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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 elimiDATEepisode 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 elimiDATEshoots, 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 elimiDATEscout 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.