Copyright © 2015 Melanie Harlow
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews.
This is a work of fiction. References to real people, places, organizations, events, and products are intended to provide a sense of authenticity and are used fictitiously. All characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and not to be construed as real.
Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.
~ Mary Oliver
I’m not an awful person, I swear I’m not, but you wouldn’t know that if you saw me on Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy).
Oh, you’ve never heard of it?
It’s a ridiculous reality show where thirty beautiful girls compete for the love of a hot cattle rancher. To show their devotion, they do super meaningful things like wear red cowboy boots with tiny denim shorts, squeal for him at the local rodeo, and, of course, take their turn on a mechanical bull. This last activity will later be edited into a hilarious #FAIL reel since none of the women ever lasts more than ten seconds, and some not even two.
(If you must know, seven. And it wasn’t pretty.)
“It’s back on!” My younger sister Natalie bolted from the bathroom to the couch, jostling my arm when she flopped down next to me.
I frowned. “Nat, making me watch myself on Save a Horse is possibly forgivable, depending on how they edit this last segment. Spilling my margarita while I watch it is not.” I’d hoped a tequila buzz would numb the shame of watching myself be an obnoxious twat on TV, but so far, it hadn’t happened.
In my defense, producers told me to be an obnoxious twat. As soon I got to Montana, they took me aside and said, “We like you, but we want you to be the crazy one people will love to hate, and we’ll make sure you stay on the show longer if you’re good at it.” After thinking it over for a minute, I agreed. After all, the whole reason I was doing the show was to get noticed. If I was just another nice girl who got cut after the first episode, where would that leave me?
Had I known that clever editing would make me look even worse than I’d acted—a feat I’d have sworn wasn’t possible—I might have given that decision more than sixty seconds.
“Oh, come on.” Always able to see a bright side, Natalie patted my head. “Every show needs someone to hate on, and that person is always the most memorable, right?”
Noisily I slurped up more margarita. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“Yes! Can you name one nice person from a reality show? No,” she went on before I could answer. “That’s because nice people are not fun on TV.”
Sinking deeper into the couch, I watched myself trash someone’s outfit on the screen. “They’re not making me look fun. They’re making me look like a hideous bitch.” I picked up my phone and checked Twitter, even though I knew it would be painful. “Yep. Just like I thought. Hashtag skylarsucks is trending. Oh here’s a nice one: ‘Skylar Nixon is not even pretty. Her mouth looks like my asshole.’”
Natalie took my phone out of my hands and threw it down between us on the couch. “Screw that, people are stupid and just like to hear themselves talk. Listen, you did this show to get your name out there. And it worked! A month ago, you were just a beauty queen from Michigan. Last week, you were in US Magazine! I’d call that a success, wouldn’t you?”
“No. They took a picture of me pumping gas, and I looked fat.” I shut one eye and cringed watching myself sidle up to poor, hapless Cowboy Dex and flirt shamelessly. “Jesus, I’m even more horrible than I remember. I don’t think I can keep watching this train wreck.” Tossing back the rest of my drink, I got off the couch.
“You’re gonna miss the lasso ceremony!”
“Good.” I stomped over to the kitchen counter, which, unfortunately, was still in earshot of the television. For the last month I’d been living in a small, repurposed barn on my parents’ farm, and everything was in one long room, kitchen at one end, bedroom on the other. Actually, it wasn’t even really a bedroom, just a bed separated from the main area by thick ivory curtains that pooled on the floor. I’d added that touch myself. In fact, one of the reasons my parents let me move in to one of their new guest houses rent-free was to help my mother decorate them. Not that I had a degree in interior decorating—or anything at all. But I did like the challenge of taking a raw space and making it beautiful.
I should have gone to college for design.
Or underwater basket-weaving.
Or fucking anything that would have given me a real career to fall back on when the whole I’m Gonna Be a Star thing went tits up.
Heaving a sigh, I took my time in the kitchen, plunking a few more ice cubes into my glass and pouring generously from the oversized jug of margarita mix. But I returned to the couch in plenty of time to watch Cowboy Dex give out lassoes to the girls who’d roped his heart that week. Rolling my eyes so hard it hurt, I marveled that I’d managed to keep a straight face during this nonsense. No, even better than straight—my expression was sweet and grateful as Dex handed me that rope. Poor guy. He was cute, but dull as ditchwater. We actually had no chemistry whatsoever, but I’m sure the producers told him he had to keep me around for a while.
Oh, you didn’t know producers manipulate things on reality TV to get the conflicts and tension they want for ratings? They do. All the time.
Here are some other secrets I can tell you, although you didn’t hear them from me:
Those shows are cheap as hell. All the contestants “volunteer” their time, and the only things that are paid for are travel, lodging, meals, and drinks. For the two months I spent filming, I’ve got nothing to show but more credit card debt because of all the money I spent on clothes and shoes and hair and makeup.
Speaking of drinks, contestants can have, and are encouraged to have, as much alcohol as they want at the ranch, because a bunch of tipsy women are always more fun to watch than a bunch of sober ones. The showrunners made it a point to ask about favorite drinks during the interview process, and always kept the bars stocked.
Which leads me to my final point. Producers are the masterminds of the show—the contestants are more like puppets. The show might not be scripted, but if you’re not saying the things they want you to say, if you’re not having the conversations they want you to have, they’ll stop the cameras and tell you, “Talk about this.” And they edit so shrewdly, snipping out what they don’t want or stringing together words said on completely different occasions to create a sentence never uttered by anyone—there’s even a name for it: frankenbiting.
Like that—right there. “I never said that,” I said, lowering myself onto the couch and wincing when I heard myself remarking snidely, “People from small towns are all small-minded and stupid.”
Natalie sucked air through her teeth. “Wow. That was pretty harsh. You didn’t say it?”
“No! You can totally tell it’s edited—see the way it cut away from my interview to a voiceover? My voice doesn’t even sound the same! Those fucking producers were so slimy.”
The shot went back to me during the interview, and God, I hated my face. And my stupid girly voice. And who told me that color yellow looked good with my skin tone? “I’m actually from a small town,” I was saying. “I grew up on a farm in Northern Michigan, but I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”
Wait a minute. Had I said that? I bit my lip. I honestly couldn’t remember. And seeing as I’d recently moved back to said small town in Northern Michigan, it was particularly embarrassing.
And then it got worse.
“It’s nothing but a bunch of drunks, rednecks and religious gun nuts,” I heard my voice saying as footage of some unfamiliar, old-timey main street flashed on the screen, complete with a farmer riding a tractor through town. “I’d never go back.”
“What?” Furious, I got to my feet. “I know I never said that! That footage wasn’t even taken here!”
“Can they do that?” Natalie wondered, finally sounding a little outraged on my behalf. “I mean, just take any words you say and mix and match like that? Seems wrong.”
“Of course it’s wrong, but yes, they can,” I said bitterly. “They can do anything they want because it’s their show.” As I poured margarita down my throat, my cell phone dinged. I grabbed it off the couch and looked at the screen.
A text from our oldest sister, Jillian. She was a doctor and usually too busy for television, but lucky me, she must have found time tonight.
What the hell was that???
But before I could reply, another text came in, this one from my mother.
I thought you said last week was the worst. The thing with the mechanical bull.
My head started to pound. I opened my mother’s message and wrote back,
I thought it was! I told you not to watch this show, Mom. They manipulate things. I never said that stuff.
But I knew she wouldn’t get it. No matter how often or how well I explained the way editing worked, she still didn’t understand. My phone vibrated in my hand. “Oh, Jesus. Now she’s calling me,” I complained.