Reality bites: What life is like under the reality TV lens

Running the gamut from voyeuristic trash to societal edification, reality TV shows have amassed over the past 15 years like old newspapers on an episode of “Hoarders.” The grand paradox of the so-called “reality” genre is its supremely contrived, controlled and cut-up content, which — while necessary for palatable programming — deprives us of those stories beneath the surface. We tracked down Oak Cliff people who have spent time on reality TV show sets. They share candidly about their experiences, what they learned and life after the cameras shut off.


The design star

Interior designer Hilari Younger. In 2012 Younger competed on HGTV Design Star, a reality TV show in which designers lived together and were presented with interior design challenges. The winner received their own show on HGTV. Younger did not win the competition, but saw the experience as a way to propel her career forward. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Interior designer Hilari Younger, who competed on HGTV “Design Star.” Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Hilari Styles tripped in some designer shoes and landed in TV stardom.

“Nothing in my life seems to be deliberate. I don’t have any triumph over tragedy moments,” she says. “I just stumble into life, and I think for some people it happens like that.”

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Hilari and her husband, Cedric Powell, had just moved from Washington, D.C. to Dallas. Before Texas, she’d earned a fashion degree from Howard University and had worked in interior design.

“This means something to me. This is really an art form to me.”
A neighbor here asked if she wanted to ride with her to a cattle call for HGTV’s “Design Star.” So Hilari tagged on, bringing along her new puppy in a vintage bowling bag and wearing a green blouse that drew out her eyes.

She caught the producers’ attention and a spot on the show.

“I had never seen that show before I was on that show,” she says of “Design Star,” where designers compete in weekly challenges and are eliminated one-by-one. The grand prize is a TV show of one’s own.

On “Design Star,” she lived in a dorm-style setting with fellow contestants for six weeks of filming. After winning several design challenges, she agreed to join the cast of season seven, “All Stars,” which filmed in the seven weeks immediately following.

Some contestants were fans of the show living their dream, she says. Some practiced challenges before filming began.

But Hilari is just Hilari. Already energetic, she says she can turn it up even more for TV. She fell right into it, and made it almost to the finale.

“It made me realize that I’m a real design star,” she says. “This means something to me. This is really an art form to me.”

The experience opened a path as a fulltime interior designer and sometime TV personality. She has design clients in Texas, D.C., New Orleans, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles, although most of her design jobs nowadays are in the Dallas area. She also appears on local morning TV and radio shows.

Hilari lives in Winnetka Heights with her husband and daughter Haili, 9. They are renovating a 1920s house, the first she’s ever attempted for herself.

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Could she be a lifestyle guru in the fashion of Martha Stewart?

“That’s where I see my brand going,” she says. “I love design, but there’s so much more to me: fashion, cooking, parenting, travel, anything cultural.”

We’re sure she will stumble on something.


Whispering ghosts

Sandy Bates and Andy Emmons, who lived in Oak Cliff, were featured on the reality TV show My Ghost Story, a program about paranormal activity. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Sandy Bates and Andy Emmons, who lived in Oak Cliff, were featured on the reality TV show “My Ghost Story.” Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Sandy Bates Emmons makes a living selling airtime to reality TV shows for Time Warner Media. But she’s also had her 15 minutes of reality TV fame.

She made the cut for the first season of “Top Chef” but had to turn it down because she owned two restaurants at the time.

Her own reality TV time would come later, with ghost stories instead of pastries.

After she met her husband, artist Andy Don Emmons, she moved to his generational family ranch in Fairfield. She got a job in town as curator of the Freestone County Historical Museum, which began with the 1851 courthouse and jail.

Sandy worked by herself most of the time, and it wasn’t long before strange things started to happen. Lights would turn on and off by themselves, footsteps and voices echoed down empty hallways, disconnected antique phones suddenly rang.

Emmons saw an opportunity for the small-town museum.

“I thought, ‘Gee, this place is super haunted; I think people would come here if we could connect the ghosts to the history,’” she says.

Soon, paranormal investigators descended on the museum, often overnight, to collect haunting audio and video evidence: disembodied voices, an orb of light that zooms through a wall and a light that appears to flip off by itself.

Her publicity stunt did the trick. The museum went from earning a few hundred dollars a month to a few thousand dollars a month, as people clamored for their own ghostly encounter.

The lore of the haunted museum led to an appearance on “My Ghost Story,” which ran for six seasons on the Biography Channel.

What looks like a ghost in a historical photo of a Freestone County firefighter sitting at the wheel of an early engine gives the museum’s ghost stories an evidentiary boost. Video, audio, photos and a history of haunting, the perfecta of spectral evidence.

