Made for TV: Neighbors talk about life under the reality television lens

Neighborhood residents dish about their 15 minutes of reality TV fame

Running the gamut from voyeuristic trash to societal edification, reality TV shows have amassed over the past 15 years like old newspapers on an episode of “Hoarders.” The grand paradox of the so-called “reality” genre is its supremely contrived, controlled and cut-up content, which — while necessary for palatable programming — deprives us of those stories beneath the surface. We tracked down East Dallas people who have spent time on reality TV show sets. They share candidly about their experiences, what they learned and life after the cameras shut off.


Sharkbait

Gina Controneo: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Gina Controneo: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

They say you can’t buy happiness, but East Dallas neighbor Gina Cotroneo wasn’t going to let that stop her from trying to sell it, or from going on the reality TV show “Shark Tank” to seek financial backing for her mission.

In 2000, Cotroneo founded Soul’s Calling, a line of accessories adorned with inspirational messages. It’s her passion project aimed at spreading joy and goodwill the same way her personal story once incited anguish and anger.

In the cover of darkness in the quiet of her own home, Cotroneo was raped in 1997. She wisely preserved the DNA evidence her attacker left behind, which led investigators to radio personality Gary “Babyfase” Faison, who has also been linked to five other rapes. Because of the horrific nature of the crime, the story quickly made the rounds through local and national media outlets. Cotroneo refused to be silent about the attack, and even went on “Oprah” to share her story.

Over the years she saw firsthand how much impact one person could have on the lives of others. Not only did the attack affect her, but it also resonated with her family, her friends and thousands of strangers who heard her story.

“It’s kind of like a ripple,” she explains. “This person had done something negative, and it affected everyone around me. So I thought there had to be a way to do that with something positive.”

That’s when she decided to create Soul’s Calling to “even the score,” she says. She poured her heart, time and money into the business, which she operated alongside her full-time job in advertising.

Each of the products — brightly colored umbrellas, friendship bracelets and flip-flops with carved soles that leave words in the sand — was embolded with a message of positivity. Cotroneo also ensured that each item contained her own extra sprinkle of love as well.

“I hugged every package before it went out,” she says, “and I wrote letters to anyone who was manufacturing stuff for me in order to let them know what my objective was.”

Cotroneo’s idea was unique and innovative, and her products were well received across the nation.

“It was brutal. It definitely isn’t ‘Happy Dolphin Tank.’”
“People really loved the products,” she explains. “But I didn’t have a partner. I was trying to do everything myself, and nobody can do everything. I was really good at the design and the marketing, since that’s what I do for a living, but not so good at running a business.”

After several years of peddling good vibes, Cotroneo was falling deeper and deeper into debt. Every time she thought about shutting the business down, another opportunity would drop in her lap, giving her hope to make one last ditch effort. In 2009 that opportunity was the chance to pitch her business on ABC’s hit reality TV show, “Shark Tank,” which offers entrepreneurs the chance to seek funding from billionaires, including Dallas resident Mark Cuban, to grow their brands.

“’Shark Tank’ actually found me,” Cotroneo says. “They really liked the human angle of my personal story. It was the first season of the show. I didn’t really think they would give me money, but I thought I could get a lot of publicity from it.”

She made an audition video, hired a lawyer to look over all the legal documents and started scrambling to put together a solid business plan.

“I was so freaked out,” she remembers. “I didn’t really have a business plan, so I was desperately trying to get help with that before the show because I’m an art person, so I was afraid I was going to get called on my numbers and feel like a total idiot and have them rip me apart.”

Before she knew it, she was on a plane to Los Angeles. Although she is very comfortable being in front of a camera, she still had to brace herself for what she anticipated would be a grueling interview process — and she was right.

The interview was about 20 minutes long, although only about three minutes made it on the show.

“It was brutal,” she recalls. “It definitely isn’t ‘Happy Dolphin Tank.’ What you see on air was edited together very kindly. Since I’m a rape survivor, I think they probably felt like they couldn’t really put some of the harsher stuff in there. They were not kind.”

