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December 20, 2014

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Real lives of reality TV stars

Chumlee, Holly Madison

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Denise Truscello/WireImage/DeniseTruscello.net

Austin “Chumlee” Russell arrives at the 2013 Fighters Only World Mixed Martial Arts Awards at The Joint in the Hard Rock Hotel on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013.

The greatest risk of appearing on a reality TV show, it seems, is confronted at the start: Are you trusting enough to turn over your image to a cartel of directors and producers who want to stage a series based on your life?

Even Las Vegas' red tape is fodder for TV

This is the extent to which reality show producers love Las Vegas: They’re even fascinated by its bureaucracy.

Witness the Clark County Public Administrator’s office. The office’s staff members don’t survive in primitive environments or vie to become the wife of a hot bachelor — instead, they deal with the estates of the deceased — and yet the office has been the subject of a reality show pilot.

The show didn’t take off, but the office is just one of many local government agencies tapped as a potential source for reality TV.

Camera crews have been milling about City Hall for several months after the city signed a production agreement with Discovery Studios last August. The studio, which has produced shows for the Discovery Channel network, hopes to shop a pilot showing the inner workings of Las Vegas government. A pilot centered on the Clark County Coroner’s Office is also being shopped.

Even more potential pitches get shot down by local officials or fail to materialize. Las Vegas spokesman Jace Radke said the city has received “too many (pitches) to count” over the years. Studios regularly approached the city about a reality show starring former Mayor Oscar Goodman, but nothing ever came of it, Radke said. Other failed ideas have targeted Clark County’s Marriage License Bureau and its fire department.

So what’s with all the interest? County spokesman Erik Pappa attributed it to Las Vegas’ mystique – the city’s reputation as a place where anything can happen and often does.

“Even the most mundane things can be tantalizing when they’re in Las Vegas,’’ he said. “Las Vegas has a number of stereotypes, some good, some bad. With these reality shows, you get to see Las Vegas behind the scenes. You get to see it from a different perspective.

“Some of these shows would work OK in a place like Dubuque (Iowa), but in Las Vegas there’s an added dimension of cool.”

— CONOR SHINE

It is a risky proposition. Some reality show subjects have bemoaned the dreaded Final Edit, remarking that what appears on TV is not real, but is actually a manufactured form of twisted reality. The surgical process of video editing can make even a priest look like a drug addict. But when the final product suits the subject, producers and (most important) viewing public, reality TV can turn a what might be no more than a unique personality into an international superstar.

Just ask Austin “Chumlee” Russell. We did. The gruff-but-lovable cast member of the reality TV phenomenon “Pawn Stars,” who just five years ago was a nondescript employee at Gold & Silver Pawn who worked the counter and examined items offered for sale or pawn, is among the array of Las Vegas personalities who have become famous on TV.

But what is real? What airs on TV is not always reality; the subjects are performing a role that happens to be themselves.

A look at some of the more famous Vegas reality show subjects, beginning with an increasingly svelte Mr. Russell.

Austin 'Chumlee' Russell of 'Pawn Stars'

Watch 'Pawn Stars'

History Channel, Thursdays 9/8c

During a photo shoot in the back of the Gold & Silver shop, Chumlee peels off his black T-shirt in favor of an official “Pawn Stars” T. “No pictures! Please!” he half-jokes. “TMZ had photos of me without my shirt when I was in Maui. We don’t want that. Lemme lose some more weight first.”

In fact, he already has lost 100 pounds (and counting), to a walking-around weight of 220.

So highly sought by fans that he often dons a hat and shades, Chumlee today is a bona fide celebrity, a popular fixture on any red-carpet event in the city.

He often struggles to pinpoint the reason for his individual fame, though it is clear his fans root for his success and find him naturally approachable.

And that is not always the real Chumlee.

“I’m honestly probably the least approachable out of all of us in reality. I don’t do well in conversation, you know, I’m just very quiet and reserved for the most part,” he says. “I’ve opened up a lot since the show (premiered), but Corey and Rick, they talk a lot more than I do.”

Chumlee recognizes that he is playing a character, even as the character is him.

“People can relate to me, and they root for me because on the show I am the dumb guy, the one who is a little rougher around the edges,” he says. “When people come in the store, they want to give me a hug and say hi. They want to see the Old Man sitting in his chair, they want to talk to Rick about whatever item they have. They interact with us differently … It takes a special person to be a Corey fan (laughs).

“But me, I’m the guy they want to hug.”

