Re-inventing the Abbotts
Santa Cruz´s own star in TV´s ‘Trading Spouses´
By Christa Martin
Some might say the Abbotts are peculiar. They live in a spacious house, but sleep in the same bedroom: mom, dad and two teenage sons bundled up behind one door. They take their shoes off inside—and outside. They sit upright—but not in chairs. Not a single four-legged bum rest in their downtown Santa Cruz home. They´re a throwback to hippies but without the angst; hillbillies without the goats; Amish without the hang-ups. So it´s no wonder a casting director for the hit TV show Trading Spouses hunted the foursome down to star in a program where moms get swapped for a week. Here exists a family that´s sure to increase ratings when the hour-long “reality” segment airs at 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 29 on FOX.
“I thought they wouldn´t choose us,” says the 61-year-old dad, Carl Abbott. “We´re too outside the bell curve.”
But that´s the reality TV formula. Doesn´t he know? (Well, maybe not. The Abbotts don´t spend too much time in front of the boob tube.)
It works like this: Cameramen film “quirky” characters and viewers always tune in. Reality programming has taken over television, but Trading Spouses, unlike its reality-TV siblings, doesn´t have the sleaze appeal. It´s more family-friendly.
Unlike the thousands of media-hungry families that the Abbotts suspect were vying to get a slot on the season´s lineup, this Santa Cruz family came on board through—not surprisingly—unconventional means.
In early August, 18-year-old Luke, while sitting on the floor, was scrolling through the family e-mail. “Our species wasn´t born with chairs,” father Carl explains. “It´s not healthy for the body.” Maybe for his body. The day after we meet, this reporter has a sore back from sitting on the floor, interviewing the Abbotts. However, they did let me keep my shoes on.
One of the e-mails Luke found was from a casting director for the show Trading Spouses. He happened upon the family´s Web site, www.playingbyear.com, and asked if they´d be interested in being on TV, trading their mom for another—for a week. Luke thought it was ridiculous and didn´t mention it to anyone else in the clan.
“Initially I thought we´d never want to be on reality TV,” says Luke.
Leslie, 51, ironically had been skimming People magazine. She read a review of Trading Spouses and then moved on to check her e-mail. That´s when she read “the” e-mail. The show was on that night and Carl and Leslie watched it before they wrote back.
“When I heard about [the chance to be on the show], I said of course we´re going to do it,” Carl says. “For me it´s an opportunity. I´m always up for anything if it´s not dangerous. Most people apply. They found us out of the blue. There´s a possibility this will aid our family´s goal of returning music to other families.”
He sounds more like a venture capitalist than a bushy-bearded man who cruises around barefoot, tends to an enormous garden and muses about the oddities of American culture. The rest of the family followed suit, went down to L.A. and endured an almost interrogation-like process to get on Trading Spouses. It included things like background tests and blood tests. No freaks on this show, just normal people, who maybe aren´t so “normal.”
After they were chosen to appear on the show, The Abbotts were paired up with an African-American family from Nashville. Vivacious Vicky Lowe, whose daughter has a shoe fetish, swapped mom roles with the calm, shoeless Leslie Abbott. (Well, Leslie does have a few pairs of footwear for things like restaurants and such.)
The two families soon began a crash course in opposing cultures. For one week, each mom moved into the other family´s home. Leslie went to live in the palatial Lowe abode—a place she says could easily sell for $1.5 million in Santa Cruz. Leslie introduced the Lowe family to playing music, being that it´s a family-bonding tool used by the Abbotts. Although a little bumpy, the musical experiment proved somewhat successful and the entire jaunt to country music´s capital was more than just a guitar pickin´ good time.
“I had such a wonderful time with that family,” Leslie says. “They made me feel very welcome and I laughed so much. I felt rejuvenated. … We had a real respect for each other.”
And the Abbott men? While Leslie was whisked away to another state, into her 800-square-foot home entered a woman with a big personality: Lowe. She pleasantly stirred up the simple Abbott existence. Fried foods and lots of noise were two of her trademarks.
Although the families went through a lifestyle shift, no one´s complaining. They´re all buzzing with that feel-good happiness, characteristic of not taking American culture too seriously.
“It was a terribly enjoyable [experience],” Carl says. “Like taking a vacation in your home.”
Ever ones to view life through a kaleidoscope, the Abbotts walked away from the bizarre week, where film crews recorded all aspects of their lives, each feeling a little bit richer—psychologically and monetarily. Although they have to remain hush-hush about any winnings from participating in the show, just watch an episode and you´ll see that each family receives $50,000.
“When Vicki left, she was seeing the family and kids from her paradigm, the American value point of view,” Carl says. “She said, ‘you kids really have to get out and get away from this family, leave and go off to college, be an astronaut and go to the moon.´ [She was saying] that their life here, what they have is not enough and that´s something we found odd. … The kids have no foul mouths, are well-behaved and enjoy working.”
But that´s what happens when you trade spouses: it makes for good television.