'Reality' shows often aren't real

My husband and I were on House Hunters. One thing you didn't see on air? We were already living in the great houses we "found" on TV.

House Hunters International.
(Image credit: HGTV)

This article originally appeared on Slate, and it is used with permission.

When people learn that my husband and I have been on House Hunters not just once but twice, they always have a million questions. Once we are done explaining, though, they never like my answers and wish they'd never asked. This is because even though smart viewers know that reality TV is created and edited just as carefully as scripted TV, they still, in the back of their minds, think that there must be some baseline rules about the "reality" that's portrayed. But there aren't!

So I'm going to tell you all about my experience with House Hunters International, on which we appeared in 2017, and House Hunters, which we filmed last winter and appeared on in June. My story might burst your bubble about the show. If this is not something you want, stop reading now. The first thing you need to know is that in neither episode of House Hunters were Jeff and I actually ... house hunting. One time we'd already closed on the house we "chose" in the episode; the other time we'd already lived in our house for a year.

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House Hunters International is always looking for people who have moved abroad to feature on the show. I write a blog about our family and our travels, which made us perfect — we were already willing to share our lives publicly. We filled out an application, submitted some iPhone footage of each of us giving a house tour, and underwent a Skype interview with a casting director, focusing on how we might be in conflict while looking for a house. The interview also seemed meant to ensure we weren't a family of sloths or murderers, though maybe that would make better TV.

Shortly after the interview we found out we were cast but then waited months with no further word. Jeff and I often wondered if we had been dropped. During this wait I found out I was pregnant. Months later, in a whirlwind, we scheduled dates to film. A cameraperson, sound engineer, director, and fixer would be in our town of Delft, in the Netherlands, for one week in mid-July 2016 to shoot our episode. I was now seven months pregnant. We would be paid a flat rate of $1,500 for our time.

The five days of shooting were organized by location availability, not in any sort of chronological order. One day we would film seeing the town of Delft "for the first time," and the next day we were all moved into our house as though we had lived there for a few months. Keeping up with where we were in the story (and what verb tense to use) was a constant battle. In one of my favorite shots, we pretended to purchase a heavy bakfiets cargo bicycle for the first time, and I rode off, over a bridge, pregnant, with the children nicely tucked in. In reality, my first terrifying ride had been a year before, crisscrossing the road to stay up and stalling halfway up the bridge. My "first ride" on TV, though, was effortless.

Some things about the show are completely transparent. There is no wardrobe or makeup department. You'll hear plenty of opinions on what you should wear, but everything is coming out of your own closet. I learned that all my favorite tops have stripes on them, a no-no for the camera.

But I was surprised how even the littlest details could be fictionalized. When they couldn't find a local real estate agent, the House Hunters International producers needed a Dutch person who was willing to be on camera for $500 as our "relocation expert." Our neighbor and friend Michael, who actually works in IT, was happy to oblige. In the episode, I hinted at the absurdity of the whole situation when Michael mentioned that he lived near a house we were looking at. "Oh, so we could be neighbors," I exclaimed, while biking to tour our actual house, down the street from his ... where my children were playing with his daughter, under the supervision of his wife.

In conversation with the production crew, you outline your "storyline" before you start shooting.

We learned immediately that these shows are looking for conflict, so it's important to be ready to fight a little with your spouse. We actually really thought this was fun. Throwing a few punches in a safe space on things that don't matter can be really cathartic. The entire point of the show is to make it seem impossible that you will ever find a house. The show is intended to resemble a real-life house hunt, but exaggerated for TV.

So you take your real-world wants, and in each house you visit, you ham that up. In House Hunters International I mentioned that I wanted a bathtub, something that is nearly impossible to find in the Netherlands. At the producers' urging, I soon became all about the bathtub. I hopped into available tubs to try them out and lamented through entire house tours about how I would live, with three kids no less, without a bathtub. I was pregnant, after all, and that tub was a necessity. In reality, a bathtub was on my wish list but not something that would have made me pass on a great house. If we were looking for a house. Which we weren't, because we had a great one, with a bathtub.

The houses we toured for the show were not for sale. Our small city of Delft had very little housing turnover. As a result, we visited two properties that were listed for rent on Airbnb. They did, to be fair, reflect the types of homes and features you would find in Delft.

