Thursday, June 12, 2003
New York Finding embarrassing secrets in the past of reality television stars is about as tough as finding Botox in Hollywood.
That doesn't stop The Smoking Gun from looking, or Web surfers from lapping it up. The Web site has made a specialty of finding the drunken-driving arrests, porn acting jobs or other not-so-shining moments behind the smiles of TV's newest stars.
"I don't know how many people in the country get arrested for driving under the influence," said William Bastone, the site's editor, "but it seems like a very high percentage of reality TV participants do."
Much of their findings offer a harmless diversion, but The Smoking Gun has altered games like "American Idol" and embarrassed television networks.
Bastone, a former Village Voice writer who covered organized crime, started The Smoking Gun largely as a way to reveal interesting court documents that didn't find their way into stories.
Two entertaining features of the site collect mug shots of famous people who ran afoul of the law even a young Bill Gates and contract riders of entertainers who expect well-stocked dressing rooms.
Bastone and colleagues Danny Green, Andrew Goldberg and Joseph Jesselli aren't reality TV fans. But when Fox's "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire" caused a sensation in February 2000, they decided to poke around.
They quickly found, and posted, court documents revealing that the multimillionaire, Rick Rockwell, had once been under a restraining order sought by a former fiancee who said he had hit her and threatened to kill her.
Everything unraveled for Fox. They canceled plans to rerun the show and, briefly, promised more care and restraint in reality offerings.
The Smoking Gun had struck a nerve. Visitors and tipsters flocked to the site. The Smoking Gun could have started a private eye agency with all the people who wanted them to look into people's pasts, Green said.
Bastone believes there's a fascination about these peccadilloes because reality TV created stars who were a mystery to the public, unlike comedies and dramas that have actors fans know.
"You watch these shows, and you're given a very sanitized version of who these people are," he said. "Half of the time they don't even give you their last names."
The site found plenty of dirt on stars of CBS' "Survivor": business bankruptcies, check bouncing, public drunkenness, a soft-core porn past. It found a "Big Brother" contestant who had a court appearance for drunken driving scheduled for when she was supposed to be sequestered for the show.
It revealed "Joe Millionaire" Evan Marriott's past as an underwear model and contestant Sarah Kozer's roles in bondage and fetish films illustrated with plenty of pictures.
Smoking Gun for TV
This summer, The Smoking Gun tries its own hand at television. The site is owned by Court TV, which is developing two specials based on the site. Mo Rocca of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" will be host, but little else about the programs has been determined.
Bastone expects that his source material is nowhere near drying up.
He scoffs at the notion that a potential reality show participant might back away for fear that The Smoking Gun will uncover skeletons from their past.
"I think there's a thirst and a lust for the spotlight and celebrity," he said.
This week, NBC learned from The Smoking Gun that its star of a new dating game had been expelled from a military program for drunkenly groping the breasts of a female Navy officer. While plans call for "For Love or Money" to continue to air this summer, its bachelor, Rob Campos, lost his job at a Dallas-area law firm.
Production of the show already has been completed. The network said the incident was not found in any of the public records checked before Campos was cast, and he didn't tell anyone.