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Ben Affleck for a day
How I got dragged into the unreal world of Reality TV
Matt Welch
National Post
Columnist Matt Welch placed among 12 finalists in a Ben Affleck look-alike contest. Casino appearances and children's birthday parties await.

LOS ANGELES - Reality television has officially swallowed the United States whole. Three of the top four TV shows last week were American Idol, Survivor and American Idol again. Actors and writers walk around Hollywood with beaten looks on their faces, mumbling about the Good Old Days when the boob tube was filled with scripted programming performed by actual artists.

I knew it was getting bad when I had dinner with a group of high-powered lawyers and future Supreme Court justices and discovered that one of them was employed by the Reality Beast. Even my local barber confessed during my last haircut that she had a few callbacks for MTV's Real World.

But the Matrix-like Reality takeover swallowed what remains of Zion two weeks ago when I -- who have watched just three hours of reality programming in 34 years, and have no desire whatsoever to be on television -- ended up under the klieg lights as one of 12 would-be Ben Afflecks on a new pilot called The Celebrity Look-alike Show.

To put it charitably, I am to Ben Affleck roughly what Bryan Adams is to Keanu Reeves (minus the fame and money, of course). Same basic gender and race, but the similarities run out quick.

Jennifer Lopez's fiancé is dark and handsome, while I'm blond and ... friendly. He's got the six-pack abs; I've got the kegger belly. Instead of the world's most famous dimple on my chin, I have the world's most indestructible zit.

If people mistake me for a movie character, it ain't Daredevil, it's The Dude from The Big Lebowski ... if I'm lucky.

So imagine my shock when I received the following e-mail seven weeks ago from a casting director:

"Hey Matt! Found your Web site doing a search on the Web and found that you were voted as a close look-alike of Ben Affleck. We are casting a new pilot for WB in Los Angeles and was [sic] hoping you would be interested in auditioning."

Naturally, no such vote has ever taken place.

What happened, then? Chalk it up to the mysterious omniscience of Google.com. The Web's most popular search engine uses an indexing system that's heavily biased toward weblogs, and I happen to publish one.

So, for example, even though members of my own family are only dimly aware of what I do, if you type the name "Matt" into Google, my blog will be ranked sixth among the 20 million sites listed, just because it receives around 2,000 visitors a day (and is linked by lots of my dorky friends). Matt Damon, that rank amateur, limps in at 14th.

A popular blogger named Eric Olsen, of Blogcritics.org, has a running gag about how I look like Affleck, because his wife Dawn (also a blogger) once pointed to the grainy black and white mugshot on my site (taken the groggy day after my wedding, six years ago), and detected a vague resemblance in the jaw area. As a result, if you run a Google search on "Ben Affleck" and "look-alike," the 155th response or so will be a Blogcritics post beginning with the phrase, "Matt Welch look-alike Ben Affleck...."

This bit of serendipity was enough to win me an invitation to The Production Group studios on world-famous Vine Street in early April, to "try out" for a contest I hoped urgently to lose. Straight away, I had an important revelation: Almost all of the 30 vaguely Affleckian contestants were not amateurs, but actors, who were busy trying to calculate whether the potential humiliation was worth the exposure.

Feeling intensely out of place, I buried my face into the questionnaire. What celebrity did I believe I looked like, and why? I glanced at the Polaroid they had taken of my startled, stubbled face when I walked in. "Darrin Erstad," I replied, naming the Anaheim Angels' red-headed centrefielder, who looks a bit like Kiefer Sutherland. What was I willing to do "to convince the general public" that I looked like Ben Affleck? "Put LSD in the water supply," I suggested. "Do a lot of sit-ups"?

I began to get nervous about what they might make me do on camera, but the contractual language reassured me: "My appearance and participation in any aspect of the Program is not a performance, and I am not portraying any role or part or taking direction as a performer, but am appearing as myself."

I walked on to the soundstage and was immediately given direction, and asked to portray a role of not myself.

"OK, grab that Oscar statue over there, and stand on that mark," someone said (the quotes aren't exact, but close). "You've just won the Academy Award for Daredevil, and you have 30 seconds to give your acceptance speech. GO!!"

Thankfully, my brain's self-defense mechanism has blacked out most of the ensuing three or four minutes of stammering improv, bombed jokes and uncontrollable flop-sweat. I vaguely remember compulsively fondling Oscar's buttocks, making repeated references to my booze habit, and finally pleading: "What do you want from me?! I'm not an actor!"

On the way in, I had watched the contestant before me get hi-fives, promises to stay in touch, and one of the juicy cigars they were handing out to everybody. When I slunk out of the mortified room, I didn't get so much as eye contact.

Then on the way home, my crappy 1987 Toyota was totalled by an SUV. God was clearly sending me a message.

Ten days later, to my utter astonishment, I was invited back as one of 12 semi-finalists. Show up in black pants, follow instructions, and 142 juicy American dollars would be mine. So I went.

Taping day turned out to be a blast. Spending 12 hours with 47 actors (including look-alike J.Los, Britneys aget so much as eye contact.

Then on the way home, my crappy 1987 Toyota was totalled by an SUV. God was clearly sending me a message.

Ten days later, to my utter astonishment, I was invited back as one of 12 semi-finalists. Show up in black pants, follow instructions, and 142 juicy American dollars would be mine. So I went.

Taping day turned out to be a blast. Spending 12 hours with 47 actors (including look-alike J.Los, Britneys and Justin Timberlakes) means not having to answer any questions, while receiving earfuls about the struggling-actor racket.

I heard scurrilous gossip straight from the set of the Affleck/Lopez vehicle Gigli (hint: involves alcohol consumption), eavesdropped on lengthy debates over how to treat your fired agent (consensus: be cool, to avoid getting stuck with a reputation), and witnessed the mysterious process of thespians psyching themselves up for a performance (involves heavy flirting, if not petting).

My performance was limited to strutting out on stage in formation with the Affleck dozen, wishing the three chosen finalists well, then slinking back into the studio audience, which was filled with faux celebrities far more convincing than any of us. This took roughly 11 hours.

Waiting for our cue, we listened to take after take of the same "live" bits. "We went from coast to coast looking for our contestants!" the emcee said. "You mean from West Hollywood to East Hollywood" one of the actor-Bens said.

When it was all over except the cash, I was approached backstage by the celebrity look-alike agent who had stocked the crowd. "Wow, I really see the resemblance now," she said, inspecting my jar-like head and narrow, slightly dumb-looking brown eyes. If only I could just dye my hair, buy a tuxedo and cook up a little buddy act with a Damon look-alike, she said, there was a whole new world of casino appearances, corporate events and children's birthday parties just waiting for me.

And why not? At $13 an hour, the pay beats most freelance journalism gigs, especially in these recessionary times. If you can't beat the Reality TV Borg through inattention, you might as well join it.

Matt Welch is a Contributing Editor to Reason magazine, and lives in Los Angeles His work is archived at www.mattwelch.com

© Copyright  2003 National Post



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