Reality Show Joke Takes Serious Turn for Rancher
By ERIC DEGGANS
St. Petersburg Times TV/Media Critic
BROOKSVILLE -- When it happened, Jimmy Batten thought it was a joke between him and two world famous women he'd come to know as friends.
Then he saw the first episode from Fox's reality show "The Simple Life 2."
The ranch owner was shocked to learn producers included a scene in which he donned a pair of leather chaps -- sans pants and underwear -- flashing his semi-naked bottom at stars Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.
Batten, 57, among 10 candidates vying for the District 5 seat on the Hernando County Commission, had one thought:
What is this going to do to my candidacy?
"I really didn't want to see that butt scene," said Batten, who hosted Hilton, Richie and film crews from the Fox series for about a week in March.
He let the women work on his ranch as part of the series, which features the two flighty "celebutantes" driving across the country with no credit cards or cash.
Simple Life 2 is a sequel to the original series, which last year featured Hilton, an heir to the $350-million Hilton hotel fortune, and Richie, adopted daughter of pop star Lionel Richie. Back then, the duo was forced to go without cellular telephones or their wealth for a month while living on an Arkansas farm.
For the latest edition, the pair drove from Miami Beach to Los Angeles in a hot pink pickup truck, towing a large silver recreational vehicle.
Promotional clips from future episodes show the pair working as mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs, visiting a Pasco County nudist colony and feeding inmates at a prison.
Batten's exposure comes during the end of the first new episode, which also features Hilton's infamous fall from a horse, sparking worldwide media attention.
"If I had known the camera was rolling, I probably wouldn't have done it," said Batten, who admits his reputation as a "colorful character" among east Hernando County residents.
A lifelong county resident who owns J.O. Batten farms and other agriculture-related area businesses, Batten was chosen by the show's producers after auditions held in Brooksville.
"I don't have any idea how people will react," Batten added. "But I still think I'm going to be the (district's) next county commissioner."
In the show's first episode, scheduled to air June 16, Hilton seems to play on Batten's guilt over the fall, which resulted only in bruises and scratches.
He agrees to take them both to the nearby Boyetts Grove Citrus Attractions, an old-school tourist stand that combines a small zoo and aquarium with a gift shop and ice cream parlor.
Afterward, the women head back to his home, encouraging Batten to model his chaps, bottomless.
Emerging from his bedroom with a towel around his waist, Batten slips off the towel for a "quick glimpse" of his rear, which is blurred by the show's producers to obscure detail.
"For the month of production, Paris and Nicole were filmed from the moment they got up until they went to bed at night . . . and so were all the people they interacted with," said Fox spokesman Chris Alexander. "Everyone knew that."
As one of eight Republicans vying for the District 5 seat, Batten may find the name recognition from his Simple Life 2 appearance outweighs any negative voter reaction, said Ana Trinque, chairman of the Republican Executive Committee in Hernando County.
"He should have known better . . . but I can't imagine this is going to be that big of a deal to his candidacy," said Trinque. "I think this is going to be one of Jimmy Batten's most embarrassing moments, but I don't think it will sink his campaign."
Janey Baldwin, another candidate for the District 5 seat, said Hernando County voters may not be so generous.
"I think he has every right to be concerned . . . the voters of Hernando County will not vote for someone who acts so childish," Baldwin said. "Why in the world would a grown man do anything like that? And one who is running for the County Commission, too?"
"I think people will see I'm just a regular person -- I don't walk on water," said Batten.