Even in our reboot-happy media world, 2003’s Joe Millionaire felt like a show that would be impossible to resurrect. Its premise, which told women that they were in a Bachelor-style romance competition to win the heart of a handsome multi-millionaire when the lead singleton was actually a construction worker who earned $19,000 a year, was openly mean. (It was also tough to replicate; for season two, the show headed to Europe for its cast of young women, now that America was in on the ruse.)
Still, the show is back, now in a gentler guise. On Fox’s Joe Millionaire: For Richer or Poorer, there are two eligible men, rather than one, and the contestants are aware that one is wealthy, while the other is not. As the women compete for their attention and try to sniff out the rich guy, they also have to choose which bachelor they’re interested in. The real world occasionally butts in: In the first episode, a contestant was instantly eliminated after one of the Joes recognized her as being one of his former Hinge matches, which meant that she could reveal him to be the rich bachelor.
Behind this reboot of the un-reboot-able is veteran reality TV producer SallyAnn Salsano. She’s perhaps best known as the creator of Jersey Shore, with its outsized personalities in pint-sized frames, their catchphrases, and felony convictions. Before Jersey Shore’s debut, reality TV stars’ careers often felt even more fleeting than they do today. Unless America fell in love with an astonishing talent, like Kelly Clarkson, most reality performers were ushered into the spotlight, roundly mocked, and escorted offstage. Then came Jersey Shore. Audiences laughed at them, then laughed with them, and then began to book them and buy things from them, paving the way for reality stars-turned-influencers of years to come.
“I’m a reality TV fan first and foremost,” says Salsano. “With a lot of my bosses and stuff that I do, I’ll often say to them, ‘I get it, but I would actually watch this shit.’”
Despite being more honest with its cast, Joe Millionaire: For Richer or Poorer still inhabits a familiar winking TV universe. Its host is styled as an English butler; in real life, he’s a Rod Stewart impersonator. “We had to embrace the fact that there were going to be some naysayers,” says Salsano. “And I think we wanted to almost—the British term would be, ‘Take the piss out of it ourselves.’ Like, come on guys. We know what we’re doing here.”
We talked to Salsano about the Joe Millionaire reboot and about her career in reality TV.
What do you think are the biggest changes in the reality TV landscape since 2003?
I think number one, people know what they’re getting into. I think early on people could very easily be like, “Oh my God, I had no idea.” Now it’s like, how do you not know what goes on on a dating show? You weren’t hatched. This has been happening.
I like that, because I feel like people are coming willing and able. And I think with this particular show, what’s really important is the girls. When you look at these girls and you look at how they’re described in their lower thirds, it’s like, these girls are no joke. I think a lot of people went on these shows to find a husband, and now I think people are going on the show to find a partner. Here’s another thing about this show, not every girl leaves crying. Because you know what, everybody’s not for everybody. Why are you crying? You met this guy yesterday.
I wonder if having two guys makes it feel less like either one of them is the be-all or end-all, compared to a show where it’s everyone just going for the same one dude.
Yes. But I also think it keeps the guys on their toes also. Because at the end of the day, think about, put yourself in the position, if you and I were dating 20 guys, I wouldn’t want them to pick you and not want me. It sounds cliché, but I think part of the refreshing of this show is giving the women a choice, and by giving them a choice, you’re giving them a voice. They’re like, “You know what, that guy’s not for me, this one’s for me.” And sometimes the girls flip-flop. Some girls, it takes them longer to figure out which one they really like. And then some people have an instant connection.
I like that you kept some of the 2000s-type elements, like having a butler character.
In the original series there was a butler and a host, and it seemed like the butler wound up taking more of the frontrunner role. I think back then reality as a whole was so new, so everyone was figuring it out. There’s this butler guy, there’s the host guy, you need to have these things. And now, I think the audiences know how to watch the shows. So we’re not really teaching them, “Here’s how reality TV works.” They need less guidance now.
There’s such a clear career pathway from being on reality TV to being an influencer now. Does that affect casting or the way shows play out?
I think it depends. I think if you cast by the number of Instagram followers people have, yes. I tend to say I don’t want to know in the beginning part of casting, personally. I almost like to see if I like them for who they are, regardless. Because you know what, it’s harder today and you need social media to help build momentum and to build awareness and stuff like that, but I think that’s basically because there’s so many more choices with all the streamers and all the networks.
There is a way that social media can help, but it shouldn’t be the only reason you go on a show. But I think there are certain shows that are fine for that. Put every bikini model you have on there. Go crazy. But I just don’t think you get as much of a connection.
Jersey Shore had one of the most unforgettable casts, and the chemistry that they all had together feels very pre-social media economy.
It definitely was pre-social media. I wonder if it would’ve played out the same way. Because I will tell you, one of the hardest things I think about being on a show is not going on and being vulnerable—I think that part is fine. I think it’s the all day everyday criticism from people on the couch, which I think is just so cruel and so unfair sometimes. Yeah, I get it, her ass looked weird in that. Okay, she had food on her face. We’re all just humans. I might have sat on my couch and said, “I can’t believe Gabrielle’s on TV in a bathing suit like that,” or “Her butt looks big in those jeans.” That’s one thing to sit on your couch and say it to your friend, but it’s not something that you would want that person to say, nor would I say it to your face. I think on social media, people get that courage to just say a lot of stuff behind people’s back.
I think that we have to just remember that these guys are sharing their stories for our enjoyment, and I think that we shouldn’t be making them regret that. I think if someone has a bad night or a bumpy ride or they cry or they get mad or there’s an argument, enjoy it. Do you know what I mean? They shared it. Enjoy it. I don’t think they’re looking for you to say what you would’ve done in that situation or why they were wrong.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.