With the curtain drawn on the most controversial edition of CBS' reality show "Big Brother," cast member Aaryn Gries, whose ethnic and homophobic slurs made national headlines, is bracing herself to face a new reality — that many people feel she's a racist.
But the 23-year-old college student from San Marcos, Texas, who was unaware of the tempest her remarks created until emerging from the show's imposed isolation earlier this week, is determined to reverse that perception.
"I'm trying to show that I'm remorseful, and I hope that comes across because I really do feel very bad," she said in an interview with The Times. "If I don't move forward, I will be stuck in this, and it will eat me alive. I can't treat this experience as a negative. I have to take it as a positive because it's made me a better person."
Reflecting on her "Big Brother" experience less than 24 hours after Wednesday's live finale in which professor Andy Herren was crowned winner, Gries showed few signs of fatigue. Following an emotional reunion with her mother, Elizabeth Owens, who flew in for the finale from Texas, Gries spent most of the night scouring the Web to look at show footage that portrayed her in a less-than-positive light.
As a contestant in "The Big Brother" and later as a member of the jury of evicted houseguests that determined the winner, Gries had been sequestered all summer and had little clue about the fallout. Her first hint came during a tense exit interview with host Julie Chen this summer after being evicted from the house.
Said Gries, who was fired from her job in a modeling agency as a result of her remarks, "When I heard the news, it was obviously devastating."
Her controversial behavior lit up social media. In one episode, while referring to African American houseguest Candice Stewart, Gries said, "Be careful what you say in the dark, might not get to see the bitch."
In another, she flipped over Stewart's mattress, taunted her and used an insulting black accent. In another instance, Gries told Asian American houseguest Helen Kim to "shut up, go make some rice."
Chen lashed out at the slurs by Gries and another houseguest, GinaMarie Zimmerman, calling the comments "extremely hurtful." Chen's husband, CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves, also labeled them "absolutely appalling."
Gries attributed most of her missteps to the stress of the "Big Brother" fishbowl, where contestants live in a house cut off from the outside world.
Acknowledging much of her behavior was wrong, she said her insensitive comments were never meant to be taken seriously.
But Gries knows there may be those who might be reluctant to let her off the hook.
"I would ask them if they've ever made a mistake, if they've ever needed forgiveness, and would they want that forgiveness from the world if they were in a similar situation?" Gries said. "We all make mistakes, and we all need forgiveness."
In the early weeks of the show, Gries dismissed warnings that her comments were being interpreted as racist: "I didn't view myself as racist. I thought at the time it was just people trying to make me look bad for the game."
But Gries got a rude awakening during her exit interview with Chen. When Gries entered the studio, she was greeted by an audience with cheers and boos.
"I definitely heard the boos," Gries recalled. "My brain just completely shut off, I guess, like a psychological protection. I kind of zoned out because I realized what had happened was serious, more serious than it was ever meant to be."
But it was Chen's demeanor during the live interview that truly crushed her. As they sat down, the host said evenly, "We have a lot to talk about."
Said Gries, "I was prepared for the bombshell as soon as she said that. I have had so much respect for Julie for so long. To have her disappointed with me is probably one of the things that is going to resonate with me for a long time."
Near tears as Chen read her remarks back to her, she replied with another comment she would come to regret: "In Texas, we say things that.... Sometimes we joke and we don't mean it."
"Texas has nothing to do with my mistake," said Gries Thursday. "I am so sorry for bringing Texas into my problem."
But she added that she felt she was unfairly highlighted by producers.
"I didn't view myself as racist, and I was trying to figure out why I was being viewed that way, especially when we all know a lot of racial comments were being made in the house. Why were mine taken so seriously?"
Though she doesn't regret going on "Big Brother," Gries is focused on the future. She said she's become close friends with Stewart and Kim ("I totally forgive her and know she is truly sorry," Stewart said). Other agencies have expressed interest in representing her.
Gries added: "I'm proud of myself for holding it together and being positive rather than letting this destroy me. It shows me how strong I am, and that I can really do anything."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times