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Being a veteran in business dominated by scandals and sex tapes deserves kudos on its own. To create more than 10 seasons of family-friendly, Emmy-nominated content? Truly surreal. Representing their genre’s best, the six contenders here — Dancing With the Stars‘ Tom Bergeron, 58; American Idol‘s (departed) Randy Jackson, 56; The Amazing Race‘s Phil Keoghan, 46; Project Runway‘s Heidi Klum, 40; Top Chef‘s Padma Lakshmi, 42; and Gordon Ramsay, 46, of Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares and MasterChef — dish freely about the strange and hilarious moments that keep them coming back for more.
The Hollywood Reporter: Has there been a moment where you sensed a contestant had been pushed too far, and how did you handle that particular moment?
Tom Bergeron: When Marie Osmond fainted, and I called for the paramedics. When a contestant actually loses consciousness, I think that’s a good sign.
Randy Jackson: It might be time to say, “Well, maybe they went a little too far.”
Gordon Ramsay: Yeah, I think pressure’s healthy, and very few can handle it. Pushing them to the extreme is part of the reason why they’re there, to get that kind of magic.
Jackson: It’s part of the competition, too.
Ramsay: Also to separate the cream from the milk and to identify who’s got it and who hasn’t got it.
Jackson: Yeah, because that’s what it’s about. Honestly, on our show, you’re going to get a chance to win, or come in the top 10 or top 20, and you’re going to jump into that great brass ring with all of your idols and compete some more. So you love Rihanna, you love Mariah [Carey], you love Nicki [Minaj], you love Jay-Z, you love Justin Timberlake — guess what? OK, you won, now go and compete with them with your record. You think there’s pressure on the show? Get ready!
Padma Lakshmi: The pressure brings out more creativity for a lot of our chefs. I think that pressure is also very revealing about what kind of person that chef is. Sometimes, they’ll push themselves too far. They will take on more than they can actually execute, given the time constraints and the budget.
Heidi Klum: I’m always surprised when they start complaining. I’m like, “Really? You stood in a line to be part of this, now you’re here, and you’re tired? Really? Go home and be tired. You’re here.” And then they say, “We really only have one day to complete this challenge?” I’m like, “How many times did you watch this show?” “Yeah, but we thought this is TV time.”
Phil Keoghan: That is the show. What we’re all trying to do is, essentially, take all this potential energy, put it in a pressure pot, heat up the pot and see what happens. We have all the ingredients for pressure, and we’re watching to see what’s going to happen when the heat goes up.
Bergeron: That’s why there’s not a show set at a spa. Who the hell wants to watch a bunch of people at a spa? They’re all relaxed, and nobody’s competing.
Ramsay: But it’s not really pressure.
Jackson: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out the damn kitchen.” Right?
THR: The unscripted industry has experienced a series of unfortunate events because of unsafe conditions. What kind of responsibility do you all feel as producers or hosts?
Ramsay: You take it personally. There was a tragic incident with a chef who sadly took his life. It was nothing to do with the program, Kitchen Nightmares; it was just a terrible state that he was going through and a level of pressure [that he was under]. You know, you see that kind of environment, and you get so close to them, and then when you’re out of there, you want them to stay in that normality. But I think it’s about them being open and honest prior to entering that kind of circus. We do background checks, every network has to go through that parade, but we’re not there six months prior. We’re there for a week, and so they have to open up, and if they don’t give you the bare bones of what the issues are, then no matter what happens, whether it’s six months or six years later, if a crew was there, and you’re part of that, then you’re part of the bigger picture and the headline. It’s awkward, but you take it personally.
Bergeron: I wonder, too, because the four of you, unlike Phil and myself, your shows deal with people trying to pursue careers. Andy Dick doesn’t want to become a professional ballroom dancer, and nor should he. And after they’re done with the race, they’re back to their life.
Keoghan: You’re absolutely right. They’re coming in there for that experience, and one of the things that we’ve prided ourselves on is testing and retesting our challenges. I don’t worry about the teams doing any challenge on our show because it’s been so thoroughly tested over and over and over again. The thing I worry about is when they’re just doing something ordinary like ending up in a taxicab in India. There is a potential for something to go wrong because it’s not something that we can control.
Jackson: Last season on Idol, we were in Hollywood, and we had like three people in a row just drop from the stage and pass out, hit the floor. This one girl, she’s going up to sing, and she just falls in front of us, and you’re just like, “Oh my God, what is happening?” The doctors are all there, and we took it personally. You have to stay hydrated!
