Memo to the New Big Brother Winner: Don’t Be a Fame Whore

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Big Brother 4 runner-up Alison Irwin (left) and winner Jun Song. Illustration: Vulture and Doug Benc/Getty Images

All week long, Vulture explores what happens to reality TV contestants after the show ends — and the future of the genre itself.

I am not a fame whore.

That’s a bold statement, coming from someone who won a reality show (Big Brother 4, all the way back in 2003) and still spends a good portion of every summer tweeting relentlessly about the antics of current contestants on the program, to my roughly 25,000 followers. Being active on social media, and talking endlessly about the show on which you once “starred,” has become synonymous with wanting to be famous. Twitter is filled with a small army of former reality-show contestants trying to hold on to their 15 minutes, one tweet at a time.

But that’s not me. Really.

I’m writing this sitting on the couch with my husband, Davy, decompressing after spending the last five hours cooking and serving takeout food at our Korean eatery, Rice House, in Belgium. Our son sleeps soundly upstairs. I moved here in 2011 after marrying my Belgian dockworker husband, a man I’d known for only six months after having met him on a random vacation in the Dominican Republic. But even before that chapter in my life began, I had made the decision not to chase after whatever measure of fame my summer on Big Brother might have afforded me.

To understand why I chose this path, I should explain how I got to be on the show in the first place. Back in 2003, when the reality craze was still relatively new (Survivor and Big Brother were barely three years old), there were no casting calls, as has become standard today. I applied in 2003 the old-fashioned way: by sending in a VHS tape, two Polaroids (no iPhones yet, either) and a giant, handwritten application form. Today, shows like Big Brother — which airs its season-17 finale tonight — have “superfans,” fans who sometimes seem to know the show better than the producers. But I was no superfan because, really, there had only been three seasons of Big Brother up to that point — and I’d only watched bits and pieces of episodes in passing. It was never a goal of mine to get on a reality-TV show, until that one summer I needed to.

I applied for one reason. I’d just broken up with a live-in long-term boyfriend, Bob, whom I’d believed for years I’d one day marry. I was 27, heartbroken, and needed to get out of New York City. I went in not wanting to be famous, and the idea of fans was not on my mind. I told myself I must win. This would make me feel better about myself.

The casting process was surprisingly fast and organized, and I was approved a personal leave of absence from Citigroup. In July 2003 I entered the Big Brother 4 house. I was there to win — and I did. I was typecast as the high-maintenance investment manager, and I played it up because I was single and dramatic about it. I mostly painted my nails and joked around, but I also cooked nearly every meal in that house from the start to the very end of three months, and the kitchen gave me the perfect vantage point to watch who was aligned with whom. I was set on getting one over on everyone in the house that summer on Big Brother. It’s a show about screwing over your fellow castmates, winning their trust only to betray it. And that’s what I did.

But CBS threw in a most epic twist that summer, surprising five of us by putting us in the Big Brother house alongside an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend. For me, it ended up being Jee Choe, another previous boyfriend I’d also thought I’d one day marry, but whom I’d broken up with, in a bad way, and not talked to in the four years I was with Bob. Yes, I saw the irony in the fact that my escape to forget Bob just boomeranged the moment Jee walked into the Big Brother house. Needless to say, I was going through some shit. Some of my actions and words that summer had been deplorable, specifically relating to one houseguest in particular and his very young daughter back at home watching that summer. I won’t repeat things because they will only open up silent sores. I have made many apologies, and still do, given the chance.

My time on Big Brother also came with a major side effect: I got fat. Instead of working 9 to 5, like I would have been at my job, I ate. Instead of walking all over Manhattan, I munched at night. I ate, and stress-ate, and then ate some more. (It didn’t help that part of my strategy for winning the show was cooking for everyone else.) CBS kindly aired a montage of my weight gain, and if I were a producer, I’d have done the same thing. I’m not embarrassed about it all, as much as I’m reminded that reality television looks frivolous from the outside — but what happens on the inside actually is real (well, except when it’s not).