Barbara Corcoran called her an evangelist who has no business selling products, adding that because Cotroneo didn’t want to work with manufacturers, she should just stand on a street corner with her philosophy.

“She was kind of right in a way,” Cotroneo says. “Dealing with manufacturers was the part I didn’t like.”

In an ironic twist, Kevin O’Leary, who Cotroneo calls “the mean guy,” complimented her during the show for knowing her numbers.

In the end, none of the sharks chose to invest in Soul’s Calling and Cotroneo came back to East Dallas empty-handed.

The show generated some limited interest in the business, but not long after it aired she finally decided to call it quits on Soul’s Calling.

“I just thought, ‘I can’t keep going with this,’” she explains. “It left me with some large loans that I’m still not done paying off.”

But Cotroneo still refuses to let negativity cloud her thinking.

“The lesson, looking back, is that I should have set myself an exit strategy,” she says.

“I’m so not sorry I did it. The amount I was able to accomplish on my own with a full-time job, it was really good. A lot of people were helped and continue to be helped just by hearing the story.”

After the show aired, she received a stack of letters and emails from supporters who loved the product and were inspired by her story, and that support hasn’t stopped.

“People still email or call me about it every time that episode of ‘Shark Tank’ comes back on,” she says.


Wheeling and dealing

Jason Cohen: Photo by Danny F'ulgencio
Jason Cohen: Photo by Danny F’ulgencio

With its seemingly endless twists and turns of walls packed to the ceiling with everything imaginable, at first glance, you might think Jason Cohen’s East Dallas shop, Curiosities, was the backdrop of an episode of “Hoarders.” But upon further inspection, you’ll find a collection of carefully curated antiques with checkered back stories — the same hidden treasures that draw ratings on hit shows like “Storage Wars,” “American Pickers” and “Pawn Stars.”

“We were really looking to open something that weeded out all of the nanny antiques and crafts,” Cohen says, adding that one of his favorite finds was a set of antique glass eyes. “I like things with a story, with some mojo.”

It’s that unique eye, that taste for the unusual, that has repeatedly put Cohen under the lens on a slew of reality shows that capitalize on treasure hunters – although he’s quick to say “reality” is a generous description.

His time in the spotlight began when A&E prepared to launch “Storage Wars Texas” in 2010, a show that follows buyers who hope to hit pay dirt digging through the items surrendered to auction from unpaid storage lockers. Cohen, who at times has stocked his 9-year-old shop from storage auctions, was briefly considered as a cast member on the show’s first season.

“I know I shot a couple of screen tests,” he says.

Ultimately, he wasn’t selected a series regular, but he was invited to be an appraiser (after the cast members “find” treasure in their lockers, they take it to an expert for appraisal). The show sent him some photos of antique whiskey decanters, giving him time to research the items before filming.

The crew along with cast-mates Ricky Smith and Bubba Smith arrived bright and early, and Cohen says there was no make-up or prep before cameras began rolling, but that’s pretty much where the “reality” ended. Script supervisors coached him on how to speak, leaving long pauses at prime moments to allow for commercial breaks. Producers balked at his first appraisal, claiming it was too low.

“They had seen some (whiskey decanters) sell online for a ton of money,” Cohen says. “It’s a better show if they find something valuable.”

So he reshot the scene, this time stating the producer’s preferred price, although he made sure to add that he would never buy them. Despite that, he got a deluge of calls from all over the country from collectors who thought he’d pay big bucks for their vintage liquor bottles.

That appearance led to another appraisal gig on the short-lived “Flea Market Man.” He and his mother, Terry, were even considered for their own “Pawn Stars” inspired television show where sellers would bring them oddities to consider buying, which never came to fruition. He also shot an episode of a game show that seemingly never aired, where contestants compete in their knowledge of antiques and antiquities.

