Friday, March 5, 2010

Maybe I should watch more reality TV

From March 5, 2010 USATODAY

ABOARD FLIGHT 97 FROM WASHINGTON TO LOS ANGELES — The man in 4D flirts with Louise Nguyen as she serves him a drink. Then he hands her his business card.

"He probably wanted a date, but I won't see him," says the poised, perfectly made-up Virgin America flight attendant.

Not that doe-eyed Nguyen, 28, won't date passengers. In fact, she accepts an invite to a Beverly Hills pool party from a handsome flier in the first episode of Fly Girls, a reality series premiering March 24 on the CW network.

Promoted as "Life at 500 mph" or "The Hills on a plane," the show focuses on a quintet of comely Virgin flight attendants, on and off the job. They were introduced to the media last week via red-carpet events in New York and Las Vegas.

Chosen after answering a mass e-mail from Virgin execs and auditioning, the five let cameras follow them for two months. Virgin sanctioned the show, over which it has limited control, to spotlight the 2-year-old airline, which positions itself as a fun, hip, lower-cost alternative to the legacy carriers. In a throwback to days of old, its flight attendants emphasize "smiles in the aisles" and pampering.

"Flying isn't about getting from Point A to Point B — it's about enjoying the ride," says cast member Farrah Williams, a statuesque blonde named after Farrah Fawcett.

The morning of the Vegas premiere, Nguyen and Williams — at 34, the oldest Fly Girl — prepare to work a flight from Dulles airport outside Washington, D.C. An ironing board takes center stage in Williams' hotel room; she'll appear at the gate in perfectly pressed white shirt, curve-hugging black skirt and high heels.

Taking a break in the forward galley of the Airbus 320 with lavender mood lighting, the pair say they have no problem being called "fly girls" — a moniker sure to offend those who lobbied for years to get "stewardess" excised from travelers' lexicon.

"Fly" means "cool," Nguyen says. "It's also what we do." Fly girl is "hip and kinda sexy. It's definitely a compliment."

"It suits the brand," chimes in Williams, a think-before-you-speak sort who calls herself the "senior mama" Fly Girl.

Nguyen says the five "like to go to the hot restaurants and the hot clubs — we're young, and why not?" She planned to be a nurse before being lured by travel's siren song and Virgin's non-stodgy image. Her Vietnamese/Chinese immigrant parents weren't happy. They wanted her to finish nursing school. Her family dynamics are incorporated into the series.

The seat-belt sign has been illuminated

Though soon to be TV personalities, the young women continue to serve drinks and meals at 30,000 feet, "and we take the business of flying seriously," Nguyen says.

The trip to L.A. looks calm on the surface ("a good flight depends on the energy we put out," Williams says. "If we're smiley, it's happy"). But underneath, there's turbulence. The "teammates" in Virgin lingo deal with a passenger with a spurting nosebleed, one who acts oddly and one who faints.

Medics come aboard in L.A. with a wheelchair for the fainter, who is tended at the gate in a surreal scene, as photographers, bloggers and guests gather for a special Fly Girls party flight to Las Vegas. On board, Nikole Rubyn, 31 — the series' vamp — delivers what's surely the most sultry pre-flight safety briefing ever. "Are you guys feeling fly?" she purrs, rolling her hips while demonstrating how to put on an oxygen mask and cope with a water landing.

Among those served weird-tasting "Fly Girls" cocktails made with Brazilian ac¸ai´ fruit liquor are French actor Gilles Marini (Sex and the City movie, Dancing With the Stars, Brothers & Sisters) and The Real Housewives of Orange County bombshell Gretchen Rossi. They're in first class. Virgin America CEO David Cush is in coach.

He flies in back and says he makes employees do the same to encourage an egalitarian spirit. The low-key former American Airlines exec in a gray suit settles in and says Fly Girls came about after Hollywood folk flew VA and "just loved the crews." He knows the show is "definitely risky" for Virgin, because cameras follow the young women day and night.

But "as a small airline, we don't have huge ad budgets. We hope to drive awareness" of VA's fleet-wide Wi-Fi, touchpad food and drink ordering, seat-to-seat e-chats. (That last toy has resulted in more than one hookup, say the Fly Girls.)

The A&E's reality show Airline raised the profile of Southwest Airlines in 2004. CW "promised a positive show, and I know these girls," Cush says. "They are people you would be proud to have as a sister or a daughter. They live exciting lives, but they'd never do anything to harm the company."

Indeed, the first episode, screened in-flight, is tame compared with other reality shows. No drunken liaisons, no dining tables overturned. Viewers do get inside info, such as the meaning of "IFB" — Virgin attendants' shorthand for "in-flight boyfriend," a cute guy they scope out to make time fly and who may get extra attention.

The only catfight in Episode 1 is a verbal confrontation when perky Mandy Roberts, 26, accuses sassy Rubyn of deviously stealing the limelight at VA's Fort Lauderdale launch. Things do get more reality-show-tacky in Episode 2, when the wine bottle — and claws — come out at the L.A.-area "crash pad" the five share for the show.

Attendants, prepare for your close-up

But all — including Tasha Dunnigan, 29, the show's single mom — share media attention with seeming amity as they walk a red carpet at The Palazzo Las Vegas hotel. (They've been warned by VA to project a positive image and avoid issues such as their pay or spats.) The fete is Oscar-like, with a daunting line of photographers and smartphone-waving bloggers and fans. To clicking shutters, the Fly Girls strut the gantlet with chests out. Their excitement is palpable.

Nguyen tells a reporter she hopes the show gives viewers "a different perception of flight attendants."

Working the carpet in leather jacket and jeans, screen hunk Marini, 34, is mobbed. He is asked if he ever dated a flight attendant. "Never."

Has he ever imagined doing more than dating one? "In my mind," he says. "But look, I've been married for 11 years."

Later, in the party's VIP area, he says he is here because he admires Virgin America shareholder Richard Branson and the "lightness" of VA crews.

"When there is turbulence, they say it in such a nice way that it makes you want to sit down," he says.

At 11:06 p.m., the Fly Girls climb onto a makeshift stage, posing beneath a giant screen running results of a party texting survey asking which Fly Girl will be the most popular. Rubyn wins for a while; Williams takes the lead after saying a few words in breathy tones.

"Whoo, baby!" a male voice yells from the crowd.

Dunnigan hits the dance floor with pals, pumping her fists to solicit votes. "I'm blessed," she says of the TV experience.

All the fuss "is surreal … it's amazing!" Nguyen says.

By midnight, most VIPs have flown. And the Fly Girls — hoping to lift a few glasses and let their hair down in privacy — have flitted away, too.

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