Looking for love on reality TV
BEN FLAJNIK, left, and HEATHER POND are on separate reality TV shows this summer.
Two former Sonomans are looking for love in the most unconventional of places: reality television shows.
Ben Flajnik, 28, is opening his heart on "The Bachelorette," while Heather Pond, 26, is tapping into her adventurous side on NBC's "Love in the Wild." Both shows are part of the summer television line-up and both Flajnik and Pond seem in it to win it, making it through round after round of eliminations.
For those out of the reality TV loop, "The Bachelorette" is the hit ABC show in which one beautiful woman searches for the man of her dreams from a pool of 24 single men, narrowing the field by eliminating one guy each week until she has her sweetheart. Flajnik is one of three men still standing, with the finale set to air Monday, Aug. 1, at 8 p.m.
"Love in the Wild" is a new offering in the NBC summer line-up that combines romance and adventure. Ten single men and 10 single women are sent to a resort in Costa Rica where they are paired up to compete in challenges during the day, such as building rafts and navigating crocodile-infested waters, while they spend their nights making romantic connections. Each show ends with a "Couples Choice Ceremony," in which participants decide if they want to stick it out another day with their partner or look for love with someone else. The odd man and woman no one selects are sent packing. It's "Survivor" meets "Temptation Island" but no one has to eat bugs, at least not yet. The show airs Wednesday at 10 p.m.
On Monday's episode of "The Bachelorette," America got a glimpse of Sonoma when Flajnik brought Ashley Hebert home to meet his mom and sister at their East Side home and sample what life might be like if she selects the local winemaker. Flajnik operates Evolve Winery with his partners and longtime friends Mike Benziger and Danny Fay, sourcing grapes from all over Northern California and producing the wines at Glen Ellen's Benziger Family Winery.
He took Hebert to Benziger to sample wine and enjoy a picnic that included cheese from Vella Cheese Company and bread from Basque Boulangerie. In the first episode of the show, Flajnik gave Hebert a bottle of Evolve's 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, which just earned a rating of 89 points from Wine Spectator.
"She really liked it," Flajnik said, adding that since the show began airing, sales of all Evolve wines, specifically the sauvignon blanc, have increased dramatically. "We have a good problem of trying to meet the demand."
Benziger added that while sales in California have been strong, their national and even international sales have blossomed. "We've always made great wines and it's always sold well, but it's nice to have that national exposure," he said. "Now our website is inundated with orders from all over the place."
While the show has been good for business, Flajnik said that's not why he did it. His sister signed him up for consideration online, and he went along with the audition process more out of amusement than anything, agreeing to countless interviews and screen tests, not to mention drug, blood and STD testing.
"I never really thought they'd pick me," he said. But the rugged winemaker with rock star hair had the perfect mix of charisma and sincerity that made not just producers, but America, fall for his charm. Throngs of female fans share their desires on the show's fan page, and many are already hoping that if Hebert doesn't pick Flajnik, he will return as the heartthrob on the next season of "The Bachelor." When asked if he'd consider returning to reality TV, this time as the leading man with 24 hopefuls vying for his attention, he laughed it off with an, "I don't know."
He said the experience has been "therapeutic," allowing him to tap into the emotional side he had all but shutdown after his father passed away. He explained that the show provided an avenue for him to explore his feelings, not just about love, but about the person he wants to be.
"After talking through it all day, every day, I got clarity," he said. "I feel like I really kind of found myself."
For Pond, a PR rep in San Francisco, she saw "Love in the Wild" as a chance to have an escapade while also possibly meeting some cute guys.
"I heard it was an adventure dating show and you'll get to go somewhere exotic, so it was a pretty easy decision," said the striking brunette beauty.
She said her boss put her up to auditioning in San Francisco and she and a friend went "as a joke. I didn't think it was really going to happen until I got my plane ticket to Costa Rica," she added.
Pond was initially paired up with a not-so-likely match named (coincidentally) Ben, who quickly established himself as the hot-head of the show, known for screaming at his partners during the challenges and generally being abrasive. Pond said her first impression was not great, especially when she found out she would have to share a bed with whomever she was partnered, something she was not told in advance.
"I was completely shocked, I thought 'Oh boy, my family is going to love this,'" she laughed, adding that she opted to sleep with a pillow between her and Ben the first night. "He was really offended by that."
Serendipity struck during the first Couples Choice Ceremony when Heather selected Minnesotan Miles to be her partner, and the pair developed quick chemistry that viewers have also fallen in love with, made obvious when the duo took first place in the cutest couple contest on the show's fan page. During their first challenge together, Miles demonstrated his compassion by talking Pond, who's afraid of heights, over a rickety bridge high in the mountains. Later he surprised her with a private picnic and viewers could easily conclude that, if these two stick together, they could make it to the end.
When asked what the best part of the experience was, Pond coyly said, "You might want to ask me that later, when I can talk about more than the first few episodes," perhaps implying that her time with Miles lead to more than just a reality TV romance.
The worst part of the experience? "Definitely the bat cave," she said, referring to a dark cave filled with flapping bats that contestants had to make their way through.
Both Pond and Flajnik said after filming wrapped, their lives pretty much went back to normal, but acknowledged that they do get recognized from time to time. "It doesn't feel any different, I just take a few more pictures," Flajnik said.
Both live in San Francisco, but make frequent trips home. Flajnik to tend his business at Benziger and Pond to fill her sweet tooth. "I go home 'cause I need my chocolate fix," she laughed, adding that her parents, Heidi and Steve Pond, own the popular Plaza sweet shop, The Chocolate Cow.
When asked if it was really possible to find love in the confines of a reality show, with omnipresent cameras and producers pulling the strings, both Pond and Flajnik adamantly said "yes." Cut off from real life distractions, including television and the Internet, they said their shows provided a pathway to really get to know someone and have time to reflect what that person means to you. "It encourages your feelings and your emotions," Flajnik said.