Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Fateful Relationship towards the Final Solution: "Mein Uncle" Debuts on the NYC Stage

While much is known about Adolf Hitler, the same cannot be said for "Uncle Alf." A new play coming to the Manhattan stage may change that as the questionable relationship between Geli Raubal and her uncle - Der future Führer- is explored. This "absurdist fairytale," Mein Uncle, was written and directed by my talented younger sister Aliza Shane (http://www.3vtheatre.com/Welcome/3v-theatre/company/). While family members and I are fascinated that she decided to take on the demagogue, Aliza sets us straight. This is not a play about Hitler!
"I stumbled upon this subject while watching the History Channel," she explains, "I was fascinated to learn about this woman whose name I had never even heard. When I started to research the relationship and found out how influential she may have been to history, I felt I had to know more. I became fascinated with Geli's story; how her life, and her death, affected this man, and changed his life, ultimately, for the worse."
Aliza makes reference to the "seeds of inhumanity." It is entirely possible that part of what made Hitler who he was is rooted in this bizarre relationship. His beautiful half niece (Yes, half. Technically it was not as incestuous as it sounds since Geli was the daughter of Hitler's half-sister) lived in his quarters before mysteriously meeting her demise at age 23. The death was ruled a suicide, but the largely controlled gossip rags of the time lacked the modern unrestrained chutzpah of Us Weekly, and kowtowed to pressures of propaganda. How Geli actually died remains a subject of historical debate with no one disputing the reported bullet hole in her chest and Hitler's gun by her side.
In Mein Uncle, Geli is portrayed as a prisoner of Uncle Alf's obsessive love. We see her on stage in a human-sized bird cage. Her uncle keeps her shut out from the rest of the world, in a room that he guards from guests, including his assistant Emile, who finds the room with Geli and is smitten. Emile appears to be Geli's hope for a chance at freedom, but we know that this niece is doomed from the outset. There are also "spirits" that inhabit the house by the names of Eva and Erna who egg Geli along mockingly with her fantasies, seem to be flirting with Uncle Alf and competing for his attentions, while encouraging Geli's dreams of escape. Eva and Erna may appear threatened by Geli's relationship with Alf, but they simultaneously acknowledge his cruelty. The audience may imagine them as the tug of war in Geli's mind, the inexplicable internal conflict between loving a powerful man and hating him at once. At a rehearsal for the show, I saw Eva and Erna as the skirmish of young Geli's conscience as she struggles to adore her uncle... who is also her abuser.
Aliza relates that there is no mention of "Hitler," the Nazis, the Jews or Germany in the production. "It is not a period piece," she says, "Rather, it is reminiscent of the period. I personally termed it an 'absurdist fairytale' to be able to examine the relationship without having to be true to the facts of history. I am only using the facts that serve the story. The play is about a man who is on his way to becoming a monster. It's a look at a relationship that may have been the last straw in a life already set on a path of destruction."
A production of 3 Voices Theatre, Mein Uncle will play Thursday, May 29 through Sunday, June, 8, at The Robert Moss Theater, located at 440 Lafayette Street, 3rd Floor in New York. The show features Amanda Marikar (At War: American Playwrights Respond to Iraq) as Geli, Eric Percival (My Purple Wig, A Snowfall in Berlin) as Uncle Alf, Jordan Tierney as Emil, Judy Molner as Angela, and Emilie Bienne, Ashley Lovell, Rachel Pfennigwerth and Jennifer Lynn Tune as Eva and Erna. See http://www.3vtheatre.com/Welcome/productions/mein-uncle/ for tickets and more information.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


I will begin by saying: My sister told me not to write this article. She warned that a piece about being called "unfiltered" would be considered passive aggressive, giving credence to all those who inspired this post in the first place. However, in the past few weeks I have internalized that being called "unfiltered" is not always an insult. I have come to discover that in the realms of theater, television, book writing and other creative pursuits, "unfiltered" is owned by the recipients of the title (i.e. Lena Dunham from Girls, comedian Billy Eichner of Billy on the Street fame, Joan Rivers, Howard Stern...) and for many, it is celebrated rather than something to defend oneself against. Comedians and show hosts have made grand careers out of being unfiltered. Of course there are unfiltered folks that we love to hate (Sarah Palin springs to mind though that's going back and if you want to venture even further into the past, Dan Quayle), Then there are those we love, like Wendy Williams, the talk show host who says it like it is. Very often the lines are blurred, like when Kandi Buress from The Real Housewives of Atlanta and Evelyn Lozada of Basketball Wives took offense to comments Wendy made about them. So many celebrities love Wendy for "keeping it real," but when they find themselves subjects on Hot Topics, they bite back and say Wendy went too far.

