Fake It Till You Make It
July 9, 2019 8:46 AM   Subscribe

When Impersonation Becomes Transformation In the year 2000, “reality TV” still sounded to most people like an oxymoron, a bizarre new genre that was half entertainment and half psychological warfare, where neither audience nor participants were quite sure which of them were the combatants. The show Alex appeared on, Faking It, had a simple set-up: each week a participant with an archetypical identity would be tasked with learning a skill that jarred with that identity. The participant had four weeks to perfect that skill before being sent to a real event where they would have to pass undetected by experts asked to spot the imposter.

When Alex arrived on Faking It he thought he knew what his sense of “me-ness” looked like. It was marching him towards a future life in a big country house, going to horse trials, hunting and shooting. But as you’ve probably guessed, that isn’t how it worked out. Something about Faking It changed Alex’s mind about what his “true” self was really like.
posted by helmutdog (24 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
I remember around the time it was being broadcast, a friend who worked in tv said something about "the best show on tv right now..." and I interrupted him and said "That show is amazing!" Neither of us ended up saying what show we were talking about, but it was Faking It.
posted by PatchesPal at 8:50 AM on July 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you took Bertrand Russell, bound him in leather and made him smoke a cigar made entirely of armchairs
oh my god i have never felt so seen
posted by phooky at 9:02 AM on July 9, 2019 [19 favorites]

In Things That Bother Me Galen Strawson suggests that thinking of your self in terms of narrative can...
"hinder human self-understanding, close down important avenues of thought, impoverish our grasp of ethical possibilities, needlessly and wrongly distress those who don’t fit their model, and can be highly destructive in psychotherapeutic contexts."
this article seems like it might bear out that idea.
posted by tomp at 9:14 AM on July 9, 2019 [10 favorites]

Oh I love this.
posted by lokta at 9:26 AM on July 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I remember this show being just great the few times I saw it. Cool to see this followup, and yeah, interesting reflections on how you "know" who you are...

It's interesting to think how, a hundred years ago or more, it was easier in a way to just cut ties and show up in a new place and reinvent yourself. I also wonder if this kind of reinvention would be more difficult today, if he had to deal with being higher profile or keeping up a social media identity.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:45 AM on July 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Relevant XKCD: Imposter.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:24 AM on July 9, 2019

I think what Faking It did that was (and I suspect remains) rare in reality TV was to make the central figure (and often the mentors) look like real human beings and to get you to care about them. It didn't feel like a scripted set of lines to set up conflict, but an actual experience that the protagonists were engaging with. So you could start off with a stereotype but everyone seemed to get past that pretty quickly and all the ones I remember you and the mentors bought into getting the faker to get the job done. Whether creating that kind of environment links into the story of Alex I don't know, but this was an excellent follow up and an interesting set of links. Thanks helmutdog, I passed the long article by on the guardian website this morning.
posted by biffa at 10:26 AM on July 9, 2019 [7 favorites]

there was a lot of good and interesting and experimental reality TV that is almost completely forgotten now.
posted by prize bull octorok at 10:28 AM on July 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm not commenting to make friends, I'm commenting to win.
posted by tobascodagama at 10:53 AM on July 9, 2019 [7 favorites]

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be" is the obvious quote, but this article goes a bit deeper. Alex was clearly more comfortable in his bouncer persona. so why not call that the real him?

LobsterMitten: you're absolutely right about it being easier to reinvent yourself in a new town a century or two ago. Which is why there were social and legal constructs to try and stop people doing this, especially the ones who wanted to reinvent themselves as single when they had left a spouse and children behind them. See also: Letter of introduction.
posted by YoungStencil at 11:15 AM on July 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

I've often wondered how much you can just up and decide to reinvent yourself. There's that saying, "No matter where you go, there you are," but we are different people in different places, and making a choice to just change things because you want to is very appealing, for a lot of reasons.
posted by xingcat at 11:32 AM on July 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Ask any kid whose family moved around a lot and they'll tell you reinventing yourself can come with every relocation. I've been a special needs kid who cries all the time, a third tier popular kids hanger-on, a full-on nerd, a scuzzy drug kid, an art kid, a punk... And I wouldn't imagine that possibility is news to anybody, because even without moving, kids reinvent themselves all the time.

I think what's jarring to us is the thought that an adult can do this, that even after all of the investment we put into a particular version of our self, we can toss it aside and start fresh to become something else.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:39 AM on July 9, 2019 [12 favorites]

"there was a lot of good and interesting and experimental reality TV that is almost completely forgotten now."

@prize bull octorok -- would you be so kind as to share any of those? I personally love watching stuff when the genre first gets started and before it gets standardized for profit.
posted by yueliang at 1:09 PM on July 9, 2019


The first season of The Real World (and many would argue the 2nd as well) was hugely interesting while being unmitigatedly boring and a fantastic television experiment.

Rockstar INXS was a semi-trainwreck that came later in the lifecycle of the genre and gave some fascinating insight into the participants in a way that you seldom see these days.

BUT. If you want to talk about "when the genre first gets started", then An American Family is an absolute Must Watch.
posted by radiosilents at 1:37 PM on July 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

From the Alex episode as he arrives in East London:
Alex, terrified and embarrassed, staring out the window of the housing project: "I don't think I've seen anyone [here] who's white."
Cut to:
Kickboxer Tony, smiling confidently and cracking up: "Well, he wouldn't, it's Hackney. That'd be silly."
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:40 PM on July 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

This makes me think of myself at the end of the summer every year in junior high: "This year, things are gonna be different!". Alas, I was not as good at reinvention as Alex was.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 1:48 PM on July 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

@prize bull octorok -- would you be so kind as to share any of those? I personally love watching stuff when the genre first gets started and before it gets standardized for profit.

