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Unreal world

Reality producers in Chicago and beyond go niche as oddball shows steal the spotlight

March 06, 2012|By Tracy Swartz, RedEye

When Kesha Davis of University Park applied to be on"My Strange Addiction"two years ago, she didn't play up her personality or start a fight on camera.

She didn't dress in outlandish clothes or give herself a nickname like Snooki, JWoww or Ke$ha.

All she did was email producers a brief description of her addiction.

"I told them I was interested in doing the show because my addiction was eating toilet paper," said Davis, 35, who used to knock back several squares of toilet paper a day as she curled her hair in the bathroom or ran errands in her car.

Davis' addiction alone was enough to land her a spot on the first season of "My Strange Addiction." She said her appearance on the show, which included a therapy session, helped her cut back on toilet paper consumption to a few times a week.

Because she wasn't seeking fame, Davis may seem like a nontraditional reality star—but she's not. Reality shows are increasingly targeting niche hobbies, occupations and quirks—from buying storage lockers to hoarding to losing excessive weight to dating mobsters.

It's not enough to be a "housewife" to land on "Real Housewives" or a "coupon clipper" to get on"Extreme Couponing."Reality show producers with Chicago ties told RedEye they're constantly on the lookout for unusual talent and characters, and there's no limit to the oddball behavior they're willing to showcase on TV.

"You never know where the next great idea is going to come from," said Darryl Silver, executive producer and president of The Idea Factory, an L.A.-based production company.

Silver said his ideas typically come from researching trends and receiving pitches. He produced the show "Bound for Glory," about a losing Pennsylvania high school football team that gets assistance from former Bears linebacker Dick Butkus, for ESPN in 2005. He said he got that idea while reading an article about the team's woes.

For his 2010 show "Half Pint Brawlers," about little people who wrestle using staple guns and barbed wire, Silver said his thought process evolved after coming across the brawlers.

"If I find the right characters doing an interesting thing, the show kind of comes together," said Silver, a Northern Illinois University grad.

On his website, tiftv.com, Silver has a place where people can pitch him ideas for reality shows. The typical pitch he hears? Versions of "Extreme Makeover," where houses or lives undergo renovation. He said he's found that charitable, feel-good shows don't really work.

The typical pitch he doesn't want to hear? Anything that's a cross between two shows.

"I always cringe when I hear it's a 'cross between,'" Silver said. "I'm really looking for things out of the box."

Jason Bolicki, 30, knows out-of-the-box. He's the director of development for 20 West, a TV production company based on the Near North Side that casts and produces "My Strange Addiction," which is currently airing its third season on TLC.

This season showcases a guy who dates his car and a woman who boasts size 38KKK breasts, among others. Each hourlong episode features two people, their addictions and intervention by family members and doctors.

Bolicki, of Lakeview, said he feels pressure each season to one-up the previous season's cast in terms of the peculiarity of their addictions. Past cast members have, for example, slept with a blow dryer or harbored a thumb-sucking habit.

Potential cast members typically pitch their addictions to Bolicki via email. Odd food quirks—such as drinking nail polish and eating wood—are the norm.

Colette Ruscheinsky Robinson, 26, screens potential cast members via webcam. She watches the addictions unfold live over the computer—painstakingly watching a woman eat cat treat after cat treat, for example—and decides whether the person is right for the show.

"If they have a great story, our show can benefit them," said Robinson, of Grayslake.

Jonathan Tanzman also is looking for great stories. The Columbia College grad cast for shows such as "Focus Rally: America," a cross-country auto race broadcast on Hulu, and "America's Worst Driver" on the Travel Channel. He recently was in Chicago seeking people who visit flea markets and barter and trade.

"Basically, from the minute they walk in, I'm trying to see what's their story. I'm looking for confidence, something that makes them stand out against the competition," Tanzman said. "We want people who are really passionate about the show."

tswartz@tribune.com | @tracyswartz

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