Why are so many Arizonans on reality shows? Casting directors, former contestants explain

KiMi Robinson
Arizona Republic

Each time a new season of a reality dating show is announced, there is a good chance someone from Arizona is among the cast members.

That is because Arizona is a hot spot for singles, according to two casting directors who spoke with The Arizona Republic.

“A dating show needs to go to Arizona. It is a melting pot,” said Kristen Moss, a casting director and producer in Los Angeles who has worked with shows such as "MasterChef" and "Big Brother." “I wouldn’t say people want to settle down, but they do want to mingle.”

Since 2019, seven eligible singles from metro Phoenix have appeared on television’s biggest reality dating shows, including “The Bachelor” and “Love Island.” In the most recent season of “The Bachelorette,” two men from the Phoenix area were among the 31 cast members picked to date the lead.

LIFE AFTER 'BACHELORETTE':Meet Scottsdale's Demar Jackson, one of the contestants on "The Bachelorette" in 2020

Some Arizonans have found fame after reality TV

Beyond dating shows, dozens more Arizonans have appeared on unscripted television shows including “Supernanny,” "Making It,” “American Idol,” “Worst Cooks in America” and “Dancing With the Stars” during that same time frame.

Some seasons from various unscripted shows have had more than one Arizonan in their cast, including Season 23 of “The Bachelor” (2019), Season 16 of “The Bachelorette” (2020), Season 18 of “American Idol” (2020) and Season 18 of “Worst Cooks in America” (2020).

While most people who do stints on reality TV fade back into obscurity, others have gone on to achieve varying levels of celebrity. That includes Arizonans Jordin Sparks of Season 6 of “American Idol” and Emma Stone of “In Search of the Partridge Family” (2004).

Stone, a Valley Youth Theatre alumna, won an Academy Award for Best Actress in 2017 for her role as aspiring actress Mia Dolan in “La La Land.” Sparks received a Grammy nomination in 2009 for her song “No Air.”

Kalani Hilliker, a dancer from Mesa, made her debut on “Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition” in 2013. She then became a cast member on “Dance Moms” from 2014 to 2017. She now has a loyal fan base and boasts 6 million followers on Instagram.

Reality show casting: How contestants are chosen

Recent Arizona State University graduate Mackenzie Dipman, 24, was approached more than once for “Love Island” before she appeared on Season 2, which filmed with a quarantined cast and crew in August 2020 on the Las Vegas Strip.

A casting producer asked whether she would be interested in being part of Season 1, Dipman said, but she was still completing her degree in mass communication and media studies.

Mackenzie Dipman takes part in the first recoupling ceremony on "Love Island" Season 2.

“I was in school, and I was also working a lot. At that time, I was working in the nightlife industry,” she said. “So I kind of eliminated myself from the process. I was like, ‘It's just not the right time for me.’”

“Obviously, I'm flattered,” Dipman said. “I wasn't that surprised because the (“Love Island”) producer, she's very good at her job. She was very consistent and kept coming back.”

Dipman did not make it to the end of her season, at which point viewers vote for their favorite couple to win a $100,000 prize. However, the romance she found there is one of the only relationships that lasted beyond the show. She and Connor Trott, an accountant in Pittsburgh, have been dating for six months, marking Dipman's longest relationship to date.

MEET MACKENZIE:'I got what I came here for': Mackenzie on life and love after 'Love Island'

Other Arizonans who have been cast on reality shows, such as 26-year-old hair stylist Shannon Akins, submitted themselves for consideration through an online application. Her application for "Worst Cooks in America" took her more than 30 minutes and asked “interesting questions,” she said, such as what she has cooked in the past, whom she likes to cook for and what her kitchen fears are.

“I put hot oil and cutting (produce),” she said.

Akins, who began filming as one of 16 “kitchen disasters,” won “Worst Cooks in America” Season 18. She filmed in spring 2019 on Long Island, and the season aired in early 2020.

How do you audition for a reality show?

Two weeks after she sent in her online application in January 2019, Akins received a call in the middle of class at the beauty school she was attending.

“Something just told me to answer it,” she said.

Shannon Akins, 26, is a hairstylist in Mesa. She competed on Season 18 of "Worst Cooks in America" on Food Network.

It was a casting producer, and Akins wasn’t willing to give up this chance to be on "Worst Cooks in America" — even if it meant being kicked out of class for taking the call.

