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My Brush with Jeff Probst

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I was in the locker room at my gym, wearing a towel and putting lotion on, when the phone rang. And because I recognized my book publicist's number -- despite the rules -- I picked it up.

She was excited and talking fast. "I'm sorry..." I said, moving toward a corner that I thought might have better reception. "You got a call from Jeff Provost?" I repeated. "Who's Jeff Provost?"

Then the line went dead.

Fifteen minutes later, from my car, I dialed her back. "Not Jeff Provost, Jeff Propes," she said. Or rather, that's what I thought she said.

"OK, who's Jeff Propes?" I asked.

She didn't sigh; she's too sweet for that. But I know she wanted to. "Jeff Probst. P-R-O-B-S-T. You don't know who I'm talking about, do you?"

"Not at all." I wasn't bothered because this sort of thing happens to me all the time.

Jeff Probst was on Survivor, my incredibly patient publicist explained. Did I know Survivor? I'd heard of it, I told her proudly. I thought it was a TV show that had something to do with an island, but I didn't know any more than that.

Well he, this host (why there's a host on an island, I never did quite figure out...) was starting a talk show and his people had called her. They read my essay in ELLE, "On Growing Up Ugly," and wanted to know if I'd consider being one of their first-week guests.

"Why?" I asked and I'll admit I was wary. "Are people going to yell and throw chairs? Because I have to tell you, that's just not my thing."

She assured me that the press materials promised a "positive, upbeat" experience, much like Oprah -- which, you'll be relieved to know, is a name I recognize and a show I've actually watched once or twice. So I said fine, I'll call.

The number my publicist supplied put me in touch with a young woman I'll call Amy. Here's how young: When I mentioned that my oldest son was born in 1988 she said, "Awesome, me too!" Amy had read my piece in ELLE and loved it. She thought it was perfect for a show they were putting together on different ways of looking at beauty. The girl was lovely, really. And I thought: Maybe being on this Jeff Propes show wouldn't be too bad.

We had a short, simple conversation about logistics. Could I fly out to Los Angeles the following week, tape an interview, and return to Minneapolis the next day? Yes, I said, that would be fine. Amy described the show and its host, whom she informed me was a "totally awesome guy." Then, just before we got off the phone, she cautioned me not to cancel any plans just yet. "This isn't for sure until our senior producer says she wants you," Amy said.

That afternoon, I was in the middle of writing a book review when the phone rang again. It was Amy's superior, "Jane" calling. She'd heard great things about me from Amy; could we take a few minutes to talk?

An hour and a half later, we had covered every topic I've ever written about and a few that I haven't because even I think some things are of- limits. When did I first know I was ugly? Did my parents tell me I was? Did I think my children were attractive or ugly? Did they ever get teased? What about my daughter? Was she, perhaps, overweight or in some other way not quite right? Did she get teased at school? Had I ever tried to change her? How was my marriage? Were we well-matched? Did I ever think my husband might leave me? Would I try plastic surgery in order to get him to stay?

I liked Jane immensely. She was excitable and funny and apologized several times for asking intrusive questions. When I demurred she was instantly understanding. She told me again and again that I was funny and articulate and would make a fabulous guest.

"I couldn't believe it when I saw your picture," she said as we were wrapping up our marathon conversation. "Frankly, I don't think you're ugly at all."

I said what I always do when someone tells me that, how I appreciate their kindness and I actually don't think of myself as ugly. That this was the word ELLE used in the headline, though it appeared only once in my essay and then it was in reference to my self-image as a child. I am non-traditional-looking, I told her -- not a beauty by society's standards. I've encountered some cruelty, even as an adult. But certain men (including my husband) have always been deeply attracted by the way I look and in middle-age, I think I'm actually MORE comfortable with my face and body than most of the women I know.

She congratulated me on my healthy perspective and told me how much she looked forward to meeting me. She also asked me to send photos: of myself, of John and me, also family pictures of me with my kids. By the time I hung up, John and I had to order takeout because it was nearly 7 o'clock.

Near ten central standard time, the phone rang yet again and I took it into my office. This time, a woman with a clipped voice introduced herself as Jeff Probst's senior producer. I truly cannot recall her name so I'll call her Trudy. The first thing she told me was that she hadn't read my essay, she didn't have time. And she hated to ask but could I summarize it? So I took a breath and began.

"I'm sorry to be blunt," she cut in after about four sentences, "but I have to ask you straight out: Do you think you're ugly?"

"Well, no," I said.

"I don't either!" she shouted. "I've been looking at your photos and wondering why we're even talking to you. Because there's no story here. I mean I'm really glad for you that you're happy with who you are and you love your husband and all that. But that's not what daytime TV viewers are looking for. They need something really unusual to get their attention. You're just too... attractive. And normal. I'm sorry."

"OK," I said. I really just wanted this to stop. I was tired of talking and it was late and my hand hurt from holding the phone and I wanted to get into bed with that husband who loves me too normally and too much.

But Trudy was audibly frustrated. "What I can't figure out," she said, "is why this even got the attention it did. You're an average woman who grew up feeling freakish and came to terms with her looks over time. That's the universal story, right? That's my story. I'm four-foot-eleven, hardly a super model, so I get it. But it seems to me all you did -- really -- was just state very articulately and in a way people could understand what most women feel."

"Yes, um." Why was I suddenly feeling guilty for wasting her time? "Telling a universal or essentially human story from a specific point of view... That's sort of the purpose of an essay." (But apparently not, I resisted saying, positive, upbeat daytime talk TV.)

"Oh." Trudy actually sounded slightly sad. "Well, I'm really sorry this didn't work out."

We said our goodbyes and I walked out to the living room where my husband was nearly asleep with his book. "I'm not going on Jeff Probst," I told him.

"Thank God," he said and took my hand.