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As the new year begins and many set out to fulfill their resolutions, one Sonoma man will have his quest to find love broadcast on national television.

And millions around the country will likely indulge in one of America's most popular guilty pleasures, following Sonoma's own Ben Flajnik's triumphs and disasters, real or exaggerated, as he stars on ABC's "The Bachelor" on Monday night.

The North Coast has been home to many who have given up their privacy and gone on the airwaves to lose weight, find love or cook their hearts out, hoping for a glimmer of fame or major life change.

After the spotlight shone and faded, the lasting impacts and the reality of what goes on behind the scenes emerged.

Guy Fieri, co-founder of Johnny Garlic's and Tex Wasabi's, is probably the best known from Sonoma County. The famous restaurateur and TV personality launched into the public eye when he won "The Next Food Network Star," which led to a series of shows and best-selling cookbooks for the Ferndale-born personality.

Fieri declined to be interviewed through a spokesman, but tweeted last week to his more than 484,000 followers, using his characteristic spelling for "cool": "Kewl to roll through my local Costco and see they're carryin the tequila lime sausage and rosemary peppered tri tip."

Koli Palu, 31, of Rohnert Park lost more than half of his body weight on NBC's "The Biggest Loser," and he fell in love with co-contestant Ashley Johnston, 29. The couple now live together in Santa Rosa and are planning to open their own personal training and weight-loss coaching business.

But finding lasting love has eluded most who have appeared on "The Bachelor" or "The Bachelorette." Todd Hedrick, owner of Third Street Aleworks, was one of them, having appeared in a few episodes of "The Bachelorette" in 2004. He described the scene at the bachelor mansion as more like a fraternity party than a serious quest for a soul mate.

Behind the scenes

"It was fun. It was like a paid vacation, with lots of drinking," Hedrick said. "I'd recommend that people going on the show be careful what they say."

That's not only because alcohol was flowing freely. Hedrick said he felt pressured to say "cheesy things," especially when it came to professing his love for former bachelorette Meredith Phillips, who he had just met.

"There's a lot of manipulation," Hedrick said. "I wasn't portrayed badly, but I feel badly for people who were."

The most manipulation Hedrick felt was during "in-the-moment" interviews, when contestants were taken aside and asked leading questions by interviewers.

"I'll never forget that. Three or four times a day," Hedrick said. "It's just clear that they have story lines."

Not only story lines, but writers who focus on a plot line for each character. Hedrick knows because several months after the show wrapped, he met his story line writer at a party in Los Angeles. A guy was watching him from across the room, and eventually they met and the writer explained.

"I didn't know that there was one person who had nothing to do but to write my story line," Hedrick said. "If you don't fit with the story line they write for you, they have to squeeze you into it, through editing."

Ben McLain, who hails from Santa Rosa and performed with the a capella group Sonos on NBC's "The Sing-Off," had a similar experience. A trained actor, McLain noticed the interviewers getting extremely emotional when trying to evoke comments from contestants in one-on-one interviews, sometimes actually tearing up to try to get the contestant to match their outpouring of emotion.

"In the interviews, it's creepy ... our interviewer was amazing at it," McLain said. "She would match the emotion of what she wanted in the camera. If she posed a question like, &‘How stoked are you to be on this show?,' her eyes would get really big and she would pump her fist."

"I've watched her cry, like really tear up a little bit, to try to get us to cry," McLain said.

The interviewer pushed on, probing, &‘If you don't win, is this the end for the group?' and &‘Why is this the most important thing in the world to you?'" McLain said.

Many former reality TV contestants aren't willing to talk about the technical aspects of the show. And it makes sense, because there can be hefty consequences. Hedrick recalls being threatened with a fine of $1million or $5 million, he couldn't remember which, if he revealed too much about what happens behind the scenes. He remained hushed for awhile, but his five-year contract expired. For the most part, it works.

"I was too scared to talk to anybody," Hedrick said.

Flajnik answered a phone call from The Press Democrat, but said he needed permission from ABC to be interviewed. He later sent an email saying ABC had denied the request.

