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(photo credit: Courtesy of Keshet)
Who remembers Eytan Schwartz? More people than you might think. As winner of last year's Shagrir (Ambassador) reality show (known as the Israeli version of Donald Trump's Apprentice) Schwartz has parlayed his 15 minutes of fame into continued media attention and a burgeoning career as an independent consultant to businessmen and politicians who speak in the US.
Walking down the street in Jerusalem prior to his interview with The Jerusalem Post, Schwartz is spotted by about 20 teenagers trailing a tour guide. "Hashagrir!" one shouts. "Eytan!" another chimes in. Within seconds the group breaks into applause chanting "Hashagrir, Hashagrir." Schwartz casually nods to them, and continues on his way. For him, it seems, it's just another day as one of Israel's most recognizable pseudo-celebrities. One might think the attention would still be a novelty, given that he's only just returned from a year of virtual anonymity in the States. Apparently not. "I do still get attention pretty regularly," Schwartz admits as we sit down to lunch.
Last year's Ambassador took reality television in Israel in a new, and refreshingly less trashy, direction. It focused young, intelligent people who were ambitious, eloquent, and passionate about their country. For the first time, we could see fellow Israelis competing in an effort to promote Israel and flaunt their Zionism without an ounce of cynicism. Audiences reacted enthusiastically to the glamorous challenges; one involved creating a commercial for MTV, in another they were questioned by Paula Zahn on CNN.
The highly rated show has come under scrutiny, however, for the false impression it may have given viewers, and people have begun to talk about the "reality" being promised by this reality show.
After being named "Ambassador," Schwartz was sent to the US for a year to speak on university campuses. He organized his own events, managed his own publicity, and attempted to draw an audience that might otherwise be apathetic about Israel. He crashed in dorm rooms, slept on pullout couches, and sometimes found himself speaking to groups of fewer than five people ("I competed with pizza night and sorority parties")
"The title 'The Ambassador' is more sexy than 'the guy who will go around campuses speaking about Israel," Schwartz admits when trying to explain the discrepancy between the glitz and glamour of the show and the reality of its prize. "The show didn't promise me anything, but I think viewers got a different impression. Audiences assumed that I was the ambassador to the UN, that I might be negotiating, I don't know, the Iranian nuclear status. And that's not what I did. If that disappointed some people, what can I say?"
Now that the relatively mundane nature of the winner's prize is clear, audiences have begun to express increased skepticism. This season's show, which started only four weeks ago, is already garnering mixed reviews.
Schwartz is somewhat reluctant to talk about his impressions of this season, though he claims not be involved with it in any way. After winning the title and being the focus of local media attention, he has learned to be evasive, diplomatic, and often very vague. When asked about the transparency of this season's judges' decisions, he opts not to answer. It's only once we begin to talk about group dynamics that Schwartz lets down his guard somewhat:
"This season seems to be much more about the ugly personal stuff. The disputes. It's much harsher this year. It's much more out there... It's more about the petty stuff, the fights, the emotions."
Do you think the producers at Keshet are responsible for creating that atmosphere?
"Rona, the one who burst into tears in our season, recently wrote about the show saying if the producers want to manipulate the contestants emotionally, they should be prepared to pay for their therapy afterwards.
"Look, I think people are more aware going into the second season of what to anticipate. You'd expect them to be more mellow, but the reality is the opposite. It's hard for me to say why.
"Rona may be saying that these people are being pressed or manipulated. Obviously she didn't come across well on the show, and she didn't like that. I know that her sobbing became a ring tone. It's very embarrassing, and she's a good person at the end of the day. But on a reality show you never know what to expect."
So the producers may be pressing the contestants to behave in certain ways?
"You need one winner and maybe two or three other good contestants to create real competition, and then everybody else who isn't going to win. You don't need 14 peopleâ€¦some of the people on our season were very good and could have won, Mehereta could have won, Tzvika could have won-he was very good with audiences-but there were people on the show that couldn't have won. They just didn't have the qualifications. How many people have the ability to look at themselves in that imaginary mirror and say, 'I was brought into the show so that people could make fun of me.'
Not everyone had an equal chance. Sometimes its cruel to see how people are brought to a show, like the model show [Dugmaniot], because of certain things they say. If you want to represent the country and you don't know when the Six Day War took place, you should recognize that maybe you're not in the right place."
What about the fact that certain contestants are being criticized for their 'team player' attitudes?
"I do agree that when you're in front of an audience, they relate to you they don't relate to a team. My job [with Israel at Heart] was not about being a team player. [When I was on the show] I got my team members angry because I took command. You don't have to be a team player if you're the only one who knows what he's doing and everyone else is a completeâ€¦uhâ€¦novice. There is something about that claim, especially in Israel with a military mentality where a team player claim is a relevant one in the Israeli psyche.
"When Abba Eban stood in the UN, he was doing it by himself. It was him and his brilliance. If your job is standing in front of an audience and answering questions, you need to be able to do that. If your job is selling packages to Eilat, then you do have to work as a team. I spend a lot more time talking to audiences than selling packages to Eilat."
So what's your general feeling about the contestants this season?
"I think they're more impressive than our team was. But I get mixed reviews from people.
"Ultimately, if you go on a reality show it's because you want to be on television, if you want to contribute to your country, you don't wait for them to come up with a reality show. There are other ways to do it. To say otherwise would be pretentious and wrong... You can go to the Misrad Hahutz, you can to the Sochnut, you can go to the Mossad, you can go 100 other places. You want to be on television. And contribute to your country. That's ok. That's the culture we live in, where being on TV is something desirable."
To read more about Schwartz, visit his recently launched Web site, www.eytanschwartz.com.