For the average Yalie, aspirations at reality TV stardom are more like a fantasy than possibility. With reality television still a relatively new genre, getting cast on a show like “The Apprentice” or “America’s Next Top Model” remains cutthroat competitive.
But Steve Berke ’03, a former All-American tennis player, beat the odds this past spring when he auditioned and made the cut for FOX’s new reality series “The Rebel Billionaire,” set to air tonight at 8 p.m..
On the show, billionaire Richard Branson, the founder and chairman of English-based conglomerate Virgin Group, which includes Virgin Records, offers 16 contestants the opportunity to win one million dollars and his position as the president of Virgin Global. Over the next few weeks, viewers can watch Berke and the other 15 aspiring moguls risk everything for a chance to follow in Branson’s footsteps.
Back in New Haven after traveling the world, Berke said his experience on the show was one of the most exciting of his life.
“It was such an incredible experience for me, and I am really excited to see what it is going to look like on television,” said Berke, sitting at Playwright Pub on Temple Street Friday afternoon. “The challenges took us everywhere, and we got to try things most people never get the chance to. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and the best experience I’ve ever had.”
Gabe Goldstein ’02, Berke’s roommate at Yale and a fellow tennis player, served as a reference for Berke during the selection process in June. FOX agents interviewed him for an hour-long session to see if Berke was the right man for the job.
“They asked me questions ranging from how I knew him, to what field I thought he would be successful in, to how successful he was with women,” Goldstein said. “It really ran the gamut, and they pretty much covered everything that I knew about Steve.”
Goldstein said that since he has known Berke, he has always been an uninhibited person with little fear of the unknown — an important attribute for the show.
“I knew Steve would be successful in whatever he ended up doing,” Goldstein said. “He is a very intelligent guy, and he’s always had an entrepreneurial bent to him. He’s also a risk-taker and not one to take the beaten path, and he doesn’t care what other people think about him.”
Berke and Goldstein became fast friends when Berke was being recruited by Yale to play varsity tennis. At the time, he was choosing between UCLA and Yale, but after a dinner with Goldstein in Palm Springs at a junior tournament, Berke decided to forego the West Coast and become a Bulldog.
Fox said the show’s challenges took place all over the world, including in Morocco, London and Zimbabwe. At the end of each week, the losing contestants were left behind on the tarmac as the Virgin Atlantic plane with Branson and the remaining players flew off to their next challenge.
The four-month span from cast selection to the wrap-up of taping kept Branson and the contestants moving at lightening pace. Berke said the style of taping should make it all the more interesting, but he said he has no idea how it will turn out.
“We were pretty much clueless most of the time about what was going on, and I still don’t know what the show will look like when they finish editing it,” Berke said. “I do know that it will be a great show to watch, and I think it will be the most interesting reality television show yet.”
Although advertisements for “The Rebel Billionaire” show contestants walking on tightropes high in the sky, Berke said the most nerve-racking thing now is how he will be portrayed on the show.
“Literally, there is a camera on you at all times,” Berke said. “There is no way that you can avoid saying something asinine on camera when you are being filmed 24/7 for two full months. You just have to hope that they don’t harp on that for the entire show. I am a very uninhibited person, and I don’t care much about what other people think of me. It will be interesting to see how they portray me on the show.”
While Berke could not reveal how far he got in the show, he said the time he spent there helped him spawn an idea for his own company, which he has scrambled to launch since the shooting ended in October.
Mooshpillow.com, an idea which he came up with during a mission on the show, is a company Berke created that sells travel pillows that can easily be brought on airplanes, in cars or other modes of transportation.
Berke received some valuable help on his new start up company from fellow Yale alum Chip Arndt ’90, whom Berke met on a flight from Los Angeles to Miami after “The Rebel Billionaire.” Arndt, who coincidentally participated on and won the fourth season of “The Amazing Race,” agreed to help Berke get Mooshpillow.com off the ground.
“Steve is a great guy who is very outgoing, and I was happy to help him, especially since he is a fellow Yalie,” Arndt said. “If you want your dreams to come true, you never sleep, and that is the kind of guy Steve is. I have no doubt that he will be very successful.”
Berke currently has a commitment from Branson to use Mooshpillows on all of his Virgin Atlantic Airways flights in the future.
“Unlike most of the contestants on the show who already had their own companies, I went in with just me,” Berke said. “My goal heading in was to find a way to make money after the show, so I have been working really hard since to make Mooshpillows a success.”
Since the show finished taping, Berke said he has been readjusting to normal life with some difficulty.
“The transition from being on a reality show to real life has been very hard for me,” Berke said. “At first I was even a little depressed. When you go from traveling all around the world and moving a mile a minute to the daily routines of before — well, it’s just a really hard thing to do.”