“I actually won that one, I made like $1,000. That was the only money I ever made from doing these [reality shows],” he says. “There were some other shows we shot for too, but I can’t remember the name.

I think I ended up on some sort of list, they just keep calling.”

Cohen, who says he never specifically sought out the attention, freely admits it’s been a lucrative national plug.

“I’ll always do it for the free publicity,” he says, adding that every time a rerun airs, he sees an uptick in business.

What’s more, the pervasive popularity of such shows has launched a new generation of treasure hunters. While Cohen used to have to travel the country looking for the right mix of oddities to stock his shop, now sellers regularly seek him out.

“When we first started we didn’t have very much of that,” he says. “Now, I have a lot more people coming in with stuff they found in storage units.”

But, he contends, “reality” is a misnomer on these shows. “They call it reality but it’s so scripted, it’s not real at all,” he mutters.

– Emily Charrier


Powerful in pink

Chef Blythe Beck: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Chef Blythe Beck: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Chef Blythe Beck has everything she needs to be a television star: the talent, the personality, the unrelenting determination and the voice.

Just add a dash of pink and a few too many curse words, and poof; you have “The Naughty Kitchen with Blythe Beck.”

These days Beck has her work cut out for her opening Pink Magnolia, a Southern-inspired restaurant in Oak Cliff. But before she flew south, she lived in East Dallas and worked at Central 214, where “The Naughty Kitchen” was filmed.

“I paid lots of money in rent at the bars over there,” she quips in her distinctive, gravelly voice.

“The Naughty Kitchen,” which aired on Oxygen in 2009, is all about Beck because that’s the way she wanted it, and she usually gets what she wants.

Even as a little girl Beck wanted to be on TV, she says. Oddly enough, the talent that got her there — cooking — wasn’t even on the menu at the time.

In college she was “The queen of takeout,” she says. On one of her trips to pick up a to-go order, Beck landed a job as a hostess because the general manager of the restaurant liked her voice, Beck recalls. It wasn’t long before she begged to be given a place in the kitchen, working expo (the person who coordinates the magic that happens between the wait staff and the cooks).

“It was sweaty and dirty and gross,” she says. “I was like, ‘I’m home.’ I went home and told my parents, ‘Mom and dad, I know what I want to be. I want to be in the restaurant business.’ It took the entire Christmas break to finally convince them.”

She moved to Texas to attend the University of North Texas to major in hotel and restaurant management with a minor in business. In the first class she took something clicked, she says.

“I thought it was like a spiritual moment,” she laughs. “There were all these raw ingredients and I put my stink all over them, and all of the sudden I made a biscuit.”

She set her sights on becoming a chef and working for Dean Fearing at The Mansion. The problem was, as her college guidance counselor pointed out, no one from UNT had ever worked for Fearing before.

Beck wasn’t deterred, and as it turned out she didn’t need to be because soon enough she was Fearing’s apprentice.

It was her first big break.

“I got paid $6.50 an hour, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “I was the only female, and I wasn’t allowed in the big kitchen. There was a prep area that smelled like dead fish and shame. I killed more lobsters than I even care to remember. But once I got past the sexual harassment and the regular harassment, they were like, ‘Oh she’s not leaving.’ I stayed and stayed and stayed.”

And she worked her way up the ranks, too. Eventually holding the position directly under the sous chef.

From there she went to Hector’s on Henderson to work as the sous chef. “I told the chef, ‘Sleep with one eye open because I’m taking your job,’” Beck says. “And he laughed, but within a year I had it.”

While Beck was working at Hector’s, Bravo’s “Top Chef” came calling, but Beck wasn’t interested.

It’s not that she wasn’t interested in being on TV; she just wasn’t interested in being on “Top Chef” because she anticipated they would try to set her up against her friends who were competing on the show, Casey Thompson and Tre Wilcox.

“That’s my dream.
I want to put something pink and positive on TV.”
“Something didn’t feel right,” she says. Not long after, she began shooting a “sizzle reel” to pitch her own show.

