Reality television tends to be more television than reality, with the most realistic premises often resulting in the most allegedly “staged” programming. The Huffington Post piece exposing what really happened on MTV’s Pimp My Ride earlier this year made the Xzibit-hosted program seem like one of the genre’s most inauthentic, a portrayal that resulted in numerous responses from people unsurprised that a show that “staged” was airing on MTV. Yet the same network is also responsible for one of the most surprisingly honest and accurate shows in the reality category: Made.
The long-running show, which premiered in 2002 and recently wrapped its 15th season, has one of the most audacious premises in the network’s history. A teenage novice with a dream is paired up with an expert and, in five to eight weeks, is “made” into who they’ve always wanted to be. If you’ve seen any number of the show’s 280 episodes, you’ll recognize a certain five-part formula. First, we’re introduced to a quirky teen who, like most high schoolers, has a big dream. Second, we witness the moment where the plucky youngster meets his or her big shot mentor, who sets the ultimate goal. Third, the lessons begin and the student starts to show some promise. Fourth, just as the student is gaining momentum he or she hits a failure that either causes some tension with the coach, comes in the wake of some family drama, and/or makes the student want to quit being “made” all together. Finally, we get the big happy ending, the moment of triumph where the kid does good, impresses his or her school and makes everyone proud.
Traditionally, the best MTV programming has always been based on some level of teenage wish fulfillment, and Made takes the concept to it literal manifestation. But while Made episodes conclude once the credits roll, the lives of the participants go on. For them, the stories that will last their lifetime all began during their lunch period.
We spoke to three alumni of the show, all from different seasons, who had an almost identical origin story. MTV came to their high schools during their lunch period to do video auditions, combing the country for kids with dreams. “They were doing an audition at my school,” says Ryan Bowers, who was coached into being a rapper in 2010’s season 11. “Everyone was like ‘you should audition!’ It was a thing you had to sign up for weeks in advance, but I got a form that day and they let me audition. I wrote a 16 [bar rap verse] and filled out the paperwork, and told them my story. They were super interested.”
Nile Greenberg, who was also made into a rapper for the show's fifth season premiere in 2005, recalled of the auditions, “It was a big joke. Everyone was joking around like ‘who is going to be what?’ I was fully aware of the cheesiness factor of the whole thing. I think that’s common.”
The process of deciding who got picked happened over several weeks of phone negotiations after the auditions. Then, crews would show up at the students’ schools a few times for additional interviews. While this is happening, the episodes’ coaches are prepared, with the network individually picking some coaches for their particular episodes and others having to audition. New York MC/DJ Rabbi Darkside, who coached an aspiring beatboxer in 2008‘s season nine, was part of New York’s premier beatboxing entity, Beatboxer Entertainment, when the company was contacted by MTV for a casting call. “I had a lot of teaching experience at that point,” Darkside told us, “and I think that was attractive to MTV folks. It was four producers in a room who want to see how you test on camera, your energy, your comfort level with strangers and emotional range.”
Minnesota rapper and hip-hop historian Zach Combs had a less positive experience when he was cold-called by the network to potentially be a mentor in 2005. As he wrote in his book Headspin, Headshots & History: Growing Up in Twin Cities Hip-Hop, “The conversation froze when she finally said ‘I know you’re white, but beyond that, do you have street credibility?’...She wasn’t asking me about being raised in the inner-city of Minneapolis. She wasn’t asking me about when I saw my homie get shot the summer before. She was asking me if I wore a gold chain around my neck and if I could dress like 50 Cent.”
Some students got the impression that their entire episode was envisioned by the network before the first frame was even shot, often requiring certain promises. “I didn’t want to have a ‘crush’ in public,” Greenberg said, “but that was kind of a deal-breaker. They knew it was going to be more exciting if there was one.” The coaches were also somewhat coached themselves by the show’s small crew on how to interact with their students before that first meeting occurred.
