4 Life Lessons I Learned From Being On Reality TV

Clem Onojeghuo

Let me start by saying this: I have never owned a TV. If I was ever in the presence of one, it’d been my family’s, friend’s, or significant other’s. It’s never been a big part of my life, yet the idea of being on one still seemed so tantalizing. The recognition, the stardom, the idea of being on such a visible platform and seen by many. So I dove in head-first. In the last three years, I have been on TV on four separate occasions. I’ve been on three Food Network cooking shows: Cutthroat Kitchen, Beat Bobby Flay, and Chopped. Since all the shows have already aired, I can tell you I did indeed win and beat Chef Bobby Flay but lost the others. Apart from competitions, I was also part of Oxygen Network’s national “In Progress” campaign, featuring select women entrepreneurs around the U.S.

While I’ve willingly enjoyed the PR boost from these shows, the main takeaways of my time on TV have been harder to uncover, shrouded in the places where I felt the most uncomfortable or times where I had failed the hardest. The reality of TV “fame”, I’ve learned, is that TV exposure is less an indicator of success and more an ability to package oneself accordingly to the expectations of others. In post-production, my personality – like those of all faces on the screen – had been carefully chosen, polished, and elevated for a specific moving story arc. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing. Many of us, including myself, enjoy entertainment with predictable storylines. The bigger surprise for me was the fact that TV and entertainment – something I had originally dismissed as a separate world with little tangible impact besides professional branding – showed fascinating parallel glimpses into our physical, everyday world.

I was startled to realize how much TV did imitate life and how applicable the big lessons I learned were to my personal journey. It is intimidating to be seen in such a public setting, but the challenges and anecdotes from those shows have been hugely important to help me approach both television — and real life — with a healthy dose of, well, reality.

1. It’s Not About You

During the initial TV casting process, there is a lot of courtship from the network and producers. During these moments, it’s easy to slip into the mindset producers want you to shine because you’re so invested in the process and the show. While they certainly are don’t want to make you look bad, the reality is people are selected as part of a larger context and storyline. Realizing I was not the star of every show felt almost a personal insult, much like growing up and realizing the world at large does not only move when I want it to.

Both onscreen and off, I’m not in control with the external circumstances happening around me – I can only affect my own reactions to each situation. Broadening my me-centric viewpoint of reality helped me come to terms with inaccurate portrayals of me on TV: the writers and producers are simply doing their jobs. Once I accepted the potential consequences, it became much easier to act on my own volition. Freedom, in a sense, is not knowing the future and simply doing the best you can; on TV, the only thing I could do was be the best chef I could at the moment of time I am given in front of the screen.

2. No One Hears Your Excuses

TV editing is brutal. The audience will never see the reason why you did something or learn the backstory of what really happened. If you’re worried about things being taken out of context, you absolutely should be. But in that sense, TV merely magnifies that aspect of life. I’m as guilty of passing judgment on others without fully understanding their story, just as Food Network fans may be guilty of passing judgment on me for undercooking my proteins on TV. I also rolled my eyes at on-screen mistakes like ugly plating or forgetting basket ingredients before I realized the allotted time for us to pass judgment is so circumstantial, so brief. We allow what we can easily see dominate our interpretation of the overall person through his or her core. Will this human tendency change overnight? Probably not. But it is something I’ve become much more cognizant about after my time on TV, sneaking in a few conversations with fellow contestants between judging sessions. Over the years, small reminders of this principle come unexpectedly: I remember mentally dismissing another chef’s tattoo as trite and silly before learning the life-altering circumstances that led up to it. As much as it is hard-wired in us to make reflexive opinions, I try to focus on the sincere joy of learning more about people. There is always a bigger story behind someone’s actions if you choose to ask.

3. You Will Lose More Than You Win – If You’re Doing It Right

I lost an episode of Chopped and at the time, it seemed like the end-all, be-all judgment on my abilities as a chef. Shockingly enough, life continued afterwards. While the excitement and drama of TV is the feeling that you “only get one shot,” in reality success (both on screen and off) is a combination of many dedicated attempts. Each experience is challenging and useful in its own way, and many of those failures is a step in the right direction. I remember when I fenced competitively, my coach used to tell me: “All those top-ranked fencers, do you think anyone counts how many times they lost a match? No. But the truth is they’ve lost far more times than they’ve won, and that’s what makes them great.” To keep reaching further and pushing one’s comfort level means dealing with the heartache that is failure. For me, I’ve slowly realized failing big, failing hard is part of the beauty of living.

I gave myself a set time frame to mope after Chopped before I got back to work. I used my TV loss as fuel to improve my real-life work; I refined my technique and revamped my losing dish into one of my signature summer menu items. That same dish has now been featured in a Huffington Post video – which was later syndicated by Huffington Post Women with 50K views – and helped me land a James Beard Foundation Work-Study Grant. I am still incredibly proud of my journey as a chef and I’ve added a sidebar to my mission statement is to fail more and more as I keep pushing forward for the future.

4. Stereotypes and Stigma Exist – Your Move

TV is a big megaphone that plays for a goal of high volume of views. It can be immensely powerful or destructive in what it can do, especially when it exaggerates or continues certain stigmas and stereotypes. While us “coastal elites” believe we dominate viewership of mass media, the truth is we are small potatoes. In the case of Food Network, owned by Scripps, the main audience consist of those who think nose rings are “too edgy” and Asians are meant to cook Asian food. I’m not over-generalizing – this is real feedback I’ve received from casting producers. It’s a difficult chicken-or-egg problem: the lessening of stereotypes require more robust and varied representation of certain groups in the media, but those groups also tend to be typecast before they can show their own personalities on-screen. I can attest to being continually boxed into the role of an Asian female chef who makes traditional Chinese recipes – despite the fact I specialize in fine-dining New American cuisine.

My colleagues and I take different approaches to this sensitive topic, and I respect that. For me, I decided to accept and utilize an initial stereotype for a chance to be on TV in hopes I could challenge viewers’ perceptions of female Asian chefs. I doubt I impacted every person who watched me cook, but from the notes and emails of encouragement I’ve received I am glad I took that step. The ugly truth is these stigmas and social norms cannot be wished away. I do believe more exposure to the different personalities of chefs across gender lines and cultural ties contribute to a bigger message: we are all individuals, deserving to be recognized for our own achievements, judged on our own shortcomings, and viewed as an important piece of our overall national identity. Whether or not TV is your way of putting yourself and your work out there, it’s safe to say there will be stereotypes already present. So it’s up to us to make our move with a reason that will make it worthwhile. TC mark

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