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Gravy Train 

The latest St. Louisan to hop aboard the reality-TV juggernaut sees nothing but green

First there was Cara, then Trista. And soon there will be Dave.

Although little consideration is given to last names in the ever-expanding realm of reality television, Cara would be Cara Kahn (formerly Nussbaum), graduate of Washington University and strumpet extraordinaire on The Real World Chicago; Kirkwood native Trista is the Rehn clan's giddy blond Bachelorette; and Dave is 23-year-old St. Louis University High alum Dave Giuntoli, star of MTV's Road Rules: South Pacific, the pioneer network's Real World stepsibling whose twelfth season debuted Memorial Day.

Toss in Survivor: Amazon nutjob Janet Koth of Manchester, and the proliferation of St. Louisans on reality television is a veritable phenomenon.

"It's luck of the draw that people from this area seem to be getting on," observes Webster University communications and journalism professor Art Silverblatt. "There's a tremendous interest in people to get on these programs. It's a great opportunity to promote themselves as celebrities. It puts them in a different realm."

Knocking back rum-and-Cokes at the Delmar Lounge on a recent Tuesday, Giuntoli makes no bones about the realm he's about to enter. But unlike Kahn -- who, after servicing the lead singer of Big Head Todd in front of Real World cameras, proceeded to pose for Stuff magazine, ink a fat endorsement contract with Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, embark on a nationwide college tour to promote her favorite Wyeth-manufactured antidepressant and move to Los Angeles in an attempt to kick-start an acting career -- the Road Ruler doesn't seem to harbor any delusions of grandeur. Or, for that matter, any delusions whatsoever.

"I know I'm not going to be the next Patrick Swayze," says the blue-eyed, heartland-hunky Giuntoli, a Frontenac resident who earned a bachelor's degree in international finance at Indiana University. "I'm just the guy who wants to make a fuck-ton of money right now."

Giuntoli figures he's got four to six months -- "until the next cast," he says -- to rake in that fuck-ton. To do so, he and two of his female castmates have signed with Los Angeles-based Direct Entertainment Group, which will be booking a tour of appearances for the trio at everything from nightclubs to malls to "a rich woman's daughter's birthday party," in Giuntoli's words.

Though Giuntoli expects he'll have to come up with some sort of topical shtick for events that require him to speak, he says he'll mainly be getting paid in the vicinity of $1,500 a pop to "just be." (Road Rulers aren't paid for their roles on the show, though they stand to make a few thousand dollars per alumni "challenge" appearance in subsequent years.)

"The goal of my life is to get paid to act like a toddler," Giuntoli says. "I can always do business finance, but I don't want to. My life is a spaghetti social right now."

How Giuntoli landed in that plate of pasta is more of an odyssey than his two-month physical-challenge-laden voyage through Fiji, New Zealand and the tranquil Tahitian island of Moorea. Last spring he was one of 800 IU twentysomethings to attend an open casting call for The Real World and Road Rules at Kilroy's sports bar near the Bloomington campus. (In all, 30,000 hopefuls vied for spots nationwide.)

"It was 'Wear a Funky Shirt and Act Like an Idiot Day,'" Giuntoli recounts. "You go through this velvet rope -- ten people at a time -- and you instantly feel like a star. You really do. Then icebreakers ensue."

Giuntoli was one of 50 Hoosiers selected to fill out a military-style personality survey that had him weighing in on everything from his attitude about abortion to how much he liked to party. After he was instructed by the show's creators, Bunim/Murray, to produce and send in a videotape of himself executing extreme shenanigans such as skydiving, a month of silence elapsed. Then, en route home from a November Wilco concert at the Pageant, Giuntoli got a phone call notifying him that he'd made it to a semifinal round of 80 prospective contestants in Chicago. That led to a round of 30 in Los Angeles, where, he says, he "felt like a rich person's cat: fluffy pillows, good food -- really corny shit."

When he was included in the final field of thirteen -- the total number of participants needed to fill out both Real World and Road Rules casts -- Giuntoli figured his noncompetitive nature would land him on the older, more domestic show. Giuntoli speculates that he ended up on Road Rules as a check-and-balance to earthy Montana snowboarder Abram, eccentric lard-ass Bostonian Donell and high-maintenance fashion hottie Cara (not to be confused with Kahn) from Ohio.

"They're head cases," Giuntoli says of his cohorts, absent the slightest hint of disdain. "They just get swept away by life. I was cast as the normal dude."

Judging from the meet-the-cast episode that aired May 19, normal dude Dave is also the guy who lures a lassie or two into the sleeper loft of the Road Rulers' RV, a guess Giuntoli will acknowledge only with a smile. But he's quick to stress that the sex-drenched vibe given off by the show is soaked in boob-tube hyperbole.

"They made it look so fucking crazy," Giuntoli says of the introductory episode. "Everything happened, but it's not like we were jean-fucking all the time. It's a fuckin' TV show. They have storywriters. They'll magnify something 300 percent."

The Real World's Kahn, who was pigeonholed by that show's cameras as a hedonistic fellatrix, remains irked by the producers' penchant for manipulation.

"I was edited into this horrible caricature of myself," says Kahn, who recently threw in the towel after seven months in LA and now works at a women's boutique in Ladue. "Television has gotten so exploitive and sexual. It's become more important to push the envelope. Often it's just dumb hot people."

Although sex and television is hardly a revelatory pairing, Giuntoli argues that it was The Real World Las Vegas that signaled an irreversible devolution toward libido-centric plot lines.

"I think Vegas put us in the toilet a little bit," Giuntoli says of the decadent desert-and-dice season that featured as much loin play as the prior eleven installments combined. "They're all good-looking. It's unfair to the general public. [The Real World] used to be, 'I'm a struggling artist; what do you think about euthanasia?' Now it's, like, 'How many girls can you get in a hot tub?'"

Alice Hall, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has studied reality television extensively, says the emphasis on aesthetics has spread genre-wide.

"In Survivor, with the first one, you didn't necessarily have people who were magazine cover models," Hall observes. "By the second season, the glamour quotient went up."

Although Hall has never found much honesty in the "reality" tag ascribed to MTV's twin hit shows, she has noticed a trend toward enhanced superficiality.

"Even with the original Real World and Road Rules, they were casting people who would look attractive," says Hall. "The camera affects how people behave. But it could be argued that when those initial shows came out, they may not have been aware of the culture power that the shows have proven to have -- or, to a certain extent, the level of publicity that these shows generate."

Of course, Giuntoli knows full well the magnitude of the power he now wields, and he's astonishingly upfront about his intentions to squeeze every last dollar out of his newfound celebrity -- a fact that Webster professor Silverblatt feels will have little or no impact on the public-in-waiting.

"That's always been something people have done," Silverblatt says of quasi-celebrity's ka-ching factor. "Now it's becoming more overt, and people don't seem to mind. In times past, fame was connected to achievement. Now fame is just a byproduct of being noticed by the media. You have people who have no achievement other than being on media. It makes no difference who they are or what they've done; it's just simply that they are on."

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