After the 45-minute conversation, during which she left class after getting in trouble for using her phone, the producer told her that he “really enjoyed my personality.” A subsequent phone call gave the producers “the clarity they needed to move forward with process,” she said.

After that, there was a Skype video chat with the casting team. Then she submitted an audition tape that consisted of her accidentally burning a chicken stuffed with goat cheese and spinach with a side of almond milk cornbread “that was really gritty and grainy.”

That convinced the team that she would be a perfect candidate for “Worst Cooks in America.”

How long does reality TV casting take?

Both Akins and Dipman waited months between their first contact with show representatives and learning they were officially cast.

Kristen Moss said this drawn-out process is normal. In her experience, there is an initial phone call with an associate, then an interview over video chat.

“If they really pop in that interview, they’d go into the editing phase,” she said.

The recording of the interview is sent to an editor, who trims it down to a two- to three- minute package that is moved along to network executives.

“The network only sees final edits of the best cast members, and the network makes the final decision,” Moss said.

Dipman, who was in talks with a producer beginning in January 2020, later spoke with network executives a few times before being cast for “Love Island,” which airs on CBS.

Connor Trott and Mackenzie Dipman chat with James McCool on Season 2, Episode 1.

“I wouldn't say there were that many interviews. I'd say maybe four or five total,” she said. “They have to speak so vaguely the whole time that I was very unsure of whether or not I was going on and how seriously to take it until literally June or July.”

Among the requirements was a questionnaire for producers to get to know her personality and the type of person she wants to date. The order of the cast members who enter the “Love Island” villa is deliberate, she said, and determined by whom the producers see as potential matches. Her current boyfriend, Connor Trott, is the man she chose to pair up with in the first episode without having any prior interactions.

“For 'Love Island,' I knew that they were looking for a guy that would be the best match for me,” Dipman said. “(Producers) very clearly told me that they did not expect Connor.”

What do producers look for when casting for reality shows?

Before the pandemic, TV shows with larger audiences, such as “Survivor,” “The Bachelor, “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent,” would put out casting calls and host auditions in large cities.

In 2019, “Bachelor” casting producer Kelli Kendal was in Chandler for that year’s casting call. Kendal told Arizona Republic reporter Claire Rafford that producers come to Arizona every year looking for contestants.

AUDITIONING FOR 'THE BACHELOR':A Republic reporter went to a casting call for 'The Bachelor.' Here's what happened

While many people apply to be on these TV shows, some, like Dipman, are sought out by casting producers who scour social media and, prior to the pandemic, places where young people gather.

Casting recruiters are the “boots on the ground,” said Jazzy Collins, a supervising casting director. Recruiters would go to places such as Whole Foods and bars to look for potential cast members.

“That was a huge way of finding a lot of people for ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘(The) Bachelorette,’ especially ‘The Bachelorette,’ because guys never really come forward when it comes to being on a dating show,” Collins said.

Collins is best known as a casting producer for five seasons of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” that aired between 2016 and 2019. She was also a casting producer for Dipman’s season of “Love Island,” though she was not the one who discovered Dipman.

The contestants Collins has found for various shows have done well. Among her casting accomplishments are Bryan Abasolo, who proposed to and married Season 13 “Bachelorette” star Rachel Lindsay, the series' first Black lead. Collins was also half of the duo that cast “The Bachelor” Season 23 winner Cassie Randolph.

Collins also is recognized within the “Bachelor” world as someone who spoke out about the “many microaggressions” she experienced as one of the show’s few Black staff members.

In an open letter to the show’s creators posted on her Instagram account in June, Collins said the show was “white-washed for decades, inside and out.” In light of the show casting its first Black “Bachelor” lead in 25 seasons, she also called on the franchise to "select a diverse cast and production team for Season 25 of 'The Bachelor' and moving forward."

After criticism from Collins, Lindsay, 163,000 viewers who signed the Campaign for Anti-Racism in the Bachelor Franchise petition and a newly formed group called the Bachelor Diversity Campaign, "Bachelor" creators released a one-paragraph statement on June 12.

It reads, in part, "We acknowledge our responsibility for the lack of representation of people of color on our franchise and pledge to make significant changes to address this issue moving forward."

Casting producers look for ‘people (who) have star quality’

During the pandemic, most recruiting is done on Zoom and Skype. Collins still prefers to meet people in person but has nonetheless adapted to a “100% virtual” casting experience.

Whether she interviews potential cast members on Zoom or in person, Collins looks for “that glimmer in their eyes.”

