Yes, OK. I admit it. I, in my foolhardy youth, was in the cast of the Australian production of Playing It Straight. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, well, first of all, you can be justly proud of your life choices. Second, for the purposes of this piece you need to know that Playing It Straight, originally developed and screened in the US, was, for all intents, exactly the same as The Bachelorette, with the added twist that six of the twelve men present as potential partners for the Bachelorette equivalent were gay, and six were straight.
In the show, the gay guys did their best to pretend to be heterosexual (hence the title), and every week, the lady in question evicted two of her suitors, doing her best to thin out the gay competitors. Basically, the entire premise was set up as a test of how good her gaydar was: if, at the show’s conclusion, the last remaining suitor was a straight man, the two of them split a final reward of two hundred thousand dollars and, presumably, lived happily ever after. If, however, a gay guy was the last man standing, then he won all $200K, and the girl was left with nothing¹.
When I and the rest of the straight cast originally signed on we were unaware of any of this. We were told only that the show was to be a tongue-in-cheek version of The Bachelorette, a way to make fun of bad reality TV (of course, this was pre-Bridalplasty and the complete immunity of reality television to satire). Our gay counterparts, obviously, knew about the ruse. I can’t speak for what was going through anyone else’s mind as they were handing back their signed contracts, but I can testify that I personally didn’t get beyond reading the words ‘cash prize’ without thinking I don’t care how humiliating this could potentially be, I’m doing it.
After three suspiciously speedy casting rounds (I was selected, I later found out, thanks to two things: the audition tape I’d sent in, which consisted mostly of me slapping my own ass and, direct quote, my ‘uncertain sexuality’) I got the call to say, hey, you’re in. Pack your bags.
I celebrated my good fortune with a night out with friends, made jokes about how if I was evicted, I’d do my very best to take someone else down with me, and applied for an undefined period of time off work, unsure of how long I’d be in the game. Channel 7, the network producing the show, then flew me from Melbourne to Sydney, where I met the rest of the cast.
I was 21 and bartending for a living while I half-heartedly completed a degree in English literature. I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, and spent most of my money on drinking with my workmates. I had no real career goals, no savings to speak of, no drive, no ambition, and, probably most importantly, no real confidence or sense of identity. Suddenly, I was dropped into a group of eleven good-looking, well-groomed, high-powered alpha males, all of them older than me, some by more than ten years. Weightlifters and medical researchers, international DJs and surfers, players and professionals, and we were all in direct, nationally-broadcast competition for the same girl. With the insouciant self-confidence that is my trademark, I considered this, weighed up possible outcomes in my head, and blurted out ‘I’m so fucked,’ on the bus to Sydney airport.
We flew from Sydney to the small country town of Parkes, and from Parkes we took a bus to the even smaller Condoblin, an outback community which boasts as its two main attractions the birthplace of Shannon Noll, runner-up in the first season of Australian Idol, and the lovely resort where we stayed (despite promising myself I would go for a long swim in the sculpted swimming pool and get a good game of snooker in while I was there, I did neither. I did, however, get drunk on the network’s dime the first night at the resort. The rest of the guys drank beer, while I made a bee-line for the vodka and thought Pffft. Lightweights).
The production staff broke the news of the show’s true nature on the first day we spent at the resort. My eleven reality co-stars and I were standing under the blazing Australian sun in a baked-dry paddock, the dozen of us sharing an iced case of de-labeled and camera-friendly beers and tentatively getting to know each other. We’d spent the earliest parts of the afternoon walking over an old wooden bridge together to film the group introduction to be played on the show’s first broadcast, then walking up to the camera alone to film our solo introduction shots. Our host, the wonderful, lovely Natalie, gathered us together in the barn at the edge of the resort and let the cat out of the bag – half of you are straight, half of you are gay, here’s how it works.
I’d heard of the US version of the show and I had my suspicions already (most of which were confirmed on meeting Contestant Scott). We swore not to reveal the secret to Rebecca, the girl at the centre of the show, who we’d yet to meet. As I’d already been given a cowboy hat by this time, I was willing to do anything the network asked (I may not have been as obliging if I’d known then, as I know now, the hats had to be given back).
We were also told that our introductory meeting with Rebecca would be that night. An hour beforehand, as our nerves started to jangle, as small talk started to dry up and and the cigarette smokers started to go outside more frequently, we agreed among ourselves that none of us would dress up, that we would not to be too over-the-top in our first attempts to seduce Rebecca. We would be men, and we would be casual, and we would be proud of who we were.
And half an hour later, this camaraderie disintegrated as one of us casually wandered off to put on a collared shirt. This turned into a stampede as a dozen grown men bolted to their rooms to change into the fanciest clothes they had available. Finally, wearing shirts, polished shoes, and designer jeans, we were lead down through perfectly-trimmed hedges to eat by the swimming pool, the cool of the night settling gently around us, and told to await the arrival of the star of the show.
Rebecca herself was a model and a bartender from Darwin. A year or so older than I was, she had the kind of feline grace and attractiveness that I’d read about in books but never seen in real life. We all met her for dinner, sat around, joked, and made conversation, competing already in our own ways for her attention and favour. Afterwards, she took us aside, one by one, to talk to us by the pool and see what she could make of us in the space of a few minutes.
When I sat down with her, I was terrified. This was going to be on national TV. What the hell was I going to say?
Something clever my brain insisted. Something clever is always a good thing to say.
And then it took a five-minute cigarette break.
‘So,’ she asked. ‘What made you want to do this show?’
‘Well,’ I joked. ‘I thought it would be a great way to meet hot guys.’
My brain returned, surveyed the damages, and packed its bags.
The next day the big secret was revealed to Rebecca. Not all of us were the sexuality she thought we were, and at least one of us, not as clever. And she was going to have to sift straight from gay if she wanted to win that money and find a man.
It seemed to me that the other guys were fawning too much. They were too attentive, too obviously interested, too quick to get close to her to talk. So I came up with a strategy. I, alone among the twelve, would play it cool. I would be the one to make her work for my attention. I, Simon Smithson, would be the guy who didn’t buy into the hype.
Consequently, I was the first person Rebecca kicked off the show. At this, as in all other times, my instincts had proved that they are not my friends.
My old boss Mike, who I will destroy some day, still hasn’t seen the show, and maintains that the whole thing never really happened and that it was just the best excuse he’s ever heard to get out of a weekend of work. I occasionally get text messages from friends at one in the morning to say ‘Hey! Your show’s on TV! Right now!’ But, as with all other things, it appears that the universe has a plan. I became internet friends with Natalie, who introduced me to a certain Zoe Brock, who introduced me to a certain Nervous Breakdown.
That hundred thousand dollars really would have been nice, though.
¹ And what a wonderful, wonderful testament to humanity it was.