The Celebreality Interview – Mark Cronin and Cris Abrego

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You may not know Mark Cronin and Cris Abrego, but if you’re reading this blog, you’re undoubtedly familiar with their work. They helped foster the nascent genre of celebreality in 2003 when they tossed a handful of sub-A-listers in a house and showed us what happened via The Surreal Life. When that show migrated to VH1 in 2004, the Celebreality brand was born and it’s been a cyclone of spin-offs ever since. Strange Love, Flavor of Love, I Love New York, Rock of Love, I Love Money and Charm School are among the shows they helped create and executive produce. If VH1 is a circus, here are your ringmasters.

We caught up with Mark and Cris in May of this year on the first day of the Rock of Love Charm School shoot. Below are the results of our candid chat that covers the difficulty of putting on a positive-slanted show like Charm School, the racial criticism they received in the wake of Flavor of Love, why the evolution of the celebreality genre has made it hard form them to hang with it, and the soap-operatic nature of their work.

Is Charm School a difficult show to put on, since the cardinal rule of reality TV is bad behavior = good television?

Mark Cronin: Yeah, that’s what we found on the first Charm School, since it’s a competition to be a good girl. Anybody can be good for the amount of time it takes to shoot the show. I think the tricky part is that we produce it so we always keep them moving forward, but they still manage to take a couple of steps back along the way. We always worry that they won’t, that it won’t be a good story, that they’ll come in and fold their arms and be sweet to each other, but fortunately these characters are so unstoppable, they have to say what’s on their mind. If they don’t like you, they’re going to tell you no matter what. They never stop being themselves. That’s what keeps it going.

Cris Abrego: Ultimately, the premise of the show, because there’s this format of transformation, makes it interesting to watch. We found on the first Charm School that we two types of girls, and both were fascinating. We had girls who were transforming and were highly emotional as a result, and we had girls who fought the transformation or faked it, and behind-the-scenes were still themselves.

Did the first Charm School come as a result of the criticism your shows, particularly Flavor of Love, have faced?

CA: It came as a direct response to the criticism.

Is it the same this time?

CA: Not necessarily.

MC: We didn’t get as much criticism for Rock of Love.

CA: Well, it didn’t receive the same criticism as Flavor of Love.

MC: It seemed like people just embraced the bad behavior. Maybe they were just used to it by then? When Flavor of Love came out, it was outrageous. People had only seen The Bachelor or Bachelor imitators that were trying to do this fairy-tale romance. That just seemed so fake to people that when we did Flavor of Love, people were shocked because it was so fun to see a straightforward approach. By the time we got to Rock of Love, we’d done Flavor of Love, Flavor of Love 2 and I Love New York. Now, it wasn’t so crazy that these people who were looking for love were acting out.

You don’t think it has anything to do with people being more accepting of seeing white women behaving badly versus black women?

MC: That’s true. Some of the criticism dealt with our portrayal of African American women. Cris and I always say: these are real people. It’s not about race, and certainly the worst-behaved person on Flavor of Love was Pumkin. But the point people make is that there’s not enough positive image of African American women on television. There aren’t enough African American women doctors, lawyers, cops. There are plenty of good white role models on TV, but it’s just not the case for African Americans. And then when a show like ours comes around and it’s a big population of African American women misbehaving, the backlash is: where’s the balance? Where are the doctors and the lawyers? Our answer is: no doctors and lawyers came out to date Flavor Flav. That’s the first problem. Second, that’s not our job. We do understand the problem, though.

One thing I find myself mentioning when I discuss these matters with people is that Flavor of Love originated as a satire. I know it’s satire wrapped in reality, but you can’t really measure society via something inherently satiric.

CA: Well, it’s satire in its framework, but the truth is that we tapped into a way of tailoring a dating show to one specific person, Flav. And Flav’s crazy and he dates those type of women. Flav has certain things he looks for in a person he wants to date.

MC: It’s like, what if the Bachelor was actually a big character? The Bachelors tend not to be big characters. They tend to be nice, eligible men. Hunks, maybe, but that’s not character. A good character is someone who says funny stuff and who has a weird, whacked-out lifestyle. So, really, we wondered, “What if the bachelor were a crazy lunatic?”

But the legitimacy of this franchise as straightforward dating shows is evolving, too, right? With Flavor of Love, the question is always, “Are you really here for Flav?” On Rock of Love, that question isn’t mentioned nearly as much – it’s much easier to believe that so many of those girls are really there for Bret.

CA: There’s no question. Especially on Rock of Love 2, we quickly found out that the girls became truly invested and were much more emotional. For Rock of Love 2, there was whole casting pool of women who’d fallen in love with Bret just from watching him on Rock of Love. They were for real.