Klum: You take care of them, but at the end of the day, they’re not kids. When you sign yourself up for what you’re doing, you have to take care of yourself.
Ramsay: I think there should be more aftercare. We leave them with a prescription, but I personally would like to see a stronger follow-through.
THR: What would that look like?
Ramsay: Well, we had a situation for the first time on Nightmares where I actually sat the couple down [the owners of Amy’s Baking Company in Scottsdale, Ariz.] and said, “You’ve got every right to run the restaurant how you see fit, but I can’t help you.” The problem with restaurants is that anyone can go and buy one, and that’s what we’re dealing with. You have a glamorous dinner party, and all of a sudden your neighbors say, “Hey, you should have a restaurant.” So they fall in love with the idea as opposed to the reality of actually doing the job. But I drew a line in the sand. If they’re a couple that’s so dysfunctional, then they don’t deserve that restaurant, and I’m going to stick my hand up in the air and say, “I cannot help you.” And that’s on the back of three months of research, and it’s a proper program, and I’ve put my hand up and admitted, “You are too far gone, stop faking it.”
Keoghan: And you were the most unpopular person at work that day.
Ramsay I was, yes.
Keoghan: All that work, right?
Ramsay: I will not be going back to Arizona for a long time.
THR: A lot of this speaks to the casting process. Has what you consider to be a good contestant changed since you’ve started?
Jackson: We find that the public always wants to see a cross section. Sometimes people say, “Well, why don’t you just have all the good people?” If all the good people would show up, that’s what we’d have. Do you think all the good people are sitting at home going: “You know what? I’m going for that Idol thing, man, I’m ready”? It just doesn’t happen, so you get a lot of wild, interesting people.
Bergeron: But you want to see that. We did an all-star season last fall with Dancing With the Stars, and the numbers went down. We all thought, “This is going to be great, all the people that you’ve loved before” — it was like The Avengers of ballroom dancing. But it wasn’t. What we heard — and I wish my wife had told me this before we started, because she said [it, too] — “I like it better when they’re struggling. I like to see the arc.”
Keoghan: It’s so true.
Jackson: By the way, it shows you that if you see someone struggling or not very good, when you see the really good one, you’re like, “Wow.”
Klum: But you also see that sometimes these people get pushed forward, not from you guys, necessarily, but America votes for them because they actually want to see that train wreck happen again, right?
Jackson: Yeah, they love that.
Lakshmi: They like the underdog, too.
Ramsay: The transition of watching and witnessing. That’s what they’re like three months prior; look what they’re like now with the confidence and mentoring. That, for me, is the payoff.
Jackson: That’s the real story of all these shows.
Keoghan: The viewer sees it more than a lot of people realize. The viewer is incredibly discerning at very quickly picking up whether that person is there because they are really that coal miner from Alabama and they’re there to take on this experience as opposed to someone who’s there because they want some afterlife from the show to go do something. With our show having been on over a decade now, we’re attracting more people, but there are also a lot more people who are applying because they think, “Ooh, I could become famous.”
Ramsay: I’ve seen it more with the parents. We’re just coming to the end of this shoot with Junior MasterChef, which was about 8-year-old boys and girls. Their parents are up on the balcony, and they are literally pointing, “I told you inside that layer cake is where you put the f–ing raspberries.”
Bergeron: I wouldn’t think you’d want to annoy your child and then have them hold sharp objects.
THR: Is it fair to say the thread between your collective shows — some of which have been on the air for a decade — is that they’re family-friendly?
BERGERON Dysfunctional families are families, too.
Jackson: Yes, they are, they are.
Keoghan: But you know, what’s interesting is, there are still so many people out there that when they hear the words “reality television,” they don’t actually think of these shows. It does frustrate me sometimes that people will immediately think of the train-wreck shows that are big, big, big, and then they’re gone the next season.
Lakshmi: I couldn’t agree with you more. I actually don’t think of our shows as reality shows. I think they’re mislabeled. To me, they’re game shows or competition shows.
Ramsay: Everyone says it’s reality, but it’s unscripted drama.
Lakshmi: A common denominator in all of our shows is that they’re about people trying to be better, whereas there’s still a large swath of reality shows that are actually exhibitionists and people willfully trying to be controversial or idiotic or just acting out.
Bergeron: There was this — I don’t want to malign the well-intentioned people who put it together — but I’m about to …
Keoghan: Go for it.
