In the tradition of 13 bachelors, 5 bachelorettes, Flavor Flav, Tila Tequila and the rest of the copycats, here comes Luke Conley, another young man on a very public quest for love. But there are dating shows, and then there’s “More to Love,” the reality show for people who would never be cast on “The Bachelor” or “Dancing With the Stars.”
From the start, Conley’s search was different. The casting call was for “curvy and voluptuous” women -- size 2’s exit to your right -- who would compete for the heart of a “big, broad” man. Enter Conley, 26, a former college offensive lineman, who wants to find a wife more than he wants to be the next reality star.
You’ve heard that before. We know. We also know it’s hard to trust Fox when it comes to reality show gimmicks. (Remember the lying bride in “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance,” who got hoodwinked herself by the groom, who was an actor?)
A reporter was along for two days of filming of “More to Love” last month, observing Conley as he speed-dated 20 ladies in 25 days while living in the top-secret bubble of a Bel-Air mansion, without a phone, a TV or the Internet -- and in front of 150 crew members, 10 fixed cameras that record 24 hours a day and 10 additional cameras that are on the move.
Not that being filmed around-the-clock bothers Conley, a real estate investor from Santa Maria and ham by nature, who is prone to uttering lines like, “If she’s got a big behind, she’s a friend of mine.” Conley says he’s never watched the scores of dating shows that preceded his. But when he came upon a Craigslist ad seeking men who love full-figured women, he sent an e-mail on a lark that began, “Sugar, look no further. I am the man for you!”
By then, production was 10 days from beginning and the search had been narrowed to two men. “We totally switched,” says executive producer SallyAnn Salsano. “We all fell in love with Luke beause he is so genuine. He makes the girls feel comfortable.”
A few days later, Conley, 6-foot-3 and weighing 330 pounds, moved into the Mulholland Drive mansion, hoping to meet the love of his life in front of millions of Americans.
Selected from a pool of 5,000 applicants, the bachelorettes range in ages from 21 to 37 and in weight from 180 pounds to 279 pounds. Some are students, a few are teachers, and there’s even one rocket scientist. Most told producers they seldom date.
“Every girl in America feels self-conscious and uncomfortable,” Salsano says. “But these girls have lived it for so long that this is almost like a safe haven for them. Everyone was afraid to come on this show and be made fun of.”
Because the women have struggled in the dating scene and Conley has had only one serious relationship, the tone of the show is different from executive producer Mike Fleiss’ other dating shows. ABC’s “ ‘The Bachelor’ is about beautiful people living a beautiful life and hopefully finding a beautiful love,” he explains. “This show is like a sporting event. You’re rooting for someone to find love.” It premieres July 28 and will run for eight weeks.
Conley’s dating whirlwind began at the mansion with a mixer, which ended with five women going home and the rest receiving promise rings and an invitation to move in. “To do this amount of dating and meet this many amazing women would probably take two to five years of my life,” Conley says later. “And God knows how much money.”
June 4, Day 9
Conley and six of the women arrive at the five-star St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point for a spa group date. Their entrance to Spa Gaucin is filmed a few times and so is Conley’s welcome. Outside by the pool, Salsano asks the hotel staff for other food because the spread “doesn’t look luxurious.” When the ladies arrive, they sit down for sandwiches, salad, wine and conversation for 45 minutes, with the cameras rolling.
“No one has ever eaten a morsel of food on ‘The Bachelor,’ ” Salsano says later. “On this show, they go and they have dinner.”
The ladies, whose last names are not used on the show to protect their privacy, tell Conley stories about how they pass time in the house when he’s on dates. Fitness instructor Mandy, 26, confides: “We’re in this incubator and, in general, not being around you is really hard.” (Other women stayed at the mansion.) Conley pours more wine and says he wants to enjoy himself without thinking about having to send someone home.
Supervising producer Mark Allen (one of 20 producers on the show) calls Conley over to tells Conley it’s time for one-on-one spa treatments. Mandy is thrilled to learn she is first. They head for hot stone massages and cozy up on a sofa, holding hands. She brings up Conley’s relationship with God.
“I am who I am because of my relationship with the Lord,” he tells her. “I pray every day and I read the Bible, and it’s important to me to meet someone that shares my faith.”
Mandy seizes an opening: “Just so you know, not to be competitive, but no other girl in the house has a Bible. . . . To me, God is a third person in the room.”
Soon, they are passionately kissing while he rubs her thigh. Next door, at least a dozen people are watching on monitors, including Salsano, who deadpans: “Excuse me, where did God go?” (Another crew is following the women by the pool, where Lauren is trashing Mandy for “not being one with her body because she talks so much about fitness.”)
“I’m amazed at how little the cameras affect the dates,” Fleiss says later. “For me, personally, I could never do it. But these people who are in their 20s now grew up watching and understanding reality TV. They grew up with video cameras and cellphone cameras and being on camera. These are dates on steroids. They get to the specific topics faster and they go harder at certain issues, despite the fact that there are video cameras everywhere.”
The producers at the spa decide that Tali, 26, a motivational speaker who grew up in Israel, is next. They think she’s been too reserved, so Allen coaches Conley on topics to address during their foot massage.
“I think there’s been a deeper connection between you and I from the beginning,” Conley says when she arrives. “Whenever we lock eyes, I just feel that something happens.”
