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You think it's easy to be 'Weakest Link'? Wrong

Wednesday, June 20, 2001

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

There you are, screaming at the TV as contestant after contestant on NBC's game show "Weakest Link" gives moronic answers to what you consider simple questions.

Donna Paules, 31, of Weirton, W.Va., a customer service representative for Signode Metals in Oakdale, thought the talent coordinators would get a good laugh out of some of her test answers -- she figured she missed about three. Forty minutes after the test ended, Thomas called her name as one of the 15 people picked for the second round. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

And when red-haired, black-clad host Anne Robinson, a cross between a no-nonsense schoolmarm and a dominatrix, berates those losers to within an inch of their self-respect, well, you just can't help but smirk -- and feel superior.

Who hasn't felt like that?

For anyone who has, then the auditions yesterday and today for "Weakest Link" at the Omni William Penn, Downtown, seemed a godsend.

For a few -- those who did well -- they were.

For most, the auditions proved to be a descent into game-show hell. You could almost hear Robinson's dismissive, parting jab, "You are the weakest link. Goodbye!"

At least the misery had ample company. The "chain of fools" -- as Robinson might snipe had she been present -- who didn't cut it yesterday included college students, pharmacists, massage therapists, ministers, accountants, executives, lawyers, college and government administrators, stay-at-home moms, computer technicians and, yes, a journalist.

And hundreds more will fail today.

That's because of their scores on a 20-question test on pop culture, literature, science, vocabulary and geography. Or because their lives, as detailed on a three-page application, weren't interesting enough. Or because their personalities didn't shine when given the opportunity to stand, say their names and what they do.

Or all of the above.

The show combines the quiz show elements of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" with the tribal council judgment of "Survivor." Each week, eight contestants play as a team, answering general knowledge questions from Robinson. The top prize is $1 million. At the end of each round, players vote off the contestant who they think performed worst -- the weakest link. The last two remaining contestants compete for a better score in a final round to determine the night's winner.

"We're casting a show. It is casting," said Brad Thomas, one of the show's talent coordinators who came here from New Brunswick, N.J., and will move on to Chicago and Detroit for more auditions.

"The test matters -- it is a hard test -- but so does what they say on their applications and so do their personalities and what they do for a living. We have to have a mix of everybody."

Eclectic would certainly describe the 120 people who made up the first group to fill the Omni's Riverboat Room yesterday. They wore business suits and tattoos, ball caps and dreadlocks, piercings and Hawaiian shirts, high heels and sandals.

Barbara Orison, 40, of Burgettstown, a self-employed screen printer, came with her daughter, LaReina, a sophomore at St. Francis College. Taking no chances of being shut out, they arrived at 5:30 a.m. for the 10 a.m. audition.

No one was there when they arrived. Even after going to breakfast, they still were first in the room, whiling away the hours playing tic-tac-toe.

Next in was Andrew Santelli, 18, of O'Hara, an industrial engineering student at Georgia Tech, who explained his presence this way: "I've always had an incredible trove of useless information."

By 9:15 a.m., all 120 seats were filled. Additional contestants were asked to wait in the hall until the next session, an hour later. Each hour, for eight hours, another 120 hopefuls would go through the process.

Financial adviser Angelo Cilia of Jefferson Hills, there "just for the fun of it," said she felt confident--sort of.

"I think I do pretty good in my living room," he said, laughing. "But I'm sure they want a certain look, too."

Does he have that look?

"If they want a 46-year-old, short, fat Italian guy, then I'm it."

Donna Paules, 31, of Weirton, W.Va., a customer service representative for Signode Metals in Oakdale, thought the talent coordinators would get a good laugh out of some of her test answers -- she figured she missed about three. Forty minutes after the test ended, Thomas called Paules' name as one of the 15 people picked for the second round.

Also moving to round two was Leigh Koenig, 28, of Greenfield, coordinator of student community service activities at Duquesne University, who felt confident before the test because, he said, "I know a lot of useless trivia."

Doug Punt, 22, of Martinsburg, W.Va., a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, said he thought he'd come to the audition "and see what happens." He was one of the chosen 15, all of whom were taken into an adjoining room as the 105 others were thanked and bade adieu.

Inside that room, talent coordinator Matt Vener laughed and joked and, like others from the production company, did his best to make the now even-more-nervous auditioners feel less so.

"It's just a game show," he said, laughing. He snapped photos of the contestants and explained that they would participate in a videotaped interview and mock show that would be sent to producers in Los Angeles who would make the final picks.

Thomas said he hoped to leave the city with up to 200 people on videotape, "but we could have 100 people we love and the producers find only 10 people they like."

Those chosen will be flown to L.A. in late July for taping.

During the mock game, in which each contestant was asked two questions, Koenig and Paules missed both, and Punt got one right.

"I blew it on my interview," Punt said. "It was a little harder than I thought it would be."

Koenig agreed.

"There's pressure when you're totally on the spot. But I think I would be a good contestant because I missed both questions, and no one voted me off."

Paules couldn't make that claim -- her "teammates" voted her off. But that was just fine with her, because, as in the real show, she got to stare in the camera afterward and give her reaction to being ousted. This, Paules figured, gave her more face time and a better shot at being picked.

They left the room with smiles on their faces, walking past 120 other hopefuls who would soon learn whether they had the "Weakest Link" mettle.

Thursday, June 14, 2001

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