The segment ran as the season six finale, titled “Disturbance at the Jailhouse.”

In addition to the evidence collected by paranormal investigators, the couple was flown out to Los Angeles to shoot their interviews.

“They kept telling us, ‘Act scared,’” Sandy says. “We weren’t really scared. We were just intrigued.”

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It wouldn’t be their last time in front of the reality TV lens. The couple later appeared on “American Treasures,” a show that tied antiques shopping with historic tales. Recently they were asked to appear on a show about antiques picking that’s set in Alaska, all-things Alaska being a recent television trend. They turned that down because it would require eight weeks of filming, and who can be away from work that long?

“Once you’re on their radar, they keep coming back to you,” Sandy says.

Ghost stories are still bringing museum-goers to Freestone County despite the fact that religious townsfolk put an end to the paranormal publicity.

“We just did it for the museum,” Sandy Emmons says. “The best thing you can possibly do is get as much publicity out there as you can. It generates more income.”


Video: Get a behind the scenes glimpse at the Advocate’s October cover photo shoot.


Powerful in pink

Chef Blythe Beck was featured on “Naughty Kitchen,” a reality TV show, and then went on to open a restaurant in Oak Cliff. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Chef Blythe Beck was featured on “Naughty Kitchen,” and then went on to open a restaurant in Oak Cliff. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Chef Blythe Beck has everything she needs to be a television star: the talent, the hardened personality, the unrelenting determination and the voice.

Just add a dash of pink and a few too many curse words, and poof; you have “The Naughty Kitchen with Blythe Beck.”

These days Beck has her work cut out for her opening Pink Magnolia, a Southern-inspired restaurant in Oak Cliff. But before that, she worked at Dallas’ Central 214, where “The Naughty Kitchen” was filmed.

The show, which aired on Oxygen in 2009, was all about Beck because that’s the way she wanted it, and she usually gets what she wants.

Even as a little girl Beck wanted to be on TV, she says. Oddly enough, the talent that got her there — cooking — wasn’t even on the menu at the time.

In college she was “The queen of takeout,” she says. But eventually, she found her way in the kitchen.

“It was sweaty and dirty and gross,” she says. “I was like, ‘I’m home.’ I went home and told my parents, ‘Mom and dad, I know what I want to be. I want to be in the restaurant business.’”

In her first culinary class, something clicked, she says.

“I thought it was like a spiritual moment,” she laughs. “There were all these raw ingredients and I put my stink all over them, and all of the sudden I made a biscuit.”

She set her sights on becoming a chef and working for Dean Fearing at The Mansion. Becoming his apprentice was her first big break.

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“I got paid $6.50 an hour, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “I was the only female, and I wasn’t allowed in the big kitchen. There was a prep area that smelled like dead fish and shame. I killed more lobsters than I ever care to remember. But once I got past the sexual harassment and the regular harassment, they were like, ‘Oh she’s not leaving.’ I stayed and stayed and stayed.”

And she worked her way up the ranks, gaining valuable experience.

From there she went became the sous chef at Hector’s on Henderson. “I told the chef, ‘Sleep with one eye open because I’m taking your job,’” Beck says. “And he laughed, but within a year I had it.”

Soon, she began shooting a “sizzle reel” to pitch her own television show.

“Getting a show on television is so hard,” she says. “So hard. You go in and pitch to everyone — Bravo, Lifetime, TLC and Oxygen, which is where I wanted to go because Oprah owned it.”

After making her pitch, she came back to Dallas, when Central 214 reached out seeking a new chef. She took the job.

“Then three weeks later we sold the show,” she says — and to none other than Oxygen.

Within a week, Oxygen’s camera crews had descended on Central 214, adding to an already hectic time.

“I’d work all day as the chef of 214, and I was doing crazy press at that time because I had just been named the executive chef of Central 214,” she says. “And I was doing press for the show and shooting the show. Then we’d shoot b-roll. I was working like 20-22 hour days. It was nuts.”

The cameras loved her. If you’ve seen “The Naughty Kitchen” and wondered if she’s acting out for the sake of the show, Beck is the first to tell you: “No, that’s all me.”

She’s both larger than life and self-deprecatingly grounded. She’s bold and outspoken, and she cusses like a sailor, but she’s also an advocate for empowering women.

One season of “The Naughty Kitchen” was enough for Beck. However, a lot of other opportunities grew out of that. She started appearing on the Food Network and the Paula Deen Network, and she won’t shy away from other opportunities in front of the lens.