“The cameraman is also the director, and there’s a [production assistant] and maybe a second camera,” Darkside said. “It’s a very small production. I had a few emotional moments where [he] would want [me] to go for the jugular of opening up the waterworks, trying to polish the sentiment for TV. I was coached to phrase things in a certain way, but there was no dialogue someone else wrote.”
However, when the student meets the coach for the first time things get real. Linnea Griffith, who was Darkside’s student, said that when she met her coach, “I literally had no idea he was in that room. I walked in and it was crazy. What you see on the film is completely true.” With all the students and coaches I spoke to, I discovered there were only some very minor reenactments for the sake of television presentation. Bowers’ coach, New York indie rap icon Homeboy Sandman, recalled having to reshoot just the handshake with his student twice. Greenberg referred to his reshoots as “really dumb stuff: ‘Walk in the door again and we’ll shoot it from another angle.’”
Princess Superstar, who helped make a ridiculed girl into a “formal date” early in the show’s run, attested that even the more tense moments were authentic. “It was all really truthful,” she said. “I recall she was extremely stubborn and not open at all in the beginning, and I was getting frustrated. That was all real.”
Revisiting some of the tasks where the students fell short, they do seem near impossible. Bowers remembered, “I felt they were setting me up for failure. One of the first things I had to do was I had 24 hours to find an original beat, write a full song to it. One verse about teachers at my school, one verse about the mascot at my school, and then another verse about the school itself, and then perform it the next day in front of my entire school at the pep rally. It was super difficult. I understand it: They have to make you do shit that’s really hard so you have that failure in the beginning.”
They have to make you do s**t that’s really hard so you have that failure in the beginning. —Ryan Bowers
The episodes’ filming also allowed several local scenes around the country to get worldwide exposure, for better or worse. One of Greenberg’s coaches, MC Toki Wright, said, “It can seem unfair. If you have somebody work their entire life to be talented and be seen and heard, and then somebody comes along and gets all this recognition because they look like they don’t belong there.... You have all these really hungry black kids from Minneapolis/St. Paul who don’t get recognized because nobody believes there’s inner-city black kids in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Then, there’s this, excuse my language, nerdy white kid from well-off circumstances who comes along and says, ‘I wanna rap’ and gets to meet Snoop Dogg and Ghostface Killah. You can see how a lot of people would not like that.”
While Greenberg has no regrets whatsoever about the episode, he said that going to shows in Minneapolis afterward was different. “It was a little bit horrible going to those shows because everyone knew me. Endlessly, for years all over Minnesota people tried to [get me to freestyle or battle]. Every city I went to. On boats in Chicago. I studied abroad years later in Barcelona, and people recognized me.”
Following Made airings, the effects on the coaches and students were immediate. For coaches, while the appearances didn’t majorly impact their record sales, the worldwide circulation did increase their recognition, especially in areas like Myspace and touring overseas. “The response was great,” said Sandman. “It was a feel-good episode, and it was a nice bump in consumer notoriety.”
But more than that, the experience itself made the biggest impact on their lives. “I was bullied in high school,” said Superstar. “It was kind of amazing for me to go back into that environment and help somebody else through it.”
It has been more than a half-decade since these episodes originally aired, but the students I spoke to are still reaping the real-life benefits. Bowers is still rapping, signed with Nick Cannon, shares managers with E-40, recently collaborated with Krayzie Bone, and toured with Tech N9ne. Griffith, after becoming the featured beatboxer in her high school show choir, now uses beatboxing in speech-language pathology, assisting in speech therapy. While Greenberg is more interested in innovative architecture, attending Columbia, his brother Davy Greenberg has continued in hip-hop, and has his own Wu connection, directing the “Snake Pond” video for Raekwon.
Unlike a show like Pimp My Ride, it seems that Made was never about instant gratification. The student participants put in work, as did the coaches, which might mean that Made is one of the few programs that lives up to its “reality TV” label.
Chaz Kangas is a writer living in New York. Follow him at @Chazraps.