We all have one of those stories from our past about a strange job we once had. These stories often occur during our college years, when we’re desperate for spending money and our morals were flexible. In 1998, I was a freshman in college majoring in theater here in Chicago.
The 90’s were also an interesting time for a locally filmed talk show. It was on the verge of being cancelled in 1994, but then revamped its format into a tabloid spectacle, and the show suddenly exploded in popularity.
My story takes place nestled in the sweet spot of the Venn diagram where my poor college years overlapped with the meteoric rise of “The Jerry Springer Show.” A time when I accepted a gig as an animal handler on an episode of Jerry Springer charmingly entitled “I Married a Horse.”
The unusual job offer came to me through a dorm friend who worked at a stable in the city. She had been approached by the producers of Jerry Springer for a one-day gig which she was unable to accept but she referred them to me, knowing that I had ridden horses as a kid. I chatted with the producer over the phone; a guy named Tony. From the start, he was upfront with me about the racy topic of the episode, wanting to be sure I wouldn’t freak out once I got on set and realized that Jerry would be addressing the subject of bestiality. I replied that nah, that doesn’t bother me, after all, I was an open-minded art student embracing the world and all of its eccentricities in order to further my craft (translate to “I could really use $150 and this will be a hilarious story to tell in the smoking lounge at school”). He said, “that’s great! Now, I’m not sure if you’ll be on camera or not; you might just be in the wings, ready to help handle the horse if she gets frightened or spooked.” I nodded gravely, recognizing the importance of my role. I was going to be an advocate for animals, willing to testify to PETA that I had made it my own personal duty to care for God’s innocent creatures who also happened to be tabloid talk show guests. I was all in.
On the morning of my gig, I met the producer bright and early in front of the stable. The horse, named Pixel, was actually a small pony. She had traveled in by trailer the previous day. Tony pulled up into the driveway strewn with horse poop in a sleek red car and introduced himself to me. He also told me that plans had changed and I would be shown on camera after all; I’d be escorting the horse onto the stage, and would I be OK with that? I had the feeling that he had waited until seeing me in person to make sure I wasn’t a complete troll; God forbid an unattractive person appear on TV to deliver a horse-bride to her husband-master–that would make it gross.
We rode to the studio together and I was delivered to Hair & Makeup to get me TV-ready. I remember sharing the makeup room with the cast of the previous episode (they would shoot two a day), which happened to be a group of exotic dancers. Now, I grew up in a sheltered suburb, and this was my first year of college. This was the point where I started to feel in a little over my head. My confidence in my newfound college worldliness was wearing off. These ladies were real and hardened by life and putting in their clit rings right in front of me.
I proceeded to have my makeup done amongst the strippers. The makeup artist shellacked my face with foundation and eyeshadow until I could’ve won a makeup-off against RuPaul, Lady Gaga, and the cast of Frozen on Ice. Then, they had me change out of my own clothes into an outfit from Wardrobe, a loosely fitting magenta top and pants with pointy-toed beige flats that looked like what I Dream of Jeannie would wear around the house in her golden years. The stylist enveloped my head in a cloud of aerosol hairspray and pulled my hair up into a high half-pony coming right out the top of my head, riding out strong on this genie theme.
Once my transformation was complete, I sat in a green room to wait. This is when I met Pixel’s husband/owner for the first time. He was older, with thinning gray hair, a paunch belly, a beard, and a cane. He was arguing with Wardrobe about the large pair of black sunglasses that he wanted to wear, which covered much of his face. Apparently, he was upset that the show was using his real first name, Mark. It sounded like someone was having regrets about deciding to do the show. That, I could understand.
Finally, it was time to shoot. Mark took his seat on the stage while I waited hidden in the wings with Pixel, a carrot in my hand. I could hear people settling into their seats, excited to find out what they were about to see. The topic of the show was always kept secret until Jerry did the intro on camera; this was intentional to get an authentic audience reaction. Jerry took the stage and started his intro. He opened with a comment about how the show’s critics thought the show was all about fights over paternity tests or cheating boyfriends, with folding chairs getting tossed and Steve the bouncer having to step in to break up the violence. This episode, however, was different. This was a love story. The guest, Mark, has been in a tender relationship with his wife of 10 years, a union that few people understood or approved of. Jerry knows how to milk it, you guys. And then finally he said the magic words: my Cue. “Let’s meet his wife!”
When I led the horse into the studio, the cheers turned to gasps and shrieks of shock. At the end of her lead line, the poor pony ambled along behind me. She trusted me. I felt like a traitor to her, leading her into the pit. It was like the Crusades but instead of lions, I was feeding her to a sleaze-loving audience and a creepy pervert.
I plastered a smile on my face for the camera, while crying inside for this innocent animal. The noise of the crowd devolved into the chant “Jerry! Jerry!” that was so ubiquitous in the late 90’s. How did I end up here? Just 24 hours earlier, I had been in class like any normal college student. This kind of shit didn’t happen to Felicity! Even after she changed her major to art and slept with the VJ instead of Noel.
After the intro, my job was done. I watched the rest of the filming from the wings, then retreated back to the makeup room to change into my own clothes, collected my envelope of cash from Tony, and left the studio to get to my afternoon class at Columbia.
Life went back to normal. I checked the listings to see when the episode was scheduled to air, but then learned that it was deemed too inappropriate to broadcast and got banned from all the major markets. So I never did see my appearance or the sad face of Pixel again, until over 15 years later when I thought to look it up on YouTube. Thanks to the magic of the internet, what was once a strange, random moment in my life will now live forever in cyberspace. When I watch it, I recognize my younger self through the pancake makeup, the terrible outfit, and paralyzed smile. I think of my high school graduation ceremony, which occurred not long before this moment, when the valedictorian quoted the popular Dr. Seuss poem “Oh the places you’ll go!” I don’t think this is what they had in mind.