Cake Boss: The Next Great Baker, ended with a black screen last night in memory of Wesley Durden Jr., the contestant who had been eliminated on that night’s episode.
I blame Beth for getting me hooked on competitive reality television. I never watched any before I worked with her. She would talk so enthusiastically about the television program Big Brother that I felt left out and started to watch. Big Brother led to Survivor which led to American Idol and before I knew it I was watching the Joes: Schmo and Millionaire. Just about anything where anyone was competing for anything; from a boyfriend to a wedding, I would watch. I would watch even if I didn’t watch the counterpart. I don’t usually watch Iron Chef America but I was totally invested in who would be The Next Iron Chef. I have no interest in watching Cake Boss but Cake Boss: The Next Great Baker I find to be a delectable confection much like a well made cream puff; but not last night.
Wesley Durden was reamed by Buddy Valastro in the first episode for using a prepared cake mix survived the challenge to go on to redeem himself with a Holiday Pecan Pie Parfait but when his team landed in the bottom two his lack of polished finishing skills betrayed him and he was sent packing in the panel truck of shame.
It was striking throughout the episode how Mr. Durden handled himself with grace and dignity and when he was eliminated he showed what it means to be a good loser, something that is too often derided in our winner-take-all society. It may have been his military training; Mr. Durban was actually Staff Sergeant Durden of the 82nd Army Airborne Division where he served as a cook. He had been deployed to Iraq from January, 2007 to March 2008 and again from August to December, 2009. He was expecting to be deployed again and said on the show that he hoped to go far on the show so that would be postponed.
On October 24, 2011, Sergeant Wesley Joel Durden died of a single, self-inflicted, bullet wound to the head. He left behind a wife, Maria, and two young children, Wesley Joel III, 7, and Gianna, 2, as well as a mother, father, sister, aunts, uncles and grandparents to mourn his passing. He was twenty-eight years old.
Wesley Durden is not the first person in the United States to commit suicide after having appeared on a reality television program. That would be Najai “Nitro” Turpin.
Najai Turpin had been eliminated pretty early on season two of the boxing competition, The Contender but committed suicide three weeks before the first episode of the long delayed season premier aired on ESPN. It was Valentine’s Day, 2005 when Mr. Turpin sat in his Chevy Lumina arguing with his ex-girlfriend over custody of their two-year-old daughter, Anje, outside the James Schuler Memorial Gym in West Philadelphia took out a gun and shot himself in the head, ending his life. He was twenty-three years old.
“When he was there he would sleep in the closet,” recalled Ahmed Kaddour, who was Turpin’s roommate during his stint on the show, “He wasn’t normal.”
Gordon Ramsey has lost two separate contestants from two different shows to suicide.
In May, 2007, 41-year-old Rachel Brown shot herself inside her family home Dallas, Texas home a year after coming in fifth on Hell’s Kitchen while restaurateur Joseph Cerniglia, 39, who appeared on Kitchen Nightmares in 2007, jumped from the George Washington Bridge in September, 2010. His body was later recovered from the Hudson River. Ms. Brown’s family as an excellent athlete who loved teaching children to cook, while Cerniglia had been busted a few months before his suicide for possession of cocaine after he OD’d at his restaurant, Campania, and had to be rushed to the hospital.
Pirate Master was a very badly done competitive reality program that aired on CBS. Conceived by Mark Burnett as a replacement for the stellar Rock Star, Pirate Master sunk like a stone, eventually airing remaining episodes only online.
Cheryl Kosewicz was a 35-year-old Assistant District Attorney in the Washoe County District Attorney’s Office in Reno, Nevada specializing in prosecuting sex crimes. She was also the fourth contestant set adrift after backing the wrong horse and alienating many of the pirate crew with her cold, humorless attitude. Ms. Kosewicz committed suicide in July, 2007, about a month and a half after her boyfriend, 26-year-old heavy equipment operator, Ryan O’Neil committed suicide.
Ms. Kosewicz posted online about how adrift she felt since Mr. O’Neil’s death and wrote to fellow contestant, Nessa Nemir, “and this frik’n show doesn’t help because it was such a contention between Ryan and I and plus its not getting good reviews.”
CBS pulled Pirate Master from its network schedule four days before Ms. Kosewicz was found dead.
