I still remember my "Welcome to Hollywood" moment. It was 3 AM and I was on the set of the 2008 American Gladiators revival, where I had been working as a "comedic audience fluffer." In the previous 12 hours, the only thing I had eaten was a granola bar that I had gotten from the craft services table that I technically wasn't allowed to eat from. I glanced over the audience right as a woman began peeing on the wall of the studio in protest of the fact that I hadn't allowed her to use the bathroom while the cameras rolled.
So yeah, welcome to Hollywood.
The moment seemed so far from what I thought my life in Los Angeles would be like. A few months after I graduated college, I had the chance to interview for this "fluffer" job after I had moved to L.A. with shimmering dreams of creating films that would change the world and evolve human consciousness. I wanted to write stories that would inspire people, connect them to their highest purpose, and breathe life into their souls. Like any typically impatient and unrealistic millennial, I also expected immediate success. Spoiler alert: It didn't happen.
A few short weeks after I got to L.A., the infamous Writers Guild of America strike of 2007 hit the industry like a storm. Screenwriters nationwide put down their pens and picked up signs demanding better contracts. The city seemed to slow to a standstill, and the ripple effect of the strike had massive implications—when writers stopped writing, cameras turned off, caterers were cancelled, drivers didn't drive. L.A. became a drybed of creative talent. But what didn't stop were the shows that didn't need real writers. Shows like American Gladiators. So, I felt pretty lucky.
American Gladiators had been off the air for 20 years, but it was coming back with a hot new set of super-sized gladiators and hosts Hulk Hogan and Laila Ali. There there was a formidable female viking named Helga, a Samoan islander character covered with native tattoos, and of course, a handsome Hollywood specimen named Titan, who looked like an actual Greek God, if they had hair gel and teeth-whitening strips back in 2000 BC. They were all larger than life, and I was on the verge of joining them on the sideline to get paid $10 an hour.
On the day of my interview, I sat waiting in the production studio's office sandwiched on a too-small green plastic couch between two clunky looking comedians who were also being considered for the role. While we waited, a guy who appeared to be our age rushed in and sat down. He told us our job would be to keep the crowd excited during long tapings by rattling off a few energized one-liners. He also said we'd get shit pay. If we agreed to these conditions, then the job was ours. We agreed. He then half-assedly shook our hands in an attempt to be professional, and walked out.
We showed up on set the next week, ready to bring all our comedic and energetic brilliance to the huge audience at Sony Studios. I anxiously knocked on the production trailer door, anticipating all the greatness that awaited. A frazzled stage manager opened the door, looked at us, then down at his clipboard, and said, "Your boss has been fired, we've replaced your role with a professional comedian and a troupe of cheerleaders, so that makes you ..." He stared at us silently for a moment. "Audience coordinators." I wasn't sure what that meant, but I was sure had been demoted before my first day on the job. This was promising.
The next three weeks of taping were, at best, star-spangled awesomeness, and at worst terrifyingly chaotic. Thirty of us were tasked with managing the audience, the majority right out of college with little real-life skills. Our fearless team leader, Jon Katz, was a 23-year-old with a film degree from Ithaca who had thought he was joining the team as a production assistant, but whose boss also got fired shortly after. Now Katz had to figure out how to keep a 1,000-person audience booked for three straight weeks for an American Gladiators revival show most people didn't know existed. This was problematic, but I was adaptable and ready.
I'd start my day driving onto the set, wading through the picket lines where my writing heroes marched aggressively. I'd give them words of encouragement as I walked by. Fight the good fight. I'm with you in spirit. I felt a little like I was going to hell, but I needed a foot in the door, so I felt ok about it.
There was a rumor on the set that the producers' budget had been reduced, which meant taping more episodes in less time. This meant longer days and less time off. Since the show had been off the air for about 20 years, it wasn't like people were lining up to get tickets. This forced us to be creative in how we filled out a studio for 12 hours. We bussed school kids in after classes—some from after-school youth programs. We hired a casting company to bring in extras, who were paid $15 an hour—ironically, more than we were making. The plan seemed solid.
