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Reality check 

Achieving celebrity status is the new hallmark of the American dream

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"I didn't know who Da Brat was, but I said to her assistant, 'She's so beautiful,'" Jaxson recalls. "So her assistant took me to meet her, and I was like, 'Wow -- big celebrity -- Mariah Carey's best friend.'"

At this point, the hyperreality of Jaxson's life comes into focus. He says that his mother, upon learning that her son had come out on national TV, promptly kicked him out of the house. He found himself bunking with strangers in Atlanta. "This was a real down time for me. I was going through a lot of heartache, but I was determined to get my name out there," he says.

Getting his name out there meant appearing on more talk shows. Using his "Sally" and "Forgive or Forget" experiences, Jaxson began working the talk circuit, he says, appearing on Roseanne Barr's short-lived show and going on "The Ricki Lake Show" several times.

"I basically made my living by appearing on talk shows," Jaxson says. Though he refuses to divulge how much he was paid for his appearances, citing a confidentiality contract, he will say that the shows flew him to New York and paid for his hotel room each time. And each appearance on "Ricki Lake" became more and more surreal.

"My roommate played the role of my stepfather, who supposedly had a problem with me being gay. And each episode would advance the plot a little. In one episode I came out, then in the next episode he came out, in the next episode I had turned bisexual, it was just always something," he says.

Beth Jaffe, spokeswoman for "The Ricki Lake Show," maintains that the producers did not know the man playing Jaxson's stepfather was a fake. The show employs fact-checkers to verify the credentials of its guests, she says.

On the last episode, Jaxson even appeared in drag. They paid well for that one, he says, but will not reveal a number.

It's the sort of thing you might suspect when you watch some of the trashier daytime offerings, that these guests can't possibly be for real. Stories get ever more outlandish, creating a kind of hyperreality that's no longer a mere reflection of everyday problems but a freakish exaggeration of dysfunction. Umberto Eco would call this "the Absolute Fake," where the simulation becomes so extreme, you forget that it was ever supposed to be real in the first place. Think World Wrestling Entertainment or Disneyland.

To Jaxson, whether it was real or not didn't really matter, so long as he was getting paid. He speaks of the sham with a matter-of-fact candor, an inherent attitude of doing what it takes to survive. Did he fear that these lies would hurt his career in the long run?

"People would see the show and they knew it was fake, but they wouldn't even remember," he says. "They just knew they had seen me. So I kind of used all that publicity by saying I was on 'Ricki Lake' and not going into any detail. ... I was using it to my benefit."

You might say that Jaxson, in turn, was being used by the talk shows, a poor kid from the sticks sucked into a greedy New York media machine. But the question of exploitation is a sticky one, with no real saints on either side.

Andy Dehnart, who maintains the reality TV Web log, says that in the early days of the reality boom guests were arguably being exploited, but that case is harder to prove these days. "Beyond the first or second seasons of 'The Real World,' I think it's safe to assume that those people who were applying generally knew what they were getting into. And if they didn't, well, it's not like the information wasn't available to them, with some exceptions."

Admittedly, going on "The Real World" isn't exactly the same as doing a series of spots on "Ricki." But they aren't that different, either.

Jaxson's story gets cloudy when it comes to corroborating some of his claims. While Jaffe confirms that Jaxson was on "Ricki" three times (he says five times), his appearance on other shows are difficult to verify since they're no longer on the air. Asked to produce tapes of his appearances, Jaxson says the tapes are either broken or were lost in a house fire last year.

On Jaxson's website he boasts that his show "The Edge" won a Southern Regional Emmy Award for "Best Cable TV Host." But that category doesn't exist, says Tomi Funderburke, executive administrator for the Atlanta chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which oversees the awards.

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