For the majority of us, the words “reality show” often don’t meet our standard of reality.
Let’s be honest – only one couple from The Bachelor(ette) series has ever made it from the final rose ceremony to the final ring ceremony and stayed married. The Real Housewives series features over-dramatic housewives all after status and money, and The Hills series has destroyed reality for Heidi Montag, although her tabloid career has soared since then.
Yet somehow, our perception of reality comes into focus again with shows that are far more realistic than an MTV or VH1 series. Bravo’s Shear Genius gives contestants the opportunity to learn and improve their hair-styling techniques and the ability to further their careers. Fox’s hit dance show, So You Think You Can Dance, provides a new means for dancers to showcase their artistry while giving aspiring professionals a chance to learn and grow as dancers. And Animal Planet’s Whale Wars documents the real-life dangers of those trying to save whales, giving us a glimpse into how much passion and dedication it takes to further their cause.
Other than the occasional producer prodding for a good quote, there are many reality shows that truly are quality entertainment. (Thank you, Mythbusters.)
Enter the following reality stars from Ventura County. All of these reality stars allowed the cameras to follow their lives, some for career gain, some for fun, and some to make a difference in the world.
You’ll meet Brig Van Osten, an honest and spunky hairstylist located in Simi Valley, who also just happened to win season 3 of Bravo’s Shear Genius. Then there’s Capt. Chuck Swift, who grew up in Ventura County and is now braving and battling oceans and enemy ships alike in the series Whale Wars. Simi Valley car designer and builder Steve Strope is no stranger to the camera, as he’s taken on many different television projects. Although well-known for building Hammer on TLC’s show Rides, Strope has also taken up the challenge of Discovery’s Ultimate Car Build-Off and continues to work with Hot Rod magazine for video features. Then there are the dancers, Robert Roldan and Melinda Sullivan, both from Thousand Oaks. Contestants on So You Think You Can Dance, they both represented Ventura County and their respective dance forms with high regard.
As you’re flipping through the channels, skip over the Tila Tequila or Paris Hilton’s: My New BFF and turn on something worth watching that represents quality programming and the best of Ventura County.
PureVision Design in Simi Valley
“I’m still that 16-year-old kid who runs out to the mailbox to get the newest issue of Hot Rod magazine,” said Steve Strope, owner of PureVision Design. For Strope, the love of cars hasn’t dwindled; in fact, it’s probably the opposite.
The opportunity for camera crews to follow his journey of building custom-made cars made Strope even more ecstatic.
Strope has been featured in numerous magazines and television shows, including TLC’s Rides, which followed the making of Hammer, Vin Diesel’s comeback car in Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, as well as Discovery’s Ultimate Car Build-Off.
From tinkering with toys to modifying mechanics, Strope has always had an interest in changing the mechanics and the look of just about everything. “When I was in sixth grade, a senior in our school had a hot rod, and I would almost miss the bus every day because I was waiting in the parking lot, waiting for him to start that car.”
A native of New York, when he was in his early 20s, Strope decided he needed to take his love of modifying cars out west. He pursued a job opportunity in Riverside and the owner finally and only reluctantly agreed to hire him. After three weeks of working there, the business went under, leaving Strope stranded in California without a job. “I had nowhere to go, no job, no anything.” But it wasn’t long before Strope was back to work again for an auto and truck repair company.
After flying back to New York and packing up his gear in his ’67 El Camino, Strope started his cross-country drive back to the West Coast. But a stop in Ohio would make this trip the most memorable road trip of his life. While traveling with his friend, they stopped in Ohio for a Car Supernational Tour hosted by Hot Rod magazine. Then-editor of Hot Rod Jeff Smith had noticed Strope’s ’67 El Camino, and later approached Strope about featuring it in Hot Rod magazine. “I couldn’t believe it,” said Strope. “I’m still excited about it.” That was 15 years ago.
The road to success hasn’t been an easy one for Strope. Having lived in his shop, Strope knows about hard work. “I’m psychotic,” Strope said. “I’m a pit bull. I will do what it takes to get it done, and I’ll do what it takes to get it done the right way.” That mentality paid off while Strope was building Hammer, a 1970 Plymouth Road Runner, for a client, which TLC featured on it show, Rides. “It was a big honor, and a big deal,” said Strope. “It still is.”
Yet building this type of car for a nationally broadcast television show didn’t come without its frustrations. In addition to the daily squabbles in building and perfecting a car, there was a much bigger pressure put on Strope and his team.
“When we’re filming, the doors are shut, you can’t have any music on, and it’s hot as can be. Then they have the lighting on, which makes it even hotter,” said Strope. “And the deadline’s still real; the responsibility to the car’s still real. It definitely raises the difficulty factor.” According to Strope, all of the drama was completely unscripted.