BERGERON It was this reality awards show that happened in town like a year or so ago, and I, in a moment of weakness, agreed to go. I think a friend was being honored, and I went there, and it was like a Fellini wet dream. I mean, it was unbelievable. Freaky.
Lakshmi: I’m still amazed at how much people are willing to humiliate themselves to be on TV.
THR: Looking back, is there a scene or moment on your show that you wish hadn’t aired?
Klum: Thankfully, I don’t have anything like that.
Jackson: I don’t think there’s any moment on Idol I wish hadn’t aired. If you’re calling yourself a real reality show, you have to show it all.
Keoghan: I wish we hadn’t done the family version of Amazing Race, but I’m proud that we tried it. It didn’t work, and it came back to the whole thing of having to eliminate kids. It’s hard enough to eliminate anybody because they want to be there so badly, and I had to look into a kid’s eyes with the tears pouring down with a raised eyebrow and dramatic pause, cameras coming in: “I’m sorry to tell you, you’ve been eliminated.”
Klum: You’re a monster, Mr. Keoghan.
Keoghan: So we do the family version of The Amazing Race, and the very first family that I have to eliminate is the Black family, who happen to be black. They were an amazing family, and I was talking to the father about how he wanted to be addressed. He said, “I want to be called the Black family. I’m very proud of my name, and I’m proud to be black.” I was like, OK, and so we go to Harlem, and I’m doing a school visit, and I’m standing on the stage thinking, “How am I going to do this?” It’s 800 kids, and I go, “And now from The Amazing Race: Family Version, please welcome …” And I just didn’t know what else to say but “the Black family.” I thought I was going to be killed, and then Mr. Black, thankfully, came up and said, “Hey, settle down, that’s our name, we’re Black, and we’re brown.” He saved my life. I guess I wish that hadn’t aired.
Lakshmi: That’s great television, clearly.
Bergeron: Week two, he gets rid of the Honky family.
Lakshmi: I don’t know if I wish it hadn’t aired, but I certainly wish it hadn’t happened. It was my first season of Top Chef, and it was toward the end of the season, when there was this Lord of the Flies moment, and they kind of ganged up on Marcel Vigneron, who looks very similar to the Wolf Man or Wolverine. He had these mutton chops. He’s a very eccentric, interesting young man, and he’s very sweet, but he came off as very annoying to all of the people who had to live with him. They held him down and threatened to shave his head, and it got very ugly, and we did stop it. The person who actually did the holding down regretted it terribly and paid the price because we did air it. It was a terrible moment for us. What happened out of the kitchen did overshadow what happened in the kitchen.
THR: How involved are you in the day-to-day business realities of your shows, whether it be ratings or network notes?
Lakshmi: I don’t look at ratings until somebody tells me. But I’ve already filmed that season when the ratings come out. With advertising, it’s a very expensive show to do, so there are times when we have people or corporations who come in, and it’s the “challenge for Uncle Ben’s” or whatever. I’m the one on air who gets kind of most, I don’t want to say saddled or slammed with the crappy part of it, but I feel like I do because I wind up saying the brand name in my introduction of the challenge to these chefs. And it’s never, “Get in your car,” it’s “Get in your blah, blah, blah car.” I have to make that shit sound natural, and it’s hard.
Ramsay: I think it’s a lot more difficult in the U.K. because you can’t be that blatant. Over here, it’s so much easier, so having experience in producing The F-Word and Nightmares in the U.K., we can’t do anything there. We can’t mention that Uncle Ben’s. What it does do from a producing point of view is, it makes you strive harder to become more creative.
Klum: As long as the show does not suffer because of that, it’s OK.
Bergeron: It’s hard. I got on a Netflix binge with Sons of Anarchy, so I’m watching every episode, and they’re all drinking Miller Lite. They’re these bikers, and all the labels are facing the camera. And it took me right out of the show. It was awkward product placement.
Klum: We have to integrate it into the challenges. My show, Project Runway, is probably one of the lowest-budget shows sitting here. We do everything in one small room at Parsons [design school], and it has never changed. And when we have the people come with their integrations, we try to really make them great. For example, if we have a big car company, we say what car it is, but then the designers have to make something out of that car, so they’re ripping the car seats out, and they’re using that as fabric. If it doesn’t hurt the integrity of the show and makes for a great challenge, bring it on.
Jackson: For us, it’s probably been the most seamless integration. Nobody cares if it’s a Coke cup or a Ford car because it’s the singing and it’s synonymous with the show now. So it has actually worked out quite well, but in the beginning, we got made fun of a lot with the Coke cups.
