New Jersey and TV: Part 2

I am regularly floored by the number of television celebrities who hail from New Jersey – and I’m not even including those who are contestants on reality shows!

Here’s the latest crop of Garden Staters to come to mind (in no particular order):

ABC’s “Lost”

While his character is not one of the original “Lost” castaways, there is no doubt that former Old Bridge resident (Middlesex County) Ken Leung (ghost buster Miles Straume) is a star of the most mammoth TV series, like, ever. His delicious sarcasm rivals Sawyer’s and proves that he’s a Jersey boy at heart.

Travel Channel’s “No Reservations”

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain is the epitome of a Jersey boy: sarcastic and wry, with a sharp wit.  Though the Leonia-born (Bergen County) Bourdain cops to wishing he’d lived his youth in “the city,” his love of the Garden State comes shining through in one of the first episodes of “No Reservations.” Take a peek:

“Regis and Kelly” (syndicated)

You know Kelly Ripa as the perky sidekick of the lovable curmudgeon Regis Philbin on “Regis and Kelly,” but years ago she was just another Jersey girl – albeit one (from Berlin in Camden County) who just happened to shake her groove-thing daily on a little local TV show called “Dancin’ On Air.” The show, filmed in Camden and aired on a Philly network, “Dancin’ On Air” (which morphed into “Dance Party USA” when the show went national), featured teased-out teens dancing to ’80s hits. Ms. Kelly a was a regular and her long, curly blond hair was the envy of many viewers (including me, who watched the show religiously in high school). Here she is (with Regis) poking fun at more Jersey girls on my list, “The Real Housewives of New Jersey”:

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USA’s “White Collar”

Though he may be forever typecast as Carrie Bradshaw’s fashion-forward friend Stanford Blatch in HBO’s “Sex and the City,” Highland Park (Middlesex County) native Willie Garson continues to find work on both the large and small screen. His latest is the series “White Collar,” in which he plays a con man.

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Fox’s “Glee”

I bet New Jersey has never been more happy to claim a geek as one of its own than Lea Michele’s character Rachel Berry in “Glee.” Not only does Lea, who grew up in Tenafly (Bergen County), have killer pipes (at 23, she’s a Broadway veteran), she’s also proven herself to be an adept actress and fashion maven.

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“The Wendy Williams Show” (syndicated)

“How you doin’?” The phrase may be synonymous with Joey from “Friends,” but radio-turned-TV talk show host Wendy Williams has made it all her own. The host of the daily gab-fest “The Wendy Williams Show” is a Jersey girl through and through: Raised in Ocean Township (Monmouth County), she now makes her home in North Jersey.

CNBC’s “Mad Money”

“Mad Money” host Jim Cramer may be from Pennsylvania, but it’s Summit (Union County) he calls home. The author, former hedge fund manager and co-founder of TheStreet.com gained perhaps the most notoriety (and not in a good way) last year when he received a public smackdown courtesy of another Jersey boy, “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart.

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Fox’s “House”

It may not feature any actors from the Garden State (former Monmouth resident Kal Penn’s character was killed off last year), but “House” officially put Princeton – and Plainsboro (Mercer and Middlesex counties, respectively)- on the nation’s radar. The hospital may not exist in reality, but the series is sprinkled with occasional Garden State references. And, in an ironic twist of life imitating art, construction on a new Princeton hospital – in Plainsboro – is underway.

What other Jerseyans or Jersey-based shows made my list? Go here to find out.

Rocco DiSpirito says “Now Eat This!”

Celebrity chef and television personality Rocco DiSpirito is one gregarious, funny guy.

Rocco takes a moment to sign my copy of his new book, "Now Eat This," during an appearance at Barnes & Noble in Princeton, NJ./All photos by Ava Gacser

I found that out firsthand last night when I attended his appearance/book signing at the Princeton Barnes & Noble.

“Am I allowed to curse in Princeton?” the Jamaica, Queens, N.Y., native asked the audience moments into his highly interactive, amusing talk to promote the release of  “Now Eat This,” his latest cookbook which focuses on healthful ways to make many of America’s favorite comfort dishes.

Rocco should be familiar to anyone who watches a decent amount of TV. He’s been featured on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” and his very own reality series, “The Restaurant,” which aired on NBC in 2003/2004.

Rocco took the time to sign every book the audience asked him to.

The seasoned cookbook author said he makes a point of creating recipes that require a small amount of ingredients and don’t take a lot of preparation time. The most important thing to remember, he said, is that cooking just about anything is better than relying on prepackaged, processed, preservative-laden food.

“If you cook it for yourself, you are so far ahead of the game,” he said, adding that his favorite recipe in the book is brownies (which surprisingly include black beans).

Rocco believes that preparing food for others is a wonderful gesture.

“Cooking for someone is the nicest thing you can do,” he said.

He was inspired to write his latest book for several reasons: His experience cooking for contestants of the weight-loss show “The Biggest Loser,” his concern with the morbid-obesity rates in the United States, and his own experience of trying to eat more healthily. One of his most humbling moments, he said, came during his first attempt at a triathlon.

“78-year-old women swam past me like I was standing,” he said with a laugh – adding that he’d even had a 40-minute head start. He wound up finishing next-to-last, followed only by his trainer, of all people. “They should have just used me as a flotation device.”

Over the course of Rocco’s talk, no one was off-limits – including shoppers who just happened by. When the chef addressed a man standing in an aisle watching the proceedings, the man admitted he had no idea who Rocco was.

“You and 99.9% of the rest of the world,” Rocco quipped.  “At 43, I barely know who am I either.”

When another audience member told Rocco he was surprised how funny Rocco was, the chef replied, “I thought this was a comedy show.”

You can follow Rocco via his website and Facebook and Twitter pages.