“There was a lot that happened,” said Strope. “We’re working crazy hours, it’s a lot of stress, and the tempers flare.
It’s a human thing when you get packed in.”
The aftershock of Strope’s world shook hard after Hammer was built. Following the build, Strope was contacted by a representative for the film The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. They had personally requested Hammer as Vin Diesel’s car for the end of the film.
Several years later, Strope would be roped into competing on Discovery’s Ultimate Car Build-Off by an old friend, Troy Ladd, who owns Hollywood Hot Rods. “He approached me and basically said, ‘I don’t want to go against just anybody. I can trust you guys for a good competition,’ ” said Strope. He agreed, and soon, he was given the task of making an American-made, rear-wheel minivan into a supercar.
In the end, Ladd’s team won the challenge, although Strope was proud of his team and some of the things they accomplished, including upping the ante on the brakes on the van. “From 60 to 0, the minivan stopped only two feet longer than a Lamborghini.”
Although Strope has some other exciting builds planned, all of which you can find on his website a www.purevisiondesign.com, one build has Strope the most excited: his own re-build of a 1967 Buick Skylark.
“I bought it off the original owner. She bought it in 1967,” said Strope. “And, yes, she was a little old lady.” Having been sitting at his house for the past 11 years, Strope looks forward to the finished car. “There’s a favorite quote of mine by Bill Hinder that goes, ‘When I get in my car to leave, I may not have the fastest car, the most expensive car, or the ‘trickest’ car, but I leave in my favorite car.’ I’ll be leaving in my favorite car,” Strope said.
Capt. Chuck Swift
Environmentalist from Oxnard
1994. Along the coast of Norway, Chuck Swift stands on the deck of the Sea Shepherd. “Clear the bow of your ship, we’re going to fire a round,” is blasted from the largest Norwegian warship. But instead of clearing the bow, Swift runs toward it. Defiant, he stands as five others join him. Yet the blast never hits. “Clear your engine room, we’re going to fire a round,” squawk the Norwegians again. Even more defiant, Swift and the five others spread themselves along the length of the boat, perfectly set so the engine room can’t be attacked without killing one of the six. The blast never came. Norway’s warship rammed their ship. It drove circles around the Sea Shepherd with a rope, making it tangle in the Sea Shepherd’s propeller. Explosives were hurled toward the hull of the ship, in hopes of making it sink. Yet the Sea Shepherd stood, even with one engine lost. And Swift, along with the five others, now known as the Suicide Six, remained unharmed. This is the life of a war man against illegal whaling.
It wasn’t until 1988 that Swift had attended a party where a young girl was being laughed at as she tried to save a spider. “It was a mindset I couldn’t relate to, so I spent time with her,” said Swift. Their conversation challenged Swift’s mode of thinking, making him more aware of protecting the environment that surrounds him. The young woman would later become his wife. (They have since divorced.)
Several years later, while out trying to save the redwood forests, a friend handed Swift a pamphlet. The pamphlet was about the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a nonprofit trying to save the whales from illegal hunting. And that was the beginning of Swift’s journey to protect the whales.
Swift, a native of Oxnard, joined the Sea Shepherd back in the early 1990s, long before Animal Planet began following their story. Swift left the Sea Shepherd for several years to live in Germany, and when he returned to the Sea Shepherd crew, Whale Wars was already into its third season. Swift, however, still kept his drive to save the whales up front. When he first came on, as the Bob Barker’s captain, Swift called a meeting with the boat and film crews. “I said ‘I’m here to save the whales and fulfill the vision Sea Shepherd has. I’m not going to change who I am very much. I’m not interested in posing and pounding my chest.’ And they respected that,” said Chuck.
Acknowledging that some consider the tactics of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to be extreme, Swift said, “Extreme, sure. I’ll agree to that. But extreme can be a relative term, like thin. Is extreme throwing a stink bomb onto a ship? Or is it more extreme that an Antarctican fleet of ships is illegally harvesting whales?”
A true testament to that theory was the recent destruction of one of Sea Shepherd’s boats, the Ady Gil. This past January, the Ady Gil and the Bob Barker met up so the crews could wave to each other mid-ocean. Just behind them was part of a Japenese fleet, the boat the Shonan Maru No. 2. Leaving plenty of room for the Japanese ship to pass, the crews waved to each other. Then the Maru kept turning its course, unfortunately, toward the Ady Gil. When no more than 20 yards behind the Ady Gil, the Maru made a sharp turn directly into the Ady Gil, running completely over it.