“After working so long in casting, I realized I like to call it people (who) have star quality,” Collins said. “They're open to the experience (and) have a fantastic personality and really know how to hold themselves and talk through things. That's usually someone that I gravitate towards.

“If you know how to speak and you can engage a room and have a good old time and kind of be willing to put yourself out there on television, you're a great match for TV.”

‘In Scottsdale, everybody’s got the look’

Kristen Moss, founder of the American Reality Television Awards, also looks for star quality. But she has a different word for it: “The look.”

When she was casting for a dating show, Moss said, she searched for people who took care of their appearance. If someone doesn’t have six-pack abdominals, “You just have to act like you do (have them) … as long as you have the confidence,” she said.

She also looked for specific personalities.

“When it comes to a personality for television, if you get an emotion from a person, whether you love them or hate them, that’s a good thing,” she said. “You want them to spark some sort of emotion in you."

She added, “You can be the biggest sweetheart in the world. You can be the quintessential perfect woman, and it doesn’t always make perfect TV."

In 2010, Moss spent a couple months as a casting recruiter in the Phoenix area seeking cast members for the MTV show “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” She knew to go to Scottsdale for people who have this “look.”

“In Scottsdale, everybody’s got the look,” Moss said. “I was looking for the person everybody was looking at, the life of the party … someone that stands out. When they smile, their face lights up.”

THE BEST AND THE WORST:From bonding with Gwen Stefani to 'thinning the herd': AZ reality stars' best, worst moments

Why casting directors look for people from Phoenix

It didn’t take long for Moss to realize she could find any type of personality within metro Phoenix.

“I wasn’t just in Scottsdale,” she said. “I was in Tempe where there are students, Cave Creek where there are cowboys.”

Central Phoenix has a population of “hipsters,” Moss said. She scouted, among other venues, farmers markets and baseball games.

“It ended up becoming a really big hot spot for casting,” Moss said of Arizona. “There’s everything in one place.”

“Arizona itself has a lot of single people; that’s what I noticed,” Jazzy Collins said.

According to a 2020 WalletHub report released in December, out of 182 U.S. cities Tempe was ranked among the top 10 for heterosexual singles and most notable for its cost-friendliness.

The nightlife in Scottsdale can have a Miami feel. It’s like South Beach, without the sand.

Other hot spots for casting dating shows include Florida — “Miami has a lot of single people” —and Los Angeles, Collins said.

While attending ASU, Dipman, a Chaparral High School graduate, worked part-time jobs in Old Town Scottsdale.

“I think Scottsdale is just a more transient place,” Dipman said. “A lot of people are there … to make money. And so if they got another opportunity to do something else, it'd be really easy to be like, ‘Sure, I'll go do it.’”

In 2011, Republic reporter Kellie Hwang wrote about “Bad Girls Club” and its spin-off show doing a casting call in metro Phoenix. Hwang wrote that the Valley was a “casting hotbed for the Oxygen network.”

"We always have great luck in Phoenix," casting director Megan Sleeper told Hwang. "Tempe and Phoenix seem to attract so many different, great personalities. It's such a fun and lively city, and we tend to find really vibrant people that like to go out and have a good time."

Why Arizonans want to be on reality TV

Both Akins, who got $25,000 for winning “Worst Cooks in America,” and Dipman, who found her longest romantic relationship to date from “Love Island,” have no regrets about their reality TV experiences.

“There were some very challenging times (while filming),” Akins said. “There were blood, sweat and tears, literally.”

“I had no idea I was going to go so far on the show,” she said. “There was everything in me telling me I couldn’t go home until I won.”

While filming “Love Island,” Dipman received criticism from some viewers for her actions on the show, including exploring a relationship with another cast member while temporarily separated from Trott.

“For what it's worth, (the show) may have done me a disservice sometimes with what they showed, and maybe it wasn't as true to what was happening, but I think that they honored me in a good way with how they let me exit,” Dipman said. “So I'm appreciative to them for that. I feel like I got to have the send-off and the exit that I felt proud of.”

Dipman was not “coupled up” with Trott at the time of her exit in Week 4 but left with the message, “If we're meant to be, we will be.”

“It's kind of crazy looking back on it now. But I would do it all over again for sure. I definitely would,” Dipman said. “(I have) no regrets about it, even six months out.”

Reach the reporter at kimi.robinson@gannett.com or at 602-444-4968. Follow her on Twitter @kimirobin and Instagram @ReporterKiMi.

Thank you for subscribing. This premium content is made possible because of your continued support of local journalism.