"Big Brother" houseguest GinaMarie Zimmerman had a clear goal after being cast for the latest edition of the CBS reality show, which isolates several contestants from the outside world for an entire summer. Asked what she would do if the series made her famous, she replied, "I would use my personality and popularity to be in the spotlight and make me a household name."
As the reality series wraps up its 15th season Wednesday, Zimmerman may realize part of her dream, but not in the way she may have imagined. She's the last woman standing, one of three finalists from a field of 16 contestants, vying for a $500,000 grand prize to be awarded at the end of the 90-minute live finale.
If she claims the money, the beauty pageant coordinator from Staten Island will certainly need it. The 32-year-old, unbeknown to her since she's still in isolation, has lost her job for racially inflammatory remarks made on the show.
Zimmerman, who is white, made a number of controversial comments on the show. Among many other insensitive remarks, she used the N-word in describing welfare as insurance for black people.
Even though CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves has called the statements by her and another "Big Brother" contestant, Aaryn Gries, "appalling," if Zimmerman is voted the winner by a jury of her ousted housemates it will be an awkward moment for the network.
"I'm sure the show wanted to have people just being themselves, but I'm also sure they didn't want those people making racist remarks," said J. Fred MacDonald, a media historian who has studied the portrayal of African Americans on television. "It does kind of give CBS a black eye."
Added Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University: "If she wins, she wouldn't be the first person who's not exactly a role model to be victorious in a reality show. These shows are not looking for models of good behavior. This show is a chemistry experiment, and it's cast to create explosions. But they probably didn't want it to be so over-the-top."
The controversy hasn't hurt the show's ratings. As in previous summers, "Big Brother" was a reliable ratings performer for CBS, pulling in an average weekly audience of 7.2 million viewers.
Producers of "Big Brother" realize the season's possible outcome may not sit well with some viewers. While emphasizing that they don't condone the behavior of Zimmerman and Gries, the show's executives maintain they have been responsible in presenting the controversy.
One of Zimmerman's most damaging moments came during a confrontation between Gries and an African American contestant, Candice Stewart. During the fight, Gries flipped over Stewart's mattress and began taunting her, using an insulting stereotypical accent. When the argument escalated further, Zimmerman rushed to Gries' defense, got in Stewart's face, and dared her to say something. "You want the black to come out?" Zimmerman said in a challenging tone.
"What happened this season is unfortunate, but at its heart, this show is a daring social experiment," said Allison Grodner, an executive producer who has been with the series since its second season. "It's real and raw, and it's not always pretty."
As for the intense media coverage of the show this summer, Grodner said, "We would have rather not had those headlines."
Gries and Stewart will be on the jury, which has been sequestered in another location and will have no idea of the public fallout from this season's edition until it is debriefed after the broadcast. The other two finalists are Andrew Herren, a professor, and Spencer Clawson, a railroad conductor.
"The winner is determined by their peers," said Grodner. "They will be voting on the experience with GinaMarie inside the house, and not on the impact outside the house. The jury doesn't have the perspective that viewers have."
As in previous editions of "Big Brother," the houseguests this season entered a custom-made residence equipped with cameras in every room.
They have no privacy — their every move is monitored 24-hours a day by a webcam — and they are not allowed any information or communication from the outside. The goal is to stay in the house the longest.
Asked how the furor over "Big Brother" might affect future editions, Grodner said the show always strives to have a racially diverse cast, and "we look for the best people."
As for whether potential participants would be asked about their racial views, she said that though it may be part of the interview process, "people are always on their best behavior. It's not like we're looking for those kinds of contestants."
When: 9:30 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: Not rated