By Michael E. Miller
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Of the hundreds of South Floridians who recently auditioned for CBS' Survivorat Fort Lauderdale's Swap Shop Circus, one seemed to set a standard for sheer audacity in her allotted two minutes. Wearing shorts and a tank top, the young woman removed a dead raw fish from a container and sank her teeth into its head. Opening her mouth, she flashed a fish eye, then swallowed it. "Just so you know for sure I can do this..." she proclaimed gamely as she rotated the fish and masticated the remaining orb. Ending on a lighter touch, she pulled up her shirt and flashed her goods for the onlookers, cameras, and, most important, the producers of the granddaddy of reality shows.
Unfortunately, no one from the series was actually there for the taped auditions, an event coordinated by CBS affiliate WFOR-TV (Channel 4) and Swap Shop employees. From these and thousands of other applicants, though, about 800 candidates across the nation will actually get a follow-up interview in March.
Just before noon on the second day of auditions, a 200-foot line of would-be contestants snakes around the bleacher seating at the heart of the Swap Shop Circus. Most of the 100-odd hopefuls gathered here scribble vigorously on applications. For most if not all in line, these auditions are the closest they'll ever get to fame and the $1 million prize for being the last player standing. The odds are long. Of the 800 callbacks, only 38 will be invited to Los Angeles in April to meet with producers. Sixteen will make the final cut and become cast members for the series' next installment, which will be filmed over seven weeks this June and July at an as-yet-undisclosed location.
Still, just reaching the center of the Swap Shop on a Sunday morning like this, clear and beautiful, has a way of winnowing the feckless from the fearless. Hundreds of cars jam Sunrise Boulevard awaiting a turn at precious spaces in the vast parking lots. Fender-benders and engine stall-outs cripple the flow. Once inside the gates, the outdoor flea market teems with bargain hunters. One path leading to the circus is a gauntlet of odors: slightly decaying produce from a farmer's market, the effluvium of secondhand clothes crammed into scores of brown boxes, and the treacly cloud of cotton candy.
The circus ring shares a cacophonous two-story building with a food court-cum-video arcade. A half moon of bleachers borders the ring, where two cameras videotape applicants against a backdrop of potted palms. Video images of the entire ring flicker on a giant screen above, though few pay attention to it.
It's a daunting experience for many. The video operator shows an applicant his mark, a piece of black electrical tape on the floor, and then instructs him to hold up the handwritten number on the back of his application. The camera rolls. This is typically followed by 15 to 120 seconds of quavery-voiced bio, often prefaced by such attention-grabbers as, "I don't know what to tell you about myself," "I guess I just want to be on the show," and "I've seen all six Survivor shows." Some are shaking; others end up striking an almost defensive pose, with the application and microphone serving as shield and sword.
Dedicated viewership is indeed a big motivator for many in line. Shortly after noon, Ted Lazzell waits near the end of the line of about 100 as his wife, Elaine, fills out the form for him. "I'm a big fan of Survivor -- my wife and I are," explains the Pembroke Pines man, wearing a Dolphins shirt and jean shorts. By day, he is a service adviser at an auto dealership.
His game plan? "I have no idea," he concedes. He has brought no visual aids or props, just a vague hope that he'll somehow get over when his time comes in front of the cameras. "I guess I'll talk about where I live, where I came from, what I like, maybe some personal credo," he says. Like big-game hunting experiences? a reporter suggests. "Yeah, if I had some," he replies. He considers that résumé-builder for a moment. "I don't think I could shoot defenseless animals anyway." What about that credo? "I wouldn't lay down and quit," he says.
Kevin Bergeron, the Swap Shop coordinator for the weekend auditions, stands nearby, handing out applications. He's sporting a close-cropped beard and a man-in-charge white shirt. "We had people lined up outside for this at 4:30 a.m. yesterday," he says. Still, the crowd for this is puny compared to tryouts for Wheel of Fortune held a few months ago, he says.
Inside the circus ring, a camera operator motions Heather Darling, a short, muscular blond, to step on the mark. She resembles a post-Burt Reynolds Loni Anderson. "Because I'm a stunt artist, I have to count on people as though my life depends on it," she coos into the camera. She's also a performer at the Swap Shop Circus. "There's one trick I do on the elephant, where I hold onto her head and she twirls me around really, really fast. I'm more afraid of getting a hole in my fishnets -- they're $25 a piece -- than I am of being slaughtered by the elephant."
Immediately after the audition, in which she confidently pitched her skills, she sums herself up. "I'm a huge risk-taker. I live for that kind of world. I'm just trying to see what my limits are, if any at all."
Lazzell, after shuffling in line for an hour, finally gets in front of the camera a few minutes after Darling. His quiet litany: father of five, love to be on the show, no quitter. And for whatever role modesty plays in the selection process, he admits, "I don't know if I'd win it."
Others take a much more nothin'-I-wouldn't-do approach. One young man, mindful of an episode in which a cast member was unable to urinate upon demand, makes clear that he knows that particular bar has been raised much higher. Pointing to the heretofore unmolested potted palms, he pronounces himself up to the task. "I'd literally turn around right here and go to the bathroom on these," he threatens.
But Jerry Balester, a Miamian who's dressed in pink scuba flippers, goggles, and life preserver vest, does the pee-on-demand man one better. Tethered to his waist are a spool of fishing line and a full roll of toilet tissue. Why the toilet paper? "I have an anal discharge problem," he confesses. It's nothing he can control, but it's also not something that would prevent him from enduring in the wilderness.
"Would I pull my pants down?" Balester free-associates toward his finale. "Probably." He vacillates for a second, then turns around, pulls his shorts to his knees, and bends over for a time too lengthy to pass as flashing. The crowd whoops and claps as Balester lifts his shorts. He flip-flops toward the bleachers. His wife is aghast. His daughter scrambles away in mortification. Balester, nonchalant after his moment in the spotlight, explains that family and friends have long encouraged him to try out for the show. His wife continues to shake her head, glancing every so often at the man she now can't seem to comprehend as her husband. "I'm sick," he says. "I do things that are disgusting." He can even eat fish entrails on demand, he claims.
So anal leakage seemed an untapped gimmick for a Survivor wannabe? "No, that's a problem I have," he maintains. "Everybody knows it, so there's no use hiding it."