Interview with Producer Lori Kaye

Lori Kaye in VeniceLori Kaye is a stand-up comic-turned-producer who has worked on several reality shows, including Joe Millionaire, American Princess (airing this summer on NBC), and currently, Bravo’s upcoming The Ross Show.

Kaye talks to about her career and working in reality TV, why there are so few lesbians on reality shows, and how TV producing is really a form of performance art. How did you get involved in reality TV?
Lori Kaye: I went the actor route intially – I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and trained to be an actor. I ended up doing stand-up comedy, which I found to be a medium I was pretty good at, and I went on to do that for twelve years. I also became a writer, and I moved to L.A. eight years ago from New York, and I had my play produced here, Girls Room.

Some folks from E!’s Talk Soup saw it and thought it was really funny and said “You should be writing for Talk Soup.” I didn’t end up doing that, but they were starting a new network called The Style Network and they asked if I was interested in getting involved in that. I had also done some production work while I was doing stand up–I was the producer on Girls Night Out which was a Lifetime stand-up comedy show for women. I ended up helping them launch that network and become one of their senior producers over time and ended up developing a lot of programming for them. We did some really fun programming back then, and I worked with all the designers—Vera Wang, Donna Karen, etc.–which sort of introduced me to the reality show genre.

When I left The Style Network, that’s when I got involved in reality television and worked on the first Joe Millionaire as a producer.

How was that experience?
Most of us didn’t know what the show was really about in the beginning. When I took on the job and somebody said “Do you want to go to France?” I said “sure.” We didn’t know what the “secret” of the show was [that the show’s bachelor, Evan, was not a millionaire], because if the secret got out, the whole show would be ruined.

Even as one of the producers you didn’t know?
Not initially, but I became one of the handful of people who knew–even the cameramen didn’t know that Evan was not a millionaire. So, when we got there, we thought it was a reality show about producers who had no idea what was going on, because they kept asking us to do things that didn’t make sense if you didn’t know the secret. We kept thinking there were hidden cameras watching us.

It was an enormously challenging production, both to keep the secret and keep coming up with fresh ideas for Evan, and then of course the production schedule on the back end was enormously difficult because we had such a short turn-around. But it became one of the highest-rated shows ever on Fox, and on TV in general – 40 million people watched it.

What did you do after Joe Millionaire?
I recently completed a show called American Princess with NBC, which is hopefully going to air in the summer. It’s a reality show that starts with twenty girls, ten of whom go to England to learn how to become a proper lady. Very My Fair Lady, very Pygmalion. The women are from all walks of American life, ages 18 to 29, and it’s really funny, smart, and poignant at the same time.

Are they competing for something?
The title of American Princess, which includes a real royal title and a cash prize. But ultimately the takeaway for these girls is so much bigger than just the prize – so many of them got so much more out of it. It became not so much about who won, but about their experiences.

How are feminists likely to respond to this?
I think they’ll respond to it really well when they see the women, when they see what they’re all about, when they see these independent, strong American women pushed up against this British class system, and some of them said “this is who we are. You’re going to think I’m cool just as I am” and didn’t go so easily into that good night.

Tell us about your latest endeavor, The Ross Show.
The show is about Ross the Intern from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; he’s become very popular, and Bravo, which is owned by NBC, decided to see what kind of legs this could have. I’m co-executive producer, and having a really good time–Ross is really funny and adorable. The show itself is kind of a combination of celebrity pieces, “Dear Ross” where people write in their wishes and Ross makes them come true, and adventures – Ross being in all different kinds of situations doing different things. Kind of a modern talk show/reality show.

So you went from Joe Millioniare to American Princess to The Ross Show – you’re becoming a reality-show expert.
(laughs) I guess I am. I also did a quick, fun teen-makeover show for MTV called Make or Break with my really good friend Laura Fuest, whose doing the Branson reality show for Fox.

What do you think of reality TV in general?
I think it pays the rent really well (laughs).

Is it something you envision continuing to do, or do you want to do something else?
There are several things close to my heart I continue to work on, like my own scripted writing or projects I’m developing. But I think reality TV is evolving in an interesting way, too-–The Ross show is an example of that, since it’s a new kind of reality show that blends more established formats to create a new one. So it’s not always about hiding cameras and secret rooms, or making people look bad or foolish.

There haven’t been many lesbians on reality shows, partly because so many of them revolve around heterosexual dating – a lesbian would never fit in on Joe Millionaire, for example…
I was actually really hopeful to cast a lesbian in American Princess–the network was open to it, and we even found a lesbian we wanted to go with, but unfortunately, she ultimately could not get out of work to do the show.

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