A few months ago, one of the meddlesome mommies on the playground told another - we'll call her "Meek Mommy" - "I'll tell you a great story about something really awful, but you mustn't tell Shira, she's unfiltered." I think by "unfiltered" she was implying that I would share her really awful story (No, it's too awful, I will NOT give you details!"), but gossiping about someone's misfortune is not something I would ever partake in. Meddlesome Mommy was completely mistaken about that, but I will give credence to her depiction of me by telling you the story of her calling me unfiltered. Meek Mommy repeated the story back to me and I was beyond horrified and sad for the poor mom who unknowingly was the victim of loose lips. Selfishly though, I spent a moment feeling sorry for her before I moved on to indignation on my own behalf. I was not unfiltered! When asked to keep a secret, it is in the vault. When giving advice, I only opt for the solicited variety and use extreme tact. Unless I am deliberately being vengeful (don't judge, we all have our bitchy moments), I don't say anything hurtful and if I ever offend by sheer accident, I apologize right away, clearing up any misunderstanding. I pride myself on my sensitivity to others, but then again, I write about emotions, fertility challenges, community issues and my rough childhood. So some people, who have read those articles or the status updates that point people to them, have termed me "unfiltered." I wasted precious moments of my life feeling insulted by this word. Then I went online.
What I discovered in a simple search that day was that those who were trending (Brandi Glanville, Donald Trump, Mindy Kaling, Gwyneth Paltrow..) had all been called "unfiltered" at some point or another and had seemed to eat it up. While thoughts on these celebrities are definitively divided, their success (be it with reality TV ratings, book deals, casinos or a popular website you love to hate) could be ascribed to the very attribute I had tried to shun.
We all struggle with the fear of being misinterpreted (including the fear of the comments section below - if there's a phobia for that, I've got it.) and I've spoken to many talented people who will not write for this very reason as well as potential sources who refuse to be quoted in an article. They are worried their quotes will be taken out of context or rewritten and they are so cautious that they often bypass the opportunity to educate the public.
I don't want to miss opportunities and I don't want to keep a good gem to myself (be it a humorous Facebook status update or an incredibly personal article about my childhood that potentially could help parents and educators alike). While I pride myself on being tactful, intuitive, emotionally intelligent and sensitive (continually, these are all areas for major improvement), I may occasionally be unfiltered, which is definitely a "subjective" description. Some people like my candor, my sometimes risque choice of words or discussion topics and some people will gossip in either real or mock horror. I've learned to appreciate the mixed responses. Comedian Katt Williams once stated "Feel free to hate on me!"". If I were to continue to stew, as a I did for an inordinate amount of time, about a silly adjective, I would sit home and do nothing at all. If NO ONE ever called me "unfiltered," I would not be creating.
I should thank the Meddlesome Mommy who inspired this article and no, it's NOT passive aggressive to do so, although it is very plausibly "unfiltered." This mom does not read my articles! She skips right over them for Marlo Thomas, but who wouldn't?!skip over me for Marlo Thomas! And in that vein, let's remember boys and girls – sorry, "fellow mommies" - when the word "unfiltered" comes to mind in the hopes that one will keep a muzzle on it, Marlo was integral in starting the movement: 

We are all "FREE TO BE, YOU AND ME".
Where's her filter?! Lena Dunham will proudly cop to the fact that she's just "Not That Kind of Girl" 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Cutting Off the Noise to Spite the Faith

When I hear stories pertaining to the religious Judaism of my indoctrination, naturally, I prefer to hear the positive. I enjoyed reading about the Connecticut rabbi who found wads of cash in a Craig's List-purchased desk and immediately returned the money. I like tuning in to TV features in which yarmulke- wearers are among those that have in some way inspired courage in cancer victims. I love reading about girls from the local yeshiva day school who donated long braids to Locks of Love. I feel awed and proud to know the orthodox woman in her 60s who gave her kidney to her lifelong friend. I am honored to know the local Lubavitch rabbi who also donated a kidney - to someone he barely knew(!), determined to save the man's life. Many of these great stories have not even been told due to the humble personalities involved. Smaller acts of kindness happen every day, like the women who donate expensive sheitals (wigs) to Lillian Lee, the founder of Do Wonders in Teaneck, NJ. Lee created the non- profit (according to its mission statement) "to lift the spirits of women with cancer by providing them with wigs, free of charge." There are so many wonderful stories, many of which we do not hear about, but which put Orthodox Jews in a positive light. Then there is the topic of Get, Religious Divorce. When it comes to stories on that subject, I don't have that same warm, fuzzy feeling - au contraire. I get riled up. I accept invitations to join Facebook groups demanding immediate change and justice. The outlandish stories connected to religious divorce should not be representative of Judaism.
By now, if you are reading this section of The Huffington Post, you are familiar with recent reports on the above that have been in the media. Hopefully, you have learned that it actually goes against orthodox Judaism for a man to withhold a "Get," the religious document that allows both parties to finalize their divorce through the beit din (religious court). The Get allows both parties to move on and eventually remarry. Due to all the publicity surrounding cases of husbands refusing to grant Gets, the Rabbinical Council of America released the following statement:

"The Rabbinical Council of America strongly condemns the refusal of spouses to participate in the delivery and receipt of a get, the Jewish religious divorce process, when the marriage is functionally over and the relationship between the husband and wife has irreversibly ended. We deem the withholding of a get under such circumstances to be an exploitation of the halachic process and a manifestation of domestic abuse.
The RCA reasserts the vital importance of the use of the halachic prenuptial agreement endorsed by our leading rabbinical mentors and by the Beth Din of America; details available at www.theprenup.org. It has a strong track record of preventing agunot by helping to bring couples to beth din in order to resolve issues concerning the get."
Having grown up in the orthodox Jewish community, I know the value of a "Get" and how a woman becomes an "agunah", a chained woman, when her husband refuses to grant her one. She is like a branch about to blossom chained to the dead oak of her marriage. Yes, it screams "antiquated" that husbands - men! - hold the power. Orthodoxy is new to feminism, but we must give it credit for making strides. Organizations such as ORA (the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot) are on a mission to ensure that the Get issue is peacefully resolved. Unlike that crazy news story that in no way reflects ORA's tactics, where Rabbis were paid to torture recalcitrant husbands, Ora's goal is to ethically ensure that the Get issue is resolved. Says ORA's Rabbi Jeremy Stern: "Our mission is to ensure that a get is issued unconditionally. Divorces are messy businesses, further complicated from a legal perspective, but the refusal to issue a Get is a form of domestic abuse. It is never ever justified: Just as physical battery is never acceptable, this is not acceptable. It is too slippery a slope for someone to say they can take the law into their own hands because they didn't get a fair trial in court." Stern adds that ORA greatly advocates for the signing of a halachik prenup as part of the Ketuba (the official religious marriage license document) to ensure that if the marriage ends, there is zero room for Get refusal.
Some laymen argue that a halachik prenup - despite the fact that halacha literally means law - will not stop a controlling husband who is under the grave misconception that a Get can be used as a bargaining tool, to obtain money or increase custody, and thereby bring shame - to both parties. The concept for the halachik prenup is relatively new to orthodoxy (it has been around for a little over a decade). However, Rabbi Stern asserts: "We've seen it work. It's extremely effective."
Growing up, I learned from my parents (Looking back, I appreciate their wisdom and relative progressiveness as compared to other parents) that there is NEVER a reason to withhold a get. It can never be used for blackmail or as a form of legal manipulation. Ginnine Fried, an attorney who published an article on the beit din in relation to the U.S. court system (http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/ulj/vol31/iss2/8/), is as floored as I am by stories of lawyers who advise clients not to sign Gets, and by those who weave the Get issue into legal conversations. There is a clear separation between church and state in this country. In that same vein, Fried explains, the U.S. court system cannot compel someone to sign a religious document.
My mother was somewhat of a pioneer in the Pre-ORA era, helping to stage a peaceful protest for a friend who was in the midst of a messy divorce. She and a small group of other women let the rabbi of a synagogue know that if he allowed the abusive, Get-refusing husband into the synagogue, the women would move from the women's to the men's section. This was enough to horrify the orthodox pulpit rabbi, and needless to say, my mom and her crew did not have to Mechitza hop (Mechitza refers to the divider between men and women in an orthodox synagogue).
You give the Get, plain and simple. If you are a woman, you don't refuse it. Tales of the latter are less common though apparently not unheard of, but I turn the focus to men in this essay due to recent newsworthy cases. Those who refuse to grant the Get are essentially cutting off their noses to spite their faces. And by that, I mean exactly what is happening to a young man from Staten Island (ironically, the grandson of a respected Rabbi who championed for agunot during his lifetime) who has, according to Rabbi Stern, been "shunned by his community" and whose dynastic relatives were forced to resign from their positions at a prominent religious publishing house. This particular case, according to Rabbi Stern, is dragging along because it is "unabashedly about wanting more money."
In the above case, as well as in the case of a DC congressman's aid, despite demonstrations organized by ORA and the publicity, a Get has been held up for years. In anticipating the comments section below this article, I want to make it clear that the women in these cases are religious. They will not, as you might suggest, just break the Halacha that determines they cannot remarry until a Get is issued. The halachik prenup is a recommended step for the future and it may radically help in preventing future problems, but the current issues have gotten out of hand. These cases have been brought to public attention because they demand a solution. The chained women, victims of domestic abuse due to Get refusal, according to Rabbi Stern, require a solution.
Divorce... It is so commonly dirty any way you slice it:
Ari (who also goes by "Ariel") Schochet, of Teaneck, is a former Wall Street financial exec who was laid off and no longer can keep up with the alimony demands reflecting his former $1M annual salary. He did the right thing years ago by giving his ex her Get without delay, and he fully appreciates that he would have not have the community's support or sympathy had he withheld it. I can't help but feel that because of that, we somehow need to do right by Schochet, who, between prison stays, is advocating for alimony reform. (NJ and Florida are notoriously behind in making strides in this arena. A Bloomberg reporter researched Schochet's situation for months on end to verify the injustice of his particular situation: http://www.businessweek.com/news/2013-08-26/hackensack-jail-is-home-for-husband-as-lifetime-alimony-attacked#p1)

