud of their craft. Thank you

  2. Just wanted you to know Marion how much I love and admire you, and that I never watch another Opra show again, since the day she humiliated you on National TV. Only people that know you and Tony can truley understand.

  3. What a circuitous story you weave, Marion! As you know, I’ve devoured all your books. I feel sorry for all those people who haven’t read them because of incredibly lame interviews and timing! Having said that, you DO get around! Each of those is a happy hour story in itself!

  4. Hilarious, Marion! One of your best!

    My favorite part was the bit about the buff arms. Coming from Katie, who herself has buff arms, that was quite a compliment!

    Can’t wait to tune in this fall.

  5. enjoy reading your true life stories what channel is ship happens going to be on? I dont watch reality tv but I will make an exception this time! What I have been waiting for forever is for
    First Comes Love to be made into a movie I think it would make a great movie!!

  6. Oh, how I wish you *had* done “Trading Spouses.” That would have been amazing. Thanks for another great column. I can always count on you to make me smile.

  7. Oh, Oprah. What. an. idiot. But what an incredibly funny story it makes, particularly your confiding in us now that you “thought briefly of hitting her.” WISH YOU WOULD’VE. Love you, love your column!

  8. Ever since I first read your columns in the Austin Chronicle I’ve been a fan. You’ve lived such a brave, adventurous life and been doubly brave to write all about it. I was sad when you left Austin – our “cool” quotient went way down. Recently, I was wondering what had happened to you in the intervening years, googled your name and found this website. I was imagining you happily married, settled down into domesticity, etc. etc. I should have known better. As usual you’ve survived emotional upheavals that would destroy the average person. Good luck with your new life in Baltimore. You are an inspiration to me and women everwhere.

  9. I rarely laugh this hard as I read. I’m always impressed at how well you seem to know, in very generic terms, men and women… the differences, the codes, fundamentals… bottom line absurdities. You know humans, deeply. Your writing is captivating, Marion. I love it.

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