Six months ago, when Dern entered his name into the all-powerful search engine, he would have been lucky to get a couple hundred hits, most of them tied to other Nate Derns out there in cyberspace. Now, such a self-indulgent activity yields around 200,000 hits.
Nonetheless, Dern, Harvard’s biggest reality-TV star, has learned a harsh lesson in the past few weeks: after the cameras go off, you’re just another face in the crowd.
A joint Social Anthropology and Religion concentrator and lead singer of Star Wars tribute band So Long Princess, Dern found sudden notoriety this winter thanks to his appearance on the third season of the reality television show “Beauty and the Geek.”
The series, a self-proclaimed “social experiment” crafted by none other than “Punk’d” star Ashton Kutcher, paired eight socially inept men with visually stimulating, intellectually lacking ladies. The couples were then pitted against each another in competition for a cash prize.
Dern, a self-proclaimed “introvert,” was solicited for the show by recruiters while flyering on campus last fall. “I never thought I would be on a reality TV show, never wanted to,” says Dern. “It just sort of fell into my lap, really.”
Dern has an endearing sense of humor, but he fully recognizes how much his popularity was contingent on the production of the show.
“They portrayed me very favorably,” he says. “On these shows, they want to have people that you like, and people that you don’t like. They try to create characters.”
FAKE BATTLES, REAL ROMANCES
Dern’s teammate, bikini model Cecille Gahr, was one such character. As the show’s villain, Gahr was depicted as little more than a bitchy blonde who at one point even went so far as to disown the show for its contrived and artificial nature.
Dern’s good-boy image deepened in the show’s finale, where Dern campaigned against his own team, largely to spite his teammate. In a climactic final speech that was highly critical of Gahr, Dern essentially offered the winning prize of $250,000 to contestants Alan D. “Scooter” Zackheim ’06 and Megan Hauserman. The tactic worked: Dern and Gahr walked away empty-handed.
“I’m happy that Scooter won. I think he deserved it,” says Dern. His teammate was predictably less thrilled by the outcome.
“She’s a little upset at me right now. We’ve spoken once,” he says of Gahr. “I’m hoping we’ll still be friends.”
But he’s quick to note that their conflict was largely a figment of the producers’ imaginations.
“Even though Cecille is portrayed negatively on the show, in some ways she’s the most honest one,” Dern says. “A lot of what Cecille said, I agreed with. It’s kind of contrived. Can something change your whole life in only eight weeks?”
As Dern himself once proclaimed on the show, it can. In addition to dramatics with Gahr, Dern engaged in a reality television show-mance with co-star and model/actress Jennylee Berns. The affair was, as you might expect, highly public, even featuring an onscreen kiss. When questioned about it, Dern only echoes disbelief.
“Can you believe it? I can’t believe it. I mean, who does that?” says Dern with competing tones of sheepishness and incredulity.
Shaking his head, he answers his own rhetorical question: “I mean...evidently I do.”
THE AGONY OF REALITY
The relationship has made several of his peers question the authenticity of his geekiness, he says.
“One criticism is that the producers chose me as, like, a plant, as someone who would be likable, who would look good after the makeover, and who maybe even would hook up with a girl,” he says. “Another thing is that I ‘tricked’ the producers to get on the show to promote myself.”
If the whole thing was a self-promotion tool, it hasn’t really worked.
In fact, “Beauty and the Geek” has barely affected Dern’s daily routine. For example, though Dern and Gahr performed with So Long Princess on the show, the band has garnered only transient attention.
“We get a lot of MySpace plays, or more than we did,” he says. “In the last seven weeks we’ve been over 50,000.”
Nevertheless, MySpace hits do not a successful career-launch make.
“No one’s asked us for a record deal. We’re trying to start a rumor that Pete Wentz from Fall Out Boy has contacted us,” he says, half-jokingly.
A BETTER WORLD?
With the show no longer serving as a distraction, Dern has turned his focus to his studies. His facial hair is getting longer, and his clothes have returned to a neon hue reminiscent of his pre-show days.
Last week, the last bits of glitter finally hit the floor. Dern fulfilled his final press obligations in Los Angeles, and attended a wrap party in Las Vegas with the rest of his former cast mates...minus one.
“Cecille actually decided to boycott,” Dern says.
Unfortunately for Dern, it would seem that Gahr isn’t the only woman with whom he’s fallen out of favor.
“JennyLee’s dating Frankie Muniz,” Dern adds.
But he sounds more amused than upset. “It adds to the absurdity.”
In general, however, Dern sounds somewhat defeated. “Now that it’s over there’s a weird feeling of hollowness or incompleteness,” he says. “It kind of knocked the wind out of me. I’m still catching my breath. I felt like I was on one trajectory the last three years at Harvard. This kind of threw a wrench in that and shook that up.”
Nevertheless, Dern says he still got a few boons out of the process. “It’s been a lot of time for reflection,” he says of his time on the show. “And I wear deodorant now.”
—Staff writer Nayeli E. Rodriguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.