Life Inside the Box

What makes a person turn his life into a television program? Sharon Ayalon of `Take Me, Sharon' claims that the apartment offered as a prize tempted her, but what motivated the participants of the second season of `Project Y'?

"This is our reality," said Kati, inhaling her cigarette. "A reality in which many people would like to be." It was afternoon, and Kati and Libby were sitting on a large wooden table on the porch, trying to recover from an etiquette lesson that had ended a few moments earlier. "Oof, I have to see what's happening out there," Libby sighed suddenly, stood up carefully, tottered anxiously on her heels to the edge of the table, her head bent because of the low ceiling, and then sank into concentrated observation. "Okay," she reported a few minutes later, "there's some building there, but you can't see anything."

For almost two months, Kati Drabkin, Libby Merhav and 14 other young people have been living in an upgraded reality. Not because of the well-appointed villa in which they are living, nor because of the crystal clear swimming pool available for their use - these are only side benefits of the real gift they have received: For three months they having been living inside television.

The universe of the participants in the second season of "Project Y," which is aired on the YTV satellite channel, begins and ends with the viewers' screens. During the entire period of filming, they are not allowed to leave the villa in Moshav Bnei Zion, which has been surrounded by a high plywood wall. The little people who live inside the television have a large television in the living room, but they can only watch DVD films on it. Their only connection with the outside world takes place once a week, in a kind of tribal ceremony with torches, when Eden Harel informs them which one of them the viewers have chosen to expel from the screen.

The viewers' fascination with "Project Y" is clear. The producer of the program, Ilanit Siman Tov, admits that it's actually a telenovela. "In terms of plot," she says in the control room, opposite dozens of screens, "things happen here that I could only dream about. As opposed to the first season, during which the main event was the quartet of lovers Yogev-Dikla-Oren-Camilla, here there are many plot lines, which lead in different directions."

But even the most predictable telenovela moments don't suffer from an iota of falseness. As opposed to actors in telenovelas, who ignore the cameras although they are surrounded by them, in "Project Y" the participants are well aware of the fact that their every move is being recorded. The cameras are an inseparable part of their world, and nobody bothers to hide their existence from the viewers - and therefore, paradoxically, the result is more convincing and "real."

For example, one can watch the "night after" without any suspicion that this is a shallow scenario: The day after Ohad and Roni slept together, Ohad asked Roni, quite unequivocally, to take the "morning-after pill," and immediately broke off contact with her for days, in spite of her pleas. Occasionally the cameras enter the awareness of the participants in an amusing way, as in the scene where Libby complained that she couldn't hide the pimple on her cheek, and Kati replied, "It will make the viewers like you more, your character will be human." And occasionally, they show no sign of awareness, as on the day when Roni decided to take revenge on the residents of the villa, who don't bother to wash dishes: She stood next to the kitchen sink, washed her hands and face, spit into it, and then quickly averted her glance and shouted "Somebody wash the dishes, the sink is full!"

Why would anyone want to turn his life into a telenovela? Sharon Ayalon, the heroine of Channel 2's eponymous matchmaking program "Take Me, Sharon," says that she agreed to allow television viewers to share her life because of the apartment promised to her and her partner as a prize. "That was the main consideration," she explains. "It suited me because just then I was planning to move."

Apparently the expensive prize also tempted the participants in the Telad program "Ratzim Ladira" (Running for the Apartment). During the moments of tension, when they fell behind in their assignments, quite a few of the couples hysterically muttered the mantra "We need this apartment," which is located in Modi'in. Even Noga Schreier and Neil Ronen, two of the participants in the reality show "The Yacht," which was broadcast over the Internet, explain that they agreed to participate because of the chance of winning a year of free flights and $2,000 in pocket money each month.

However, the participants in the first season of "Project Y" last year were not offered any material prize. The winner was supposed to host his own program on YTV, and that's it. But in the end, not only the winner, Firas Khoury, got a program. Many of the residents of the previous villa were catapulted into television careers: Eliana Bekair acted in the telenovela "Hashir Shelanu" (Our Song), Sirak Sibhat began to host children's programs on Channel 1, Dikla Kedar is about to sign a contract as a host on a popular channel, and even Chino Almizrak - after a short musical career - will soon be a host.

Even reality show participants who don't develop television careers turn into celebrities, appear in the gossip columns and are invited to by-invitation-only parties - from the participants of "Kokhav Nolad" (the Israeli version of American Idol) to Naama Netiv from the program "Sof Haderekh" (End of the Road), who recently underwent breast enlargement surgery in return for publicizing the hospital.

"Even now, although more than a year has passed, people ask for my autograph," says Sharon Ayalon. "It decreases over time, but I don't know if it will end completely. I will always be `Take Me, Sharon.' Even when I'm an old woman and I walk down the street, people will look at me and say: `Oh, you look familiar. Aren't you `Take Me'?"

Getting a jump start

The thousands of candidates who came to the auditions for "Project Y" were already aware that the prize is a television career (although this time the winner will receive a car as well). Belle Agam, a 21-year-old transsexual from Holon, was expelled from the villa two weeks ago, but now is waiting for offers. "I see myself as an actress and I want to enter the world of acting and commercials," she says. "And to get into this world you need a jumping-off point. This was my opportunity. I was amazed by the reverberations in the media when I left."

In this connection, the daily acting lessons for the participants in "Project Y" seem like some kind of gesture to yesterday's world of television. After all, it doesn't make any difference what talents the participants demonstrate in the acting lessons given by Yoram Levinstein, but how they behave in "reality," in other words, at the dinner table, on the sofa in the living room, in bed. It's not hard to imagine a future with television stars who will specialize in moving from one reality show to another, and will grow and develop under the eye of the camera, without "acting" (that almost happened this year, when Shira Chen, one of the participants in "Kokhav Nolad," tried to infiltrate "Project Y" so she could be with her boyfriend Elad Nohovitch).

In any case, Camilla Paley, another graduate of the first season of "Project Y" and at present a reporter for the weekly magazine Rating, recommends to the present tenants of the villa that they waste no time when making decisions at the conclusion of the program. "Personally, when I received the first offers after the project, I thought it was better to wait. In hindsight, it was a serious mistake. I should have struck while the iron was hot," she says. "Now it's not so hot any more, but let's get away from the metaphors."