Nathan Clutter, 26. A sales manager originally from Danville, Illinois, died October 12, 2007, some months before episodes of his appearance on Paradise Hotel 2 began airing on the now defunct, Fox affiliated, MyNetworkTV.
On Paradise Hotel 2 Mr. Cutter came off like a fish out of water, staying mainly in the background while more rambunctious guests took center stage. No one in particular wanted to hook up with him and, partnerless, he was eliminated from the game.
Mr. Cutter had been living in Arizona and working at a call center when his family began to suspect he was suffering from untreated bi-polar, manic-depressive syndrome. They were trying to persuade him to come home and check himself into the VA hospital for diagnosis and treatment when Mr. Cutter parked up his car, took his dog, and drove to Amarillo, Texas where he draped a sweater over a barbed wire fence before scaling it to climb an Alltel cellular telephone tower and leapt to his death, leaving behind a six inch indentation in the hard Texas soil and his dog safe and sound with food and water in the car.
Paula Goodspeed is a particularly egregious case. She had changed her name from Sandra May McIntyre and had developed an unhealthy obsession with Paula Abdul, sending the singer naked pictures and threatening letters, before auditioning for the fifth season of American Idol in 2006, making it to the freak show section of the broadcast portion of the program. Goodspeed committed suicide by overdosing in November, 2008 while sitting in her car a short distance from Paula Abdul’s Los Angeles home. The singer later criticized Simon Cowell and the producers of American Idol for letting Goodspeed get so far in the audition process despite being informed that Goodspeed had stalked and threatened Abdul in the past.
I have only watched one complete season of The Bachelor, the one with Prince Borghese, which was full of cheesy goodness. The same goes for The Bachelorette with the exception of never having seen a full season of that perennial ABC powerhouse.
Julian Hug participated on the fifth season of The Bachelorette, featuring interior designer, Jillian Harris. The 34-year-old restaurateur was eliminated in the second episode of the season. In November, 2010, Mr. Hug was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound off the highway in a remote Southern California location. Mr. Hug, who is reported to have struggled with depression, was supposed to be on his way to meet with his family at their new restaurant in Palm Desert, California when his life took a totally different path.
One dating franchise I always enjoyed was Flavor of Love and all of its offsprings: I Love New York, Real Chance of Love, Charm School and I Love Money. These franchises were pretty well killed off by Ryan Jenkins after he killed off his newly acquired wife Jasmine Fiore and then offed himself in a Canadian motel room by hanging himself in August of 2009. Jenkins reportedly made it to third place on the reality show Megan Wants a Millionaire before being booted off by Megan Hauserman, late of Rock of Love, I Love Money and Charm School, though she originally appeared on Reality Television in the Ashton Kutcher produced Beauty and the Geek where she and her partner, Alan “Scooter” Zachheim, shared the top $250,000 prize. Megan Wants a Millionaire was pulled from the air after Jenkins murdered Fiore and the remaining episodes have never been publicly released.
VH1 has also never released any episodes of I Love Money 3 which Ryan Jenkins is rumored to have won though episodes of I Love Money 4 popped up sporadically about a year or so ago an VH1. In 2011, the coat rack purportedly used by Jenkins to commit suicide at the Thunderbird Hotel was put up for auction.
The history of suicides among reality show contestants is as old as reality shows themselves. In 1997 34-year-old Sinisa Savija committed suicide by stepping in front of a train in Norrkoping, Sweden four weeks after being the first contestant voted off in the very first episode of Expedition: Robinson. Mr. Savija was a law student who had immigrated to Sweden from Bosnia when he saw an advertisement seeking contestants for the groundbreaking new show and decided to apply, in part, “to affirm his sense of belonging.”
Mr. Savija did not achieve that sense of belonging, in fact he was further alienated by his lack of fluidity with the Swedish language and also the physical aspects of the game which were greater than Mr. Savija had anticipated. His wife, Nermina, squarely blamed the show, stating that the experience had left her husband feeling, “degraded as a person,” and that he “didn’t see any meaning in life” after his return.
Expedition: Robinson, after a slow start, went on to become a smash hit in Sweden and under the guidance of Mark Burnett made its Americanized debut in 200 under the new title Survivor.