Local brains meet beauty in TV version of reality
'Geek' raids MIT, Harvard for new season
By Janice O'Leary, Globe Correspondent | January 14, 2007
They get to live in a mansion filled with gorgeous, scantily clad women, but they're about as far as you can get from being Hugh Hefner. They're nerds. Our nerds.
Nathan Dern , a Harvard University senior , and Matthew Herman , a recent MIT graduate , are starring in the third season of a CW Network reality television show, "Beauty and the Geek," which had its two-hour season premiere Jan. 3.
In the show, which airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on Channel 56, eight geeky guys pair up with eight beautiful women to compete for a $250,000 prize .
Dern, a social anthropology major, had never heard of the show before being approached by the show's scouts as he was handing out fliers for his Star Wars tribute band on the Harvard campus.
And after being chosen, he said, "It was intimidating being around all those beauties. I'm sort of a self-conscious person, and at first I thought they'd never talk to me."
But teaming up was required for going after the prize, and Herman said the women were serious about gunning for the loot.
"Every one of them wanted the money more than the guys," who have their college educations to fall back on, Herman said.
The 22-year-olds say the show, which was taped about six months ago in California, is meant to be entertainment, not social commentary.
Nevertheless, Dern said, "The show is pretty sexist. It tries to show that you can't judge people on first appearances, but part of the humor is looking at hot girls do dumb things.
"There was pressure to continue in the same roles," he said. "The girls still have to look good."
They can't reveal the show's outcome, but both were anxious about seeing themselves on television for the first time.
A now-shorn Dern -- he's preparing for job and graduate school interviews -- watched the first episode in the common room of his Harvard dorm, since he doesn't own a television.
It was "surreal to watch myself," he said, "but surprisingly emotional . . . I was pretty overwhelmed meeting everyone and felt really bad about sending one team off." The experience convinced him that he'd be more comfortable watching it by himself.
Herman hosted 30 people in his one-bedroom apartment in the Back Bay, including his parents, who drove up from New Jersey for the premiere.
"I think my parents were relieved . . . that I didn't make a total fool of myself," he said.
Dern said his mom was excited about his debut , but his dad was "less sure about it." His friends gave him a hard time about asking people to rub sunscreen on his back, he said.
Herman has kept his role in the show under wraps at work, but Dern hopes to capitalize on his brush with fame. He's been sending clips to talent agents and shows like "Saturday Night Live," which he hopes to write for one day. But, hedging his bets, he's still applying to doctoral programs.
On the season opener, the women had to master the Dewey decimal system to find three books in a library, while the men had to complete social tasks, such as asking female passers -by to apply sunblock, to give him her number, and to lend him her cellphone.
Dern's partner, Cecille -- a bikini model for Hawaiian Tropic -- finished first, sending Dern out on the street for his challenge. He said he didn't realize at first how scary he might appear in his oddball outfit and the big hair and beard he sported during the show.
Herman, who studied applied math at MIT, struggled with the sunscreen task.
Dern had the hardest time getting a phone number but still managed to finish first. He gives all the credit to Cecille, who gave him a head start.
Contestants are not allowed to contact one another while the show is airing, Dern said, but he said he plans to remain friends with Cecille.
Since the first episode's airing, Dern has received hundreds of e-mails, most of them sent by people he doesn't know.
And he has more than 1,000 people in his online Facebook group. Both men have received e-mails from strangers asking them out on dates.
"I've had a few marriage proposals. They all made me blush," Dern said.
He did get a jolt of confidence from the show, and no longer gets so nervous approaching attractive women or different social groups on campus, he said.
"Even if someone is better looking or smarter than me," Dern said, "I can still offer them something, even if it's just comic relief."