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Perks of Being a Geek on Reality TV

Food, Fears, Fashion: MIT Grad Speaks After Being Eliminated on Show

By Joanne Shih

Matthew A. Herman ’06 and his partner Andrea Ciliberti were sent home last Wednesday on the CW television show “Beauty and The Geek,” after surviving two weeks of such challenges as performing a stand-up comedy routine (for the geeks) and giving a space museum tour (for the beauties). The pair lost after Andrea Ciliberti missed her two questions in the elimination round — what type of advertising are billboards (answer: outdoor), and which store’s slogan is “Get more. Pay Less,” (answer: Target).

“I was surprised that we didn’t win that elimination beforehand just knowing how prepared we were,” Matt said. “The first [question] … was a very vague question and one of my colleagues at work had a good analogy … that made me feel a lot better — that’s like asking what type of vehicle is a fire truck and saying the answer is emergency, and then them saying ‘I’m sorry, that’s not right. It’s red.’ I don’t feel like it was either one of our faults or that we didn’t try our hardest or that we didn’t look good.”

I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Matt over the weekend about his experiences on and since the show. Among other things, we talked about what to take advantage of on a reality television set, what not to wear (ever), and what social anxieties even fraternity presidents have (Matt was, after all, president of Theta Xi for a year).

I ain’t no drama mama

Since I’ve become addicted to this show (even though I only started watching this season, which will have run for four weeks after tonight’s episode), I had to ask Matt how much of the show was “real” and how much was scripted, or the result of producers putting a negative slant on what had really happened. Were the cliques of blondes and the catty drama staged?

“It was worse, in my opinion,” Matt insisted, mentioning that only three girls (two of which were eliminated earlier in the show) besides his brunette partner Andrea would speak to him since the rest formed a clique that was not too fond of Andrea.

The eight geeks, on the other hand, got along together just fine.

“I think the guys who were in the house were very laid back. We all like to win things and we all were reasonably competitive but we weren’t competitive like some of the girls were, or competitive like some of the guys from past seasons were. We were enjoying ourselves, we each had something we wanted to get out of the experience, and we went with the flow a lot more.”

I found myself wondering how much common ground these geeks shared. I mean, geeks are pretty much the same everywhere right? Wrong.

“I think we had less common ground than the girls. You think about the people from MIT, we’re all essentially the same, but the geeks they had there weren’t all like math geeks. That was me and Niels.

“Then you had the two from Harvard, who studied social anthropology. Their interests are completely different from mine. The stuff they want to talk about is like current events and politics, and Harvard-type stuff. Then you have Mario, who’s four years older than the next oldest geek. He’s from the Mid-West. He works at a newspaper now; he studied Theology in school. I guess the reason he was there was comic books.”

Perks of the show

The contestants on the show reside in a beautiful mansion while they are still in the running for the $250,000 prize. It turns out, though, that the mansion itself is not really a perk of being on the show.

“They rave about this mansion, but essentially all the mansion is is a TV set,” Matt explained. “It’s not used as an actual house regularly. There are issues with that; the house didn’t have a dishwasher, the plumbing was worn out. It was smaller than I think Theta Xi was.”

For the MIT graduate, the best part about living there was the abundance of food.

“They had like three options for the two vegetarians … that was probably the best I’ve eaten in the four years that I was in college. I had never done three meals before.”

Product placement, by sponsors including Dentyne, Deja Blue, and Snapple, was also a big plus.

“Dentyne was a huge sponsor. There was Dentyne everywhere! Unfortunately, Andrea and I were not expecting to be going home this week, so we didn’t take a box of Dentyne with us or anything, which I wish I would have done,” he joked.

Studying Fashion 101

In case you haven’t been watching, in tonight’s episode the remaining five pairs are supposed to go on a vacation to the beach, although Matt told me he wouldn’t call it a vacation exactly.

“It can be very stressful. I mean, for two weeks when Andrea and I were studying, it was like studying for finals. You only had so many days to learn books worth of stuff.”

For example, in the episode on which Matt was eliminated, the geeks had to become experts on men’s fashion while the girls tackled marketing.

Matt was given study materials written by Carson Kressley from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. “It was about 120 pages or so, and I had it completely memorized,” Matt said. “I knew everything that was in the book. It was things you should or shouldn’t do about men’s fashion. They had pictures of all these types of shoes, all these different types of suits….”

Anything that could be put to use?

