In Friday’s episode of CBS’ new reality show The Job (8 p.m. ET/PT), one of the five people vying for an editorial assistant position at Cosmopolitan admits that her poor performance in the first exercise is because she hasn’t read an issue of the magazine in years. Cosmo Editor-in-Chief Joanna Coles — flanked by fellow judges Executive Editor Joyce Chang and Senior Features Editor Jessica Knoll — isn’t cruel to the contestant, as so many fashion people try to be on these shows, but she does firmly remind her that not doing your homework before an interview is a dealbreaker.
She’s right, of course. But on the other hand, this is a reality show, not the Cosmo office. And these contestants, most of whose professional backgrounds have nothing to do with what an editorial assistant actually does, were chosen by a casting team more concerned with good TV than good writing skills — or even the ability to spell, as we find out in the first 15 minutes. But even so, contrived though all of it may be, one of those five will leave that stage with a new magazine job.
Watching this show was a fun and familiar experience for me. In December 2008, I left my job as a Chinese linguist and analyst at a defense contractor in Washington to compete in the first and only season of the CW reality show, Stylista. The prize: a one-year Junior Editor position at ELLE. (Spoiler: I won.) Since you almost definitely didn’t watch the show (something the abysmal ratings guarantees), I will tell you that I essentially went through the same real-but-not-real interview process that these five from The Job did — but with one major difference. Instead of having to prove myself in 35 minutes, I had nine one-hour episodes and 17 judged challenges to show ELLE Creative Director Joe Zee, Fashion News Director Anne Slowey and Editor-in-Chief Robbie Myers that I should get the job.
Okay, there was one other major difference. I had to live with my fellow contestants for weeks. Sleep in bunk beds underneath them. Wash their filthy fucking dishes. Sit across from them at every meal, listening to them say things like, “Wait, so Coco Chanel doesn’t still design for Chanel? How does that work?” I watched them get drunk and cry, I watched them have panic attacks and cry, I even watched a meltdown so severe that the cameras stopped rolling — all because the crew forgot to buy Kombucha.
Not that I was above the bad behavior. Quite the opposite. I bitched and stomped until someone was hired to trim my hair. I organized a sleep-in twice when we were told no more dry-cleaning privileges. (they were promptly reinstated). I also stopped eating.
While watching The Job, part of me was envious that these contestants opted out of all of that chaos. They got the same shot at the same job, but with an on-camera commitment of less than a week. I bet they didn’t even have to go to the bathroom with their microphones on! But, for every plus, there is a minus, and vice versa. On Stylista, sure, we had to ride to and from all locations in complete silence (if it wasn’t filmed, it “didn’t happen”), but the show’s longer-term format afforded us the chance to take on more involved tasks — the kind an entry-level editor might one day actually need to know how to do. In place of The Job’s 60-second celebrity trivia quizzes and “What’s wrong with this cover?” exercises, we interviewed designers, assembled trend pages, staged a photo shoot from start to end, and wrote cover lines. Instead of sound-bite assessments from our future bosses, we were actually mentored. We were given room to fall down, to learn and to move on to the next challenge.
By the end of filming Stylista, there was no doubt in any our minds how so not like the movies this dream job would be. It would be glamorous in theory, but long hours and barely enough money to pay the rent in practice. To want this job was to want the work. And the work, for me, was the “dream” part. In my almost two years at ELLE (I left at the end of 2010), I got to see, meet, and write about everything I ever wanted. I was assigned to interview designers, models, artists, authors, film directors, even Julie Andrews! By the start of my second year there, I was a legitimate member of the staff. But the truth is, I had been accepted as such (by most) many months earlier. Leaving broke my heart. It still does, so I try not to think about it. I owe the redirection of my career to ELLE and to reality TV, and I love that I get to say that.
The questions people ask most often about my experience on the show are whether I was instructed to amp up parts of my personality for the camera, and whether I knew all along that I would win. The answer to both is no. I can’t speak for any of the other cast members, but my understanding is that the “character” you’re supposed to be is who you really are — it is the job of the casting team to make there’s a villain, a n00b, and a Cinderella. The pressure cooker of being on a show like that will warp a person’s behavior, and for some, it was always more about being on TV than getting the job. So no, what you see probably isn’t all authentic, but I also wouldn’t say it was orchestrated.
In terms of knowing who will win, nobody on set does. Nobody. That fear you see on people’s faces as they stand in front of a judging panel — whether it’s a one episode show like The Job or a longer show like Stylista — that shit is so real. Even if you think you’ve done a good job, even if you know for a fact you did a better job than the person standing next to you, your years of reality TV watching have taught you that very often the one you think will and should win, doesn’t. So no, I didn’t know. And I’d wager that any other show winner would say the same thing.