What happens next is a make-out session. During a short pause, they discuss religion and Conley surprisingly tells her that he’s willing to marry a non-Christian. Allen comes into the control room and seems a little exasperated. “For the next one, I’m gonna tell him not to be so heavy.”
“They can talk about intimate things,” replies Salsano, founder of 495 Productions. “But everything can’t be about a belief system. . . . We have to get her out of there.”
Allen signals for Conley to end his date. Conley and Tali move into the hallway but can’t let go. They embrace and kiss again.
Minutes later, Conley is in a wine bath with Malissa, 26, rubbing her back.
“You’ve got a knot here,” he says.
“I’ve got ‘em everywhere,” she says.
“You’re a ‘naughty’ girl,” he says.
Soon, they are making out.
“The stakes are higher [for Luke],” observes Salsano. “He’s really liking a few of the girls.”
Conley next enjoys hand massages and soft kisses with Kristian, 26; playing footsies in a hot tub with Anna, 27, where they share dessert; and a wine and cheese tasting with Lauren, 26, who isn’t happy about being last.
June 11, Day 16
Conley has spent the day with the families of the four remaining women, and tonight he must send one home. One by one, he chats with the ladies in the house’s expansive backyard. (The Times has agreed not to identify the finalists.)
One of the women clarifies that she wants to be a mother, even though she doesn’t like babies. Another tells him that their relationship would not come second to her career. One is worried that their cultural differences could get in the way. The last is stressed that her mother told Conley that she needs a lot of reassurance.
“There are shows, clearly, that are scripted more than others,” Darnell said. “But the real good ones -- you set up a situation and you just get real emotions out of it. To these girls, this is very real at the moment. I think particularly in this case because they feel Luke’s sincerity, and that’s rubbing off on them.”
After the mini-dates, Conley is called into the interview room to discuss the elimination. He seems worn out and admits he is second-guessing whom he will send home. The producer harps on the woman whose insecurities have been revealed.
“Are you concerned that her own mother felt the need to bring this up?” a producer asks.
“I’m trying to figure out if it’s her insecurities or her mother’s insecurities for her,” Conley says.
“Doesn’t that make you rethink what you’re doing tonight?”
“I don’t want to go into a monologue. I don’t want to say too much,” Conley replies.
“You have said you want a confident woman. That doesn’t concern you?”
“I am concerned that [she] might need more attention than I originally anticipated.”
“But you’re not considering sending her home?”
“No,” Conley says emphatically. “I just wish I could have more time with these four girls.”
He can’t. The next morning, Conley is on a flight to Hawaii with the three left standing.
June 15, Day 20
During a phone call from Oahu, Conley sounds energetic. He has been enjoying longer, individual dates with the women, including one in which they swam with a whale-dolphin hybrid. In two days, he will pick the final two in a ceremony on Waikiki Beach, and three days later he will make his final choice. During the tense eliminations, he says, he avoids eye contact with the women.
“Coming into this thing, I had hopes of meeting someone special, but I knew it’s such a short amount of time to get to know someone,” he said. “So I’m just blown away to have such strong feelings about three girls at this point and that I’ve gotten so attached so quickly.”
Conley says he’s tried his best to focus on what he’s feeling -- and not the fact that this is all happening within the context of a TV show. “The difficult part has been having to talk so much about what I’m feeling,” he says. “I usually like to spend a lot of time in thought and process things before I just open and verbalize them. I feel that words are very powerful, so I want to choose them correctly.”
His heart, he says, is pointing toward marriage. But he’s worried that his TV adventure could still lead to heartbreak, if the woman of his dreams has a false perception of who he is because of the glamorous bubble in which they’ve met.
“I’m hoping that when I put my heart on the line that I don’t end up being heartbroken because I am planning on making myself vulnerable to a special woman at the end of this whole thing.”
In a rented facility in West Los Angeles, editors are busy culling 2,250 hours of footage. Working in four bays simultaneously, four editors take 12 weeks to complete one episode. If this year’s appetite for dating shows is any indication -- the “Bachelor” franchise had a big resurgence -- “More to Love” has a shot at becoming a sleeper hit. At a cost of about $1 million per episode, it’s an inexpensive gamble for Fox, especially in summer when there’s less competition.
“I’m really, really excited about this show,” Darnell says. “It’s amazing, when you think of 50 or 60 iterations, that nobody’s ever tried the simple idea to make it real women and a real guy rather than fake actors or wanna-be models, which is really what it’s been up to this point.”
If Conley, in fact, chooses one of the ladies and she accepts him, they are not allowed to see each other until the show ends Sept. 15.
As he waits to see how his journey will play out on TV, Conley’s back in Santa Maria, reunited with Max, the puppy he missed, trying to establish his old routine.
“Cramming so much of ‘life’ into such a short period of time makes the readjustment period a little difficult,” he says. “I have had some trouble getting back into a normal sleeping pattern, but now after a month since the show wrapped, I finally feel like I’m getting back into the swing of things.”
Conley hopes that viewers will understand his decisions and intentions.
“And I hope that people who tune in, maybe at first they’ll just see plus-size women and definitely a plus-size man, but hopefully after they will tune in to the story -- that these are sincere people looking for love,” he says.
It's a date
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