Sarah Gertrude Shapiro is the last person you’d ever expect would work for “The Bachelor.”
A native of Santa Barbara, she spent her college years at Sarah Lawrence, expanding her feminist outlook while studying filmmaking. She interned for Christine Vachon’s Killer Films and then worked as a studio manager for photographer David LaChapelle.
But when she moved to Hollywood to try and jump-start her independent film career, she quickly found herself in need of a paycheck. Enter “The Bachelor,” where she begrudgingly worked for nine seasons. She hated the gig so much, she says, that she eventually told her boss she was considering suicide in order to be let out of her contract.
That’s right: Working on “The Bachelor” was so soul-sucking that Shapiro says it nearly killed her. But it would also serve as unexpected creative fodder down the line. Ten years after exiting reality TV, Shapiro has co-created “unREAL,” a Lifetime series about a reality television producer named Rachel (Shiri Appleby) who is constantly making morally questionable decisions in order to keep her job on a dating show.
Shapiro, 37, says “unREAL” isn’t based on “The Bachelor” per se, but let’s read between the lines: The program Rachel works on is about a dashing gentleman who lives in a mansion and courts dozens of attractive women. As a producer, Rachel is assigned a handful of contestants; if one of them ends up as the house villain, she receives a financial incentive. And she’s cash-strapped, so she does her boss’ bidding -- at one point, she learns a contestant’s father is gravely ill but keeps the information to herself so that the woman stays on TV. Her colleagues poke fun at how black contestants never make it far in the competition and believe its female stars should be hot and sexy but never act too promiscuous lest they not be considered “marriage material.”
Before the premiere of “unREAL” on Monday -- conveniently just after the new episode of “The Bachelorette” concludes at 10 p.m. ET/PT -- we spoke to Shapiro about how her experience behind-the-scenes in the reality world contributed to her new venture.
How did you land “The Bachelor” gig?
I got a job on another innocuous reality TV show called “High School Reunion.” But being a dumb kid, I filled out my W9 and other forms and unbeknownst to me, had committed to unlimited renewable options for perpetuity. So I was in Hawaii, and the E.P. of “The Bachelor” called me and said, “I’ve heard good things about you. We want you to come work on ‘The Bachelor.’” And I said, “Oh my God, I’m a feminist. I can’t!”
So you were familiar with the show?
Oh, yeah. It was like the apocalypse to me. This was like asking a vegan activist to work in a slaughterhouse. But the E.P. was like, “Check your contract, honey.” So I did not have a choice. I had to do it or else risk breach of contract.
What was your role once you began working on “The Bachelor”?
I climbed the ranks from associate producer to field producer. I was coming up with romantic dates, writing story lines and conducting interviews. I was around during Andrew Firestone and Bob Guiney’s seasons -- three years and something like nine seasons in total.
Was there a final straw?
It all just added up. It was mainly when I realized that some of what was happening on the show was having a real-life impact on the contestants. You can say people know what they’re signing up for, but back then, I don’t think they did. We had people who were like, “I’m a massage therapist and somebody scouted me at the mall.” There weren’t artsy types or mean types. As time passed, slowly every girl who showed up had already cast herself. So we’d say, “We’re gonna send you to a bunny petting zoo!” And she would say, “Why would you do that? I’m the bitchy black girl!”
How’d you get out?
The only way out was to get fired, and I was such a good Jewish kid I could not make myself get fired. So in 2005, I told my boss I was going to kill myself if I didn’t leave. But they still didn’t want to let me out of my contract. They were convinced that I had been poached by someone like “Survivor” or Mark Burnett. I was like, “No. I want to literally go lie under my mom’s table.” So I said, “What if I leave the state?” And they were good with that because they knew I wasn’t going to work for the competition. Then I put all my stuff in my car and drove to Portland, Ore. I was so damaged. I never wanted to see Hollywood again. I was like, I’m gonna be a kale farmer. I couldn’t be near recording devices or talk on the phone for months.
Given your experience on the show, it seems realistic for viewers to assume “UnREAL” is about “The Bachelor.”
It’s not about a certain thing that happened while I was there. In college, I’d be sitting in a feminist seminar debating how much it would cost to sell your soul. And I’d always say, like, $50 million. And you find out it’s actually just a paycheck. The desperation of staying alive is intense -- 18 years of your parents building and defining your morality is just gone.
On “UnREAL,” producers get financial incentives if one of their “girls” ends up becoming the villain of the house. Did that happen on “The Bachelor”?
Not specifically, no. But you’re doing a job and if you’re doing a job well, you get promoted.
Are you worried that ABC might take issue with “UnREAL?”
I have been concerned about it. But it’s so far off from being an exposé. The secrets of reality TV is material for a half-hour special on VH1 -- not a long-running dramatic series.
Do you think viewers realize how fake reality TV can be?
Reality TV is so close to scripted TV at this point. It takes a really sophisticated set of skills to be able to manipulate those emotions out of people -- and viewers are so keen to phoniness. A lot of the producers who make reality TV are really, really smart. They’re performing like CIA-level interrogations.
So why are millions of people still watching these shows?
I read a study that said most of the people who watch “The Bachelor” make over $150,000 and have like a master’s level education. The princess fantasy is really alluring. Diamonds can hypnotize anyone. Sometimes I’d have to transport diamonds to the show and I politically don’t believe in diamonds. But I would still get weird around them. I’d want to put them on with my dirty, baggy jeans and down jacket. There’s this idea that some girls are pretty, pretty princesses who deserve to be taken care of. That whole idea of being rescued and saved and cared for is powerful.
This season on “The Bachelorette” it appears Kaitlyn Bristowe has sex with one man early on in the series and is subsequently “slut-shamed” by her remaining suitors. Do you think men on these dating shows are free to be more sexual than women?
It’s such a crazy pageant of gender roles that it doesn’t surprise me that slut-shaming happens. To be a perfect contestant, you should be a lawyer that gives really awesome [oral sex] and doesn’t really care about being a lawyer. Like, “I just passed the bar for fun!” The ideal girl is professionally successful, demure, submissive and sexy -- but not slutty.
What would you say to someone who is considering going on a reality show?
That you truly cannot know what you’re signing up for. You can’t understand the power of editing. There are a lot of really smart people making these shows. It’s a chess game you can’t win. There have been some people on reality TV who have totally worked the system, like the Kardashians, who have final cut on their show because they’re producers. But on “The Bachelor,” you can’t anticipate what you’re going to feel like when you have no phone, no Internet, no computer, no books, no radio, can’t control over your food and there’s a ton of alcohol. It’s pretty hard to keep control.
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