Those fans turned out by the dozens this month during a public announcement welcoming the stage production “Pawn Stars Live” to the Riviera. Rick and Corey Harrison couldn’t be there, but the crowd seemed not to care, not as long as Chumlee was there. As he took the mic, one shouted, “We love you, Chumlee!” The star of “Pawn Stars” grinned right back.

Chumlee was not on the path to stardom when he met the Harrison family, which owns Gold & Silver Pawn at 713 Las Vegas Blvd. South. The Russell family was not well-off and Chumlee never graduated from high school (he earned a GED).

But once the show hit, its success was astonishing and swift. Within a year, it was the highest-rated show ever on History Channel and remains the most-watched of any reality-based series on cable TV.

Though it is difficult to accurately measure a fan favorite on a TV show, Chumlee is the only one to have his own merchandise line and has more Twitter followers (nearly 200,000) than any other cast member.

He is also the only Pawn Star to be the subject of a false report that he’d died. Most recently, the Twitter universe bubbled over with a hoax that Chumlee had a heart attack. It required a public denial from both Chumlee and Rick Harrison.

Nodding when it is suggested that a false-death rumor is a certain sign of universal fame, Chumlee is also driven by the early death of a loved one. His father died in 2009 at age 54 of pancreatic cancer, just weeks before the premiere episode of “Pawn Stars.”

His father’s death was just about the moment when Chumlee’s fame began its ascent. He remains straightforward in his assessment of fame, and those who track how he spends his newfound fortune are quick to say he is not a squanderer.

“I am very lucky, and I realize that every day I wake up,” he says. “I’m just like the others, riding this out. What’s next? I have no idea right now. I’m just enjoying the ride.”

In explaining the popularity of the show, Chumlee says it helps that the show is staged in Las Vegas.

“My sister lives in Vernal, Utah,” he says. “If you had this show in Vernal, I don’t think it would do nearly as well. People love to watch shows in Vegas, and we get some crazy stuff in the store, from Super Bowl rings to JFK’s cigar box to a hot-air balloon. So people keep coming back to the show to see what kind of stuff people bring to us.”

In invoking his sister, Terra, Chumlee reminds of his family’s humble underpinnings. Terra raises four kids and the siblings’ other brother, Sage. At age 18, Sage is the first and only member of the family to graduate from high school.

Holly Madison of 'The Girls Next Door' and 'Holly's World'

Click to enlarge photo

The VIP grand opening of Brooklyn Bowl included Elvis Costello and The Roots, Holly Madison, pictured here, Claire Sinclair, Josh Strickland and Human Nature on Sunday, March 16, 2014, in the Linq.

Madison was caught in the tide of a reality TV project centered on the Playboy Mansion, where she had been living in the mid-2000s, and became one of three girlfriends of Hugh Hefner on “The Girls Next Door,” joining Bridget Marquardt and Kendra Wilkinson. She later starred in another Fox Television/Playboy Enterprises reality series, “Holly’s World.”

Why she was picked: At the time a Hawaiian Tropic model and waitress at Hooters who had studied at Loyola Marymount University, Madison was repeatedly invited to the mansion and had moved into the estate when concepts for a reality show were first being discussed. “I got myself into this situation where I was living at the mansion and there were all of these ideas going around, ‘Maybe we’ll focus on the butlers,’ like that, and they interviewed the girls and ended up liking us,” she says today. “If we wanted to stay at the mansion, we had to be filmed for the show.”

How real life is different from reality TV: “ ‘The Girls Next Door’ was a very restrictive environment, and it didn’t allow me to be who I really was,” Madison says. “I never really wanted to be a reality person. I had come to L.A. to be an actress. I was very private when it came to my personal life and had actually changed my last name because I didn’t want my family to be caught up in coverage of me. This was something I kind of had to participate in.”

On “Holly’s World,” Madison says she strove to show how a single woman could generate a successful career as an entertainer on the Strip. Instead, the show became a tragicomedy centering on Madison’s role as sexy showgirl and ex-Playboy magazine model. “I had no ownership of the show, ,” she says. “There was way more Playboy propaganda put into the show than I would have liked. My friend Claire (Sinclair, the 2011 Playboy Playmate of the Year) was put on the show as a possible spin-off character, when she was in Vegas as a guest star in ‘Crazy Horse Paris,’ and to me she was a little-sister type trying to make it in Vegas. That’s why she was relevant as a friend.”

But producers had other ideas.

“Of course, those who wanted her on the show wanted her to promote Playboy,” Madison says, “and I was not interested in promoting Playboy by then.”

Scott and Amie Yancey of 'Flipping Vegas'

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Scott and Amie Yancey, from A&E’s “Flipping Vegas,” during an interview on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013.