Furthermore, I can't help but feel that the philanthropic among us, as a communal effort, need to band together to help out a guy who did the right thing, the very thing we are begging others to do. Schochet gave the get! Now, how can we help him? I pose the question to Rabbi Stern, asking if there is some way ORA can intervene (Schochet feels that there is little support because he is seen as a "deadbeat," a new kind of conundrum for the orthodox community). Interviewing Schochet, it is clear that he is a man who has been psychologically scarred by repeated imprisonment. At one point, he was even handcuffed in front of his daughter. Rabbi Stern replies that ORA's mission is purely to assist in matters related to Get. However, his heart goes out to Ari Schochet and he says that there are other organizations for him to turn to, one of which is Project Ezrah, a non-profit that did help Schochet for a time period. However, the alimony web proves to be a seemingly endless and convoluted one for the father of four, with high paying jobs increasingly harder to find for a man frequently sporting an ankle bracelet. He is thankful to currently be employed at all - albeit in an entry level position.
"Going on a job interview with the bracelet on, telling a potential employer that you'll be out for court appearances, then on work release from prison a few days here and there ...that's kind of hard to explain!" says Schochet.
Rabbi Stern emphasizes: "Imagine if he hadn't given the get - There would be absolutely no sympathy or support." I agree. Had Schochet not given the get and had he imprisoned his wife in marriage, many would say that he is now getting a taste of his own medicine. We could say that he cut off his nose to spite his face. But in this case, Schochet gave the get. He did the right thing when it came to religious divorce. When reading about manipulative spouses who withhold a document as a form of extortion, one can't help but wonder how to help a brother who did not go this awful route. While the orthodox community and friends of Ariel Schochet share his story via social media, he remains a question mark on our screens. Communal support is such an integral part of orthodox Judaism and on that note, what can we do for Ari Schochet?
If anyone reading has the answer, perhaps we can create good news that Jews like me like to see.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The 'True Man' Show: Is Reality TV Worth the Risk? (for Huffington Post)