“Getting a show on television is so hard,” she says. “So hard. You go in and pitch to everyone — Bravo, Lifetime, TLC and Oxygen, which is where I wanted to go because Oprah owned it. Well then Oxygen was sold to NBC, so I couldn’t pitch with them.”

She came back to Dallas, and Central 214 reached out. At first she didn’t want to go back to working in a hotel, but she was convinced to change her mind.

“I thought, ‘Oh, I could see this place pink,’” she recalls, so she took the job. “Then three weeks later we sold the show,” she says — and to none other than Oxygen.

Within a week, Oxygen’s camera crews had descended on Central 214, adding to an already hectic time.

“I’d work all day as the chef of 214, and I was doing crazy press at that time because I had just been named the executive chef of Central 214,” she says, “and I was doing press for the show and shooting the show. Then we’d shoot b-roll. I was working like 20-22 hour days. It was nuts.”

The cameras loved her. If you’ve seen “The Naughty Kitchen” and wondered if Beck is acting out for the sake of the show, Beck is the first to tell you: “No, that’s all me.”

Not to mention she’s too complex to be a female character on American television. She’s both larger than life and grounded and somewhat self-deprecating. She bold, outspoken and she cusses like a sailor, but she’s also an advocate for empowering women. Women shouldn’t have to be catty and mean-spirited to be on TV, she says.

One season of “The Naughty Kitchen” was enough for Beck. However, a lot of other opportunities grew out of that. She started doing things with Food Network, the Paula Dean Network and others, and she’s hoping for even more opportunities.

“I want to be back on TV,” she says.

“I love it. I have a dream for a big, pink bus tour where we go through America and tell people’s stories through their food. That’s my dream. I want to put something pink and positive on TV. I want to focus on stuff that makes us feel good — especially women. I think women feel bad about themselves a lot of the time, and it’s like, ‘Why? We’re badass.’ ”


Cooking with attitude

John Tesar: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
John Tesar: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

John Tesar earned the title as “The Most Hated Chef in Dallas” in a 2011 D Magazine piece, which cited rumors of the fiery tantrums he threw while working at The Rosewood Mansion. More recently, the chef has been engaged in a very public dispute with Leslie Brenner of The Dallas Morning News. Their feud culminated July 17 of last year, when Tesar Tweeted, “@lesbren [expletive] you! Your reviews are misleading poorly written,self serving and you have destroyed the star system and you really suck‬ [sic].” He was unhappy with her write-up of his East Dallas steak house, Knife. To this day he harbors a degree of resentment.

“I don’t think all her motivations are evil or unethical,” he says. “But, in acts of desperation, she’s gone to the dark side from time to time…Leslie seems to be the only one who doesn’t get John Tesar.”

Tesar’s unapologetic bluntness makes for great reality TV. He’s a regular on a myriad of Food Network shows and was a contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” The latter gig was difficult to come by. Tesar tried out for the show several times, but kept getting rejected.

“I’m glad people have paid attention to my shortcomings and watched me overcome them.”
“I auditioned for season one, but they considered me to be too qualified at that time,” he says. “As the seasons went by, they decided they needed more talent, better chefs.”

He eventually secured a spot on season 10, which was filmed in Seattle. Tesar found the setting invigorating. Being near Puget Sound inspired him to open a seafood restaurant in our neighborhood upon his return. Spoon closed late last year, but it had a good run, earning positive reviews from a slew of media outlets and a nod from the James Beard Foundation. Tesar still considers the restaurant one of his greatest achievements as a chef.

“I’d love to reopen Spoon, but I’m worried whether Dallas would support it seven days of week, because it didn’t in Preston Center,” he says. “Seafood is still not mainstream here. That’s something we’re going to have to wait for.”

These days Tesar spends time with his wife and their son. He plans to open an Italian restaurant on Turtle Creek in the next few months and is “putting together a team to push John Tesar forward, not only as a chef, but as a brand.” He remains largely unshaken by the gossip surrounding his life. No matter how loud the chatter gets, he refuses to stop being himself.

