Michael Vick, Ross Mandell: Seeking redemption in reality TV’s court of appeal

At 52, Ross Mandell is built like an aging wrestler, with veins the size of phone cords webbed across Popeye-like forearms. But when he recalls what happened last summer, the macho exterior melts away.

“I cried like a baby. I curled up in a fetal position in my bed and I wanted my mommy,” the former chief of the brokerage firm Sky Capital said. “It was brutal.”

Mandell surrendered in July to authorities who accused him of masterminding a transatlantic stock fraud that used “high-pressure sales tactics” to bilk tens of millions of dollars from investors, with Mandell allegedly blowing the proceeds on luxury travel and adult entertainment. Long known as a Wall Street bad boy, he was frog-marched through the New York media and cast into the rogues’ gallery of early 21st century financial villains, alongside Bernie Madoff.

So how is Mandell passing the time until his trial? Why, by pitching a reality TV series, of course.

“I would love to allow the world to see me as I really am,” he explained in his Long Island-accented rasp during a recent interview in his publicist’s office near Beverly Center. “You don’t stand a chance unless you tell your side of the story.”

There was a time, not so long ago, when notable figures who had fallen from grace followed a well-worn path to redemption. There would be the mandatory sit-down with Oprah Winfrey or Larry King or Diane Sawyer. Contrition, if not an outright apology, would be offered. Then the comeback narrative would be unleashed, with the celebrity now supposedly having more depth -- what magazine editors call “reader interest” thanks to his or her brush with infamy. This route still has some appeal, as Jay Leno proved by attempting to salvage his image, battered during the tussle with Conan O’Brien over “The Tonight Show,” with a recent Winfrey interview.

But Mandell is the latest in a growing line of high-profile criminal defendants, including rapper T.I. and disgraced quarterback Michael Vick, who are bypassing the old PR formula and trying to find redemption -- or at least tell their sides of their stories -- through reality TV. Such a project keeps the accused malefactor in the public eye while offering him a chance to frame the story exactly the way he wants. And sometimes it’s not even necessary to express remorse. Mandell might seem to be taking a huge risk by chasing a reality show when he’s facing years of prison time, but on the other hand, he’s not admitting anything.

“I’m a father, I’m a husband, I’m a member of community,” he said. “It takes a big toll on yourself, your family. There are feelings like shame, embarrassment, humiliation. All that stuff that plays into it. I’m just a regular guy, a regular person . . . I’ve been wrongfully accused.”

What’s unusual about Mandell’s case is that he’s pitching a reality show when he’s still out on $5-million bail. He’s acting over the objections of his attorney, Jeffrey Hoffman, who said he believes that the pursuit of a TV show could jeopardize Mandell’s bail terms or give federal prosecutors fresh ammunition to use in court. The case, still in the discovery phase, may not head to trial for many months, Hoffman says.

There is precedent

Others have waited for the ax to fall before trying to pick up the pieces.

Take, for example, BET’s new series “The Michael Vick Project,” a documentary-style effort to humanize a man generally viewed as a monster after his involvement in an illegal dog-fighting ring came to light in 2007. Vick, once a highly paid product endorser, ended up serving 18 months in prison and declaring bankruptcy. Reinstated by the NFL last year, he’s now trying to revive his football career with the Philadelphia Eagles.

In the first episode, Vick showed a soft-spoken demeanor that seemed somewhat out of keeping for a brash man who in 2006 earned a $10,000 league fine for making obscene gestures at fans. Much like Mandell, he recalled a humbling spell of jailhouse tears.

“I cried so much my face was swollen when I got to the jail,” Vick said on camera.

As a TV personality, Vick follows in the footsteps of T.I., who last year starred in “T.I.'s Road to Redemption,” an MTV series in which the rapper was depicted as a “Scared Straight"-type mentor to disadvantaged kids. At the time, T.I. was headed to jail on weapons charges; he is due to be released from a halfway house later this year. In 2006, BET started the inmate subgenre with " Lil Kim: Countdown to Lockdown,” a reality series that chronicled the female rapper’s life in the weeks before her imprisonment on a perjury conviction.

Observers often express outrage at the notion that someone convicted of serious crimes can wind up with a TV show (although “Son of Sam” laws designed to prevent such occurrences have often been ruled unconstitutional). When Vick’s long-rumored series was finally confirmed, the Washington Post tartly noted that the quarterback’s crimes did not cost him “as much as it cost the animals Vick executed.”

But Paul Levinson, a media studies professor at Fordham University, says such critics miss the point.

“People are interested in criminals and people who do wrong things,” Levinson said. “It’s not about rewarding Michael Vick, it’s about giving viewers what they’re interested in.”

Making his case

How much appetite viewers will have for Mandell and his foibles is still unknown. He’s hardly a household name like Vick or T.I.; indeed, beyond Wall Street his name inspires only the vaguest recognition.

But he has already partnered with Planet Grande Pictures, a Malibu-based production house whose credits include GSN’s “World Series of Blackjack.” The company produced a slick presentation reel focusing on Mandell’s attractive young wife and two school-age daughters and his efforts to start a mixed martial arts company that would rival UFC. (Don King, who knows a thing or two about tarnished reputations, has been mentioned as a potential partner, although Mandell says no deal has been struck.)

“This is a monster business,” Mandell said of mixed martial arts. Shortly before he was indicted, he had sold his interest in Sky Capital, a London-based brokerage with wide-ranging interests, and moved to Boca Raton, Fla., where he lived the life of a gym rat. “I began training every day: boxing, Brazilian jujitsu, wrestling, all that stuff.”

Mandell concedes that seeking TV fame could easily make his legal situation even worse. But as a recovering alcoholic, he also believes he can serve as an example to others who struggle with addiction: “I believe that I have an opportunity to really help people in a great fashion.”

But more than that, he believes the time has come for him to tell his story his own way.

“Anybody that knows or has met me has looked at the stuff [about me] on the Internet and said, ‘Where does this come from?’ ” he said.

Referring to the battering his reputation has already taken, Mandell concluded, “I don’t know that I could do much worse.”