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A Little Too Real For Reality TV

Top Secret Smoking Gun
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Finding embarrassing secrets in the past of reality television stars is about as tough as finding Botox in Hollywood.

That doesn't stop The Smoking Gun from looking, or Web surfers from lapping it up. The Web site has made a specialty of finding the drunken driving arrests, porn acting jobs or other not-so-shining moments behind the smiles of TV's newest stars.

"I don't know how many people in the country get arrested for driving under the influence," said William Bastone, the site's editor, "but it seems like a very high percentage of reality TV participants do."

Much of their findings offer a harmless diversion, but The Smoking Gun has altered games like "American Idol" and embarrassed television networks.

Bastone, a former Village Voice writer who covered organized crime, started The Smoking Gun largely as a way to reveal interesting court documents that didn't find its way into stories.

Two entertaining features of the site collect mug shots of famous people who ran afoul of the law — even a young Bill Gates — and contract riders of entertainers who expect well-stocked dressing rooms.

Bastone and colleagues Danny Green, Andrew Goldberg and Joseph Jesselli aren't reality TV fans. But when Fox's "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire" caused a sensation in February 2000, they decided to poke around.

They quickly found, and posted, court documents revealing that the multimillionaire, Rick Rockwell, had once been under a restraining order sought by a former fiancee who said he had hit her and threatened to kill her.

Everything unraveled for Fox. They canceled plans to rerun the show and, briefly, promised more care and restraint in reality offerings.

The Smoking Gun had struck a nerve. Visitors and tipsters flocked to the site. The Smoking Gun could have started a private eye agency with all the people who wanted them to look into people's pasts, Green said.

Bastone believes there's a fascination about these peccadilloes because reality TV created stars who were a mystery to the public, unlike comedies and dramas that have actors fans are often familiar with.

"You watch these shows and you're given a very sanitized version of who these people are," he said. "Half of the time they don't even give you their last names."

The site found plenty of dirt on stars of CBS' Survivor: business bankruptcies, check bouncing, public drunkenness, a soft-core porn past. It found a "Big Brother" contestant that had a court appearance for drunken driving scheduled for when she was supposed to be sequestered for the show.

It revealed "Joe Millionaire" Evan Marriott's past as an underwear model and contestant Sarah Kozer's roles in bondage and fetish films — illustrated with plenty of colorful pictures.

The reporters at The Smoking Gun say the information is often ridiculously easy to find.

Bastone was surfing the Web one night when he saw Fox had tossed "American Idol" contestant Frenchie Davis off the show with no explanation. It took him less than an hour to find a friend who spilled the beans: Davis had once posed for an adult-oriented Web site but, the friend argued, "it wasn't a lot of nudity."

Informants help, too. The Smoking Gun knew that the actor in the Dell Computer commercials had been arrested for marijuana possession even before he'd been booked, Bastone said.

Sometimes the site uncovers damaging information that exposes flaws in network background checks. Another "American Idol" contestant, Corey Clark, was booted from the show this spring because he had charges pending for assault and resisting arrest. Fox wasn't aware; The Smoking Gun found the case by checking court records under different spellings of his name.

What do the networks think of this? It depends on whether they believe in the public relations theory that there's no such thing as bad publicity.

"I think they like it," Bastone said. "I don't think Fox liked it when they had to throw Corey Clark off the show, but I think they love it when we do `Joe Millionaire' stories when there is no downside to it."

Fox wasn't talking publicly. But Chris Ender, publicity chief for CBS Entertainment, admits to cringing when The Smoking Gun calls. "It is not the sort of publicity you want or seek," he said, but it does get people talking about the shows.

"I think these are reality shows and, in reality, people aren't perfect," Ender said. "While the viewer may not necessarily want to have their sons or daughters or siblings to have such transgressions, it doesn't appear to affect the viewers' interest in the show adversely."

This summer, The Smoking Gun tries its own hand at television. The site is owned by Court TV, which is developing two specials based on the site. Mo Rocca of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" will be host, but little else about the programs has been determined.

Bastone expects that his source material is nowhere near drying up.

He scoffs at the notion that a potential reality show participant might back away for fear that The Smoking Gun will uncover skeletons from their past.

"I think there's a thirst and a lust for the spotlight and celebrity," he said.

By David Bauder