Watch 'Flipping Vegas'

A&E, Season 3 finale was April 12. Full episodes can be viewed at aetv.com

Why they were picked: Telegenic, rich and highly animated, the Yanceys filled a void on unscripted shows by unearthing the process of renovating often dilapidated, “ripped apart” (Amie’s term) vacated homes and selling them for a muscular profit. The couple’s interaction is often contentious; too, as Scott says, “We’re like Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, with some F-bombs thrown in.”

As is typically the case, Las Vegas played into the allure of the pilot. Amie says: “The 24-hour city is a magical place, there’s no place like it, and people want to see where people live here. We take them to these homes, and also show them some really cool scenery.”

How reality is different from reality TV: As Scott says, “We play hard, fight hard, love hard. They don’t show a lot of the love in there. They are going to edit out me holding Amie’s hand. If I say, ‘Thank you,’ there’s no chance in hell it’s going to make it. “

“We seem to argue all the time, but we don’t bring up work on our off time,” Amie says. Scott adds, “I might say the F-word a couple of times in over 120 hours of filming, but then you see the series and it’s like 75 times. I am saying this over and over, and my mom is watching, and I need to make it clear to her that I don’t swear that much.”

The couple’s new reality is they are hosting home-flipping seminars across the country. “More than ever in my life, people are asking me how they can make this happen, how to get into this field, and it’s very positive because they love the show,” Scott says. “So, it’s OK, in the end, how we are perceived on the show.”

Dirk Vermin of 'Bad Ink'

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Dirk Vermin.

Watch 'Bad Ink'

A&E, Season 2 finale was Feb. 24. Full episodes can be viewed at aetv.com

Why he was picked: Vermin is an artist, entrepreneur and something of a Renaissance man as a native Las Vegan who opened PussyKat Tattoo on Maryland Parkway just south of Tropicana Avenue 15 years ago. For more than a decade, he has been one of the city’s most recognizable figures, as founder, lead vocalist and guitarist of the punk band the Vermin. His professional specialty remains somewhat rare: Masking or correcting either poor tattoo craftsmanship or simply bad ideas by those wearing the tattoos. His image as a single father of two young girls (14-year-old Jasmine and 11-year-old TigerLily, who appear regularly on the show) has also made his on-screen life appealing to viewers.

How real life is different from reality TV: “If anything, I think they show me in a better light than I actually am,” Vermin says, laughing. “My actual life would probably be on Showtime instead of A&E. But they are showing more depth of character and a softer side of me than I think people see in real life. It’s not a drama-based show. It’s about comedy, and it is also very heartwarming. You see more heartwarming stories than you might if you were following me around, and not so much silliness.”

Saying he is now recognized “everywhere, including Times Square and Disneyland,” Vermin was encouraged by producers’ decision to air an episode featuring an 83-year-old woman who had a rosary tattooed around her arm.

“She had all of her jewelry stolen from her room in an assisted-living facility, and one of the items taken was this rosary that I think was given to her by her grandmother,” Vermin says. “We did this tattoo, and it was her first at age 83, and afterward she says, ‘This is one rosary nobody is going to take from me.’ It was one of those moments where the room just got quiet.’

“It was a real moment, 100 percent.”

Danny Koker of 'Counting Cars'

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One-time vampire Elvis and current reality TV star Danny “The Count” Koker sits in a restored hearse.

Watch 'Counting Cars'

History Channel, Season 3 finale was March 4. Rerun times can be found www.history.com/shows/counting-cars/episodes

Why he was picked: Koker was among the many expert guests brought into the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, summoned to examine and help provide value estimates on vehicles offered for sale or pawn at the shop. Koker is also a well-known rock musician around town who fronts the band Count’s 77 and is the proprietor of Count’s Vamp’d Rock Bar and Grill on West Sahara Avenue.

How reality differs from reality TV: “In all honesty, it would be that you don’t see my immediate family on the show,” he says. “I am very protective of that, protective of my mom. I have family in town and in other parts of the country and I keep them 100 percent off the show. We have this amazing fan base who really love the show and respond very positively, but there is this group that can be very intrusive and a little kooky sometimes, and I don’t want my family to be involved in that. So you don’t see that side of me on the show.”

The way business is conducted, too, is changed. Koker’s staff works in a higher gear to meet the show’s recording schedule (and “Counting Cars” is in the middle of shooting Season 4 in Las Vegas). “We are now up against tight time constraints for a show airing on a network, where if I had 12-13 cars to restore, normally it would take a couple of years,” says Koker, who is a self-taught mechanic and vehicle restoration expert. “Now, in our world, we have just weeks, or maybe months, to get that work done.”

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