“We could hear crack and snap of bow of vessel. We saw it go underwater for a second, and came back up,” said Swift. “For about 10 to15 seconds, nobody said a word, and the earth stood still. Nobody could figure out what happened.” Snapping out of the shock, Swift immediately sent a boat into the water to rescue the crew of the Ady Gil. “I thought we’d be picking bodies out of the water,” said Swift. “It’s just proof they’re willing to go the extra mile against us. They have no regard for life of whales, or laws intended to preserve their lives.”
Swift says he plans to stay with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, although he might not be captaining the boat for next season. “I will do what’s best for the organization,” he said. “It just depends on what’s happening and where I can help the most.”
Brig Van Osten
P!ay Hair Lounge in Simi Valley
When girls are 13, they love to twist, twirl and braid hair. When Brig Van Osten was 17, she decided she wanted to do that for the rest of her life. “My mom suggested it after watching me do a very creative style. I was always into beauty and fashion into my teens,” said Brig. “So I went for it. I knew from the very first day, I was in the right spot.”
After graduating from cosmetology school, Van Osten went to work for salon after salon. After moving around six separate salons, in 2006 Brig laid all her chips on the table to open up P!ay Hair Lounge in Simi Valley.
After watching the first season of Bravo’s Shear Genius, Van Osten auditioned for the second season. “I made it very close to getting on, but didn’t quite make it. They asked me if I would try out for the third season if they had one, and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ” And so began her journey that would become an experience unlike any other. “All of a sudden, you’re thrown into this world with 11 people who haven’t met each other and don’t know each other. And to stir it even more is we’re competing for one prize,” said Van Osten. “All of your comforts are gone, so you either adjust quickly or crack under pressure.”
But Van Osten wasn’t there to crack. “I let everyone know from the very first day, I was there to compete and win,” she said. “I ruffled some feathers at first, but after a little bit of time, I formed strong relationships I still hold today.
I didn’t worry about if anyone wasn’t a fan of mine; I just focused on the competitions. I felt, in the end, that would suit me better and it did.”
Van Osten hit ups and downs throughout the competition, but she knew she came into her own in the ninth episode. Given the challenge to create cuts that expressed their signature styles, Van Osten knew she could cut it right. Brig said, “I chose to do the fantasy world of hair, using Kanekalon plastic hair extension, and I made really out-worldly styles.” That episode, Van Osten was overjoyed when Oribe came in as guest judge. “Oribe was someone who I’ve admired for over 17 years,” said Brig. “So when he walked into the salon, I was star-struck. I was taken aback, short on breath, and kind of freaking out. To actually have him commend my work and wind up winning that challenge, I just didn’t know what to do after that.”
Van Osten’s life now hasn’t changed completely, however. “The salon has gotten a lot busier, obviously,” she said. But you’ll still find her in the salon full time. “I still have my regular clients, who I call my ‘VIP Celebrity clients,’ which are the everyday women whom I’ve had for years,” Van Osten said, also noting that she has added several clients to her roster. “You’re still going to find me shopping at Target and driving the same car. That world has not changed, and I haven’t changed much in that respect. I’m super real.”
Van Osten’s professional career has expanded into many opportunities, now guest-appearing on TLC’s What Not to Wear, traveling across the country to speak to cosmetology students and stylists, and working on other things for television. Yet Van Osten doesn’t take any of it for granted. “I never count my eggs before they hatch,” she said.
“Once I’m standing somewhere and it’s happening, then it’s happening and I’m enjoying it,” she said. “I’m just enjoying the process and challenge of it all.”
On top of everything else, Van Osten still has time for her fans via just about every social network available. You can find her on YouTube providing hair tips and tricks, doing them all on herself. “You’re frustrated, watching a stylist show you on a model. You’re like, ‘Wait, you have two hands and you’re standing behind their head!’ I’m candid and real about it.”
Log onto Brig’s site www.brigknowsbest.com to find links to her official social network sites.
Aspiring dancer from Thousand Oaks
“I always thought, ‘Well, if this happens, it’s meant to happen,’ ” said Robert Roldan, finalist on season 7 of Fox’s hit dance show, So You Think You Can Dance. “But I never thought I was going to be here.”
At age 11, Roldan’s mom forced him into a hip-hop class, despite Robert’s protests. But at that first class, Robert became enamored of a world where music and soul meet movement. “I’ve loved it ever since and never looked back,” said Robert.
Roldan’s passion for dance shaped and molded into other styles, and he soon found his home in the contemporary style. This past spring, Roldan, who is now 20, auditioned for a spot on the Fox show. “I didn’t go into the competition thinking I was going to make it straight through, but as soon as I did, I knew it was a blessing,” said Roldan. “I was so excited to learn so much about dance, because there’s so much you can learn as a young dancer.”
