Truth and consequences

This is the true story of rural Appalachians, picked to live in a Beverly Hills mansion to find out what happens when real-world “hillbillies” stop acting polite and start getting real.

“You’re not going to make this some kind of negative thing, are you?” asks local casting director Marty Cherrix when I consult her about this piece.

She’s right to be concerned. The show Cherrix is helping cast has caused a virtual firestorm of negative reaction from media all over the South. The series’ working title is The Real Beverly Hillbillies, a reality-TV nod at the campy ’60s sitcom starring Buddy Ebsen; and CBS, the network promoting the new show, hopes it will capture the same massive audiences as cable’s The Osbournes and the singularly lurid Anna Nicole Show.

The Premise: A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed …

Though some of the show’s details remain sketchy, the main idea is this: Take a rural Appalachian family, one with strong values and just a touch of unfamiliarity with the “modern” world, and install them in a Beverly Hills mansion for up to a year with cameras following their every move. The show would document their trials and tribulations as they try to adjust to their new situation. At the end of the year, the family would be guaranteed compensation in at least the six-figure range.

To CBS, it sounds like great television. In fact, in a recent interview with Vanity Fair, CBS programming head Ghen Maynard said the show would be “a great fish-out-of-water story.” To others, however, it sounds like nothing less than exploitation of one of America’s last unchallenged cultural stereotypes.

“We are not looking for the stereotypical image that people think about when you say the word ‘hillbilly,'” insists Cherrix. “We’re not looking to enhance that image in the media at all. We are looking for true mountain people — with mountain values and the heritage that goes along with that — to portray themselves.”

Cherrix doesn’t believe the show will exploit its subjects. As she puts it, “I’ve lived here and grown up here my whole life, and so for me to go out and try to sell … the stereotypical image of [the] hillbilly, that to me is disrespecting what mountain people are and what they stand for, and I’m disrespecting myself then. So I would never do that.”

To Cherrix, the show could be something positive, an entertaining slice-of-life designed to accent the charm of rural Appalachian mores — whatever that may mean in this day and age.

The Problem: And up through the ground came a bubblin’ crude …

“These shows are not designed to be charming,” objects Western Carolina University Mountain Heritage Center Director Tyler Blethen, referring to reality TV. “That’s pretty apparent by watching [them]. If you watch them for just a few minutes, you can see that they are not designed to bring out charm.”

“As I understand it, [this type of program is] made with the intention of bringing out the humor of [a] situation, of putting people in an unfamiliar situation. I think that’s a code phrase for ridicule.”

As an educator and historian specializing in Appalachian Studies, Blethen feels The Real Beverly Hillbillies will entrench the negative way popular culture perceives mountain-raised people. His concern also comes from a lingering mistrust of Hollywood, where the rural South remains an ever-renewable humor source.

“[The show has] caused an uproar in the field of Appalachian studies,” Blethen notes. “Appalachian scholars are asking the question, ‘What other group in our society could be the object of such ridicule?’ And [they are] thinking that the answer is no one else.”

Another Mountain Heritage Center educator, Peter Koch, points out, “I think, in comparison to the fictional show, where there was a lot of opportunity built in for the hillbillies to make fun of the rich and famous, it will be more difficult for that to come through in this reality show. That’s pretty troubling.”

The Hopeful: Swimmin’ pools, movie stars …

“Why did it interest me?” muses prospective TV hillbilly and WNC native Gail Hensley. “Well, the money was interesting. A lot of people would feel like it would be exploiting your family, but if you are proud of your roots and where you come from, then that wouldn’t be a problem with me. I’m proud of who I am and what I am.”

Hensley is one of thousands nationwide who’ve auditioned for The Real Beverly Hillbillies in recent weeks. She teaches cosmetology at Haywood Community College and has worked as a hairdresser on such blockbuster films as Titanic and Last of the Mohicans. She’s also not concerned in the least about being labeled a hick by people who know nothing about her.

“Coming from the South, and being from the South, sometimes people label you as being, like, stupid and toothless,” she observes. “You’ve probably seen that, but that’s not true. Your Southern people are some of your better people.”

To Hensley, cultural watchdogs such as those at WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center are simply misguided about the nature of the show she and some members of her family hope will make them famous.

“They’re thinking of [the show] as being [about] stupid people from the mountains that don’t have education. But, that’s not really what it is. I didn’t feel that that’s really what it was.”

Even though Cherrix sees something special in the Hensleys, Gail isn’t certain that her family will make the next cut in the audition process, even though she can claim at least one relative — an exotic-dancer niece — with a TV-worthy background.

But not all of her family is interested in living the A-list life. Hensley’s husband, perhaps displaying that stereotypical mountain quality known as individualism, refuses to have any part of it.

“He said no amount of money is worth his privacy,” Hensley explains. “He’s that kind of person.”

Interested in appearing on The Real Beverly Hillbillies? Casting agents are still actively searching in the WNC area. For more information, call (828) 350-0330.

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