Reality TV World goes behind the scenes of 'Starting Over's new Los Angeles home
By Brooke Ashton, 09/15/2004
For its new second season that began broadcasting this week, Bunim-Murray’s “Starting Over” daytime reality series is getting its own chance at a new start by vacating its original Chicago-based home, and taking root in a Spanish-style $6 million home nestled in the Hollywood Hills.
As part of its new season launch, Bunim-Murray invited Reality TV World correspondent Brooke Ashton to an open house tour of the new home.
In this article, Brooke recounts her exclusive interviews with the life coaches and executive producer and discusses the strategy behind the design of the new reality TV house.
My two hour visit began at 10 am, when I parked my car on a small side street in Hollywood, and met Amanda, a production assistant that had been assigned to shuttle guests from their car to the house.
The view of the house as the car approached from the street. Inset, a smoggy, albeit spectacular view of Los Angeles
We drove into the recesses of the hills, through a gated community, and about 15 houses later, the end of the road met the sprawling hacienda that the season two cast members now call home.
Amanda dropped me off and I was whisked away by another P.A. into an open-air patio, where I waited for my designated tour guide. I wandered over to the balcony and was awe-stricken by the spectacular view of Los Angeles, even though it was heavily obstructed by smog that day.
Life Coach Rhonda Britten, returning from season one, soon appeared beside me and invited me to follow her around the house. As I followed her in, she explained the motivation behind the big move to the West coast. The most emphasized reason was the weather. She explained that viewers should not have to feel unsettled watching an episode filmed during a snowy winter in Chicago, but not aired until the spring season.
Rhonda sits on a couch in the living room. Behind her, you can see through the dining room into the kitchen.
This Hollywood home was specifically chosen not only for its locale, but also for its open layout. The Chicago home, “was too constricted”, Rhonda explained, and hindered interaction between houseguests. An important feature of the floor plan of the new home was the dining room, which is mutually open to both the kitchen and living room, allowing dialogue to be heard throughout the house, and reducing the opportunity for cast member privacy – from either the cameras or from each other. Rhonda added that the furniture, especially in the living room, was arranged to face each other in order to further encourage interaction between the houseguests.
I asked Rhonda to comment on the choice of décor, and she stated that bright colors were intentionally chosen to uplift the guests, and that all artwork was obtained only from women artists in order to reinforce the theme of female empowerment.
Rhonda took me past the only phone in the entire house, situated in the middle
At left, a table with phone, located in a very public part of the house. At right, a not-so-hidden camera is used to capture emotional moments on the phone.
of a hallway, depriving the caller of any privacy. She says that the women often storm over to the phone to vent to a loved one after having been incensed after an encounter. Three cameras are aimed at the phone, ready to catch the caller’s emotions from every angle.
As we entered the smallest bedroom, Rhonda explained the strategic assignment of roommates within the house. She told me, “We put people together that will ignite each other”. For example, Kim, who is used to the comforts afforded to the wealthy, was forced to share the smallest bedroom, despite her request upon her arrival to the house to have the largest room to herself.
At left, the smallest room in the house, which well-to-do Kim is forced to share with a roommate. At right, the pool and deck that overlook the city of Los Angeles.
Rhonda led me outside to the pool, where graduation ceremonies, more elaborate than in the previous season, will be held. She explained that they will incorporate more impressive rituals, inspired by sorority initiation ceremonies.
Boards of Review, previously held in the Chicago living room, now will be held in a separate room, in which the cast members are only allowed to enter upon invitation from the crew. As Rhonda led me to this room, she explained that this change will add a more “official feel” to all of the meetings by having one such designated room. I also noted that it would minimize the area of the house that the cast was allowed to occupy on a day-to-day basis (further increasing proximity between housemates).
At left, Rhonda sits in her "usual chair" in the meeting room. At right, the monitor in the meeting room will be used to replay scenes for the house guests during meetings.
Rhonda sat down in her “usual chair” and I settled down next to her. She pointed out a mounted flat-screen monitor that can be used to replay certain scenes brought up in discussion. At that moment, it was playing the premiere episode for season two, and we spent about five minutes viewing some scenes from the show while Rhonda provided me with supplemental information about each scene.
My visit with Rhonda drew to a close when Dr. Stan J. Katz, the new on-site clinical psychologist, walked in and offered to meet with me for a few minutes. As the first male addition to the coaching team, he revealed that the cast was initially apprehensive about his presence in this feminist environment. However, he says the women eventually sought him out for not only his scientific expertise, but also as the only subject onto whom they could project their issues with men.
Producer Millee Taggart-Ratcliffe and a director discuss a scene in the control room
Later, Iylana Vanzant, the other new addition to the coaching team, entered and Dr. Katz allowed her to take his seat. I introduced myself and explained I was a big fan of the show myself and working on a Reality TV World story for Starting Over's online fans, after which Vanzant immediately added “...who have nothing better to do.” When I asked her to explain her comment, Vanzant justified her frustration with online viewers by claiming the same old argument about the inherent inaccuracy in reality TV: any viewer unhappy with her is biased, as they are only seeing an edited version of the entire story. While I had not mentioned any unhappiness with her role in the show - in fact I, like the rest of America, haven’t even seen the new season yet, making any such unhappiness impossible - I decided that it would be best if I moved on to the topic of her contributions to the team. As the self-described “Aha coach”, Vanzant believes that she is the one who detects the “underlying cause” of a woman’s problem. After declining to answer some of my remaining questions, she handed me off to another P.A., who led me to the control room.
Producer Ratcliffe can oversee the entire house at all times from a monitor on the desk in her office
In the control room, I met executive producer, Millee Taggart-Ratcliffe. This time, my introduction as a writer working on a story on behalf of the program's online viewers was very well received. Millee eagerly showed me around her office, then turned the tables by interviewing me. She wanted to know who my favorite houseguests were and why, what I got out of the show, and what kinds of things the fans are saying about the show on the message boards. This season, she aims to expand her audience to include more males, by emphasizing the point that “for the male viewer, this is everything you ever wanted to know about women”.
After the tour of her office, Millee showed me the closet-size confessional room, and expressed that “It’s astonishing how getting put in this little room can make some people spill their guts”. Opposite the confessor’s plush armchair is a foldable chair that is reserved for the producer.
The confessional room (or closet), where contestants sit in a comfortable chair with facade behind them while being questioned by a producer in a folding chair.
Remarkably generous with her time, Millie even offered to pose for some additional photos, and once that we done, we exchanged thanks and goodbyes as I hopped into the shuttle that was waiting to take me back down the hill.