When it came time to film us touring our home, the production company had a problem: It needed to make the house look like we didn't live there yet. So it hired a moving company to essentially move us out of our own house. We woke up early one morning and watched all our belongings from any room that would be filmed for the show get loaded into a moving truck. The truck was then driven around for a few hours while we shot the segments in which we toured the house.

I borrowed bedspreads from friends to make the bedrooms look different. A trunk at the end of the master bed, engraved with my college insignia, remained — an Easter egg to my close friends that this was in fact our house.

In several of the outtakes, I mistakenly opened a closet, only to remember it was full of my clothing. Our fridge was packed full; it too could not be opened during filming. The playset in the backyard was too big to move, so the cameraperson stood in front of it and shot us, in a different part of the yard, speculating about how much our kids would love playing on the lawn. That afternoon, the moving truck returned and put our house back together; meanwhile, we changed clothes, moved over to the playset, and played with our children while the cameraperson filmed the "after" shots.

At each house you film the "throw your partner under the bus" interview. This is where you act like your partner is crazy-pants. Again, a good sense of humor is key here. Everything I said in my interviews was based on a grain of truth, but in a real house-hunting situation I would never phrase it that way. In one particular interview, after Jeff said how much he loves a rooftop garden, I lamented that our children would run right off, plummeting into the canal he loves so dearly. Jeff and I would listen in on each other's interviews but not stand where we could see each other. This helped us recognize how the other was going to be portrayed, and to lean in to it all.

After a wild week of shooting houses and touring locations around the city accompanied by a camera crew, we returned to our normal lives. Eight months later, our episode ran. I watched it with a new baby on my lap, then logged on to Twitter to see what people were saying. In our House Hunters International episode, Jeff is portrayed as wanting a small house that is close to work no matter what. People on Twitter ate him alive for not letting his pregnant wife have the house she wanted.

So, after that insanity, you might be wondering why in the world we would decide to do all this again by signing on to House Hunters. It is obviously not the money — the U.S. House Hunters show only pays $500 — or fame (although I was once recognized by a lovely American couple in an airport in Budapest as the "Crazy Bathtub Lady"). But Jeff and I can't resist doing interesting things. We loved getting a little peek at the world of entertainment. Plus, we walked away with a video snapshot of this one moment of our lives.

So when we moved back to the United States, we got in contact with the House Hunters production company, which is different from the House Hunters International production company. We applied again, which was a bit of a shorter process since the company could watch our previous episode to prove we weren't sloths or murderers. We had another Skype interview, although this time Jeff was already in Florida looking for houses and I was at my parents' house in Atlanta. They told us to let them know when we were under contract on a house.

Finding a house in Florida turned out to be a nightmare. Jeff looked at nearly 60 properties, and Hurricane Michael hit during the search. We found a house after the evacuation order was lifted. We signed papers and got the keys to our new home on a Friday. That Monday, the film crew filmed us touring our brand-new empty house. We also shot some footage of the family at our hotel on Navarre Beach, pretending we had been living there through the extensive house search. Then the production crew left us for two weeks; after we moved in, they came back to film us again.

The houses we saw in Florida were actually for sale. Our actual realtor is on the show, unpaid, and helped line up two other houses for us to look at. They just weren't the houses we actually saw during our house hunt. The second time around, filming was a bit harder. Our chemistry with the director was completely different. Instead of feeling relaxed and fun, everything was more businesslike. We were coached to sit in particular ways that were not natural for us. Jeff and I like to sit up very straight, and we sit close together, which apparently looks bad on TV. Discussion in the houses was more mechanical and less silly. Jeff and I naturally live in the silly.

Our camera guy was fastidious about shots. We had to hit marks in the house to get different angles of basically the same conversation. At one point, Jeff was so tired of doing this that he went into auto-pilot and recited everyone else's lines. I think he was getting hangry.

The Florida episode, which aired last month, turns on Jeff not being satisfied with any house and all the little home-repair problems he finds when house hunting. While this is a real thing, he took it to the extreme. Meanwhile, I begged him to just find a house, any house! I played up becoming obsessed with finding a house with indoor and outdoor play space (something I likely say a thousand times in the episode) to set our hooligans free. Again, these reflect real discussions we had, but conducted in extremes for the benefit of the show.

Here is the thing. You should absolutely enjoy House Hunters. I still do. Don't worry about how these people with these jobs afford these houses. Enjoy the real estate and enjoy the fake arguments. But like everything you see on TV, you shouldn't take it at face value. I do, however, love a good bathtub.

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