These were all cynical cash grabs, to be clear. And sadly, I have forgotten most of them too. I feel like there were a lot of dating/role-reversal/livecam type shows that had to reach for some pretty weird gimmicks to get noticed. I guess I was mostly thinking of The Swan, Joe Millionaire, and some of the other shows that gleefully deconstructed their participants' identities for shits, giggles, and occasionally pathos.

I remember being pretty invested in the Real World knockoff about Amish kids and missing the last episode. Oh well, I thought, it'll be in reruns forever like everything else on TV, but no. You can only see the ephemerality from outside, I suppose.
posted by prize bull octorok at 1:53 PM on July 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

There's one enormous continuity between Old Alex and New Alex -- the same sweetheart. Who apparently up and moved to Australia to be with him?! Surely Clinton did not think New Alex was incommensurably different, and I would have liked the interviewer to ask Clinton what the continuity was.

Other than that, total self reinvention sounds low-probability high-devastation dangerous, not unlike the mindfulness meditation there was a post on recently.
posted by clew at 2:28 PM on July 9, 2019 [17 favorites]

wanna-be pretenders the lot of them ;)

(was the Centre recruiting?)
posted by twidget at 2:30 PM on July 9, 2019

The article wants us to believe that anyone placed in the 'Faking It' experience might find their sense of self shattered, but I suspect Alex is a special case. I mean, there's some selection bias going on here -- unlike many of his public school Oxbridge peers, Alex sought out an opportunity to appear on a television show about reinventing yourself. Clearly he already wasn't happy with the direction his life was apparently taking him.
posted by crazy with stars at 2:57 PM on July 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

A couple of other factors that came to mind. Queer people moving far away from their families to discover themselves, even if those families are queer-friendly, isn't exactly an unheard of phenomenon.

Also, he was probably engaging with his body in a way that he never had before. Having grown up not only not-straight but also having been a huge misfit, I felt really alienated from my body for most of my life. Learning to have physical agency later in life was profoundly psychologically transformative. It sounds like got a huge dose of that in a very short amount of time.
posted by treepour at 5:24 PM on July 9, 2019 [7 favorites]

"there was a lot of good and interesting and experimental reality TV that is almost completely forgotten now."

would you be so kind as to share any of those?

I don't know if it's easily available anywhere, but there was a BBC series, The Choir, that was some of the most amazing and excellent reality tv ever made. The thing wasn't that it was a competition, it was a collaboration -- can this unlikely group of people learn to sing in a choir well enough to do a respected performance in, say, Royal Albert Hall. It's a season, not an episode, but watching the development of community through singing is something so wonderful to watch, it's amazing.

Similarly, The Great British Baking Show is less a competition between the people and more a competition of each person against themself. Sure, someone gets eliminated or whatever, but everyone in the tent is seems to get along and they're all rooting for each other's bakes to succeed.

Also, yes, the first season of The Real World is utterly mesmerizing. I watched it first run. I didn't know it was the first tentacle of the Beast rising from the depths to summon Apocalypse upon my beloved Music Television.
posted by hippybear at 8:14 PM on July 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

oh hi hello this is me

well, I'm not Alex. But otherwise this experience is pretty much the running theme of my life. Moving around (mostly by necessity), signing up for anything that looks interesting, exploring new works, reinventing myself. Prolific fanfic writer to alternative education activist to rabble-rousing burlesquer to immigration games designer to queer lady magician to femme daddy to who the hell knows what else is happening in between. "Go out of character" is advice I give a lot - often my life changes have come from just going "hmm I'm just gonna try this one thing" and then I get really into it and things snowball.

Some of it is circumstantial. Visa restrictions and other bureaucratic bullshit made it impossible, for a long time, to think about doing anything long term. I didn't have access to any sort of support that would allow for any long term thinking or development - even now, I'm reliant on family money, despite my best efforts. The only things I could do were things that worked in short bursts, and I keep having to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks, which makes for a very varied but also very confusing portfolio & resume. I've only just become eligible for things that allow me to do things long-term, but I'm catching up to lost time and facing things like "You don't have specific enough experience" and "We don't see how we fit into your career trajectory" (my career trajectory has largely been determined by factors outside my control MAYBE YOU CAN CHANGE THAT BY ACTUALLY HIRING ME FOR LONGER THAN EIGHT WEEKS GEE WHIZ)

There is a core 'me-ness' that survives through all my iterations, probably. Maybe. Only thing I can think of that's consistent is that I'm almost always The One Minority in any given group, I'm a Perpetual Foreigner, and I end up having to stick up for myself a lot. Which I guess is less about me and more about the situations I get placed into. But there's also been a lot of change in my politics, interests, presentation, sense of self. Fluid, liminal, who even knows.

Hell, I still want to be on an episode of Faking It or MTV Made (similar idea but for teens) and it pretty much sparked my love for experiential challenge YouTube/TV. I got to be a co-host on an Australian TV show following recent migrants around as they try new things (my things were busking and roller derby) and it was one of the best jobs I've ever had. I wish I could get paid a living wage to just explore and experience new things, especially given my decade-long job-hunting nightmare. I'm already doing this on my own steam, maybe I won't have to go so out of pocket for it.
posted by divabat at 11:24 PM on July 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

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