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November 23, 2002 03:49pm
Picking up Steam at the Bunnyranch
Source: Moonlite Bunny Ranch
by: Steve Seidman

(LOS ANGELES, CA) -- Call it "Big Brother" meets "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." Just when it strains credulity to see how far ordinary people will go for 15 minutes of fame, and what the public will watch, HBO airs a documentary next month in which patrons of a Nevada brothel happily appear on camera negotiating and consorting with prostitutes.

And hardly an eyebrow is being raised as the major U.S. networks fall over themselves to bring ever more outlandish concepts to the airwaves.

TV courtship, matrimony and libido abound in such shows as "The Bachelor," "elimiDATE" and "Temptation Island." Contestants eat bugs and cover themselves in spiders in high-concept game shows like "Survivor" and "Fear Factor."

There are even new series in the works to choose a "people's" candidate for president and to let family members fight for the inheritance of a rich relative in prime time.

"We've created this population of people who just have this unbelievable urge for slobbering attention," said Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "It used to be you had to be good at something before you could get onto TV. Now ... If you simply sacrifice your privacy, and perhaps a bit of your dignity, there's a little room for everybody."

"Cathouse," a one-hour special that HBO will telecast after the season finale of its mob drama "The Sopranos (news - Y! TV)" on Dec. 8, takes viewers behind closed doors at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, where prostitution is legal. The film is part of HBO's "American Undercover" documentary series.

15 Minutes of Shame?

Amazingly for a business in which a premium is placed on confidentiality, nearly all the 50 some clients secretly filmed while haggling with the "working girls" of the Bunny Ranch signed consent forms allowing HBO to show them on screen.

Among them were a mother who brings her 22-year-old son to the ranch to lose his virginity, a married couple celebrating their 15th anniversary with a menage a trois, a widower who has gone without sex for two years and just wants to be cuddled, and a pimp who tries coaxing away one of the girls.

No X-rated sexual acts are shown. In fact, the four cameras hidden in each room were turned off before any of the girls or their customers consummated their business deals. What viewers will see is a mix of bargaining, seduction, provocative touching and nervous laughter, up through and including payment -- in advance -- to Madam Suzette.

Also caught on tape are the surprised reactions of the patrons when Suzette announces they've been filmed and are welcome to appear in a TV documentary. Producer-director Patti Kaplan said she was astonished that only three declined.

"It was completely unexpected," Kaplan told Reuters, adding that even in an era of anything-goes "reality" TV, she anticipated most patrons would be reluctant to appear on camera. After all, she said, "This is a whorehouse."

TV Awash in Outlandish Programs

She said it seems a logical progression from confessional "trash-talk" programs like "The Jerry (news - web sites) Springer Show" to such gonzo reality fare as the voyeuristic CBS hit "Big Brother" and the parade of wannabe brides on the notorious Fox special "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?"

"It's become so much a part of our culture, that people feel tremendous enthusiasm to be on television," Kaplan said. "They somehow stop thinking about what it is they're on television doing, and they just want to be a star."

Dennis Hof, owner of the Bunny Ranch since 1992, said that in the aftermath of President Bill Clinton's White House sex scandal and in the age of easy Internet access to hard-core porn, "We look very mainstream."

"And you throw in the factor of reality TV, and now people want that. It's an opportunity for people to have that 15 minutes of fame," he said.

Indeed, "Cathouse" is making its way to HBO as prime time finds itself awash in outlandish programs that capitalize on shameless exhibitionism and a thirst for instant celebrity. One of the biggest new hits on TV, ABC's "The Bachelor," has drawn a devoted, largely female audience by pitting a bevy of eager, young women against each other in a contest for the affections of an eligible, well-heeled hunk.

The show's success has made an overnight Hollywood titan out of producer Mike Fleiss, a cousin of former "Hollywood Madam" Heidi Fleiss, who said he doesn't see any sweeping shift in America's social mores. He attributes the proliferation of such "non-scripted" shows to their success as low-cost alternatives to traditional comedies and dramas.

Fleiss says what he is producing is "more compelling. We've watched fictionalized things on TV and the movies and ... As great as actors are, it's still not as real as real."

For his part, Hof sees the "Cathouse" documentary as a chance to promote his business and advance his cause, which he describes as "sanitizing vice."

"The United States has had a couple of hundred years to get rid of it, and it isn't going away," he said of the world's oldest profession. "It's big business. If we're going to do this, let's do it right." Brothels were legalized in some Nevada counties in 1972.

Besides Bunny Ranch patrons, the other "stars" of the documentary are the prostitutes who work there, notably Hof's girlfriend, Sunset Thomas, a centerfold model, porn star and inductee into the Adult Video Hall of Fame. At the other end of the spectrum is "Julia," a first- time working girl whose husband is home with the kids.

Thomas said she welcomed the mainstream exposure afforded by her appearance in the HBO special.

"It gives me a chance to be with my fans. It's a big fantasy for me to be with my fans," she said.

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