There are three types of people who are apt to spend six consecutive hours at the Saint Louis Zoo on any given Tuesday: 1) seniors, 2) students and 3) the mentally retarded.
A.J. Miller and I fit none of these categories. And yet, there we were, virtually chained to the zoo's birdhouse for half a day; he basking in the glow of television cameras and four eligible bachelorettes, I hiding in the bushes (literally), hanging on their every cheesy, forced utterance.
Spying singles through heavy brush is not my idea of cutting-edge reporting, but on this day, covert ops were necessary: I'd been tipped off that the WB's popular late-night dating show, elimiDATE, was taping in the area.
For those of you who regularly retire before midnight, each elimiDATE episode features four singles vying for the attention of one member of the opposite sex -- the "picker" in elimiDATE parlance -- who whittles the field one by one until a lone couple emerges. The awkwardness is palpable, the ass-grinding prevalent, the interactions equal parts corny and catty and the lowbrow entertainment value undeniable. In essence, the show puts the "guilt" in guilty pleasure.
Press are ostensibly barred from elimiDATE shoots, and producer Chris Lamson was none too pleased when he spied Riverfront Times photographer Jennifer Silverberg. "Is that approved?" Lamson kvetched, gesturing at Silverberg. He had to relent, though, when the photographer politely reminded him that the zoo is a public space and that he therefore had no legal right to prevent her from snapping photos of lions, parakeets and twentysomethings on the make.
I, meanwhile, re-mained undercover, biding my time by attempting to persuade a gaggle of Nerinx Hall High School girls to insinuate themselves into the show, guerrilla style. They demurred. Too bad -- a plaid-skirted invasion would have been the most spontaneous part of the whole day.
This episode of elimiDATE, it turned out, was as far from reality as even a reality show can get, with Miller serving as a relentlessly pigeonholed, scripted slave to the program's must-have themes of bisexuality, bitchiness and/or boozing.
In other words, it's true what they say about watching sausage getting made.
Unlike reality pioneers such as The Real World and Survivor, where would-be contestants try out in droves, programs like elimiDATE must all but beg the likes of Miller to come on. A J. Buck's waiter, Miller was spotted by an elimiDATE scout and encouraged to apply while he was working the night shift.
The 24-year-old Chesterfield resident says he did anything but try to sell himself.
"I was like, 'I have two roommates, I have no college degree, I just got a DUI, my car has no transmission -- do you guys really want me on your show?'"
Turns out, they did -- enough to make multiple attempts to contact him and reel him in.
"This guy Chris [Lamson] calls me, and I'm not even returning their phone calls," Miller recounts. "I did a phone interview with Jen [Snyder, an elimiDATE crew member]. I think her and I had better chemistry than any of the girls on the show."
He agreed to go to a "tryout" in a small studio on McCausland Avenue behind the Hi-Pointe, to which he was accompanied by his roommate and ride, Joe Guja. The designated driver proved to be in the right place at the right time, as both Miller and Guja, who'd made no prior overture to elimiDATE, were tapped for the show's St. Louis swing-through. The show is taping six episodes slated to air sometime next spring.
Guja's episode, in which he was one of the four singles vying for a girl, proved to be a veritable meatball sandwich.
"We went to Houlihan's in Union Station," Guja reports. "It was Saturday before a Blues game, completely packed. There were all these hoosiers yelling at us, and [the show's crew members] were trying to feed me drinks. I guess that's what they wanted me to do: get completely shitfaced. I was like, 'No, I'm all right.'"
As a reward for his attempt at sobriety, Guja was the first bachelor to be "elimidated."
Miller would have been more than content to take his four lasses on a championship-caliber inebriation vacation. In fact, after Guja's experience he'd pretty much planned on it, popping a Ritalin-like stimulant to blunt the booze's more Paleolithic personality effects.
"I was zooted out on Adderall," Miller admits. "I didn't want to be the drunk lush. But I didn't really get to drink."
Instead -- as was evident from the get-go when Lamson and company forced him to saunter around the birdhouse and talk about how much he liked taking long, solo walks in the park -- Miller was being cast as Mister Sweet and Sensitive, regardless of whether he fit the bill.
"They were telling me to say that I like to take walks alone in the park and look at birds," says Miller. "I don't do that shit. I've never taken a walk alone in the park in my life."
As much as Lamson wanted Miller to play nice, he was equally bent on pulling catlike conflict out of the four women, Natasha, Talitha, Laurie and Brie. When they refused to get at each other's throats, Miller says, the producer broke out the verbal whoop-ass.
"They got in trouble for [being too nice]," says Miller. "Chris got up and said, 'What are you doing? You gotta fight for this guy. Friendship time is over!'"
Having pared his field down to two after the zoo, Miller was mortified to learn that the final stage of the date would take place at the Delmar Avenue root-beer hut known as Fitz's.
"I mean, the zoo and Fitz's? Come on!" Miller fumes. "I told them that I'm not afraid to dance. They just had an agenda."
elimiDATE spokeswoman Kim Kottler says the show gives all its "pickers" the opportunity to provide input on where they'd like their date to take place. Miller, who says he would have chosen either the Delmar Lounge or the Halo Bar over Fitz's, says he wasn't consulted. Kottler also says civilian bar patrons are asked to be in the background for each shoot. But at Fitz's your faithful reporter (again undercover) and all other bar denizens were kept out of the shoot in favor of production assistants posing as patrons.
Houlihan's manager Nicole Risch reports a similar experience at her venue during Joe Guja's elimiDATE. "About a week in advance, their corporate office in California sent people down here to take pictures of different sites in the area. Of all the sites, they picked mine," she says. "In a way, it's kind of flattering."
Less flattering was the fact that although the bar was packed while the camera crew was on-site, Risch was instructed to clear half the patio exclusively for the show's participants. "They supplied people to look like customers -- fill-ins," she says. "My normal customers were not in it."
Back at Fitz's, Miller and his dueling damsels downed a lone shot (dubbed a Red-Headed Slut) and proceeded to suck on root-beer floats. As they did so, the indefatigable Lamson directed the trio to talk about bisexuality and role-playing, stopping the action whenever conversation veered to more pedestrian matters.
"He'd give me three or four questions I had to dig in on in the next shoot," says Miller, for whom Lamson served as personal assistant. "Chris was cool, but he seemed angry -- like he had higher expectations for his career."
After a final solo session with the camera during which he was coached into talking about (surprise!) bisexuality and role-playing, Miller settled on a dark-skinned beauty named Natasha. The two hugged politely and then proceeded to exchange digits and pleasantries.
"That was the first actual opportunity I had to talk to Natasha all day," Miller notes in retrospect.
He has spoken on the phone with Natasha a couple of times since that final slurp of root beer, Miller adds, but they have yet to go on a second date.