Lawyer Competes on "The Rebel Billionaire"
New York Lawyer
November 15, 2004
By Justin Scheck
For several dozen young San Franciscans who showed up at Cozmo's Corner Grill in the Marina on Tuesday to watch the premiere of "The Rebel Billionaire" -- Fox's new reality show starring famed entrepreneur Richard Branson -- reality TV is more real than it is for the rest of us.
The pashmina-district crowd was there for Nicole Harvat, a tall and gregarious Marina resident and former Lerch Sturmer employment lawyer competing on the show against several other attractive and business-minded contestants. The winner, as Harvat learned when the show was done filming, will supposedly usurp Branson as president of Virgin Companies.
While the crowd was certainly excited for Harvat, the situation was hardly novel.
"I know a couple of people on other shows," said Sujay Jaswa, who serves with Harvat on a nonprofit board and has acquaintances who've been on "Survivor" and "The Bachelor." And he's not alone: Friends Ralph Drybrough and Beth Bueker know former contestants from "The Bachelorette" and "Joe Millionaire."
"I know people on 'The Bachelor' and Jennifer Massey," said Harvat, referring to the Clifford Chance associate and "Apprentice" contestant.
Apparently, the Marina is a hotbed of reality show contestants. Harvat auditioned for the show last spring with her friend and her boyfriend -- and, as of last week, fiance.
"This looked fun, and I loved Richard Branson. I'd followed his career for a long time," she said.
After several callbacks, Harvat was told in July that she was selected to be a contestant. She dropped everything -- including, she says, a job offer from Seyfarth Shaw -- and took off for nearly two months, traveling around the world and doing crazy things like donning a hockey helmet to walk a balance beam strung between two hot air balloons.
Harvat's crowd did not seem jaded by their intimate familiarity with reality; they cheered each time she appeared, and they stood in tense silence as Branson prepared to jettison the unworthy.
"It definitely raises the stakes of reality TV when you know someone who stars on the show," said Heather Dowling, a public relations specialist for Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and a friend of Harvat. (Dowling only knows one other reality show contestant.)
Harvat, who is not currently employed, is forbidden to divulge who won the contest before the show ends, she said, and the penalties for breaking that rule are severe. "Being a lawyer, you can really imagine when I got the 60-page contract to sign, I read it very carefully," she said.
But her friends, experienced in the reality world, were happy to handicap the show. "Nicole's a spin instructor, so she's very athletic," said Jaswa, speculating that she'd have an edge in the physical contests.
Said Drybrough: "Anyone can win it."