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Mormons reflect on experience of being on reality TV

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 6:47 p.m. MDT

Dawn Meehan, an English professor at Brigham Young University, has competed on Dawn Meehan, an English professor at Brigham Young University, has competed on "Survivor" two times. (CBS)

Since the advent of reality television, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been a casting staple. No longer a pop culture novelty, Mormons are well-represented in the reality TV community. Along with endearing themselves to audiences, several say they have strengthened their own personal testimonies and even had opportunities to share the gospel with others.

Reality TV: A brief overview

The year 2000 was a revolutionary year for television. With the emergence of a genre of programming called “reality TV,” pop culture was changed forever. Many give the lion’s share of the credit to Mark Burnett’s breakout show, “Survivor,” which stranded 16 normal people on an island with little more than a machete, a bag of rice and a film crew.

According to Nielsen, more than 15.5 million people tuned in to Burnett’s series premiere on May 31, 2000. As the season picked up steam, more and more viewers tuned in every week to get a candid look at those ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. More than 51 million people watched Richard Hatch win $1 million on national TV that summer as he defeated Kelly Wiglesworth in the season finale.

BYU alumna Kelsey Nixon, a popular TV cook, got her start on BYU alumna Kelsey Nixon, a popular TV cook, got her start on "Food Network Star." She now hosts cooking shows on Food Network and Cooking Channel. (Kelsey Nixon)

Wiglesworth, who was raised Mormon, became part of what some reality TV junkies consider one of the most infamous moments in the history of “Survivor” when Sue Hawk, another cast member, compared Hatch and Wiglesworth to a snake and a rat, at one point telling Wiglesworth, “If you were laying there, dying of thirst, I would not give you a drink of water. I would let the vultures take you.”

'The Mormon Moment'

Since the year 2000, more than 90 members of the LDS Church have appeared on reality television programs.

Mormons have accounted for three top-10 finishes on “America’s Got Talent,” four top-10 contestants on “American Idol,” eight Mirror Ball trophies on “Dancing with the Stars,” an Emmy Award, several award-winning cooks, winners on “The Rebel Billionaire” and “So You Think You Can Dance?,” two Sole Survivors (with three runners-up), two Undercover Bosses, three Biggest Losers and more than 2,800 pounds of weight lost.

Ryan Hayes and Jon Peter Lewis performed on NBC's Ryan Hayes and Jon Peter Lewis performed on NBC's "The Voice" in 2013 with their folk duo Midas Whale. Hayes served a mission to Ecuador and Lewis served in Spain. (Trae Patton, NBC Universal, Inc.)

In 2012, Time magazine referred to the prominence of Mormons in society as “the Mormon Moment.” However, J. Michael Hunter, author of “Mormons and Popular Culture: The Global Influence of an American Phenomenon,” explains that Mormons carved themselves a place on national TV way back in the 1970s with a squeaky-clean group of musical brothers named the Osmonds.

Hunter explains that a negative shift in perception during the 1980s made the clean-cut, eternally optimistic Mormon stereotype a thing of parody. Mormons, he said, came to be seen as cheery and well-behaved but also as unreal, out-of-touch and naïve.

When former Brigham Young University student Julie Stoffer made a controversial appearance on MTV’s voyeuristic program “The Real World” in 2000, Mormons were thrust back into a national spotlight. Stoffer, a practicing Mormon who was highlighted on the show as a sort of “fish out of water,” was ultimately suspended from BYU for her involvement with the show.

Amy Whitcomb has performed on two NBC singing competitions: Amy Whitcomb has performed on two NBC singing competitions: "The Sing-Off" and "The Voice." Whitcomb graduated from Brigham Young University in 2011. (Trae Patton, NBC Universal, Inc.)

But in the past 14 years, Mormons have put some positive stamps on American pop culture — and they’ve done it on a nationally televised stage.

Why Mormons?

In his book, Hunter mentions Eric and Matt Van Wagenen, who were raised Mormon and have produced reality shows such as “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race” and “The Apprentice.” Hunter said that Matt Van Wagenen sees Mormonism as an “exclamation point” punctuating an already interesting personality.

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.

Sione Fa lost 146 pounds while competing on NBC's Sione Fa lost 146 pounds while competing on NBC's "The Biggest Loser." He now works as a personal trainer and motivational speaker. (Trae Patton, NBC Universal, Inc.)

"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

Nixon, who has adopted the role of a small-town girl living in the big city, said, “Those same small-town ideals that I was raised with, having a family and having a church community, those things are still important to me. Even though I live in a big city where it’s not as popular to do those things, I’m going to still do them and I think that that makes you an interesting person. Maybe ‘peculiar’ is a common word that’s used.”

Hayes and Lewis, who got all four judges to turn their chairs around during their “blind audition” on “The Voice,” also turned some heads when they addressed pop singer Shakira, a coach on the show, in Spanish. Both singers served Spanish-speaking missions for the LDS Church.

Hayes said that his traditional Mormon values are always present in his mind as a performer.

"Jon and I certainly do try to be well behaved and to act in accordance to what we believe," he said. "I represent my family, I represent the Mormons as a whole. I represent people that live in the West. I’ve got to kind of keep all those things in mind and act accordingly.”

Morality, ethics and LDS standards

Members of the LDS Church are no strangers to singing competitions, with the most prominent among musical Mormons being David Archuleta, who placed second on “American Idol” in 2008. Kenzie Hall, who was recently eliminated from season 13 of “Idol,” is also a Mormon.

BYU alumna Amy Whitcomb gained considerable national exposure by appearing a total of three times on singing competitions. She appeared alongside Hayes and Lewis on season 4 of “The Voice” and also competed twice on NBC’s “The Sing-Off” (with Noteworthy in 2009 and as a member of Delilah in 2011).

