Sailors used to speak of the sirens that would come and sing to them of good fortune they would receive. The tales say that only the sailors with true hearts could withstand the call. The others would follow the call of the siren, only to bash their ships against the hidden rocks. More souls would be given to the water, to feed the siren.
I think reality cake tv is a siren. I want to be clear, however. Tv is not an evil culprit. Tv producers are not the ambassadors of Satan. Instead, tv is a magnifying glass. Tv will highlight any weaknesses in your personality, your abilities or your business. Tv puts you in the path of the rocks and lets you either steer the ship to safety or crash and burn for all to see.
I should probably first admit that I was one of the first to hear the siren. In the mid-90s, before Challenge, Ace of Cakes and Cake Boss were even dreamed of, the Food Network decided to do a special on the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show. They followed a few competitors through the course of the toughest sugar art contest in the US. I was chosen as one of the people they followed. The Food Network called me, making me feel special. They came to my bakery and filmed me. They interviewed the judges about my work and watched for my reactions during the awards ceremony.
I will admit, I liked the attention and thought it was going to bring me lots of business. I was a drama major in college and always dreamed of seeing my name in lights. I thought my time had come. While I did receive some attention in town from the newspapers, it didn’t book me any more weddings, bring me in new corporate accounts or lead to my own show. Four specials were filmed at the OSSAS and I was featured in three. While it was fun and I do not regret taking part in those specials, I cannot say that they made a real difference in my career. When Challenge arrived on the scene, those early specials were forgotten. I was never invited to compete on Challenge.
Somehow, Challenge tapped into a hungry market of would-be cake decorators and all of a sudden, it was sexy to be a sugar artist. People who won numerous Challenges like Bronwen, James, Marina and Mike McCarey became household names. The people winning the Challenges were the best of the best. Before long, every Suzy homemaker and Joe caker was positive that they were better than the stars and they could go win $10,000, fame and glory on Challenge. Challenge was becoming routine, and the producers saw the hunger in the young decorators….the eye of the tiger…and knew they could have great drama by putting these novices against seasoned veterans.
Sure enough, there were some major crash and burn appearances by young sugar artists. The producers saw that they could set wheels in motion where epic failure could happen on most any show. The ratings told the producers that they were on to something, so they pushed even further. Rumors started to swirl that the show was rigged and winners were pre-determined. Is that true? I have no idea. Remember, I never went on that show. I like to think that in each instance the judges voted for who they felt deserved the win. (I do know that Challenge eventually succumbed to its own formula. It started creating drama just to point and watch and people became tired of it).
Cake Tv was hot, which can only mean that the usual Hollywood method must be employed: other networks developed knock off or similar shows to try to draw this burgeoning audience. The first up was WE Tv with Wedding Cake Wars. It was supposed to be a series filmed at regional cake competitions. Only one was ever filmed. Again, there I was, hand in the air saying “Pick me! Pick me!”. And they did.
I drove to Maryland from Oklahoma at my expense, paid to enter the tv contest, and competed against a roomful of other teams. The show profiled three decorators, but I was not one of those. My friend Janet Rosebeary and I knew that the only way America would see us was if we won. So we set out to win. And we did. And you know what? We were on tv for all of TWO MINUTES out of the one hour special. Friends who lost were seen even less. This did not make us famous. The only truly great thing about this show was that I met the other competitors, who all remain my friends to this day. I got to spend time with a cake hero, Colette Peters, who was a judge and I got to meet Ron Ben-Israel, who was the emcee. Oh, and my win was spoofed! If you can find the clip from Talk Soup, you can find me winning “The largest contact lens in the world”. Trust me. It is funny. Search for it! (There is no crying in cake).
At about the same time, TLC decided to go head to head with Challenge and created Ultimate Cake Off. They had larger teams, bigger cakes and a more generous supply budget than Challenge. Many Challenge favorites jumped ship and again, a host of new competitors applied for a coveted spot on the show. I kept making it close (or so they said) but was never chosen as a lead. My dear friend Pat Jacoby was selected, however, and invited me to assist her on both UCO’s that she filmed. We won both contests and thought the world would open up before us, but, in the end, the publicity never really brought in major new business.
So why do I think cake tv is like a siren’s song? My experiences were not bad. I had fun, made friends and have great stories. My expectations, however, were shattered. I did not become rich, nor famous, nor more of a household name from those shows. I was lucky that I was very grounded professionally and had confidence in my work that did not need the validation of tv. My bakery was well established and my experience level was sufficient that I was not going to make a fool of myself on national tv.
I have many friends and acquaintances, however, who had a much more difficult time. Some have really been banged up on the rocks. I have friends who have spent THOUSANDS of dollars to try to get their own show. I have friends who felt betrayed enough by the situation to walk off tv shows. I have friends whose weaknesses were exposed in a most public forum and they have never been quite the same. We all remember the tragic case of the young man on Next Great Baker who took his life after the show. I doubt that the show caused his decision, but I believe the show exposed his frailties and that he simply could not avoid the rocks. Regardless of who you are, those rocks are out there.
I worry as I read Facebook these days. A new breed of cake shows is in the works for the networks and everyone is clamoring to produce videos and prove that they should be a star. Many of these shows pair you with people you don’t know and, often, the pairing is based upon what will produce the most friction. Happy teams do not make for good tv. Many of the people applying have not been decorating very long. The people simply do not have the skills and experience to succeed in the way they hope. (On the last Next Great Baker, the contestants all struggled to pipe a border. Really? That should be a basic!) They are seeking to win the Olympic race without showing up for all the endless training runs. One or two may get lucky, but the rest will have their failure immortalized. I truly hate that for them.
We all want so badly to be liked, to be recognized, to be validated. We decorators are an insecure lot. (Read almost any post when someone puts up a picture of a cake and you will see that most of us just want someone to say we did well). Who you are before fame (ha!) and money, is who you will be after. Be sure that you are confident in your skills before you accept a part on tv. Be sure that you believe in yourself and have a great support system in place before you say yes. Be sure that you read the contract fully so that you know that they can change what you say and how you say it…that they can edit you into a hero or a zero. Be sure that you keep your focus on what truly matters….challenging yourself and your skills in a national forum. Be sure you think about what you have to gain and what you have to lose by doing a show.
I am not telling you not to do cake tv. I am telling you to do your homework first. Talk to people who have done Halloween Wars before you go on a team show. Ask questions of those who paved the way on Challenge. Try doing a challenge at a local cake show. Know what the show will cost you financially, personally and professionally and weigh that against the expected return from being on the show. If you follow the siren, make sure your eyes are wide open. If you focus on the wrong things, the rocks will be waiting.