Don't Cry for the Misled Misses of 'Millionaire'
By Lisa de Moraes
Monday, January 20, 2003; Page C07
To lie, or not to lie?
On TV, does it matter?
TV critics are outraged that female contestants vying for the attention of Evan Marriott on the Fox reality series "Joe Millionaire" were told he's worth $50 million when he's actually a construction worker who made $19,000 last year.
But save the tears: The contestants on these find-a-mate reality series are coming out ahead anyway. Let's face it, they aren't actually looking for That Special Someone. Like contestants on all of these reality shows, they're desperately seeking 15 minutes of fame, on the talk show circuit, which will hopefully lead to a correspondent's job on "Access Hollywood" or, if they're very, very lucky, a four-episode guest-star gig on "Boston Public."
"What does it say about Fox and the current state of network television that the show you have at the top of your [press tour] presentation -- that's really delivering for you and that you're obviously quite proud of -- is based on a lie?" one critic bellowed at Fox suits on Saturday, the final day of Winter TV Press Tour 2003.
Another said that duping the babettes of "Joe Millionaire" was as bad as telling a contestant who'd correctly answered all the questions on ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" "Sorry, we don't have a million dollars to give you."
Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman said she thought the women were treated fairly.
"I think that when people get involved in these unscripted shows these days, they know they're in for a ride," Berman said.
"The women who participated in this show had a good time." And all have agreed to participate in post-show publicity.
Including talk show appearances.
We rest our case.
Speculation has been mounting that it's the viewers Fox has deceived, not "Joe Millionaire's" female contestants, about their leading man's net worth. To date, this speculation is based largely on the discoveries that: Marriott did some underwear modeling, worked as a bellman and attended a private school, and that construction workers generally make more than $19,000 a year. Plus, of course, his last name is Marriott.
Critics sensed a trust-funder.
Berman fueled the speculation by becoming guarded when asked whether she anticipated backlash, should it turn out Marriott has family money.
"We have told you that we took a man who made a modest living and we dressed him up and we "Pygmalion"-ized him and said that he had $50 million. We kept saying that that's what we've done.
"We have presented our millionaire -- or the individual we dressed up as a millionaire -- accurately," she continued. "What we presented to the American public in our promos is accurate. We are not lying to them."
Asked if she was talking about his net worth in any way, shape or form, she replied, "No, I'm not." Such a shame it would be should Marriott turn out to be a genuinely wealthy guy who is posing as a poor man posing as a wealthy guy. He seemed so Gary-Cooper-in-"Mr. Deeds" during Saturday afternoon's Q&A -- all hunky and plain-talking and unassuming.
"Can you help us do this math?" One cynical critic asked. "Some of us have been struggling to figure out how you could be working in construction for so many years and be making $8 an hour."
"Well, I can set the record straight pretty easily," Marriott replied slow and easy. "I don't know if you remember last year, a little thing called September 11th, where the economy took a dive and Evan didn't work for half a year. So if there is any question as to whether Evan was in construction, all you have to do is drive over to the Pasadena Union Hall. I'd love to call over there and tell them that whoever wants those records can have them. I made, and I'll tell you -- it's nobody's business but to set the record straight -- I made $29.54 an hour.
"A lot of the reason I did the show is I had such a bad year financially. I couldn't afford a bed."
Marriott says his parents are comfortable but not extremely affluent and that his father worked two jobs, as a banker and teacher, and was a Marine Corps reservist.
"We weren't living in poverty, but my parents struggled to make sure my sister and I had nice things," he explained. Another cynical critic wanted to know: "Why did you do the now-infamous underwear ads?" "Because my mother has seen me in my birthday suit. I didn't think she'd really care," Marriott replied.
One slightly less jaded reporter asked Marriott whether he would have done the show had he known that his life would be so closely scrutinized.
"I don't know if I enjoy the fame," Marriott reponsed. "But I tell you what I get a kick out of and it's really sappy and you'll get your puke buckets out, but the other day . . . a kid came up with a little truck, and his parents wanted me to take a picture with him. And I thought it was really cool because as a kid I loved trucks.
"It's freaky to me -- I was on a backhoe eight weeks ago, and now I'm somebody that somebody wants to get near and touch."
Marriott may not have a lot of money -- we hope -- but he has one of the most affluent young audiences on network TV.
Only NBC's "Friends" and "ER" have higher ratings among 18-to-49-year-olds who pull in $75,000 or more a year. That demographic is the Holy Grail of Madison Avenue.
The show beats NBC's No. 4-ranked "Will & Grace" and CBS's fifth-place "CSI" in that super-demo.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company