When I emerged from the artificial reality that is Big Brother that September, I fulfilled any and all contractual obligations I had to CBS, including doing a certain number of media appearances to promote my win (and the show). But my weight gain also provided an easy hook for media outlets more than willing to help me stay in the public eye even longer. I was contacted by radio stations, and Howard Stern, and asked (more than once) if I’d eat a tub of Ben and Jerry’s live on-air — as the fat chick who’d won Big Brother.  I could have held on to the spotlight a little longer and eaten free ice cream. But I didn’t. I’m not trying to put on some fake humility act: I’m proud of my success, and winning Big Brother. The flush of attention resulting right after was a thrill. But as cliché as it may sound, there were more important things in life.

I might have gotten myself cast on Big Brother wanting to run away from life, but after the show was over, a different reality found me: the heartbreaking, gut-shredding news that my father had been in a coma for days. A dozen more comas would follow; I watched him die slowly over the next nine months. After he passed, there were other opportunities for exposure, both on radio and television. There were also offers to return to Big Brother. Instead, I went to a dark and cold place. On the surface, things seemed normal: I had found a new gig at Deutsche Bank, working in banking every day. But by night, I risked my life and my freedom, free-falling into some parts of the underground world in New York City. I started working as a body-rub girl, just answering phones at first, then actually giving erotic massages with happy endings — but not sex — to wealthy men who could afford that sort of stress relief. At one point, I even went into business for myself, running my own high-end body-rub service. I led a double life for a long time, and only a few close friends and my brother knew. I may not have been looking for fame, but back then, I always seemed to be in search of risks. Seeing my dad die at the age of 51 showed me just how short life could be, and it made me feel alive.

This is not the first time I’ve confessed my post–Big Brother adventures in the erotic-massage business. I wrote a post about it two years ago on my blog, JunDishes.com, a site I started in part as a response to some of the online hate I’d been getting from certain quarters of the internet. The blog isn’t about boosting my online presence, though. Sure, I give my take on whatever’s happening each summer on Big Brother. Mostly, it’s a way to stay in touch with the handful of people I’ve met online who just seem to get me. Not in some sort of kiss-ass, fan-worship kind — it’s just a connection.

The center of my life now is very much rooted in real life. In December, Davy and I will have been married five years. Our son, Noah, will be 4 by then, and Rice House will be a year and a half, all of us nestled in our town center in Evergem, Belgium. It’s exactly what I needed: A place where people couldn’t care less about who’s famous. Davy is Belgian by birth and nature, and, well, his mind is boggled by the intensity of Big Brother. But he knows that it was a part of my life, and still is, so he supports my summer addiction of tweeting and blogging about the show I won more than a decade ago. (Yes, I’m still a regular viewer. I’m predicting Steve will win tonight’s finale).

Even though I didn’t seek fame from Big Brother, I also realize that the show is (and probably always will be) a part of my life, as any experience is. Many of the followers I have on Twitter would probably consider themselves “fans” of mine. But while I have “fans,” and many people who’ve been watching Big Brother for years know my name, I’m not famous. And I’ve never wanted to be. I want to be remembered — as my dad is still remembered by countless people — as a daughter and sister and wife and mother and friend. I don’t believe going on a reality-television show should make you famous for the rest of your life.

Fame should be based on people being productive contributors to society. An author on a book tour, a mathematician seeking to prove a new theorem, an actress on a movie or TV show premiere press junket — they all have a reason to be famous. Someone who was on some reality-TV show, or even won one — like me — shouldn’t share an adjective with someone like Neil Armstrong or Beyoncé. Fame-chasers trying to extend those 15 minutes, who need to have their name known to the masses? Their self-worth is determined by their name recognition. I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to take that path, but it’s not the one I chose for myself, and it’s not one I’d recommend for most reality-TV contestants. I didn't have anything to be famous for. Maybe one day I'll really do something fame-worthy, but maybe not. I guess I'm good either way.

In the meantime, if you ever find yourself in Belgium and have a hankering for Korean food, I make a killer kimchi at Rice House to go along with your bibimbap and japchae.