Due to the nature of some reality competitions, contestants’ morality and ethics are often put to the test, as Whitcomb can attest. She said that feedback based on her appearances on “The Sing-Off” and “The Voice” strengthened her testimony of modesty.

As a young female singer, she knew she would be put in a position where she would be looked up to as a role model by some viewers but also unfairly scrutinized by others.

“I had to think about a lot of the young girls that would be looking at me and watching me. I have gotten some irrational and ridiculous emails from moms about certain, really particular modesty things,” Whitcomb told the Deseret News. “(But) I actually do appreciate those because they make me think a little bit more about my song choice, about my outfit choice — and it’s good! There’s no reason why I cannot choose a more conservative route.”

She mentioned that she received compliments on her attitude, her demeanor and her habit of always dressing appropriately. “That was something that I took into consideration,” she said. “I was still covered up — and definitely really covered up, compared to the next person. People really appreciated that. I’ve come to really appreciate modesty more and more.”

During her two seasons on “Survivor,” Meehan visibly struggled with moral dilemmas presented by the nature of the game, often wondering how to balance personal integrity with strategy and gameplay.

“I just kept telling myself that BYU has a football team and those guys look like they could pummel other people. They hurt them. They knock them down — for a game,” Meehan explained. “I’m not going to physically harm anyone in this game. We’re all in it as adults with the goal of being the Sole Survivor, so I think I justified it by saying, ‘It would be silly to be on the field and not tackle — because that’s part of the game.’ So I kind of accepted the conditions that it’s not reality — that it’s a world that requires deception — and that, if I’m going to participate in that world, I either have to do that or not participate. Those are the rules. I’m playing, they’re playing, we both know tackling is involved, so I’m going to do it.”

Both Whitcomb and Meehan said their struggles ultimately brought out the best in them.

Meehan said she often regarded the other contestants as family, which made a lot of her decisions on the show very personal and difficult. “I could almost not make eye contact with people when we would vote them out and I knew that there were people that had given me their trust,” she said. “The nice thing is, I’ve learned from that. I try really, really hard to not ever duplicate that in real life and I think my kids have learned that, too.”

Strengthened testimonies

Meehan joined the LDS Church when she was 18 years old. The “Survivor: Caramoan” runner-up, now 43, said she is thankful for habits she formed as a member of the church, such as committing scriptures and hymns to memory to be used in times of emotional distress.

During one difficult moment in her second season of the show, Meehan accidentally dropped a retainer for her bottom teeth into the lake. She recalled that just before losing the retainer, she had been singing LDS hymns as a means of relieving stress. “My faith really had to be what was recorded in my brain,” she said. “I was super, super thankful that I could recall a lot of things that would be reassuring to me when I was struggling, specifically, like a scripture or, I mean, every song that I could sing, I did.”

NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” has featured more Mormons than any other show, having showcased more than 20 LDS contestants. Sione Fa, of Mesa, Ariz., appeared with his cousin, Felipe, on season 7 of “The Biggest Loser” in 2009. Fa, a returned missionary and father of three, lost a total of 146 pounds on the “Biggest Loser” ranch, but he said that was not the only transformation that took place. He told the Deseret News that his eyes were also opened to new aspects of his spiritual life.

“You can see how the world functions without spirituality, and that right there was a testimony-builder in itself,” Fa said. “When you get out to the world and you see how religion is non-existent in people’s lives and you see how faith or any type of spirituality is not there, you can just see the difference.”

Meehan and Whitcomb, who competed on very different programs, had similar testimony-defining experiences while being a lone Mormon in a national spotlight.

“I did learn for myself, in the absence of any other community member, any other Latter-day Saint, that my relationship with God is still so important to me — that on my own, that relationship exists,” Meehan said. “I think that was a really important lesson because sometimes it’s easy to have faith when I’m at BYU and there’s 30,000 people that kind of reinforce that.”

“When I had someone else with me, like with Noteworthy, obviously, it was really easy to keep up (my) standards,” said Whitcomb, referring to BYU’s nine-woman a capella group that appeared on season 1 of “The Sing-Off.”

“But on ‘The Voice,’ it was like, all the sudden, it was totally my own decision. It made me a lot more aware of the choices I was making on a daily basis and why I made them. It really helped to define my standards a bit more and my own personal convictions to live those standards.”

Real-life experiences

Meehan related an almost-humorous instance where she received a letter from a missionary who tracted a farmer in Missouri who was a big fan of reality TV. Ultimately, she said, the farmer was baptized. The missionary told her that he believes the man’s only previous exposure to Latter-day Saints was through “Survivor.”

Fa, who now works as a personal trainer at the “Biggest Loser” resort in St. George, Utah, said he and his cousin, Felipe, were able to have several religious discussions with other contestants during season 7.

“We were able to get really close and actually invite a lot of them to find out for themselves if these things are true,” he said. “We had a lot of great experiences outside of the filming. You get to know these people like brothers and sisters, and you start opening up and people really start to get to know who you are. We were able to share our testimonies several times throughout our stay there. If you’re talking about gospel terms or church terms, it really is about planting the seed.”

The Mormon reality TV moment continues this Sunday night when Dave and Connor O’Leary return for a second shot at a million dollars on CBS’ “The Amazing Race.” The popular father-son team was forced to withdraw from the race during season 22 last year when Dave tore his Achilles tendon. Additionally, Utah Jazz CEO Greg Miller will appear on CBS’ “Undercover Boss” next Friday, Feb. 28.

Email: achristensen@deseretnews.com Twitter: atownmania

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