When it comes to music, she's no poser

Times Staff Writer

KIM STOLZ isn't exactly a stranger to the camera.

For two months last fall, her life played out on national television as she competed on "America's Next Top Model," gaining a following as a comfortably-out lesbian amid a group of often-overwrought wannabe models. In the end, the sharp-witted tomboy deflected the catty antics of her rivals with such wry aplomb that she captured one of the finalist spots on the hit Tyra Banks reality show.

But on this warm summer afternoon, Stolz -- now a newly minted VJ for mtvU, MTV's college campus channel -- is sitting in a small studio in the East Village, flubbing her lines.

Stolz is taping one of her first episodes as host of "The Freshman," a weekly program that profiles music videos from new artists, and for the life of her, she can't nail the closing. Three college panelists perched on stools next to her wait patiently as she explains how to vote for videos online or by mobile phone -- and trips over a word or two every time. Stolz, whose gray overall shorts and short ponytail make her look even younger than her 23 years, bounces her foot restlessly as she tries to remember the sequence.

Finally, after seven takes, she delivers it flawlessly -- only to conclude with a cheery "Welcome" instead of "See you next time."

Stolz doesn't blanch. Instead, she dissolves into howls of self-deprecating laughter, setting off everyone else in the room.

She's not the first to discover the pitfalls of trying to transition from the surreal hotbox of reality television to a real-world entertainment career. (Think Kristin Cavallari of MTV's "Laguna Beach," who went on to host UPN's "Get This Party Started," which lasted just a few episodes.)

But aside from the bumpy taping, the recent Wesleyan University graduate actually appears to be thriving in her new role. Since she started hosting "The Freshman" in mid-July, viewings of the show on Uber, mtvU's broadband channel, have increased tenfold, with students casting hundreds of thousands of votes for their favorite music videos, according to network officials.

Stolz, in fact, may have hit on a successful strategy for negotiating a post-reality TV career: Rather than try to capitalize on her stint in the spotlight, she's trying to forge a separate path, drawing on her longtime passion for unearthing new artists.

Over a bottle of beer at a nearby bar after the taping, Stolz says that while she will always look back at her experience on "Top Model" fondly, "I'm ready to move on and really establish myself as a credible source for music."

She first auditioned for "Top Model" as a lark, egged on by her friends during a bleary-eyed night of studying. In the end, she was surprised by the impact of the experience, which resulted in her getting signed by Elite Model Management and dissuaded her from pursuing law school, at least in the immediate future. She's still stopped on the street by people who recognize her but says she didn't want to be defined by the fame that resulted from the show.

"It's a kind of celebrity that you don't necessarily want, unless you can turn it into something else," she says. "I was really happy about mtvU because I know I became a VJ not because of anything to do with that show, but because of my music credibility and the way I vibe with the other people who work at the network. And that's very important to me, because I don't want to be getting jobs because I was on a reality television show. I want to be getting jobs because of who I am."

In fact, MTV executives didn't even know that Stolz was a reality television veteran when they first considered her to be the channel's newest VJ, even though "Top Model" aired on UPN, once part of the same Viacom family. Once it was brought to their attention, they kept the information from mtvU General Manager Stephen Friedman until after he screened the audition tape she submitted.

"I was like, 'She's great. Where did you find her?' " Friedman recalls with a laugh.

It was a smart strategy, he admits. Despite Stolz's enthusiasm for unknown artists and almost-encyclopedic music knowledge, he wasn't sure what mtvU viewers would make of the network hiring a former reality star.

Lifetime of preparation

HAVING credibility in the emerging music scene is the key for the channel, available on 730 college campuses as well as through its broadband channel on mtvU.com. Since launching in January 2004, mtvU has become a kind of incubator for MTV Networks, experimenting with new kinds of viewer-created content and often spotlighting bands a year or two before they debut on the main MTV network. The college channel aims to corner the market on new musicians, which is why mtvU executives were looking for a VJ who was hip as well as knowledgeable.

After hearing Stolz discuss her favorite artists, Friedman says he concluded that she "knows more about music than most people I know. So in the end, I thought, the audience will look past whatever show she was on."

A New York native, Stolz was schooled early in music by her father, a stockbroker who used to test how much she and her friends knew about such artists as Neil Young, AC/DC and Fleetwood Mac. Later, she cultivated a passion for indie rock and electro clash. She talks about an obscure Swedish duo, the Knife, in the fervent tones of an evangelist and has collected 13,000 tracks on her iPod.

Still, Stolz never seriously considered seeking a career in music until after spending a desultory few months at a New York law firm after graduation (awkwardly, at the same time her appearances on "Top Model" aired). Discontented, she left the firm and wrangled an introduction to an MTV talent director through a family friend to find out if there were any openings in the network's research section. Instead, he surprised her by asking if she would be interested in going on camera.

She quickly made a sample tape, which eventually found its way to Ross Martin, head of programming for mtvU, who had spent months unsuccessfully searching for a new VJ. He was instantly charmed, especially after they spent half of their first meeting discussing her senior honors thesis, "The Influence of Exit Strategies on United States Intervention Abroad."

"I connected to her right away and fell in love with her passion for new music and artists," Martin says. "There's something really authentic and genuine about Kim. She's the same on camera as off."

'Out there' approach

IT was her combination of dry humor and refreshing frankness -- especially about her sexuality -- that endeared her to many viewers of "Top Model." While Stolz was not the first lesbian on the reality show, she says she still gets letters from people saying that her openness made them feel more comfortable with themselves.

"Being out in public was awesome," she says. "I haven't gotten one homophobic reaction. Not one comment. Never, ever. I've always believed this, and none of the girls I date ever believe me, but if you say to someone, 'I have a girlfriend, yeah, I'm gay, whatever,' then there's no room for judgment.... It's the people who are ashamed somewhere in themselves of what they are" who are more likely to suffer a backlash. "People judge you because you're judging yourself."

For their part, mtvU executives knew that Stolz's openness would appeal to the channel's viewers. "She never hid it, which was another thing I thought the audience would respect -- her candor and her honesty," Friedman says.

The network also likes the fact that she doesn't have the polish of a television veteran. "She's sort of finding her voice as she goes, just as the artists we play are," says Martin.

Stolz admits that she still feels somewhat out of her element in the more formal broadcasting aspects of her new job.

"There's a big difference between feeling comfortable on camera and being yourself and then looking right in the camera and talking to it like it's your best friend," she says. "Because when I was on 'Top Model,' the camera was not my best friend."

(Indeed, in the editing process, producers made much of a kiss between her and another contestant, an incident that she says afterward was overblown.)

One aspect of her new job that does come naturally is the music research. Stolz spends several nights a week checking out new bands, and carries around a tape recorder, reminding herself, "Download this" every time she hears a new song she likes, whether it be hip-hop or indie goth.

"I really want to be someone who not only college kids but also other people come to to find new music," she says. "I want to be someone who expressed their tastes in a really informational and not pretentious way, because I have a big problem with music snobs. People who love music should want to share it, and that's what I want to do."

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