Mormons reflect on experience of being on reality TV

Published: Friday, Feb. 21 2014 1:00 p.m. MST

In a 2008 article for Newsweek magazine titled “American Idols: Mormons and Reality TV,” writer Sally Atkinson talk about why Mormons seem to do so well on reality TV. She mentioned Lynne Spillman, a casting director for "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race," who thinks that coming from a large family probably helps Mormons in a game like "Survivor," with its complicated group dynamics mirroring sibling rivalries.

"They also have these incredible experiences through their missions," Spillman said, "and can relate to being dropped off in the middle of somewhere they've never been and having to make it."

Overwhelming support

Atkinson also attributed Mormons’ success to their overwhelming support from fellow LDS viewers. “In reality TV terms,” she said, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in a sweet spot demographically: still small enough that members get excited to see one of their own in the spotlight, but large enough that when they watch together and vote they can affect results and ratings.”

According to Atkinson, Utahn Carmen Rasmusen, who competed on season 2 of Fox’s hit show “American Idol,” was once told by a producer that she had done well in the East Coast voting but that her popularity skyrocketed once West Coast results came in.

“I was so happy to hear that people were voting like crazy and supporting me," Rasmusen said in the story. "Utah does a great job rallying around its people."

Kelsey Nixon, a TV chef who got her start on “Food Network Star” in 2008, did not end up winning her season, but she was named the season’s “fan favorite,” based on an online poll, walking away with a complete suite of kitchen appliances plus $2,000 in Sears gift cards.

“Honestly, I attribute the ‘fan favorite’ to all of the Utahns and Mormons who voted for me,” Nixon told the Deseret News. “I so appreciated their support. They were fiercely supportive throughout the process.”

“If you’re not going to win," she said, "winning the ‘fan favorite’ vote is a pretty good consolation prize.”

Perception of Mormons on TV

Nixon, who relocated from Utah to New York City for work, believes she was depicted accurately on “Food Network Star” but has been surprised at how she, as an active member of the church, has been perceived by others after her time on reality TV.

“I’ll be in meetings with television executives or people and they will be shocked, not only to know that I’m Mormon, but to know that I still am a practicing Mormon,” Nixon said. “They just assume that you move to New York City and you give it up and they can’t believe that there are other Mormons in New York City who go to church every week and do that thing. But I love it. It’s great.”

Dawn Meehan, an English professor at Brigham Young University, told the Deseret News that she feels like reality TV has moved away from stereotyping religious contestants.

“I feel like they had a good deal of respect for my faith,” the two-time “Survivor” contestant said. “I don’t feel like I was cast in a negative light. I felt like it was a pretty accurate depiction of who I am. I don’t think that I looked perfect — at all — which is good, too, because I don’t want people to have an unrealistic picture of how Mormons live. I also don’t think that they made that the only part of me that was defined, so I appreciated that I didn’t become a stereotype, but I liked that it was even included as a defining characteristic.”

Ryan Hayes appeared on season 4 of NBC’s “The Voice” with “American Idol” alumnus Jon Peter Lewis in a folk duo named Midas Whale.

“I feel like the only people that really hold us to our highest standard are the Mormons themselves,” Hayes told the Deseret News. “They know what you’re supposed to be living up to.”

A 'peculiar' people

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