I recently wrote about this past summer's fifteenth season of Big Brother, which aired on CBS and garnered more viewership than prior seasons. Part of what brought folks to the television screen was the fact that the season was dubbed "most controversial" and made national headlines for the racist, homophobic and other politically incorrect remarks uttered by contestants. I conducted an interview with Amanda Zuckerman, one of the offending contestants who made racial remarks and other comments of a violent and threatening nature. To numerous viewers, Amanda seemed to have no filter. I gave Amanda the platform to apologize, howe
ver, based on the fact that I had been contacted by #TeamAmanda Twitter cheerleaders and because personally, I enjoyed watching Amanda before controversy struck. However, some were very irate at my interview, saying that I gave Amanda a "pass."
On Twitter, one Big Brother viewer with the Twitter handle @RHeffern" wrote "I wish i could say I enjoyed your AZ article in HP, but it seemed as if she was tossed questions that were so easy for her."
The truth of the matter: Amanda was not just "tossed questions." She was given some tough ones to address in addition to those that were less difficult and when she asked that I not touch a subject, I respected her request because I could hear in our conversation the pain that lingered and the regret for the mistakes she had made (truth be told, I'm not a hard journalist but a blogger with heart). Amanda mentioned that she is a "people pleaser" and after pushing her to answer some grueling questions and realizing that she had already been forced to answer these questions with other interviewers, I gave her the space and the respect. When she asked me to keep something off the record, I kept it off the record. "@RHeffern" was not pleased. "I was so looking forward to a well thought out study into her very unstable psyche. You had the live feeds to back up your ? Sad."
Amanda is not the only reality show contestant to regret the things she said and be shamed by public perception. Amanda owns that she should feel ashamed and that she's determined to atone for it, by moving forward and doing the right things, by involving herself in charitable endeavors and giving back. That said, I do not, by any stretch, condone racist statements. I am of the mindset that we all need to be careful about what we say, whether or not we claim later on to have been joking or not thinking. Taking racism out of the equation for now and focusing on reality TV, here's a question for you, readers: If cameras were focused on you 24-7, through arduous challenges, sleep deficiency and isolation from the outside world, how would you fare?
Bentley Williams from Ashley's season of The Bachelorette, photo c/o www.film.com
Big Brother contestants Aaryn Gries, GinaMarie Zimmerman, Spencer Clawson, Amanda Zuckerman and even winner Andy Herren came under public fire, whether it be for uttering statements or for not taking a stance against them (Andy). But this type of thing hasn't only happened on Big Brother. Remember The Bachelor franchise's contestant Bentley William's (Ashley's season of The Bachelorette)? He made waves for acting one way to Ashley's face and then making less than flattering comments about her to the camera, admitting that essentially he wasn't into her (one clue was when he talked about how he would rather "swim in pee" than marry her). He intrigued viewers (and upped ratings) because he was the "villain" that season...OK, and not bad eye candy.
Good looks aside, Bentley got a lot of criticism, hate tweets and generally, sparked outrage among the Bachelor viewing community. But where was Bentley when it came to press interviews afterwards? We saw articles about him, including one where his ex wife says she used to be his best friend, but now she can't trust him after what he said on television. She even told Radar Online ""He needed to be more careful about how he acted on the show and what he said about Ashley. Now it's haunting him, me and eventually, his daughter. All of us are paying the price." However, Bentley himself didn't sit down to do a wide range of press interviews. I was recently alerted to his rather bland Twitter presence, but other than that, it seems Bentley has stayed out of the public eye.
The recipe for reality casting may in fact consist of who we viewers will 1)love to hate and 2)love to love. As far as anything in between? Boring. If you are a housewife unable to show the cracks in your marriage or the dysfunctional relationship between siblings/friends, Bravo won't be calling. There are some people on TV that I have found to be so outlandish with regard to materialism and self-love and self-promotion, but my friends rave about how they love these subjects. Take Kimora Lee Simmons, Theresa Guidice or Kim Kardashian as examples that very much differ from one another, but inspire a whole host of reactions that can be compared.
I informally polled 100 women about these three women. 98 percent of those polled said that they love Kimora (Russell Simmons' ex who started her own successful fashion empire) for her confidence and strength. 2 percent said they consider her to be a shameless self-promoter, incredibly materialistic and egotistical based on her behavior on her past reality show Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane.
100 percent of those surveyed said they don't watch the Kardashians for Kim at all, but for her sisters, Bruce Jenner and the overall camaraderie among the tight-knit crew (An aside: Today, Kris Jenner announced that she and Bruce are separated). However, when the group was asked about how they feel about Kim alone, a good 75 percent said they "like her." Within that 75 percent, a good 30 percent admitted that they like her for her makeup and fashion and had little to say about her personality.
Theresa Guidice got a 50-50 response, with viewers who watched her from the very first season of The Real Housewives of New Jersey, clinging to the memory of her earliest charms and cutesy behavior with husband Joe (table flipping aside). I was surprised that 50 percent still "love" Theresa given her recent antics and attacks on her sister-in-law's character over the last two seasons. Again, this was only one sampling of women, but the overwhelming response to their final question was telling. All the women polled said they would never consider taking part in a reality show, fearing they might say something regrettable or that editing would put a negative spin on something.
The group consisted of lawyers, doctors, physical therapists, marketing professionals, hospital workers, accountants, musicians, government workers (who are now currently furloughed) and stay at home mothers. Not one woman polled wanted to take part in a reality show, according to what they had written, and is it any wonder? Even for me, writing about a reality show and giving a controversial contestant a platform to apologize, caused me grief. I had to grab a glass of wine (or two) and take a temporary Twitter break after the backlash following my Amanda Zuckerman article. And to think, I wasn't even on the show and I have never appeared on reality television! My mind flashed to Bentley Williams hiding out somewhere and wearing a mustache as a disguise. I think of the Big Brother contestants who will always have to answer to those who mention "the most controversial season ever." With all of the outrageous personalities in New Jersey as it is (I said that as someone who lives in this state and visits the Garden State Plaza often enough), Theresa Guidice might have been someone who goes about unnoticed - threat of prison or no threat of prison - had it not been for Housewives.
The point is, if you have anything to hide, it would be wise to avoid reality TV.
And if you have nothing to hide, count your blessings, and realize that it's best to keep it that way...by avoiding the spotlight.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

America Was Watching: After Controversial Big Brother Season, an interview with Amanda Zuckerman

Photo c/o blogs.palmbeachpost.com
The impression made by season 15 of CBS's Big Brother, which aired this past summer, has stayed with fans and critics alike. Racismhomophobiacontroversy are all words that were used in reference to the contestants. It seemed as if they had forgotten cameras kept rolling...24-7. The deliberately sequestered house guests had no idea that outside the house, they were making national news headlines for shocking and closely scrutinized comments. Two contestants, Aaryn Gries and GinaMarie Zimmerman, lost their jobs back home during the isolation period - a response by their respective employers to outlandish quotes reflecting prejudices (Gries, the youngest contestant of the season, was blasted for comments about African Americans and Asians, as well as for a risky quote about her openly gay competitor, the season's eventual winner Andy Herren). Some of the offending comments, which contestants would later apologize for, aired on the actual show, but most were heard on the popular BB live feeds.