“I’ve had my own issues with growth,” he admits. “I’m glad people have paid attention to my shortcomings and watched me overcome them.”

— Elizabeth Barbee


Video: Behind the scenes at the Advocate’s cover photos shoot

 


Carwashes and caskets

Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Lanese Barnett, the marketing director for Tommy’s Terrific Carwash in Dallas, could hardly believe what she was hearing.

It was March 2013, when Barnett received a call from a representative of the television network TLC — the same folks who brought us “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” “Toddlers in Tiaras” and “My Strange Addiction” — who wanted to inquire about filming an episode of one of the network’s shows at Tommy’s Ross location in East Dallas.

But that wasn’t the part Barnett was having a hard time wrapping her brain around.

The show was “Best Funeral Ever,” and that was the unbelievable part: TLC wanted to film a funeral at Tommy’s Terrific Carwash.

After Barnett got off the phone, she consulted her boss Tom Miller, founder and owner of the company. Was this something they wanted to do? Because despite popular belief, Barnett and Miller weren’t entirely sure all publicity is good publicity — particularly when it involves the sacred ceremony of ushering someone into the afterlife.

“Best Funeral Ever” focuses on the work of Golden Gate Funeral Home in south Dallas, which has been hosting funerals for 35 years. Although the vast majority of their funerals are traditional ceremonies, about 10 percent of families come to them for a celebration.

This unique type of ceremony, called a “homegoing,” is rooted in African-American Christian tradition to allow friends and family to both celebrate the life of their loved one and send the deceased home.

“It depends on how you celebrate to bring about the grieving process,” says funeral home owner John Beckwith.

“Some funerals are really sad, and some are celebrations. We really enjoy doing the show for the families. For some it’s important to celebrate life, instead of mourning death.”

Some such celebrations get especially elaborate. In one case, the deceased loved breakfast. Not only did they offer a buffet breakfast, but the funeral service workers dressed up as bacon, eggs and pancakes. Another family celebrated someone who loved bowling by pushing the casket down a bowling lane to make one last strike.

When TLC got wind of Golden Gate Funeral Home’s knack for extravagant funerals, they wanted in on the action.

The funeral TLC pitched for Tommy’s Terrific Carwash was for Camon Collins III, who passed away Dec. 30, 2012, at age 31. His prize possession was a 1978 Oldsmobile Omega, meaning he spent a lot of time at carwashes hanging out with his buddies.

After some deliberation Barnett and Miller decided if the family wanted a funeral at the carwash, who were they to stand in the way?

“We ultimately decided that this was something the family had chosen,” Barnett recalls.

Once they agreed, TLC coordinated the rest. Then on a Saturday morning in mid-April, production crewmembers from TLC, funeral service workers from Golden Gate Funeral Home and family and friends of Collins crowded the lot at Tommy’s Terrific Carwash.

Tommy’s Terrific Carwash continued to operate while TLC set up shop. The crew had a casket replicated after Collins’ Oldsmobile, which thankfully the deceased was not actually inside, that they were going to send through the carwash at the end of the service. In preparation, the crew sent a practice casket through the carwash several times to make sure the sensors were timed perfectly.

One moment in particular stood out to Barnett. While the casket was going through the carwash during a practice run, a mail deliveryman walked by and saw what was happening.

“He has his phone in his hand and he stopped and was looking, and I just remember thinking, ‘What could he possibly be thinking?’” Barnett laughs.

But despite the curiosity and doubt, the ceremony went off without a hitch.

A 15-person choir in traditional blue robes sang “At the Carwash,” and a pastor gave a carwash-themed eulogy.

“His ability to take a carwash and make it work as an analogy was mesmerizing,” Barnett remembers.

At the very end, the casket was sent through the carwash tunnel — water, soaps and all. The family seemed happy, and that made everything worth it for Miller.

“I have to admit, this was a request I never expected,” Miller says. “In the end, we were honored to participate.”


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