Hedrick was relieved when he was portrayed as a funny guy. If the producers decided to portray a contestant as a jerk, then every mean word the guy uttered made the cut. If he turned out to be a lover, then kissing scenes were included.

"It's not that it's fake, it's just heavily massaged," Hedrick said.

Real changes

Massaging reality is far from the experience for contestants on "The Biggest Loser," where grueling workouts and embarrassments lead to real results. Palu dropping an astounding 215 pounds — from 403 at the start to 188 pounds at the end.

"It saved my life," Koli Palu said. "Pre-show, I was pre-diabetic, pre-gout, pre-hypertension and pre-anything bad. In the end, I've cured those things." he said.

"They try to make it as real as possible," Ashley Johnston said. "We cook our own food, we have recommendations about how many calories we should eat."

Johnston lost 183 pounds, shedding nearly half her body weight from 374 pounds at the start of the show to 191 at the end.

"The biggest thing for me, too, is quality of life," Johnston said. "I had diabetes before going on the show, I had sleep apnea. I couldn't buckle the seat belt in my car."

To many people, obese or not, the idea of stripping down to just a pair of shorts and a sports-bra for women — as contestants were required to do — before friends, family and a national TV audience is nothing short of mortifying.

But for Palu and Johnston, airing their embarrassments before a national audience proved liberating. Johnston fell off the treadmill on the first day of shooting, and that clip became a popular one. Falling to such a low helped her realize that she wanted to climb out of those depths.

"Stripping to a sports bra, being 375 pounds, all I wanted to do was hide it," Johnston said. "Some people saw that as so mean, but I saw it as freeing. ... For all of us, it was more of a positive thing. I've been hiding eating in my car, I've been hiding, hiding, hiding. I'm not hiding anymore."

"I went from falling off a treadmill to breaking a record," Johnston said.

Boosting business

As any devoted "Bachelor" fan knows, questions inevitably arise over whether the contestants are on the show "for the right reasons." That is, to find love.

It's hard to deny, though, the tempting possibility that any exposure on national TV is a good thing, especially for business. Hedrick had hoped appearing on the show would boost Aleworks' popularity.

"I had kegs of beer on the set," Hedrick said. "We had my beer at the bachelor house. I was trying to promote the crap out of it."

But the network warned contestants ahead of time that they would be strict about product placement.

Ben Flajnik's wine business had better luck, with sales improving, according to Flajnik and wine shops in Sonoma, after the name of his wine brand was reported in the media.

Flajnik started a Twitter account that linked to his winery's web page in August after making it as far as the final episode of "The Bachelorette." Within five months, he had amassed more than 38,000 followers. His wine brand expanded to offer a second, more affordable line. And he and his partners recently changed the name of the winery from Evolve to Envolve, revamped its website and hired a new public relations firm.

Appearing on "The Biggest Loser" also has helped both Palu and Johnston financially. Johnston travels the country as a spokeswoman for Philips Resperonics, a medical device company that makes products that treat sleep apnea, a problem that often afflicts those who are obese.

And the couple plans to open a new business, called "Drop It 4 Life," a program to coach obese people to lose weight through exercise, nutrition and emotional guidance. Both Johnston and Palu have gained back some of the weight that they lost on the show, but remain far below what they once weighed.

"Before ... I wasn't going anywhere," Palu said. "There's not a lot for a 400-pound bouncer. Now, I want to help people."

There were social rewards, too. The couple said they have received thousands of letters from viewers around the world thanking them for inspiring their own weight loss.

"It's really a subject that a lot of people can relate to," Palu said.

Finding love

Discovering romance, the promise of "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette," is an unexpected bonus for some who appear on "The Biggest Loser," a name that hardly conjures up a scenario where contestants can find love.

"I've met the love of my life, and I wasn't expecting that," Johnston said of her co-contestant, Palua. "We changed our lives together."

Palua's cousin Sam Poueu, who also was on the show, also fell in love and became engaged to fellow contestant Stephanie Anderson.

"We started at the low," Johnston added. "Whereas on &‘The Bachelor,' they all start at their best. We strip it down to the sports bra. There's absolutely nothing to sugarcoat or hide."

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@pressdemocrat.com.

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