They've built their brand on polygamists, pot dealers, gypsies and toddlers in tiaras, and now TLC is shining the reality TV spotlight on yet another controversial corner of humanity: The Amish and Mennonite communities.
In "Breaking Amish" (premieres Sun., Sept. 9, 10 p.m. ET on TLC), cameras capture the adventures of five members of the Amish community, ranging in age from 20 to 32, as they make the choice to leave rural Pennsylvania to move to New York City. This is beyond Rumspringa, the Amish tradition which allows kids to experience life beyond the church around the age of 16 -- this is an adult decision to leave the only life they've ever known, possibly forever, and it carries some very real consequences with it. (Watch a trailer for the show above.)
At the Television Critics Association press tour, I caught up with two of the women who went to live in New York City on the show "for the experience." Sabrina is 26 and the cast's only Mennonite, while Kate is 21, a bishop's daughter who has dreams of being a model. As Kate explained, "I honestly wanted to go to New York because it has so many opportunities. I wanted to find out what was out there."
Sabrina, who was adopted and still struggles with her own cultural identity, was looking for more of an "anywhere but here" escape. "Really all I knew about New York was the fact that it was a city ... I was like, 'Sure, I'll go!' I had no idea it was that big. It was overwhelming."
The pair are still shooting the show's nine one-hour episodes, and couldn't say whether they've moved back to Pennsylvania with their families or if they've stayed independent, in New York City or anywhere else. (Although it should be noted they were wearing their traditional Amish garb and little-to-no makeup.) But they did answer a few questions about their decisions to leave -- on a reality TV show, no less -- their families' reactions, the things they loved most about the freedom and the moments of craziness they'd rather people not see.
What was the community reaction like when you all said you were leaving?
Kate: "Honestly ... "
Sabrina: "They were unhappy."
Kate: "Very unhappy."
I'm assuming that's putting it nicely?
Sabrina: "Yeah. I think it was a stretch for them ... still wanting us to be the way the way they wanted us to be, because they're at home, and they can't do anything about it. And they don't know -- sometimes you're more scared of the unknown. If you're actually there, it's not as scary, but thinking about it and not being there, for them, would be a lot more horrible."
Kate: "I know their imaginations probably went a little crazy -- they had no idea what was going on. You immediately think the worst."
Sabrina: "But they're not so much afraid of the things you might do -- they're more afraid for your soul, and they're afraid that if you do this, you're going to go to hell. They're worried about eternity, they're not just worried about New York."
You all got to watch TV for the first time, which is crazy considering you were shooting a TV show of your own. Were there any shows that you really loved?
Kate: "I don't watch television that often, but I like shows like 'CSI: Miami' and 'NCIS,' shows that I feel like I'm actually kind of learning something." So no reality shows? "Um, I don't really watch that many reality shows, no."
Sabrina: "I loved watching 'The Voice' because I love music ... and I love Blake Shelton. I think he's cool and so funny. I also really like the Kardashians. I get a kick out of just watching them spaz out all the time."
[Laughs.] That's amazing. OK, so if you were to go back -- or if you have already -- what's the one thing from being in New York and living on your own that you would miss the most?
Sabrina: "I think I would miss being able to look good all the time. You feel so different in nice clothing, and with your hair and makeup done all the time. You feel a lot better about yourself. I mean, everybody likes to look good."
Kate: "I think, for me, it's the freedom to be yourself. There's a lot more freedom in expressing yourself and being who you truly are. I think that's the one thing that I would miss most."
What's the one thing you want viewers to take away from this show?
Sabrina: "The biggest thing for me is I would like people just to feel comfortable in themselves, and be OK with who they are, because when it all comes down to it, who you are as a person is what matters. What comes from the inside is what matters. You have to be happy with yourself before you'll ever be able to make other people happy."
Kate: "I want people to realize how fortunate they are to have the opportunities that they have ... there's a lot of things that we aren't able to do in the Amish and Mennonite communities that other people take for granted. Simple things like having electricity and driving a car ... I don't think they realize how fortunate they are to have those opportunities."
Is there anything you hope doesn't make it on the air?
Kate: "I think all the crazy parts about me are probably going to make it! [Laughs.] There's a lot of crazy parts ... [but] they're almost the most important parts because they're the parts we learn from. If we learn from them, maybe the viewers can learn from them, too."
Sabrina: "Jeremiah's crazy, I'm crazy, Kate's crazy -- we're all crazy! Put five crazy people together and what do you get? Crazy."
Do you regret the decision to leave the community and do this show?
Kate: "It definitely taught me a lot. I learned a lot of things about myself doing this show ... things that I never even realized about myself."
Sabrina: "I wouldn't change it. I wouldn't do anything differently. I think it was a good experience for us, and it helped us grow as people. I think it made us all better people in the end."
"Breaking Amish" premieres Sun., Sept. 9, 10 p.m. ET on TLC.