By John Katsilometes
Las Vegas Sun.
The greatest risk of appearing on a reality TV show, it seems, is confronted at the start: Are you trusting enough to turn over your image to a cartel of directors and producers who want to stage a series based on your life?
It is a risky proposition. Some reality show subjects have bemoaned the dreaded Final Edit, remarking that what appears on TV is not real, but is actually a manufactured form of twisted reality.
The surgical process of video editing can make even a priest look like a drug addict. But when the final product suits the subject, producers and (most important) viewing public, reality TV can turn a what might be no more than a unique personality into an international superstar.
Just ask Austin “Chumlee” Russell. We did. The gruff-but-lovable cast member of the reality TV phenomenon “Pawn Stars,” who just five years ago was a nondescript employee at Gold & Silver Pawn who worked the counter and examined items offered for sale or pawn, is among the array of Las Vegas personalities who have become famous on TV.
But what is real? What airs on TV is not always reality; the subjects are performing a role that happens to be themselves.
A look at some of the more famous Vegas reality show subjects, beginning with an increasingly svelte Mr. Russell.
Austin ‘Chumlee’ Russell of ‘Pawn Stars’
During a photo shoot in the back of the Gold & Silver shop, Chumlee peels off his black T-shirt in favor of an official “Pawn Stars” T. “No pictures! Please!” he half-jokes. “TMZ had photos of me without my shirt when I was in Maui. We don’t want that. Lemme lose some more weight first.”
In fact, he already has lost 100 pounds (and counting), to a walking-around weight of 220.
So highly sought by fans that he often dons a hat and shades, Chumlee today is a bona fide celebrity, a popular fixture on any red-carpet event in the city.
He often struggles to pinpoint the reason for his individual fame, though it is clear his fans root for his success and find him naturally approachable.
And that is not always the real Chumlee.
“I’m honestly probably the least approachable out of all of us in reality. I don’t do well in conversation, you know, I’m just very quiet and reserved for the most part,” he says. “I’ve opened up a lot since the show (premiered), but Corey and Rick, they talk a lot more than I do.”
Chumlee recognizes that he is playing a character, even as the character is him.
“People can relate to me, and they root for me because on the show I am the dumb guy, the one who is a little rougher around the edges,” he says. “When people come in the store, they want to give me a hug and say hi. They want to see the Old Man sitting in his chair, they want to talk to Rick about whatever item they have. They interact with us differently … It takes a special person to be a Corey fan (laughs).
“But me, I’m the guy they want to hug.”
Those fans turned out by the dozens this month during a public announcement welcoming the stage production “Pawn Stars Live” to the Riviera.
Rick and Corey Harrison couldn’t be there, but the crowd seemed not to care, not as long as Chumlee was there. As he took the mic, one shouted, “We love you, Chumlee!” The star of “Pawn Stars” grinned right back.
Chumlee was not on the path to stardom when he met the Harrison family, which owns Gold & Silver Pawn at 713 Las Vegas Blvd. South. The Russell family was not well-off and Chumlee never graduated from high school (he earned a GED).
But once the show hit, its success was astonishing and swift. Within a year, it was the highest-rated show ever on History Channel and remains the most-watched of any reality-based series on cable TV.
Though it is difficult to accurately measure a fan favorite on a TV show, Chumlee is the only one to have his own merchandise line and has more Twitter followers (nearly 200,000) than any other cast member.
He is also the only Pawn Star to be the subject of a false report that he’d died. Most recently, the Twitter universe bubbled over with a hoax that Chumlee had a heart attack. It required a public denial from both Chumlee and Rick Harrison.
Nodding when it is suggested that a false-death rumor is a certain sign of universal fame, Chumlee is also driven by the early death of a loved one. His father died in 2009 at age 54 of pancreatic cancer, just weeks before the premiere episode of “Pawn Stars.”
His father’s death was just about the moment when Chumlee’s fame began its ascent. He remains straightforward in his assessment of fame, and those who track how he spends his newfound fortune are quick to say he is not a squanderer.
“I am very lucky, and I realize that every day I wake up,” he says. “I’m just like the others, riding this out. What’s next? I have no idea right now. I’m just enjoying the ride.”
In explaining the popularity of the show, Chumlee says it helps that the show is staged in Las Vegas.
“My sister lives in Vernal, Utah,” he says. “If you had this show in Vernal, I don’t think it would do nearly as well. People love to watch shows in Vegas, and we get some crazy stuff in the store, from Super Bowl rings to JFK’s cigar box to a hot-air balloon. So people keep coming back to the show to see what kind of stuff people bring to us.”
In invoking his sister, Terra, Chumlee reminds of his family’s humble underpinnings. Terra raises four kids and the siblings’ other brother, Sage. At age 18, Sage is the first and only member of the family to graduate from high school.
Holly Madison of ‘The Girls Next Door’ and ‘Holly’s World’
Madison was caught in the tide of a reality TV project centered on the Playboy Mansion, where she had been living in the mid-2000s, and became one of three girlfriends of Hugh Hefner on “The Girls Next Door,” joining Bridget Marquardt and Kendra Wilkinson.
She later starred in another Fox Television/Playboy Enterprises reality series, “Holly’s World.”
Why she was picked: At the time a Hawaiian Tropic model and waitress at Hooters who had studied at Loyola Marymount University, Madison was repeatedly invited to the mansion and had moved into the estate when concepts for a reality show were first being discussed.
“I got myself into this situation where I was living at the mansion and there were all of these ideas going around, ‘Maybe we’ll focus on the butlers,’ like that, and they interviewed the girls and ended up liking us,” she says today. “If we wanted to stay at the mansion, we had to be filmed for the show.”
How real life is different from reality TV: “?’The Girls Next Door’ was a very restrictive environment, and it didn’t allow me to be who I really was,” Madison says. “I never really wanted to be a reality person. I had come to L.A. to be an actress. I was very private when it came to my personal life and had actually changed my last name because I didn’t want my family to be caught up in coverage of me. This was something I kind of had to participate in.”
On “Holly’s World,” Madison says she strove to show how a single woman could generate a successful career as an entertainer on the Strip.
Instead, the show became a tragicomedy centering on Madison’s role as sexy showgirl and ex-Playboy magazine model. “I had no ownership of the show, ,” she says. “There was way more Playboy propaganda put into the show than I would have liked.