'Top Chef 2' winner Ilan Hall and his mom go on the offensive
By Christopher Rocchio, 02/13/2007
According to Top Chef 2 winner Ilan Hall, the show's editing is to blame for the less-than-flattering impression and bad aftertaste the 24-year-old chef left on many of the culinary competition's home viewers. And if you don't believe him, then just listen to his mom.
"What I didn't expect was how much I believed what I saw and how much friends who have known Ilan since he was little reassessed their opinion of him, good and bad, based on the edited version of reality that they saw weekly on the small screen," Rita Hall wrote in Sunday's edition of Newsday, where she works as a section designer in the newspaper's editorial department.
Rita went on to describe "viewers in the blogosphere" as cruel, and added "cryptically named writers jumped to wild unsubstantial conclusions" about her son. From claims that her son didn't deserve to win despite being the most victorious in the elimination rounds to speculation that Ilan is gay even though he has a girlfriend, Rita said she was left to wonder where these opinions came from. She even tackled Ilan's feud with Top Chef 2 runner-up Marcel Vigneron.
"In an ongoing conflict with fellow contestant Marcel, bloggers largely sided against Ilan, even though, over 13 weeks, almost every chef had a dispute with Marcel," wrote Rita.
Finding herself "engaged" while watching her son, Rita said she couldn't help but wonder why "thousands of unconnected chatters who don't know Ilan" didn't feel the same way. "I found my reaction to him on TV a kind of flip side to my response to a fictional character like Tony Soprano," wrote Rita. "I treat Tony, in post-episode conversations, as if he were real. And I treat Ilan, in similar post-show analyses, as if he was a character."
Also in Sunday's edition of Newsday, Ilan basically agreed with his mother, claiming what viewers saw "wasn't all of me -- it was TV."
"The only thing that's real about reality TV is that the people you see are not scripted actors. The situations are completely contrived - which is fine, they are making a TV show," wrote Ilan. "What's real are people's reactions to those situations. Since most of the episodes are taken from several days of shooting, you aren't getting the purest representation of what everybody is doing. But the things that are happening are not fake. They are real people in real situations."
While he finds it "interesting" what editors decide to keep or leave out -- and even compared their work to that of Michelangelo -- Ilan said being on the contestant side, "you have no say in how they portray you."
"You are sort of signing your likeness away. They can manipulate and mold you into whatever they want," he wrote. "They create situations that make you seem a little more conniving than you actually are. They don't show entire conversations that would explain why you are reacting in a certain way. They will cut out encouragement or instigation from other contestants. What you saw on TV was me, just an edited me."
However Ilan said Marcel was "a master at avoiding saying nasty things on camera," and added the portrayal of the Top Chef 2 runner-up was "what [Marcel] wanted it to be. Viewers think he's a little annoying, but he's really much more difficult to get along with." Ilan said after appearing on Top Chef 2, people come up to him on the street and "start talking as if they were my friend." He said while "it's fine" because he's "pretty friendly," they assume they know his "true personality."
"If I were an actor, I could tell them that the scripted character I played is not who I am. I can't say that because everything I said in the show came out of my own mouth," wrote Ilan. "I have a bad reputation on the blogosphere. They don't realize that they saw only a small portion of the story, not to mention we were in such an intense situation. We were sequestered. We had to spend a lot of time waiting, and we were not allowed to read magazines or watch TV."
Rita said "cooking with the ingredients and under the constraints of the Top Chef competition was only lifelike," and compared reality television to American cheese -- "edible, tasty, a winning dish even, but not the real thing." Ilan agreed, and said he's "never going to watch a reality show the same way again."
"I take these shows for what they're worth -- they are entertaining. But I find myself getting more attached to a good actor playing a well-written role than to a reality TV contestant," wrote Ilan. "I didn't feel this way before. Now I know that the person on reality TV is a filtered version of a person. A fictional character is more interesting, or more real."