MC: I think we had five who were actually in love with Bret, who were actually taking it hard. In Flav’s case, it was always one or two or maybe three who had it bad for him. But Bret had a big population of women head-over-heels, and like Cris said, they walked in that way. You know, he’s a good-looking, charming, sweet, funny guy.

As you’re watching this reality unspool from the control room, do either of you become spectators versus the maestros that you’re paid to be?

CA: Yes.

MC: Yeah. You have to care.

CA: Working on The Real World and Road Rules and long-form documentary stuff, watching it here, it’s like watching theater. You get involved and you get into it. It happens fast and it’s intense.

MC: We try to watch it like the home audience. We say, “Is what we’re getting here interesting? Is the story satisfying on enough levels? Is there another angle in the story we have to go catch? Is there something missing here?” We have to be vigilant to make sure the home audience is going to be engaged. And we try to fix it if it’s not that way.

Do you guys ever think about the larger cultural implications of what you do? I’ve heard it argued that these shows represent what Americana is in 2008.

MC: Wow. That’s sad. (Laughs)

CA: I get where you’re going with that, though. People ask me all the time, “Man, where do you find those women?” They’re not hard to find.

MC: If you don’t know someone crazy like these women, then you are one of these women.

Rock of Love particularly reminds me of the space that Russ Meyer once occupied in that it isn’t pornography but it’s salacious and so boldly titillating, it’s almost camp.

MC: It’s probably more mainstream than Russ Meyer, though. But I guess that does make sense. I always think we’re on the fringe.

CA: I think we hit a nerve because it’s closer to what’s real in terms of what’s going on in the clubs. These seem like much more real people. We took off the star filters and all the cleaned-up stuff The Bachelor was doing. You know, not all of the people on our shows are great-looking, including the bachelor. It has this texture that’s feels more authentic.

MC: Celebreality kind of exploded after The Surreal Life, which we take some credit for. But then it got so big that we can’t even play in that game. The celebrities are on, like, Dancing With the Stars, and they get six figures to appear on that show. It’s become such a big industry now that whatever the early fun of it was is kind of gone now. The next step Cris and I have taken is that we’re now in the celebrity-making business. Some of these girls are on their fourth show. They’re celebrities now. Heather and Destiney and Megan and Kristy Joe, they’re stars. They get recognized everywhere, people want their autographs, they get paid to make appearances in clubs. They’re celebs. And I think we reuse them more efficiently than the network reality shows, although Survivor has started bringing back its stars. When we find a great character, if we can find a continuing story with that character, we go with it. If we find someone the audience loves, we find a way to bring them back to continue the storyline. It’s like a soap opera.

What’s your take on the concept of guilty pleasure?

MC: Someone recently said to me, “Your shows aren’t a guilty pleasure; it’s just a pleasure.” All pleasure is good.

How many spin-offs is too many?

CA: Never.

MC: No such thing. I keep saying we keep doing the same show, we’re just changing the title. Sometimes we change the rules. Sometimes we change the prize. Sometimes it’s Flav, sometimes it’s $100,000. But either way: same show.

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  1. Cathy says:

    I love it your shows are so addictive. Speaking of finding someone to go further with. Mr Boston is a hoot. He definitely needs his own show. Let him do something, maybe the whole dating show. I Love Mr. Boston get it in the works.

  2. rosa says:

    A woman wrote a comment on how these reality Tv shows can cause danger to your casts. She mentioned that the evil character can be targeted by an irate viewer causing him/ or her to go on a manhunt for the villian. Now this is scary to me. Dont you think with all the school massacres and spouse abuse and parents getting rid of their own children or visa versa is what these crazies will think of doing out of hatred to one or many of the cast members. Please VH1 we do not need your reality television, Go back to music videos, these shows are definitely getting out of hand.

  3. SugarMagnolia says:

    I’m a psychology major and I just want to tell yall how much your shows interest me on a purely psychological level. I love them. Can’t get enough. Thanks so much guys.

  4. Chris says:

    Your shows are awesome! They are amazing and they are my guilty pleasures! I love every single show you guys make! I LOVE MONEY was my favorite!!! Make a sexcond season of that please. Give MEGAN a show too she is the best!

    You both are awesome and i want to thank you both for making these wonderful shows!

  5. Chris says:

    You guys make awesome shows! Please keep making more!!

