Walking through the doors of a crowded San Francisco bar, Kristin Curtin was all business. Her eyes moved from face to face before coming to rest on a pretty young woman chatting up a male patron.
"You could just tell the way she was interacting with him that he was mesmerized. There were hundreds of people in that pub, but she just captured my attention," recalled Curtin, a freelance casting producer. She gave the woman her business card and a pitch about why she might want to try out for a new NBC reality show that combines love and adventure.
The encounter, one of thousands Curtin and her colleagues initiated this winter in restaurants, nightclubs and shopping malls from Charleston, S.C., to Phoenix is the new order in the casting of reality television.
Getting the right people for programs like "Survivor" and "America's Next Top Model" used to be largely a matter of putting the word out and waiting for the audition tapes to roll in. But networks now increasingly rely on recruiters to find the love 'em and hate 'em personalities that captivate viewers.
The trend reflects both the smashing popularity of reality TV and an industry consensus that, as casting director Robyn Kass put it, "Good TV is someone who doesn't know that they are giving you good TV."
A decade into the genre's dominance, the applicant pool is polluted with wannabe actors and fame seekers desperate to be the next Snooki or Kate Gosselin, and the personas they display in their video auditions are often transparent knockoffs of the reality archetypes viewers have come to know: America's sweetheart, the hick, the witch, the dumb jock, the party girl.
"Some girls will be blatant and say, 'Well, I'm going to be this character for you,' " said Michelle Mock-Falcon, casting director for "America's Next Top Model." She said it's not unusual for applicants to answer questions with a prepared monologue or claim to be just like Bristol Palin. "Everyone's her friend. They played volleyball with her."
It's a hazard of living in the era of reality TV, said SallyAnn Salsano, founder of 495 Productions ("Jersey Shore"). "Everyone acts as if there's a camera watching. To find someone who is being truly genuine is like finding a needle in a haystack," she said.
Recruiters spend most of their time ducking in and out of crowded places. For "Jersey Shore," Salsano made a tour of the Garden State's clubs. Dating show recruiters often prowl bars, but not exclusively. Curtin discovered Tessa Horst, who won "The Bachelor" in 2007, by waiting at the finish line of a marathon.
For "Top Model," recruiters favor amusement parks, gas stations and places where teens shop.
"I always feel like Target is a gold mine," Mock-Falcon said.
Contestants recently plucked from the crowd include the current "Bachelor" Brad Womack (discovered in an Austin, Texas, restaurant); Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino of "Jersey Shore" (in an Atlantic City bar); "Big Brother" Season 11 winner Jordan Lloyd (at her Charlotte, N.C., waitressing job); and "Bachelor Pad" champion David Good (in a Tampa, Fla., saloon).
Good was initially approached to try out for "The Bachelor." Recruiters had to describe the show for him since he had never seen it. "All I heard was me and 25 girls and I get to pick from them and I was like, 'Yeah, that's awesome,' " said Good. When he parlayed his celebrity into "The Man Code," a book of romantic advice, he made sure to thank the bar where it all started.
It's a far cry from the early days of the reality TV craze when, Mock-Falcon said, "people didn't know what casting directors were looking for so people were a lot more genuine and a lot more original."
Finding the genuine article is vital to a show's success, producers say, because viewers love big personalities — the table flippers, hair-pullers, loudmouths and backstabbers — only if their outrageousness is honest.
"I want people who are going to … wear their heart on their sleeve and do something stupid and ridiculous and have real moments [rather] than [say] 'I don't care if I'm off first or second, I just want to say I was on the show and be a superstar,'" said Kass, who has cast "Big Brother" and "The Bachelor." She estimated that half the contestants on those shows were recruited.
Some hard-core followers of the shows — including many rejected applicants — have worried in online message forums that recruiting allows producers to fill casts with models rather than true fans. Steve Pickett, an Oklahoman who has tried out for "Survivor" 19 times, called the practice of recruiting "crazy."
"I'm sure they could find an antagonist in all those thousands of tapes they get," said Pickett, 52.
The video auditions he has shipped off to the show's casting director, Lynne Spillman, of whom he speaks reverently, include footage of him eating raw fish, swimming, and wrestling with his dog. Two years ago, he flew to New York to take a class at an outfit called the New York Reality TV School.
The 3-year-old school offers intensive one-day programs as well as private lessons, which run $85 for a 11/2-hour session, founder Robert Galinsky said. About half his students are actors who see reality TV "as a viable way to build out their career," he said.
Galinsky said his program addresses the complaints of producers about over-practiced and inauthentic candidates.
"I help people figure out who are you, what's your story and why do we care," he said. "I'm doing what casting directors wish they had time to do."
But many casting directors said they were frustrated with such classes or anything that encouraged assembly-line applications. "Survivor," which led the unscripted TV revolution in 2000, started recruiting candidates several years ago after noticing a generic quality in many audition tapes. Applicants appeared to be submitting the same videos to multiple reality shows, said Spillman, the casting director.
"We want people who know the game, that will be game-changers, that will play 'Survivor', that just don't want to be on TV," she said in a 2009 discussion about the show.
To find those unique and genuine personalities, producers hire freelance casting directors or all-reality casting agencies like Kass' firm, Kassting Inc.
For the as-yet-unnamed NBC show — a "Bachelor" meets "Amazing Race" dating program — Kass' company sent Curtin and other freelance recruiters to half a dozen cities this winter. The network needed 20 contestants and Kass expected recruiters to talk to thousands of prospects and return with video interviews of 150 people, about 60 of whom would be flown to Los Angeles for interviews.
In the week before she set off on her first recruiting trip to San Francisco, Curtin was seeing her daily life in Los Angeles as a giant casting call. Driving on La Brea Avenue one day, she spotted a handsome man jogging down the sidewalk. She pulled her car to the shoulder and ran after him.
"He had a girlfriend, but I took his information in case he's right for something else in the future," she said.
Later, at her nail salon near the Grove, she overheard a customer, an attractive woman with a Southern accent, say she had recently broken up with someone. Curtin proffered her business card and pitch. "She was super-receptive," she said.
Most often, finding a fresh face means leaving L.A., where, producers said, half the struggling actors are angling to get on a reality show and the other half are insulted by the idea.
"If they are attractive in L.A., you're not the first person who has approached them and you won't be the last," said casting producer Shannon McLaughlin.
In smaller markets, where a Hollywood visitor is big news, recruiters often get a welcome mat. Radio DJs have them on drive-time shows, malls host casting calls and people suggest friends and relatives.
Before Christmas, Curtin happened upon her best candidate yet as she left her suburban Phoenix hotel to get coffee: a woman with "Charlie's Angels hair" and "stunning skin, big eyes, pretty smile."
"It's kind of one of those moments where angels sing," Curtin recalled. The woman was surprised, then flattered and is now in the running to appear on the show.
Times staff writer Maria Elena Fernandez contributed to this report.