Johnny Weir isn’t just good, he’s all over the place

Since I first started watching Johnny Weir’s reality show “Be Good Johnny Weir” last week, I have seen the U.S. figure skater (and Jersey boy) all over the place. And that’s a good thing!

First, I caught up on an interview Johnny did for HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” where he hilariously pointed out that figure skating and football aren’t all that different (except maybe figure skaters keep their hands to themselves):

I think he really hit it off with correspondent Frank Deford (himself a Princeton University graduate), don’t you?

Then I found this outtake from “Be Good Johnny Weir,” in which Johnny does one of his hilarious impressions of his Ukrainian coach Galina Zmievskaya:

Then last night Johnny appeared (all too briefly) on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” in which he was thrown the ridiculous *Facebook* question “How does it feel to be so fierce?”

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Johnny was back on the tube this morning, visiting “Regis & Kelly.” Kelly Ripa, herself a Jersey girl, is evidently a huge fan.
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Johnny also is featured in a Vanity Fair spread on athletes of the 2010 Olympics. The caption accompanying Johnny’s photo includes his revelation that after competing in this month’s World Figure Skating Championships in Italy, he plans on a little sojourn to Mongolia, of all places.

One thing you can definitely say about Johnny: He's comfortable in his own skin./Photo by Vanity Fair

“I’m going to take a vacation to Mongolia because I want to ride a yak,” he told the mag. “…and then maybe (I will) continue skating, but if not, I want a career in fashion.”

Alas, not all of the Johnny-mania lately has been positive.  People reported that two insensitive and clueless Canadian sports broadcasters stuck their feet in their mouths when they made inappropriate remarks about Johnny during the Olympics.

“This may not be politically correct, but do you think he lost points due to his costume and his body language?” Claude Mailhot of RDS, a French-language sports channel in Quebec, is quoted as saying.

Fellow broadcaster Alain Goldberg said he thought that Johnny’s mannerisms might hurt other male figure skaters.

“They’ll think all the boys who skate will end up like him,” he said. “It sets a bad example.”

The mocking didn’t stop there, though. The pair also joked that maybe Johnny should be required to take a gender test and that perhaps he should compete against women instead.

In his typical style, Johnny rose above the fray.

“It wasn’t these two men criticizing my skating, it was them criticizing me as a person, and that was something that really, frankly, pissed me off,” Johnny said. “Nobody knows me. … I think masculinity is what you believe it to be.”

Be Good, (Jersey boy) Johnny Weir

I had no idea U.S. male figure skater Johnny Weir had his own reality television show – or that he makes his home in the Garden State.

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Wonder if he finds time to GTL every day?

Anyway… I watched him compete in the 2010 Winter Olympics last week, where he came in sixth. But it wasn’t until I heard about – and finally caught up on- the Sundance Channel series “Be Good Johnny Weir” over the weekend that I realized that a) Johnny’s a Jersey boy and b) he’s a really likable Jersey boy. Just check out this clip of him working with this group of budding female skaters:

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Technically, Johnny’s originally from Pennsylvania (his family lives in Delaware), but he moved to North Jersey (where he’s obsessed with vacuuming)…

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and trains at the Ice Vault in Wayne.

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“Be Good Johnny Weir” is a totally addictive show, and that’s entirely because Johnny is such an interesting – and entertaining – character to watch. His interactions with his stoic Russian coach Galina and struggles on and off the ice shed a unique light on the turbulent life of a professional figure skater.

If watching the show – which airs at 10:30 p.m. Mondays – piques your interest in Johnny further, then check out his Twitter and Facebook pages or his website.

“Jersey Shore”: You give New Jersey a good name?

Working out, tanning, doing laundry, drinking, clubbing, creeping, fist pumping and fist fighting. Who knew that “Jersey Shore” would give the Garden State such a great reputation?

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Nobody, including me. But according to a new poll, MTV’s highly enjoyable train wreck of a reality show has actually improved peoples’ perceptions of the Garden State.

Yup, you read that right: People who’ve watched those self-proclaimed guidos and guidettes fist-pumping at Karma actually like New Jersey more than those who have not seen the show!

That is, at least according to PublicMind, a recent national poll conducted by the state’s own Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Here’s the details: Three out of five respondents who’ve seen the show look favorably upon Joisey, compared to 44% of those who haven’t seen it. Meanwhile, one out of five people who have seen “Jersey Shore” (that’s 20%) has an unfavorable view of the most densely populous state in the nation, and about one in five who has not seen the show (or 18%) has a negative perception of the state.

“While we can’t be sure that ‘Jersey Shore’ is making people like New Jersey more, it certainly doesn’t seem to be hurting,” concluded Dan Cassino, survey analyst for PublicMind and a Fairleigh Dickinson political science professor, in a press release. “It could be that people who already have a favorable view of New Jersey are simply more likely to watch the show, while those who don’t like Jersey aren’t going to watch the show anyway.”

However, the survey does not address the show’s portrayal of Italian-Americans, who are referred to as “guidos” and “guidettes,”* and their penchant for GTL’ing the day away.

“I don’t think anyone would claim that the TV show has anything to do with the real New Jersey,” Cassino said. “Still, the image it portrays doesn’t seem to be hurting the state as some have feared.”

The poll also indicated that when the show’s viewers think of New Jersey they tend to speak about the Shore, boardwalk and ocean (13%) more than non-viewers do (8%).

“New Jersey has been using ad campaigns to build awareness of the Shore for years,” Cassino explained. “Legislators may not be happy with how the state is being portrayed, but the show links New Jersey to its beaches, which is a much better focus than the turnpike.”
Amen to that!
*It’s recently been revealed in the tabloids that at least three of the “Jersey Shore” cast members – Snooki, J-Woww and Ronnie – are not even of Italian descent.

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