Another house guest, Spencer Clawson, was unaware that he had launched a police investigation after 'jokingly' referring to - oh, the not so humorous topic of - child pornography. Even the season's winner, college professor Andy Herren (who was not privy to Gries' remark about him), would later discover that he couldn't count on his old teaching job, a consequence of laughing with fellow house guests at racially-charged gossip about players (Even the topic of one competitor's child was not off limits for a couple among this crew).
While more players (including those with less airtime who were eliminated early on) would be called out by live feed watchers, Gries, Zimmerman and Clawson were the top three who stood out, with brash Boca realtor Amanda Zuckerman a close fourth. However, some would say that Amanda, who hails from Long Island, NY, was just jabbering like an uncouth NYC radio DJ, that she meant no harm, especially since she largely poked fun at herself ("the Jewish girl"). Then there were others who saw Amanda as blatantly offensive.
As a viewer, I saw two different Amanda's: 1) the confident Boca Realtor who is tough on the outside but a softie on the inside, especially when she falls for the pizza boy from Minnesota, McCrae Olson, and 2) Amanda the game player who resorts to bizarre behaviors, which she considered game tactics (what others termed: harassing, bullying and controlling methods). I got the chance to speak to Amanda, who I found to be sensitive and actually really quite nice - despite what we saw on camera.
Some topics I planned to tackle: the way she fought with competitors (i.e. Elissa Slater and Candice Stewart), her politically incorrect quotes, the unlikely "showmance" between the realtor and the pizza boy and ...walking around the BB house in underwear!
SHW: Before we start, I want to let you know that I've received many questions (via Twitter, Facebook, email) and I'm going to have to address some of the controversy of the season.
AZ: I want you to as well, because when I address the comments, I believe it's being perceived well. I want the opportunity to clear things up. Bring it on!
SHW: Before we go there: When you first started the game, what was your game plan? What were some mental notes you made when recalling tactics of previous players?
AZ: It's hard to have a specific strategy from watching previous seasons...I was thinking that I'd be more of a floater early on... and then I would strike when the iron was hot...But that wasn't the way it ended up happening. Also, I certainly wasn't looking for a showmance. So expect the unexpected - especially when it comes to my strategy!
SHW: Speaking of "floaters," many viewers did not want Andy to win because they believed he was a floater.
AZ: It's funny that Andy was called a floater because I didn't perceive him to be that way. Early on, he was in an alliance with me, McCrae and Judd (Daugherty) and he was always with me until he realized it was time to stab me in the back and go with the Exterminator alliance. He was a good player and he deserves to be the winner.
SHW: Watching the show afterwards, do you think Judd was as "shady" as you thought during the game?
AZ: Being stuck in that house you tend to overanalyze every single move. Going from the live show questions to the way Judd was acting, to the questions given in the diary room, I definitely overthought a lot of things. I wasn't the only one thinking he was shady but he's actually coming here (to Minnesota, where Amanda was with McCrae at the time of the interview) tonight so we are still really good friends.
The thing that weirded" us out about Judd in our alliance was that he made up a lie about Kaitlin saying she wanted Helen out, but then he told us it was a lie afterwards. We thought "ok, if he lied about that, what else is he lying about?" I don't think getting rid of Judd was a bad move overall because he had control over a lot of people I wanted control over. Once I got rid of him, I had complete control over Aaryn.
SHW: So interesting to hear that you're friends with Judd out of the house because it didn't seem like it would be that way with all the backstabbing that went on during the game!
AZ: Me and Judd and McCrae are like best friends. He's staying here for a week. You have to remember: It's a game! You don't evict people because you don't like them.
SHW: I can't imagine that you're friends with Candice (in one of the final episodes, after both Candice and Amanda were evicted and being held in the "jury house", Candice mentions something about not liking Amanda.)
AZ: I have nothing against Candice. She is a wonderful girl and (one thing you don't get to see because of editing) she was actually probably the funniest person in the house! I think we would have gotten along outside of the house. She wasn't really about "playing the game" when she took things personally (and acted out) when we evicted her man Howard (Overby). But on a personal level, I have nothing at all against Candice. She's really funny!
SHW: Which former BB contestant/s do you think you would be most comparable to?

