How I Almost Became Tomi Lahren
If my conscience hadn’t stopped me, I could’ve become another bitchy blonde right-wing pundit.
The first time I realized I was a brand was in 1998. It was after I filmed the MTV reality show, Road Rules (or as I like to call it, The Wheel World). MTV had partnered with a company and they wanted to use me as the voice of the product. I was asked to read a first person script that said I was from a “small town in Pennsylvania.” Problem was, I’m not from a small town in Pennsylvania. I’m from Pittsburgh, and while it sometimes feels like a small town, it certainly doesn’t match the image they were trying to convey. When I mentioned the inaccuracy, they said, “It doesn’t matter as long as people think you’re from a small town. It makes you more relatable. We just need you to say the line.” So I did.
I thought the script was supposed to be about Susie, the person, but it was actually about Susie, the brand. The blonde, naive, virginal Christian character they had cast couldn’t be from a city. She had to be from a small town. And MTV wasn’t about to let facts get in the way of a stereotype.
Because I was on a reality show before the genre’s boom, I bought into the notion that the shows were about real, if highly edited, people. They aren’t. They’re about brands. People are complicated, but brands are simple. Follow the proverbial script, and you can make money. And I did for a while as I continued to appear on the shows as a means of bankrolling my education.
My character changed over time in many subtle ways, but this mattered less in a post-Survivor reality world in which the producers emphasized wild stunts over character development. In this changed context, I proved to be a successful player, but all my successes came before online social media fandom for The Challenge had truly exploded (roughly around the time stories like this longread in BuzzFeed, for which I was interviewed, began appearing). In other words, I was a winner, but not quite a winning brand.
After I finished my doctorate, I wanted to combine my love of television with my academic experience, and met with several agents who were willing to take me on as a client. There was only one catch: I needed to be politically conservative. We hear a lot of rhetoric about how the mainstream media is liberal, but when it comes to blonde, reality stars (with or without PhDs in religion), well, the demand falls among the conservative outlets.
I was told it would be easy for me to get work as a talking head, reporter, or host as long as I was willing to promote the conservative agenda. I didn’t have to believe it. I just had to say I believed it. Could I proclaim a supposed “war on Christmas” or conduct sympathetic interviews with bakers refusing to make cakes for gay couples? If so, there could potentially be a huge payday.
People have long claimed the Ann Coulters of the world don’t actually believe what they promote (the cartoon The Boondocks even devoted an entire episode to this, showing her working in cahoots with a liberal foe). According to this theory, their provocative content is meant to be entertaining or hyperbolic and not taken literally. It’s the Right’s equivalent to comedians who can say anything because “it’s just a joke.” They would say Tomi Lahren isn’t a vitriolic demagogue in “real life”; that’s merely a persona or an extreme version of herself. It’s like Susie from the small town in Pennsylvania. It doesn’t matter if she exists, it matters if people believe she exists. And since whatever brand of Susie that had evolved since then didn’t receive the same attention — she was crowded out by loads of silly stunts and a TV landscape littered with other semi-stars — this was my best hope.
Reality TV kept growing, and so did the number of cast members lamenting the editing process and claiming the “character” on TV didn’t represent the person. But as 24-hour news adopted the he-who-screams-the-loudest-wins style that reality TV perfected, its on-air talent embraced the character-driven branding, and willingly molded their personas to encourage fandom and followers. And the reality stars who hung around were the ones who acted wild and crazy or got screwed over in epic and extremely viral fashion.
I can’t say going the Tomi Lahren route wasn’t tempting. Getting in the door in Hollywood is difficult (perhaps especially when you’re in the saturated reality star has-been/never was category), and I had once espoused the conservative worldview. My mom is all aboard the Trump train, and I worked on George W. Bush’s presidential campaign. And there were some like Megyn Kelly who seemed to be able to toe the line enough to get a mainstream gigs. But I couldn’t do it.
Sure, I could be blonde and smart, but that meant I had only one guaranteed outlet: screaming at liberals on Fox News. I was, at base, an even-tempered person, but the best career opportunity for me would be to pretend I was a bitchy blowhard. And so I found myself wondering: do the Ann Coulters, Dana Loeschs, and Tomi Lahrens know what they are doing? When crazy-like-a-Fox News commentator Alex Jones was involved in a struggle over custody of his kids, his attorney claimed in court that Jones was merely “playing a character.” Provided there were enough of them, would the dollars start to make sense? How much would it cost to get me to play a character?
Ironically, it was the socially conservative moral code I grew up with that kept whispering in my ear telling me not to compromise my conscience. Prosperity gospel misreadings of theology aside, Christianity was partly intended to remind believers that there were many things money couldn’t buy. I was hustling in the creative market just like everyone else, but I wasn’t about to sell my soul for a conservative-slanted shortcut. The same moral foundation that got me cast as a reality show trope was the one preventing me from selling out to Fox News and Breitbart. I wasn’t necessarily serving God, at least not in the way my family had hoped, but I wasn’t about to serve that Republican blood money, either.
And all the years watching producers get rich spinning the stories of the cast to create characters out of people made me realize I was ready to write my own story. To many people, it doesn’t matter if all the perfectly coiffed Fox News anchors with the ultra white teeth actually believe the talking points they shout. In the age of fake news and reality TV that isn’t real at all, we have made peace with the human-as-brands model. My brand right now reflects who I am, and it’s certainly not the shiniest or easiest-to-understand product on the shelf. Once upon a time, I had my own contacts on the Right, and my own chance to espouse their rhetoric in exchange for success, but I considered the offer and said no freakin’ way. While I might never really hit the big time, I’m fine with being “that girl” from “that show” who actually wasn’t from a small town in Pennsylvania.