However, on the second day, taping went longer than we had expected due to a malfunctioning machine used for the games. Audience members lost patience and attempted to escape by using excuses like, "I have to make a phone call," and then they'd just never come back. Some of us were tasked with taking vans out all over L.A. and literally collecting people. Any people. Any living, breathing bodies would do. It was my job to check them in once they arrived on set. One time, the team brought back a drunk bachelorette party and a bus full of homeless people (who were apparently promised money in exchange for watching the show). My co-worker Andy Mogren remembers the chaos at the end of the taping: "The homeless people wouldn't leave without getting paid, but refused to give their social security numbers, so it was a real fiasco. One guy threatened to revolt using a chopstick as a 'shiv', even though I explained to him that using a chopstick as a weapon against an American Gladiator was probably a bad idea."
This was about the time the time I started to doubt my life choices. Was this really the best entry path to making the world a better place? How many of these shows would I have to work on to make my way toward something that I really wanted?
Truth was, the job was mostly terrible. I was underpaid, overwhelmed, and treated like crap by producers. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit there weren't some pretty fun moments. Our day-to-day lives with the gladiators themselves were highly entertaining. For many of us, this was like reliving the best parts of our childhoods, but in real time. Wolf was the nicest man I'd ever met. A former rodeo clown, he was the fan favorite when the cameras were on, and the backbone of support to the other gladiators when the cameras were off. Justice, the 6-foot-9 guy who Hulk Hogan would cheesily refer to as the 'Hammer of Justice', was known to play pranks on the other Gladiators off set.
"They had a locker room which they transformed into a spray tan booth. Part of my job was escorting the gladiators over one by one to get spray-tanned, usually on a weekly basis," recalled my friend Jim Cartwright, whose job it was to wrangle the Gladiators onto the set. "They always needed escorts to prevent them from running into and interacting with any of the contestants while traveling the stadium hallways.
"One time I took Titan over to get sprayed tan. It's a giant locker room so there really was nowhere hide, so I had to sit there and wait. Titan strips down to his underwear and gets sprayed down. I'm zoning out, bored, and the make-up artist starts to spray Titan's exposed ass. Titan looks over his shoulder and yells out to me, 'Hey, quit staring at my my ass,' as he begins to wildly flex his glutes. I'm scarred for life as Titan maniacally laughs as he continues fluctuate his toned cheeks. This was the moment I knew I had indeed made it to Hollywood."
My all-time favorite memory of working with the Gladiators, however, happened in the ladies' bathroom. I was on one of my incredibly rare and coveted pee breaks washing my hands, when the MMA fighter gladiator came out of one of the stalls to wash hers. I glanced over, trying not to obviously stare at her ridiculously strong legs and toned abs. She turned to me and said hi. I heard angels sing as she flashed me a smile. And in that moment, I developed an enormously huge crush on Gina Carano, the gladiator whose stage name was ironically 'Crush'. I'm pretty sure I said something stupid like, "This water sure is cold." She laughed politely and walked out. I never talked to her again, but my inner 22-year-old will always be a little smitten.
By the time the show wrapped, I felt greatly disillusioned about the possibility of carving out a meaningful path in L.A. Though I came away with good stories and new friends, I wasn't sure I could find a way to find my way in an industry dominated by shows that cared more about entertainment than about making a positive impact.
In March 2009, NBC cancelled American Gladiators because of poor ratings. After AG, I went with some other crewmembers to the game show Deal or No Deal, hosted by Howie Mandel. But by that point, I felt like a little part of my soul started dying every time an audience member lost their shit over the money they'd win, only to realize they would never see the majority of it by the time the taxes were taken out. My long term visions of being someone who mattered in the media world had dissolved. A month later, I moved to Washington, D.C., thinking I'd have better luck working in non-profits or in progressive public relations firms.
My strange entry into media initially killed my dream that I could be part of meaningful programming that didn't promote violence, stupidity and/or the objectification of women. But 10 years later, I'm back—albeit as a journalist, a role where I could combine some of my more altruistic dreams with the entertainment world. Along the way, I meandered in and out of different versions of the do-gooder dream. l worked in Africa helping women start their own businesses, got a master's degree with a nice dollop of massive student loans on the side, and started working with VICE to produce content ranging from Olympic coverage focusing on trans athletes to armpit smelling speed-dating. My experience has been better this time. Partly because I'm a little older, and hopefully wiser. The best part is that so far I haven't had to deal with anyone peeing on anything.
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