AZ: My personality was a female Evel Dick (Donato) meets Dr. Will because I feel like I could have the charm and the same kind of attitude they had, but Amanda Zukerman is an Original! - Love me or hate me, it's still something different.
SHW: What surprised you most about the game when watching the show afterwards?
AZ: The number one thing that surprised me was the racism. No one was aware of what was going on in the real world. We had an idea that Aaryn might have been perceived as having said racist things, but other than that, we didn't know. I had some level of awareness that comments I made were being taken to heart by people, but not that I was perceived as racist!
SHW: Some of the people I spoke with, either in person or on Facebook and Twitter, said that this was the way they saw you: You joked around in a politically incorrect style like an NYC radio DJ, that you made risqué comments but you certainly didn't intend for them to sound racist, especially since you poked so much fun at yourself. Can you explain it to the others who didn't see it that way?
AZ: I regret the things I said because it wasn't my time to try to be a comedy host. My biggest regret in the game is that I said things that were hurtful to people and there was never that intent behind anything I said. I really want to apologize and hopefully, we can move on from that!
SHW: Early on, you warned Aaryn about the comments that she made. Was it overtiredness... or what exactly happened that you didn't carefully censor your own comments, knowing how they could be perceived?
AZ: My point to Aaryn was specifically about hurting people's feelings with what she was saying. There was no malicious intent with what I personally said. I have a racy sense of humor. Viewers really looked into every word we said and the (admittedly) stupid comments that I made were not about me having malicious intent. My stupid, ignorant comments were not meant to hurt anyone's feelings. Yet, I can't - WE can't - make any excuses for what came out of our mouths. All we can do is apologize for the hurtful things and that people were offended by those things we said.
Spencer, in addition to Aaryn, got in a lot of trouble for things he said, especially when he talked about child porn - that launched a police investigation.
AZ: Spencer has a raunchy sense of humor and I am 100 percent sure that he's not into any of those weird things he talked about. Aaryn is really young and from a small town and she is really remorseful about the things she said. This was a learning experience for her. (When I ask Amanda about speaking with Aaryn for an interview, she mentions that Aaryn is currently working with a PR team and limiting interviews, generally trying to lie low as she quietly repairs her image and focuses on charitable endeavors and "giving back").
SHW: My friend Deborah Blaiberg wants to know if wearing underwear around the house was a part of your game strategy?
AZ: (Laughs). No, I am a full figured woman and...sometimes it is too much of a hassle to get all dressed, but I am happy with my body and I was just comfortable in the house. Although I was embarrassed about what my parents got to see of me and McCrae. I thought they'd be watching the show, but I didn't realize they would check out the feeds! When I watched past seasons, I didn't even go on the feeds - I just watched the show.
SHW: You mentioned that Elissa Slater, the houseguest in perpetual yoga mode who kept calm at all insults hurled her way, was "passive aggressive" and that much of your behavior towards her (perceived as "bullying") was a result of that. I did see Elissa taking some jabs at your one-piece bathing suit and personally, I didn't like that, whereas overall, I really liked Elissa!
AZ: The Elissa-bathing-suit-comment-Elissa is the same Elissa the entire season, but that's how editing works - So much of that type of behavior wasn't shown. We had our moments of friendship and she can be a really great person, but there was truly something about her that the rest of house didn't click with. Part of the passive aggressive nature is being unable to show anger (as we see with Elissa when she is constantly provoked) and it finally got to be too much. You see that I reached my breaking point.
SHW: I think Elissa was great with being strong not to attack back competitors (you and Jesse), and that her sister Rachel - having been on two past seasons of Big Brother - had something to do with that.
AZ: Elissa has a huge fan base because of her sister (former Big Brother winner Rachel Reilly) and that helped her win "America's favorite" (which comes with a monetary reward), but there are some things you don't see on the show. When Aaryn was leaving the house, Elissa told her to blame all racist comments on me. Fortunately Aaryn didn't do that. She owned up to comments she said. Now though, I hold nothing against Elissa. We were in a stressful situation in the Big Brother house and at some point we'll talk and make amends and move on from what happened in the house.
SHW: Explain the "allure of Amanda" and how you were able to control the other contestants for so long - until GinaMarie's big move, putting you on the block?
AZ: The number one thing is that I'm loyal. If you watch throughout the game the only time I went after someone is if I saw or heard that they were going after me. With Judd, I wasn't sure and my one mistake and I feel so bad about and can't even watch the episode - was his eviction. Mostly, I was able to read who was loyal to me and who wasn't. As far as GinaMarie, she accidentally fell into the Exterminator alliance because she happened to be walking by when it was forming. It wasn't really her big move, but a move by the Exterminators that she carried out.
SHW: What does the future hold for McCranda? Rumors are flying that you will be contestants on The Amazing Race.
AZ: McCranda is in Minnesota this week and then we're going to Florida next week. We're open to all different opportunities in the future.
In terms of our relationship, we want to be able to get to know each other in the real world, not move too fast, but get to be together as Amanda and Mccrae (rather than McCranda) and see how we work together. Hopefully he'll move to Florida in the winter. Who knows!
SHW: When GinaMarie fooled you into thinking she would keep you and oust Elissa, did you have any inkling that something was shady? Andy's behavior (i.e. not wanting to confront GM about her nominations to put you and McCrae on the block, his going against you in the ballet-bowling competition when you were dizzy, sick and weak) didn't alert you that something had gone awry?
AZ: I was 100 percent blindsided by the GM nomination. You can see on my face that I was shocked and crying and I realized I had lost control of the game and would probably be going home - though afterwards I heard McCrae was the target. It didn't really make sense to me when I heard that. While the game was going on, McCrae had said that Andy was acting weird, but I totally thought that he hadn't voted me out of the house and that Elissa had - despite her promise to keep me. The fact that Andy turned against me at that time really shocked me because I had kept him the week before. When you see me screaming at Elissa (in that week before my own eviction), that was purely strategic. The reason I was doing that was because Elissa was going to put Andy on the block for eviction, and when her mind is set, it is set! I wanted to shake her so much so that she was a 'wounded animal' and Andy would go and console her so she would change her mind about putting Andy on the block.
It did make sense for Andy's game to get rid of me at that point. But even though I had Elissa's ring (as an assurance that she would keep me), I still thought Elissa was the one who voted me out. I was also caught off guard when I was evicted. Had I known that was for sure happening, I probably would have worn a dress!
SHW: What was the deal with all the rants?
AZ: This is a game and you have to be convincing in the game. Whether I was "bullying" Elissa, that was a game move and it has to be believable. Jesse's "Killer Kowalski Rant" wasn't believable and convincing, so no one took her seriously. The reason for this type of behavior from contestants is that you keep yourself a big target and then people want to keep you in the house because they know someone else is going after you. It was similar to when I dressed up like Granny and went after Elissa in my rant. This was misconstrued by Elissa's fans but I wanted her to be so shaken up that she would bond with Andy and then Andy, who I was loyal to, would be safe.
SHW: I'm still somewhat confused personally about how taunting and ranting helps players, but there's definitely something else going on in the house that must be causing players to act out in bizarre ways.
AZ: We don't sleep very well and what people don't realize is that we're on lockdown at times where we can't go out for days. We get no sunlight. So we go a little stir crazy from being under fluorescent lights for that long.
There's absolutely no entertainment (i.e. television) nothing battery operated, nothing like that, no writing utensils, you can't even have eyeliner in case you would use it for writing, so we had to trust people in the house. We had a chess table, a pool table, a swimming pool and an elliptical machine. But basically, there was a lot of talking to each other and getting to know each other.. .which was pretty entertaining in itself. I found McCrae, so I wasn't bored at all!
SHW: What's the hardest part about coming back into the real world from the BB house?
AZ: My family knows how I really am and they love me for who I am...I am a people pleaser by nature, so getting out of the house knowing that I didn't please people - that I offended people - is really hard for me. I'm dealing with that every day and I'm trying to give back to the community.
I'm not that bad, I promise!
Right now, I'm focusing on doing positive things, giving back to the community.
SHW: Would you do reality TV again or did this experience - with what you thought of the editing - turn you off to it?
AZ: I would be open to it! Look at Rachel Reilly. She didn't have the greatest first time around on Big Brother (Season 12) and she had haters. Then she came back the next season and voila, everybody loved her! I'm absolutely open to it! I have a lot to offer and a lot of good that America would want to see
...besides my boobs!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Summer Campiness: When the “Rock of Love” Dude Met the CSI Guy (for Huffington Post)

