The craft of reality television stardom doesn't get a lot of respect. We regard great actors and singers as professionals who work hard for their art. But reality stars? The NeNe Leakes and Snookis of the world? If we give them any credit at all, we picture them flexing their "it factor" from the moment they walk into casting — as if they possess a kind of naturally belligerent charisma that they're lucky to show off on TV.
In some cases, this view of reality TV talent — as innate instinct, not a practiced craft — is valid. Some people are probably born with an aptitude for flipping tables, just as surely as some are born with an innate talent for tossing a baseball.
But just as in sports, for every star that's born, there's a reality star that's made: a person who might be, for instance, coached into delivering increasingly outrageous interviews, prodded by producers into starting iconic fights and rewarded over time for escalating acts of viciousness until such displays become second nature. This work of honing their craft goes unmentioned in promotional materials and unaired on television — all to preserve the illusion of "reality" that gives the genre its name.
That is why Nastassia "Stassi" Schroeder, heroine of Bravo's Vanderpump Rules, is so important.
Stassi's body of work — from her current stardom on Vanderpump Rules, which airs its final reunion episode of season four Monday, to her briefer appearances on two earlier reality shows — serves as a kind of Rosetta Stone for deciphering the hidden codes of reality TV starcraft.
By examining Stassi's juvenilia and comparing it with her latter-day Vanderpump villainy, we can see how an unpolished girl from New Orleans was able to develop her modest-but-not-negligible natural talents (a quick tongue, a slight flair for the dramatic) into reality superstardom. In other words, we can see how someone can go from this:
In 2005, 17-year-old Stassi and her family appeared on the eighth season of The Amazing Race. The Schroeder family was eliminated four episodes in, in their hometown of New Orleans, after taking a wrong turn on the way to a trailer park.
It was not a scintillating start to Stassi's reality television career. In the family's intro package, Stassi and her stepmother were literally relegated to playing spectators for the men in their life.
Indeed, Stassi spent most of her time on the show in the background, as her father and brother grabbed what screen time was allotted to the Schroeder family.
It wasn't all so dire for Stassi watchers. She had a brief breakout moment when the family finally arrived at the aforementioned trailer park, tearfully insisting to her family, "One minute makes the biggest difference! Why don't you understand that?"
She also handled her talking head duties competently, insisting with a nice shading of overdog cockiness, "I'm used to coming in first at everything I do. I want to be first all the time."
These talking heads, however, hardly served notice of stardom. In fact, Stassi came off as unskilled in her first go-around at reality TV. For instance, she had a frustrating tendency to cover her face when upset. She violated the central bargain a reality star makes with their audience, the tradeoff of fame in exchange for emotional nakedness.
The result was a character who failed to "pop" as much as she should have — a failing that Stassi seemed to take onboard in her final, prophetic words on the show: "I could have made a difference if I had been more focused and said, 'Listening to me is what we have to do.'"
If Stassi's appearance on The Amazing Race betrayed a certain amateurism in the craft of constructing a reality character, these shortcomings are understandable. What high schooler really knows who she is, much less knows it well enough to sell that image on TV?
By the time Stassi entered college, she had a better handle on who she wanted to be: a reality television superstar. In 2007, she joined the cast of a reality show for the N, Nickelodeon's teen channel at the time, called Queen Bees.
Bees was not a hit, and most traces of its existence have been scrubbed from the internet. But the show's few extant clips provide an essential link between the uncultivated Stassi of The Amazing Race and the deadly verbal assassin of Vanderpump Rules.
Queen Bees was Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School for the TeenNick set, taking seven high school alphas and putting them through challenges meant to teach them kindness and sisterhood. One task had the Bees compete in a beauty pageant judged by blind people; another had them speed-dating in the dark.
The 19-year-old Stassi that appeared on Queen Bees was noticeably more confident and in command than her Amazing Race predecessor. As she told the New Orleans Times-Picayune during the series' run, "You know, I felt like I was already an old pro once I started filming Queen Bees. From The Amazing Race, I learned what to do and what not do when a camera is around, and just how to maneuver myself through all the tricks of reality TV."
Her on-camera confessionals gained a natural, unpracticed air, all the better for delivering such stock villainisms as, "I don't let anybody get in my way."
If there's a knock against Stassi's performance in Queen Bees, it's that it's all a little too tried-and-true; she still lacks that delicious specificity and spontaneity that characterizes true reality show stars. Stassi's inability to think on her feet cost her in her tangles with Queen Bees biggest star, Shavon, a 20-year-old from Brooklyn.
In a fight with Stassi, Shavon adhered flawlessly to the cardinal rule of reality TV throw-downs: Always attack. The moment you get defensive, you've already lost.
Ultimately, Stassi lost out on the Queen Bees prize money because she was mean to an elderly man she was supposed to teach how to juggle. More importantly, she lost the informal competition to become the show's breakout character by failing to get on Shavon's level and mercilessly attack her opponents' weak spots. It was a mistake Stassi would not make again.
This brings us to the Stassi of today, the once and future queen bee of Vanderpump Rules. It's striking just how far she's come from her Amazing Race days. She's now one of arguably the most accomplished talking heads in the reality game, able to imbue even the most rote bit of scene-setting with devilish verve.
Indeed, in Vanderpump's earliest episodes, she's practically the show's narrator, carrying most of the expository heavy lifting as the rest of the cast gets up to speed with how to appear like a natural human being on camera.
Stassi gives a viciousness that's almost baroque in its gory specificity — as detailed in this compilation of her greatest threats of bodily harm. In season two, she threatened to cut off Tom Schwartz's dick, "put a chopstick in it, go to the local Chinese restaurant and fry it up with some fried rice."
Crucially, Stassi also learned how to fight. Case in point: On her season two birthday trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, her best friend Katie leaves the dinner table in tears because her boyfriend Tom is being a huge jerk to her. Rather than comfort her friend, Stassi goes in on Katie for upstaging her special day, at one point abandoning logical argumentation altogether just to list the stages of the meal Katie was missing. "You weren't there! You weren't there. You left me!" she shouted. "You didn't even order a drink! Or an appetizer! Or an entrée! You were selfish and you thought about your fucking self!"
This is delightfully nonsensical, and entirely effective. It embodies the "always attack" ethos of reality TV villainhood to a T. What matters is aggression and specificity, not coherence or good grammar.
One could look at clips of Stassi in her Vanderpump Rules prime and say, "Wow, what a terrifying yet naturally charismatic human being." But Stassi's juvenile works reveal that this "charisma" is in fact something constructed and worked toward — a skill like any other. Very few are born with otherworldly natural talent; there are only so many Snookis or LeBrons walking among us. But think of Michael Jordan: cut from his high school team, mentored by Dean Smith at UNC then a superstar in the big leagues. His is a story of grit, determination and steady upward progress.
Stassi Schroeder is the Michael Jordan of 20-something reality stars. Long has she entertained us; long may she reign.