“I want to be back on TV,” she says. “That’s my dream. I want to put something pink and positive on TV. I want to focus on stuff that makes us feel good — especially women. I think women feel bad about themselves a lot of the time, and it’s like, ‘Why? We’re badass.’ ” —Brittany Nunn

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Of course Jeff Liles has met Oprah

In the 80s, Jeff Liles, who heads the historic Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff, appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show as a troubled teen. Furthermore, Liles says he once lived across the street from rock persona Marilyn Manson, was asked to manage a little-known band named the Dixie Chicks and was the first American DJ to play rap group NWA on the radio, for which he was fired. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
In the 80s, Jeff Liles, appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” as a troubled teen. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Who is the most interesting man in Oak Cliff?

He was the first DJ in Texas to play NWA on the radio. He saw Willie Nelson jam with Supertramp at the Ritz. Once in 1982, he played pinball all night with Kirk Hammett of Metallica at a bus station in downtown Austin. He’s been nominated for a Grammy.

And yes, of course, Jeffrey Liles has met Oprah.

Liles, artistic director of the Kessler Theater, was on an episode of “Oprah” in the early ’80s about parents who are highly successful but have children who are out of control.

“My parents had just been divorced, and my dad was living in Chicago,” he says.

These were Oprah’s early years when a Chicago radio station would announce themes of the following weeks’ shows, so listeners could call in to see if their stories fit the topic. Allen Liles, a retired Southland Corp. executive who wrote the book on 7-Eleven, called in.

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“I don’t know if he did it as a joke or not,” Jeff Liles says. “He has a real deep sense of humor.”

The show flew the 22-year-old Liles up from Dallas, where he’d just been out of rehab for marijuana.

“Oprah” put him up at the Nikko, and he invited all of his Chicago friends over for an all-night party in his room the night before taping.

Oprah, he says, was a sweetheart. Before taping, she came out and spoke to each guest of the show until they felt comfortable being on set. She was professional and lovely and, well … she’s Oprah.

“Some doctor had written a book. That’s what the show was about,” Liles says.

He says he never even saw his episode of “Oprah.” His great aunt did catch it, and she called up his grandmother to say, “I didn’t know Jeff was in rehab!”


They lost on ‘Jeopardy’

Debra Witter and Scott Chase were both contestants on the daytime game show Jeopardy! on separate years. Both attorneys, they married and moved to the Oak Cliff. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Debra Witter and Scott Chase were both contestants on the daytime game show “Jeopardy!” in separate years. Both attorneys, they married and moved to the Oak Cliff. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Answer: The married lawyers from Kessler Park who appeared on “Jeopardy!” in different decades, with different hosts, both finishing in third place.

Question: Who are Scott Chase and Debra Witter?

When Chase was a young lawyer in the U.S. Army, he watched “Jeopardy!” every day on his lunch break. He drove from Fort Lee, Va. to New York City to try out for the trivia show, and made the cut. It was 1974. Art Fleming was the host, and Don Pardo was the announcer.

Five shows a day were shot in a New York City studio, so Chase sat through several tapings before playing the game. He says he knew the correct Final Jeopardy response in all the prior games he’d watched, but none of the contestants got it right in his round.

He still remembers it. Category: “Monarchs.”

Answer: He assumed the throne the same year as King George VI, and he abdicated the year George died.

Question: Who is King Farouk of Egypt?

He came in third place, but he got to keep the $160 in his pot, which he spent on a new desk.

Witter called into a radio show to answer a question for a shot to be eligible for a “Jeopardy!” cattle call in Dallas in 1997.

She says she knew most of the correct responses, but her thumb wasn’t quick enough on the buzzer.
She and Chase, then newlyweds, decided to take a long weekend to L.A. and catch a Dodgers game. “Jeopardy!” does not pay the way for its contestants.

As in decades past, five shows were shot each day, giving Witter a chance to watch game after game being filmed until it was her turn.

She says she knew most of the correct responses, but her thumb wasn’t quick enough on the buzzer. Host Alex Trebek, she recalls, was not a warm person.

She also came in third, and she also remembers Final Jeopardy. Category: “Nicknames.”

Answer: Ezra Pound called him “The Old Possum.”

Question: Who was T.S. Eliot?

Witter did not get to keep the money in her pot, but she won a Jeopardy board game and some other prizes, which she declined to avoid paying the taxes.

She and her coworkers gathered around the TV the day of her episode, but it was preempted in our market for an after-school special.

“What are the chances?” Witter says. “Of all things.”

The local TV station mailed her a VHS later.

Chase and Witter rarely get to watch “Jeopardy!” these days, but you should want them on your pub quiz team. On a cruise last year, they won two bottles of wine at trivia night.

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