In case you missed it, ABC's Whodunnit was an exciting and fun (albeit campy) crime solving reality drama that debuted this summer. Each week, contestants scrambled to solve a fictional "murder," the demise of the latest eliminated contestant. Whodunnit's players were "killed off" based on how poorly they figure out the murder. Then their "murder" became the crime to be solved the following week. The objective of the game was to unmask the Killer among the contestants and be awarded $250,000 at the end. Each episode played out like CSI meets Big Brother, minus the live feeds and bawdy social drama characteristic of the latter. Contestants are stuck in a house ("Rue Manor"), alliances are formed, the overly-giggly girl could seem suspicious or harmless, and the beauty queen may not be a Mensa member, but there's something about her that propels the manor's Mensa member to align with her (and with Ms. Giggles).
"Reality Fiction" is how the show is best described, a term coined by the show's co-creator Anthony Zuiker who is also the creator of CSI. Whodunnit is the brainchild of Zuiker's collaboration with the reality TV pro that brought us shows like "The Surreal Life," "Rock of Love," "I love New York" and "Megan Wants a Millionaire" to name a few. I spoke with Zukier and that reality pro, Cris Abrego, for Huffington Post to follow up on an earlier interview I had conducted with one of Whodunnit's contestants, the Mensa member and Homeland Security attorney Kam Perez http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shira-hirschman-weiss/whodunnit-abc-tv_b_3631531.html.
Zuiker explains that he was constantly scribbling away murder solving scenarios, writing and rewriting, for a case that contestants (who are not actors) would have to crack. Being that contestants were real people from varying walks of life, some of their reactions and strategies were unpredictable to both Abrego and Zuiker, both trained to anticipate twists and turns. Zuiker says that he and Abrego expected some of the skeptical media responses and "we always had one over the press," stumping theories about the killer's identity and dismissive assertions about the show overall (ratings rose, then fell and then rose again before leveling out).
Yes, Whodunnit was supposed to be somewhat silly, according to Abrego and Zuiker, and that was as deliberate as the writing that would keep folks constantly guessing. To many viewers, Whodunnit was comparable to a group of friends gathered in a living room game of Clue. Although the contestants knew they were figuring out a fictional murder, they truly were fighting for their lives in the game. In the meantime, the Killer was playing his or her own game to outwit the other contestants, casting suspicion on fellow cast mates. For instance, Ms. Giggles and the lady who sounded (irritatingly) like Nancy Grace were easy targets. Are they murderers or just innocuous oddballs? Viewers wondered.
What was most surprising about Whodunnit was the fact that not only was the audience in the dark as to the Killer's identity, but so was Anthony Zuiker who wrote out the scenarios beforehand and was frequently revising the script to outwit contestants, viewers and cynical media. He deliberately did not want to know who Abrego had chosen to be the bad guy. At one point, Zuiker relates, he frantically approached Abrego and said "You better figure this out! Adriana is the killer and everybody knows!" It sounds impossible to stump the brains behind CSI, yet somehow the man who had steered Brett Michaels through a germ-fest of sloppy sevenths had one over the king of blood-spattered sleuthing. Zuiker didn't actually crack the case until one of the very last episodes, and "Giles," Rue Manor's butler and the show's host (played by actor Gildart Jackson), was completely in the dark until the finale.
"My job was to figure out how to give the cast the purest possible reactions," says Abrego. "They weren't clued in to how things were happening which is why the episode 'Dontae's inferno' was when the game got real for them." He reiterates what Perez told me in our interview about how the fear that you see as contestants react to someone running on fire was 100 percent genuine.
"By collaborating with Anthony Zukier, we were able to get those reactions. This really came together by using stunts and working with the people that Anthony had worked with. Melina (one of the contestants) is a real person who cries too much and seems truly scared. We also see Kam buying into the narrative..." These raw reactions, explains Abrego, were what gave Whodunnit the extra oomph that is the recipe for delicious reality TV.
Zuiker adds that despite the fact that he and Abrego were creating something akin to figuratively juggling with fire (or literally running in it): "ABC gave us complete and unconditional freedom. They trusted Cris and me." Incidentally, Dontae's stunt double, a woman, looks practically identical to Dontae which is why contestants feared that it actually was Dontae running on fire.
The two confirm (while adding "hey, we're not going to give away ALL our secrets to you!") that EMTs and fire fighters were standing by for "Dontae's Inferno." Nevertheless, contestants were terrified, not having been clued in to the behind the scenes secrets, like stunt doubles.
Abrego explains that Perez approached production and said "I'm not going to 'die' the way Dontae did! There is no way I'm going out on fire." He had to be reassured and encouraged a few times to remain on the show and in the game.
One reaction that mystified production and show fans alike was the initial response on Twitter by viewers who thought contestants were actually murdered. "Post mortem" interviews, initially intended for either website material or the cutting room floor, had to be edited in to the end of each episode so gullible viewers could see that no contestants were actually killed during the filming of this show.
When Abrego had initially pitched a looser concept of Whodunnit to ABC, before Zukier even entered the picture, "CSI" was mentioned and it was suggested that Abrego talk with Zukier. At that point in time, no one could have predicted that the serious CSI guy would agree to join forces with a man whose credits included playing cupid to an eye-lined, bandana-clad aging rocker. But Zukier loved the concept of Whodunnit, and it figures that the blueprints to a season I'm still trying to wrap my head around were mapped out in a single lunch meeting.
Will there be a Whodunnit2? For now, the party line answer is "no comment" but Zukier is always creating new mysteries. When fans expressed on Twitter how much they missed the show on Sunday nights, Zukier continued the story line by creating Twitdunnit, now rapidly joining the ranks of popular social media pastimes.
When I propose the theoretical "How would you change things for a Whodunnit2?" Zuiker says ""I don't know if I would change anything. If there was one thing, maybe to add a wrinkle in the gameplay to make it more exciting. What really worked for us was our commitment to not spoon feed the audience. If we had spelled out the A-Z of the show in the first episode, then the allure of the show might have been lost. In the end, we saw that the younger generation liked the fact that we didn't talk down to the audience."
I won't completely spoil Whodunnit for readers as episodes can be caught up on online (recommended!), but I will say that somehow, an expert crime writer provided a script with plans for a Killer. That same writer had no idea who the Killer would be...Yet somehow a reality TV titan made it all fit!
Remember Flavor Flave's quest for love on VH1? That was the 'reality TV titan', Cris Abrego. Remember when Peter Brady shacked up with the America's Next Top Model winner (My Fair Brady)? That too was Cris Abrego.
Looking back on Whodunnit, the biggest mystery is this:
How did the man behind Rock of Love outwit the creator of CSI?
Rue Manor's resident Beauty Queen, Whodunnit Contender Cris Crotz. Photo provided by ABC Television for The Huffington Post

