Something pretty amazing happened on television on Monday night. It wasn’t something that rattled the Celebrity Industrial Complex to its core, nor did it really move the ratings needle for the network that aired it. However, that doesn’t lessen the quote-unquote “importance” of Jake Pavelka and Vienna Girardi‘s very ugly and very compelling televised breakup (the highlights of which can be seen in our short clip above). My interest in the matter isn’t because I cared about them as a couple, or even as people, really; rather, the fascination lies in the bold way that Vienna rebelled against the two-headed publicity machine of ABC and People magazine, along the way creating one of the most real moments that’s ever happened on a reality television dating show.
I know that I’m not shattering any illusions of yours when I tell you that reality television is not real. After all, your freshman year Psych 101 course no doubt taught you all you need to know about the observer-expectancy effect. Still, producers of reality television shows — and, particularly, reality television dating shows — generally instruct the participants in such affairs to ignore the cameras and to avoid discussions of what will happen to them once they leave the artificial bubble that they live in during their time on camera. Specifically, in the case of both The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, viewers have never once seen a conversation between the contestants about whether or not they’ll be able to handle the pressures of transitioning from being a private figure to becoming a very public one, because the artifice of romance and courtship always trump the difficult and less TV-friendly realities of making a relationship work.
In the case of Jake and Vienna, the mismatched couple from the most recent season of The Bachelor, the two have been the focus of tabloid speculation and skulduggery for the better part of the last six months, well before anyone (other than Reality Steve, that is) knew that they would even end up as a couple. In particular, Vienna has taken more than her fair share of abuse from the glossies, who have all the while painted her out to be a party girl whose sole goal is to become famous. Meanwhile, the terminally boring (and quite possibly psychotic) pilot Jake Pavelka has also been reveling in his newfound fame, using his Bachelor notoriety to erase his failed thespian past and land himself appearances on Dancing With The Stars and Drop Dead Diva. Anyone who watched the show knew that the couple probably wouldn’t make it all the way to the wedding aisle, but what they couldn’t have predicted is the way in which their televised breakup would shine a light on the way that the tabloid machine works.
Most of the headlines about this incident yesterday centered around the derogatory and very surface-level things that Vienna and Jake said to each other (she called him a “fame whore,” he is “disgusted” by her). To me, though, there were far more interesting things at play. From the outset, Vienna showed surprising self-awareness about her position as a tabloid commodity when she called bullshit on host Chris Harrison’s hilarious assertion that her pairing with Jake was a “normal relationship” with her spot-on retort that “our relationship has been public, no matter how we broke up .. the world was going to want to know what happened.” She went on to add that “I haven’t had a voice [in the tabloids] this entire time,” which was her excuse for selling her story about the breakup to the B-list glossy Star for a reported sum of $90,000.
This is where things really got fun to watch. Jake, who has gone to great lengths to portray himself on camera as a serene airplane pilot who loves long walks on the beach, started to snap in a manner that reminded me of the legendary Tom Cruise/Matt Lauer “glib” debate. He and Harrison teamed up to chastise Vienna for selling her story to the tabloids — in an amazing turn of unintentional transparency, he labeled her act as an “unauthorized interview” — but the surprisingly quick-witted Vienna didn’t buckle. Instead, she turned the tables on Jake, calling him out for running to the A-list glossy People to tell his side of the story (it is not known how much, if anything, he got paid). By exposing the behind-the-scenes deal that keeps the winners of The Bachelor franchise in bed with People and some of the smear tactics that Jake has employed to paint Vienna as a cheating whore in public, one could make the argument that Vienna has positioned herself as a modern day Silkwood of sorts (albeit one with fake boobs), a person crusading to expose the messy realities that the powerful gossip business desperately tries to keep secret.
Even if Vienna didn’t have any of this explicitly in mind when she put Jake on blast during this special, and even if I abhor her attempts to smear Jake as gay on the web, I will always admire Vienna for bringing some much-needed transparency to the process of how gossip sausage gets made. Clearly, now that this couple has parted ways, there isn’t much that either can do to remain in the tabloid limelight, much less afloat in the entertainment industry. There are rumors that the two might appear together on the next edition of the Celebrity Apprentice, but that certainly seems like a long shot. With any luck, these two will soon fade into obscurity and go back to their old lives, the only public memory of them being the time that they (unwittingly?) helped to expose the artificiality at the surface of reality dating shows and the publicity machine that feeds off of it.