Once he was on the show, however, it meant a physically and mentally grueling schedule. Practicing six days a week for often 10-to12-hour days, the schedule doesn’t leave much room for rest. Roldan said, “I don’t think a lot of people realize how much hard work is put into this and how many hours go behind everything, because we don’t have that much time to learn the routine. We learn it basically in a few days, and then we perform it on stage.”
In addition to the time factor, there’s also the added stress of pulling from the hat a style you’ve never danced before. And for Roldan, that was ballroom. “I think getting ballroom in the very beginning, I psyched myself out,” said Roldan about picking the quick-step and the Argentine tango. “Ballroom is so hard to do,” he said. “All the little techniques that go into all the different styles of ballroom are crazy.”
Midway through the season, Roldan was back in his own genre, and this time it would steal America’s heart. Paired up with all-star dancer Allison Holker, the two would learn and perform a contemporary routine choreographed by Travis Wall. The routine was the story of Wall and his relationship with his mother, as he’s taken care of her through hardships. “As soon as I started the rehearsal for that routine, something just clicked inside of me and with Allison and Travis,” he said. “He walked into the room and told us his story and how he wanted it to be portrayed on stage, and it was a gift and a blessing to me.”
But for Roldan, it meant so much more than just another contemporary routine. Having gone through something similar with his own mother, he related to that piece in a way that would alter his life. “I’ve never really connected to something so much that has changed me as a person,” Roldan said. “It was this moment in time I’ll never forget.”
Being on the show isn’t about the competition, according to Roldan. “I look at it as being a friend of other dancers, and being able to share this experience with them is amazing,” he said. “Seeing someone go home each week is like watching a family member go home.” Roldan made it to the finale, along with two other competitors. He didn’t win, but the experience changed his life.
Roldan plans on staying in the L.A. area and pursuing his dance career, as well as singing and acting, although he’s willing to go where the wind takes him. “I’m not set on a plan. If I find something and an opportunity, I’ll take it and run with it,” he said. To everyone supporting Roldan from the area, he says, “I could not be here without you.”
Tap dancer from Thousand Oaks
When most people think of female dancers, they think of graceful little girls with pink tutus and their hair tied in a tight bun. Not often do they associate dance with tomboy. But for Melinda Sullivan, that’s exactly what it was. “When I was 4, my mom started me in a local studio doing ballet, tap combination,” she said. “I hated the ballet, but I loved the tap dancing because I was a tomboy. I still kind of am a tomboy.”
Growing up in the Ventura County area, mainly Thousand Oaks, Sullivan took classes at different studios around the area. “I just hopped around,” she said. “All of them were very important in my training. My parents always encouraged me to take what I could from every teacher and become well-rounded because each teacher has their style.”
Although she learned many different styles of dance, tap was always her one true love. “Tap dance is really grounded, and that fit more my personality than the pink tutus and classical music,” she said. “I love making music with my feet. I love that I can be really loud.”
Through tap, Sullivan became hooked on a style of tapping called rhythm tap, which is used as more of an instrument than a style of dance. “You work with jazz musicians and you understand in that music form, you’re playing music and training with them,” she said.
Sullivan auditioned for So You Think You Can Dance earlier this year, becoming only the third tapper to make it past the Vegas rounds. “There have been tap dancers on the show, but since this year was top 11, I am the farthest a tap dancer has gone,” said Melinda. What meant the most to Melinda was being able to represent tappers across America.
“It truly is an American art form. The history of tap dance and the way it was formed is a combination of European and English Irish step dancing and African rhythms. That sort of American melting pot parallels the story of America.”
Although she was sent off the show after just three weeks, Sullivan still remembers the experience fondly. “It was fun working with all the different choreographers,” she said. “I had the opportunity to be out of my style in all three weeks, since tap isn’t in the categories.” One of her favorite routines was a group routine during a results show, choreographed by Wade Robson. “He’s really articulate and knows exactly what he wants, and I hope to work with him again.”
The jive would prove to be Sullivan’s toughest dance on the show. “I just remember that we had seven hours straight of rehearsal the first day, when we learn the routine. The choreographer said, “Yeah, you’ll probably get this knee injury that’s really typical of the jive.’ And of course, a couple minutes later, I’m feeling it,” she said. “But it was really fun and Pasha was great to work with.”
Sullivan plans to stay in the L.A. area, pursuing a job as an actor, as well as continuing to teach tap dance classes. “That’s really important to me since it’s a dying dance form,” she said. In addition to pursuing her own career paths, Sullivan was asked to lead the warm-ups at L.A.’s National Dance Day, where she also gave the crowd a short tap show.
Sullivan’s advice to aspiring dancers or choreographers offers a challenge: “Constantly be creating, because it’s like a muscle, you have to use it. So it’s really important to keep creating whatever you feel you’re passionate about.”