Why Do They Do It? The Truth Behind 'Celebreality'

We got a dressing-down by Robin Leach.

The legendary host of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" didn't seem happy with us at all. Why? Because we asked a few too many questions about "celebreality," a booming genre of TV shows that combines the reality show and celebrities. I wanted to know why a celebrity would agree to appear on one of these shows. I just happened to ask the wrong guy.

Back to Leach in a moment.

Celebreality is white-hot. We have "Dancing With the Stars," "Skating With the Stars" and "Celebrity Fear Factor," which is essentially being grossed out with the stars.

One of the most successful franchises is "The Surreal Life," now airing in various forms on VH1. The show puts a group of diverse celebrities in a house and makes them live together. That original show has been a reality-show breeding factory, spawning the spinoffs "The Surreal Life: Fame Games," "My Fair Brady," "Flavor of Love," "Strange Love" and "Charm School," with even more in the works.

The creators of the show are Mark Cronin and Cris Abrego, who together have produced more than 150 episodes of television in just three years.

"It's a heightened version of the world that we are all living in," said Cronin. "Celebrities, in their real life -- you get a lot more.

Abrego concurred. "You get somebody who's not afraid to wear their emotions on their sleeve."

'Aging, Egomaniacal Stars That Were'?

The roster of cast members does not exactly read like an Oscars special: Flavor Flav, Erik Estrada, Charo, Emmanuel Lewis, Vanilla Ice, Verne Troyer. The type of celebrity that some refer to as a B-lister or worse. It is a label Cronin and Abrego don't like.

"The difference between the A-list and the B-list," said Cronin, "is simply that the B-list was available to, uh, do a reality television show for two weeks in a house."

The Los Angeles Times said Cronin and Abrego had found the perfect formula for celebreality: "Recruit a bunch of aging, egomaniacal stars-that-were, inject a situation fraught with competition, conflict, or humiliation, roll camera and let the fireworks begin."

Fireworks, like when Troyer -- whom you might know as Mini-Me from the "Austin Powers" films -- urinated on the floor. Fireworks like when Rob Van Winkle, better known as Vanilla Ice, flipped out after being double-crossed by porn star Ron Jeremy on "The Surreal Life: Fame Games."

'Really Great Television'

The question is, why would Vanilla Ice, why would Troyer, why would any of the stars, past, present or otherwise, put themselves in this position?

"In my humble opinion it's now more important to be on celebreality shows than it is to be on regular television shows."

Those are Leach's words, and he knows as much about celebrity as anyone in the universe. In the 1980s and '90s, he was the host of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" -- himself becoming rich and famous. Now he is a big booster of celebreality. You can see him as the host of "The Surreal Life: Fame Games" where Vanilla Ice is flipping out.

"It was after the fact that we said, 'Hey, that was really great television,'" said Leach. "You will never find better."

But when we pushed Leach on the cosmic question of why a Vanilla Ice or a Troyer would do one of these shows, he became unhappy.

"You're not the average television viewer who's watching television, you're a news man. It's a huge difference. First of all, you're a cynic. First of all, you're hard-boiled -- that's your profession, that's why you're in this business."

Surviving the Stigma

"I can imagine you sitting around the newsroom and kicking around story ideas [such as] 'Let's go and beat the hell out of celebreality business,'" he concluded. "It's ideal to take potshots at me."

Despite Leach's protests, Cronin and Abrego acknowledge there is a certain stigma around their empire. "There's no doubt that every single person who's done 'The Surreal Life' said, 'No,' uh, initially," said Cronin. "They don't want to even get the phone call."

So what makes them cave?

"Everybody does it for a different reason," Cronin said.

"I'll tell you, nobody does it for the money," he said. "Some people are doing it because they want the world to see that they're not [the] headline in The Enquirer."

"One of our greatest credits is Christopher Knight. Do you know who that is?" Abrego asked. "Peter Brady. … For the longest time, even when he came onto 'The Surreal Life,' he was known as Peter Brady. Even we couldn't stop calling him Peter. But now, he's referred to as Christopher Knight."

Cronin and Abrego do almost everything with a wink and a grin. Their end product may be crazy, but they do not seem cruel. They are going for smiles over substance and succeeding.

"These are real people," said Cronin. "These are funny people. Some of 'em likable, some of 'em more likable than others. Some of them more insecure than others. They're really just people, and they deserve the respect."

Even Leach whether he is fond of us or not.