THR: Do the rest of you pay attention to ratings?
Bergeron: We’re live every week, so Tuesday morning when I go in and we’re going to do a show that night live, I’ve got the overnights from Monday, and I’m looking at the half-hour breakdowns. We’ve got The Voice against us now, and we’ve taken a hit because of that, so I grumble about that a little bit. But I look at where the demo has bumped, what’s opposite us. How are they doing? I’m a bit of a ratings whore, frankly.
Keoghan: I’m looking. I call [CBS] and say, “How’d we do?” And we’ve been blessed. We’ve been on for over 10 years, and we’ve sat right around 10 million for 10 years, and so I think I would look more if we were dropping radically, or I would probably be more interested if we suddenly went to 20 million and did a Simon Cowell [who famously suggested The X Factor would launch to 20 million viewers]. Oh, that’s right, he didn’t hit 20 million.
Jackson: Oh, it’s getting cold in here. Is there a draft? (Laughs.) I don’t think about ratings that much because I think when you’re in your 12th season and you’re still on the air, and you’re getting 11, 12, 13 million people an episode, wow.
THR: But there’s a target on your back with Idol.
Jackson: But there’s a target on your back because there’s a show [The Voice] in its fourth season that’s getting that, so you go, “Wait a minute, really?” But we have a saying in the music business. Do you know how you know that you’ve made it? As soon as they start hating on you, you must be huge. So we get all of the hate from the critics, from the journalists, from everybody, “Idol‘s fallen, the show’s over, it’s tanking, whatever.” I see it and go, “Wow, we must be really good.”
THR: Does it ever get to you? The criticism?
Ramsay: It does at a stage. Then you become thick-skinned because how much shit does one want to read? So I think the longer the seasons go on, the more thick-skinned you become, and then after a while, it’s just irrelevant.
Jackson: It never gets to me. I played in so many bands for nobody in the crowd, I played a million shows before I made four dollars. So guess what? Bring it on.
THR: Final question, which is a little bit lighter. What’s your own reality-show guilty pleasure?
Jackson: Well, I mean if I must, then I …
THR: Is it The Voice?
Jackson: Are you kidding? I’d be the last guy to watch a singing show.
Keoghan: Have you watched it?
Jackson: I watched it once the first season, and I liked the spinning chairs. I thought that was very game-show, very Star Trek or something. But being a proud boy from Louisiana, you know what I love? Duck Dynasty, baby. I’m in, dude.
Klum: You know what my kids like to watch, and I watch it with them, is Wipeout.
Ramsay: I’m excited to see the new CBS baking show [The American Baking Competition] because it’s coming from Britain. I’m not too sure about the affinity in terms of baking here [in the U.S.] because you guys cook brilliantly, but to see these marquees and these tents and British, English tea and scones in the afternoon, I can’t wait for it.
Keoghan: It’s huge there, right?
Ramsay: It’s massive. They’d come out of their grave to watch that thing.
Bergeron: This is no lie, my favorite reality show is C-SPAN. It’s not only fascinating sometimes just to watch the minutiae of government, but if you’re having trouble sleeping, it is like a video roofie. You just put it on, and you have no memory of what you did for hours beforehand.
Ramsay: Deadliest Catch.
Keoghan: My daughter is 17, and I keep up through her. I’ll say to her, “What’s everybody talking about at school?” And for years, nobody at her school cared about Amazing Race, but in recent years [they have started watching]. … There was this funny story when my daughter met Paula Abdul on the street, and she loved Idol at the time, and she went up and asked for an autograph. Her friend said to Paula, “Oh, you know, her dad is on … ” And my daughter’s like, “Shh, shut up, don’t talk about Dad.” She didn’t watch my show until she got older, and now, suddenly, I’m kind of cool.
Jackson: You know what show my wife loves? Amazing Race.
Keoghan: Is that right? I should record a little phone message to your wife. Let me eliminate her for you. When she’s a pain, you say: “Hey, baby, watch this. I’m sorry to tell you, you’ve been eliminated. Boom.”
Klum: How many times did you have to do that?
Keoghan: Every day.
Klum: “Can I get you to please say auf Wiedersehen?” I get that.
Keoghan: Or “This is Tom’s voice mail. You must now choose between leave a message or not leave a message.”
Lakshmi: The pilot on the American Airlines flight coming here was like, “I have to tell you, please pack your knives and go.” I was like, “Yeah, I’ve never heard that one before.”
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