Perhaps. Although Matt had already forgotten much of what he’d memorized, he still remembered “things that are useless like what are three types of suits — Italian, American, and British. I think those are them … don’t quote me on that. I remember that. Maybe some things about shoes.

“The only thing that I really took out of that book was ‘Don’t wear pleated pants.’ So when I went shopping at Banana Republic this summer to get stuff to wear to work, I did not buy any pleated pants.”

Extreme Makeover: Geek Edition

This prompted the question of what he wanted to get out of the show in the first place. A makeover to be less geeky? The prize money?

“In high school I watched all the girly shows on the WB,” he said. “I really like soap operas. I watched the first season of Survivor when reality TV was new and cool. I watched a lot of it. Lately, I’m not a huge fan. I like Beauty and the Geek of course. But I always liked TV and I wanted to see how it was made. And in a setting that I wasn’t going to have to be an actor.

“Ideally I wanted to win [but] I wasn’t going in there saying ‘I need to win this, I need to win this.’ The only thing I didn’t want was to go home first. So it sucks we didn’t get to stay there longer, but I had a chance to learn what I wanted to learn and it was a fun experience. But I didn’t go in there thinking ‘I’m a geek beyond hope and I need these girls and I need a makeover.’”

Nevertheless, the makeover episode, where they went to the boutique Kitson, which according to Matt is a favorite of such celebrities as Jennifer Aniston, was an interesting experience for the extremely slim contestant. With his skinny frame, Matt had problems finding clothes that would fit properly.

“[The show] made a big deal out of showing Mario and how it didn’t work for him, but Mario and I have about the exact opposite body types. Whereas the stuff wasn’t going to fit Mario because he was a little heavier than the rest of us, stuff wasn’t going to fit me because I was too skinny. The only belt I could get had these ugly spikes on it, and the pants I had were like falling off because we only had half an hour in there and the closest jeans to my size were still a little too big. Same thing with the shoes and everything.”

In the end, the biggest change from the makeover for Matt turned out to be him taking off his glasses and putting them in his pocket.

Facing fears and other problems

After reading in last week’s Tech interview in the arts section that Matt was not afraid to talk to girls or be around them, I was curious as to what he was afraid of doing on the show.

“The third challenge where we had to get up on stage and prance around [for a date auction], that’s very uncomfortable for me,” Matt admitted. “Those were the types of things that I was really nervous about when I was about to start doing the show and once the show started. Things that I’m just not good at, that I have no interest in being good at. Like modeling, or selling myself based on looks and selling myself based on my coordination or athletic ability. Another biggest weakness is I’m not very good at meeting people. I’m an acquired taste, that’s the way my parents put it.”

His parents were supportive of his venture onto reality television with one exception: Matt had to miss graduation to film the show.

“That was the only reason. Like for me, I don’t personally care about missing graduation. It would have been nice to have more closure to MIT, but when you think about how much work you put in to graduate, I think what’s a bigger experience is when you go on WebSIS for the first time and it says ‘All Institute Requirements Complete’ with a degree on it.”

The aftermath

Inevitably, Matt has gained a sudden fan base of people who have been watching the show, and for him, the biggest change since his time on Beauty and The Geek “is having random people know [him].”

He joked about the nature of some of the comments he’s read on online blogs — ranging from “You should eat a lot of cheeseburgers” to “He has a cute face but his body kind of looks like a kangaroo.”

After mentioning he’d been recognized by three or four people on the street, he hesitated when I asked him if there had been any weird encounters.

“Nobody’s done anything weird. There was this one girl who kind of screamed but it wasn’t like a good scream. Like you think about the scream you’d expect: Say I’m Brad Pitt, and I’m walking down the street, and somebody screams. You can think about that scream. Now imagine you’re me, and you were on this show that’s not meant to be flattering, and now I’m walking down the street and people recognize me — there’s going to be a different kind of scream.”

To my disappointment, he refused to re-enact the scream.

One last word on being geeky

There was just one last question I was burning to ask, and after almost an hour of chatting with Matt, I was fairly sure he wouldn’t be offended.

Did he try to make himself more geeky than he really is?

“No. Not at all. I tried to be myself as much as possible, if anything I was more reserved than I generally am, just because I didn’t know the people, and it was a crazy experience. But I wasn’t trying to look like a geek. If anything, I was trying to look the least geeky.”

I’m sure most of us at MIT would have done just the same.