Attack of the Killer B-List

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Scenes from the Surreal: former child-star-rehab case Corey Feldman chats with ex-Cre member Vince Neil

Jerri Manthey is no stranger to hostile environments. On Survivor 2: The Australian Outback, she encountered extreme heat, extreme eating challenges and extreme backstabbing. But it is in her second reality go-around, on the WB's The Surreal Life, that she really finds herself out of her element: she is the only nonactor or nonmusician in a group of seven former celebrities picked to share a mansion for 10 days. "None of us know who she is," says housemate and former teen idol Corey Feldman in the debut episode. "She's not part of our society." "I felt like she didn't belong here — maybe because she was from a reality show," says roomie Brande Roderick (Baywatch Hawaii star and Playboy Playmate), disappointed that Manthey wasn't Robin Givens, whom Manthey replaced at the last minute.

The six performers eventually warm up to the reality star — which is nice of them, seeing as how they're starring in a reality show themselves. But this little incident epitomizes a key moment in the evolution of celebritus americanus, akin to the day Neanderthal man first came face to face with the Cro-Magnon: reality stars, and at least the lower tier of "real" celebrities, have become indistinguishable. As reality TV has turned the likes of Richard Hatch and Kelly Clarkson into cheap, commodified and replaceable mini-celebs, the culture of celebrity has changed. "In Hollywood," says David Perler, executive producer of reality show My Life Is a Sitcom, "I go out to dinner with friends, and they'll say, 'You'll never believe who I saw at the movie theater.' You expect it to be Julia Roberts, but they say, 'Alex, from The Bachelor.' " In this climate, who should feel insulted? Feldman, a former movie star who's being equated with a game-show contestant? Or Manthey, who two years ago was the most notorious person on TV's No. 1 show and is now being equated with the star of The Goonies?

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To workaday minor celebrities, this shift — their rightful positions on Hollywood Squares being usurped by nobodies from Nobodyville!--has been the equivalent of businesses exporting desirable factory jobs to the Third World. But now Hollywood's B, C and D lists are counterattacking with their own reality shows. In addition to Surreal Life — which also includes rapper MC Hammer, Motley Crue's Vince Neil and Beverly Hills 90210's Gabrielle Carteris — E! network's Star Dates sends where-are-they-now stars on blind dates with noncelebs, many of whom, natch, have show-biz aspirations of their own. ABC's reality game show Celebrity Mole Hawaii casts seven quasi-stars, including Spin City's Michael Boatman, Suddenly Susan's Kathy Griffin and Erik von Detten (who co-starred in ABC's doomed Dinotopia for about five seconds) to complete adventure challenges hampered by one player who is a secret "mole" working to sabotage them. Fox has degraded such thought-to-be-not-further-degradable entities as Vanilla Ice and Barry Williams (The Brady Bunch) on Celebrity Boxing and Celebrity Boot Camp. For later this year, ABC is planning I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!, which would strand minor stars in a remote location. CBS is suing over the similarity to Survivor, for which the network has, of course, pondered a celebrity version.

Thank, or blame, Ozzy Osbourne, says Surreal Life producer Cris Abrego. The Osbournes "made it possible for us to talk to celebrities," he says. "Five or six years ago, reality TV was a bad word." Now it's CPR for a dying career, a way for forgotten celebrities to remind the world that they exist and for child stars to reintroduce themselves as grownups. Not that any celebrity will admit to such motives. On one Star Dates, Kim Fields — Tootie from The Facts of Life — says of her two blind dates, "If they call me Tootie, they're out of here." But by her second date, she seems miffed that her beau says he has seen only one episode of Facts, and she asks him if he has ever watched her other sitcom, Living Single. ("In Living Color?" he says. "I used to watch that all the time.")

For all the popularity of this new genre, working with stars who aren't show-biz naifs has some drawbacks. Abrego, who once produced the MTV reality show Road Rules, remembers its restrictive contracts: "The Road Rules kids, they'd have to sign their firstborn away. But these guys, if you don't get the right hair and makeup person to show up, there's trouble." There's the ego massaging, convincing even C-list stars and their agents that the series are not has-been freak shows — shhh, it's our secret! "They had standards," Abrego says. "There were people who said, 'If Gary Coleman does the show, I won't do it.'" (Instead, they cast Webster's Emmanuel Lewis, who is the diminutive former child star who didn't do Celebrity Boxing.)

THEN THERE'S THE FINANCING. Even minor stars, unlike civilian participants, expect to be paid real money. Celebrity Mole permits its winner to keep the grand prize (up to $250,000), while most celebrity game-show contestants must give their loot to charity. "In all fairness," says Mole executive producer Scott Stone, "we couldn't afford to hire them to do the entire taping"--though he insists that some of the stars played for charity anyway. Not so Griffin: "F___ that! The level of celebrity that will do this show, we need this money!" Butch Patrick (that's Eddie Munster to you) says he did Star Dates because "I had broken up with my girlfriend, and there was a paycheck involved." In the middle of one date, he charges a fan 10 bucks for an autograph.

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