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Blogs Must Be Crazy

I am a mother of four. I have a profession. Separately, I have a hobby - I like to write, or more specifically, I blog. Recently, I met a young woman who upon first impression seemed "cool." This happens with all of us: We initially meet someone, hit it off and then in a short amount of time we realize that something about that other person is off. In the first meeting, the woman appeared to me as an intriguing subject for a profile piece (for a blog post) because she fell into a unique category. To protect her anonymity, I will refrain from divulging full details.
Suffice it to say that emails were exchanged in which the woman was pushy ("When will my article run? It's been X amount of days since we spoke") and out of line ("Just a word of advice: Your children's school graduations shouldn't be used as an excuse for why you're not doing this right away. I have a friend with two kids who manages to get everything done, really quickly.") and acted as if I were her employee when in fact, I was blogging after hours, late at night, on a pure volunteer basis while balancing my day job, sleep, husband, and children's differing schedules and needs.
My instincts told me to drop the woman and the notion of an article altogether. Internally, I felt no motivation to write about her whatsoever - in light of the incessant nagging emails and verbally abusive texts she was sending my way (i.e. "You are a fake." Fake what? I'll never know. I never professed to be anything other than a working mom who blogged on the side). Yet, part of me felt guilty: I had schlepped from New Jersey to the city to meet with her, she had handed me a gift bag with some great samples (some swag she had amassed at an event, considerately collecting an extra bag to present to me at our meeting) and she had left her NYC apartment to meet me across town. Maybe I was being overly sensitive to her criticism, Perhaps I needed to suck up her words which may or may not have actually been rude. They could simply have been tactless. Not her fault. Some people are just born tactless. It's like a missing brain chip.
Convincing myself to toughen my skin and do something nice for someone who was interested in sharing her story, I trudged with one heavy foot in front of the other, determined to finish a terrific piece. Well, the outcome of the piece wasn't as terrific as it would have been had I felt a kinship towards my subject, had her words remained emblazoned in my memory, rather than jotted on a piece of paper, the full story and meaning behind each word now mostly blocked from my memory. My jaded feelings in response to her attitude were like clouds that had encroached upon a sunny day. The vision that I had upon our initial meeting was now blurred and the article that resulted, while it appeared well-written to most readers, was not the article that I (or she) had foreseen as an end result.
Once the article posted, first on my personal blog, she wrote a series of scathing emails to me, then texts followed by passive aggressive Facebook status updates that clearly had me in mind. On Facebook, I decided to post a comment in direct response to her status update. Her post read: "If you offer to do something, do it right. Just a tip." My response post: "Sometimes we have to rescind our offers." I promptly clicked "unfriend" and silently berated myself for stooping to her level. Pick up the phone, I silently pleaded to her, stop hiding behind your computer because you are sounding vile and you are now dragging me in with your passive aggressive online missives. Of course, it was up to me to not let myself be dragged in. I was effectively plunging from my late 30s to my twenties, a decade laden with mistakes I thought I'd learned from and left behind. Here I was having a relapse.
Since the incident with this insolent interviewee, I have been perusing blogs in order to see the types of things people post. Mere mortals who are spearheading initiatives or donating boatloads of money to start-ups are being hailed as gods and messiahs. On the flip side, other folks of influence are being attacked on these same blogs for having the money in the first place, and possessing the temerity to go full steam ahead with their ideas. People will curse on blogs, purposely misspell words, and write under screen names like "End the Madness" only to continue perpetuating madness through their posts.
Letters are sent back and forth. Leaders are lambasted. Experts in one very separate arena will claim to be experts in another that has zero connection to his/her own. The "real experts" in these cases are not even invited to weigh in until someone brings this very fact to the writer's attention. Then there are the cuckoos who not only fill the blog with insults in an inarticulate fashion, but proceed to write anonymous emails off the blog, launching them like missiles at their targets. In the ultimate twist of irony, I once received a frighteningly threatening email in response to an article I wrote about bullying.
At the end of the day, a blog is not an article. A volunteer blogger is like a diarist, stating his or her opinion on a matter without necessarily owing or being called upon to back up each separate, specific point. That said, when I (and other bloggers that I know) discuss research or statistics within my own blog posts, I will quote experts and provide readers with sources to back up the points I bring forward. For me and my fellow blogger friends, it's just the right thing to do. I want my readers to hear expert opinions, to be provided with actual, concrete examples. I want to give them data and facts when appropriate.
With the exception of the above-mentioned interview subject, every single person I have ever interviewed and have ever featured in an article (or a blog post) has been a true pleasure to work with. I admit to being human, to having made mistakes that I am eager to quickly correct. Furthermore, I am receptive to criticism, but when someone is blatantly unkind, insolent, selfish, inconsiderate and ungrateful, I must remind myself that feeling are not wrong. Feelings just are. It is O.K. to walk away from something - in this case, writing a certain piece - because of what your heart is telling you.
I only wish I had listened to mine. I wrote the article about this woman and it was generally well-received by the public. It resulted in online pick-up and gave the subject some quantitative and qualitative SEO visibility. Even a reality TV production staffer's interests were briefly piqued. But my subject caused me a lot of grief (during the writing of the piece and after it ran). They say "no good deed goes unpunished"... I haven't yanked the blog post - I am not vengeful by nature and I will not play that game. Bottom line: I wrote a positive piece on a negative person and there you have it. Since the very invention of the "blog" years ago, I've read enough entries to shake my head and mumble "The blogs must be crazy." One such blog really irked me and I told myself "You are never reading this again." So far, I have kept to that promise.
As a reader and as a person who enjoys writing, I can firmly assert that we all have our crazy moments. Ignoring my instincts to write about this woman was one of mine. I forced myself to keep going while an inner voice told me to bow out this time, that there were opportunities I had to let go...
..to preserve what was left of my sanity
..and to forge ahead.