  6. BIG MOUTH says:

    you used crazy and lunatic in the same sentence, and that is because you are telling just who u reallly want to be. Since you’ll can’t handle the pressure of being judged! You have decied to use
    this power of destruction on those more ignorant than you are willing to admit,you know this to
    be. crazy: sick in the mind,insane,making no sense( so you use money, which makes a lot of sense
    as force of power to help root out the evilness of greed!) lunatic:crazy,insanity,madness,foolishness
    stupidity. ( So you all have created a life for those through your desires;the most extreme members of a group of believers in your cause!!! Just like they have a choice to make for themselves, you too
    had that same choice. Stop making it seem so moral when the truth of it is it is immoral !!! Call this what it really is. ( A ROOT TO ALL EVIL DEEDS) cause right now u two are just rich from filthiness
    now trun it around and be rich in greatness.Get venues of holdness so America can get back to
    Love, Life and the prusuit of Moral acts of Happiness and Joy!!!!!

  7. Juan Diaz says:

    LIKE EVERYBODY SAYS YOUR SHOWS ARE ADDICTIVE AND FUNWATCHING , BUT YOU KNOW WHAT WOULD BE MORE FUNWATCHING AND ADDICTIVE , IF YALL COULD ALSO COME OUT WITH A SHOW ABOUT GIRLS TRYING TO DATE ANDY MILONAKIS ;YOU KNOW THAT WOULD BE SO FUN TO WATCH A WHOLE BUNCH OF HOT GIRLS TRYING TO DATE ANDY.BECAUSE ANYWAYS NOBODY TRYES TO DATE SOMEONE CAUSE THEYRE HOT OR UGLY EVERYBODY IS DOING IT JUST FOR A SHOT AT FAME. BECAUSE I MEAN IF YALL HAD THE NUTS TO GET FLAVOR FLAV OUT AND MAKE HIM FAMOUS. AND YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN BY HAVING THE NUTS TO GET FLAVOR FLAV OUT. I THINK YALL SHOULD TRY IT WITH ANDY MILONAKIS.

  8. SARA says:

    I HAVE BEEN RESEARCHING THESE TWO GENIUS MEN SINCE THE FIRST FLAVOR OF LOVE. I LOVE ALL THE REALITY SHOWS ON VH1, AND WOULD DIE FOR ONE OF MY OWN. HOW CAN I CONTACT EITHER MARK OR CHRIS TO PITCH MY STORY TO?

  9. dominique says:

    man i love all the reality shows. i watch them everyday all day, even the re-runs. man i really want my own show cause i can be a good actor and make lots of ratings on my show. you know i come from a state that is always overlooked and all the people that are on your shows are from all different kinds of states and not never from where i’m from. If you can write me back let me know something i will even be on one of the shows thats coming out if not my own. please read this and give me a response.

  10. dominique says:

    Hi this is dominique again i forgot to mention last time i wrote that i am a 24 year old lesbian and i think that, that would be good for t.v. a lot of people like lesbian action or maybe you guys should do another tila tequila show and set me up for a shot at that would be nice.

  11. Jason says:

    Hey you guys should do a reality show about Angelique Bates. She’s that chick from that old Nickelodeon show “All That”. She’s a hot babe. I wouldn’t mind watching her every week.

  12. michael says:

    i would watch her to

  13. Manny Dingo says:

    Hey Chris,
    The show, I Love Money 2, is really unclassy, and has gone down to the sewer man. It has traveled off the beaten path. It is a joke now. The show isn’t worth watching anymore, bacause all they do is fight and scheme. You let too much junk go on in the house. The teams are uneven, and you do not even try to even them out. You let too much s@#t go on in the house. No control. It is just a house full of bullies and thugs. You need to set some guidelines and some limits. Break up the teams, and reorganize them. Make them fair, and not that petty stuff. The show is a waste of time to watch and is very, very low down trashy. All of the nice people get walked all over.
    Now, Flavor Flav, that was classy. He didn’t put up with all that bullsh@t!

    Sincerly,
    Manny

  14. C.G from atlanta says:

    i got an idea for a show….who should i contact,to talk about it?
    i;m chyldadreamlove@yahoo.com

  15. Rosie says:

    Megan should be on Sober House!! That guy could really help her….Right?

  16. ananymous says:

    I just had a good ides!! While watching i love money 2 i realized that season 2 had alot of shadiness going on and i think, there should be a season 3 entitled…I love money: Requiem! Where some of the players from both seasons come back and try to get that money!! Definietly you have to bring back frank, buddah, and saaphyri!!

  17. Ernie Woods says:

    HOW DO I GET MY IDEAS TO THESE PRODUCERS?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  18. dee says:

    I have a really great idea for a show-how does on submit an idea?

  19. deafacto irish moll says:

    why don’t you guys gget chardonnay an ” I Love Chardonnay” show. my son thinks she is hot and deserves a chance @ love If she is looking for it

  20. Tania says:

    Hey I wante to know if there was an official site for the tw guys…I’d like to send them an e-mail or two from time to time or check up on their work…I guess I’m asking where does the fan mail go???And will they read it??? I am a big fan, i think these guys are geniuses…

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