8 twentysomethings. 21 cameras. One hot tub. Zero privacy. The story of Canada’s first reality show, from the people who lived it.
Mere months after Richard Hatch and company were shipped off to Borneo for the first season of Survivor, and Big Brother had corralled its inaugural cohort of fame-hungry houseguests, Canada’s response to the reality-TV boom went live. Launched in January 2001, U8TV: The Lofters saw eight Canadians, aged 19 to 29, converge on a 1,000-square-metre Toronto loft at Richmond and Peter to live “a life less ordinary” for a year. The daily minutiae of their lives (choice of breakfast cereal, underwear, booze) were broadcast at U8TV.com 24 hours a day, seven days a week, thanks to nearly two dozen “snoop” cameras wedged in the plush loft’s every crevice. As well, camera crews often followed the cast when they ventured out of their digs into the Entertainment District.
The first season’s roster offered up a host of relatable archetypes—vixen, nerd, artist, joker, virgin, ice queen, career guy, and macho man. These “Lofters” were responsible for chatting with viewers and hosting 13 lifestyle shows online, covering everything from sex and relationships to real news, then having their days regurgitated back to them via the Life Network’s hyper-voyeuristic recap shows four nights a week, plus a live show on Fridays.
There were fights, parties, breakdowns, drunken indiscretions, and liberal amounts of naked hot-tubbing—essentially an average weekend for downtown twentysomethings, except these ones had their mile-wide smiles plastered on billboards and in bus shelters across the city. The Toronto Star compared the presentation to “watching psychedelic paint dry.” Alliance Atlantis bigwig Phyllis Yaffe deemed it “the future of broadcasting.” And the people involved with the early-millennial cult landmark? Well, we thought you should hear it from them.
Zev Shalev: I was working at Canada AM with Fiorella, and we were just starting to experiment with some stunt-type segments. One was called “A guy, a girl, and a computer.” It was at the start of e-commerce, so we took a guy and a girl and put them in a loft in Toronto to see if they could survive for a week based only on what they could order online. My sister, Lili, and I started to think, How would you super-size that? We just thought it would be cool to do a show that felt completely real, that would take away the veil that separates the personalities from the audience. What if they could just be who they are?
Fiorella Grossi: It was the website component that sold [former CEO of Alliance Atlantis] Michael MacMillan. I still remember the day he green-lit the project. I couldn’t even believe it. It was the whole idea of the social interaction and opening up the web, TV, and just connecting. U8TV was considered one of the first internet television stations, really leaps and bounds ahead of its time. There was nothing out there like it.
THE CASTING PROCESS
Fiorella Grossi: We travelled across the country interviewing people, went through their tapes, and eventually brought the 25 semi-finalists into the loft over two weekends and watched them for a bit—we wanted to see how everyone reacted on camera. It wasn’t about getting the most extreme people; we just wanted interesting people with different takes on life. Then, it was basically pulling our hair out, going back and forth; falling in love, not falling in love with the hopefuls.
Trevor “Tre” Smith: I went to pick up my car from a friend’s house at 3:30 in the morning after work and I heard this commercial on the radio: “Do you want to live a life less ordinary? Do you want to be a part of Canadian television history? U8TV: The Lofters is accepting applications online.” I locked onto it, like, “What? That sounds awesome!” I hit the gym every day for two weeks before [my audition], I wore my tight black t-shirt and jeans; I looked the part I thought they were searching for.
Jennifer Hedger: I walked into this big theatre, realizing I had about 30 seconds to pique their interest. I remember them asking if I would ever get a tattoo, and I wouldn’t have, but I was like, “Of course I would!” I can’t even recall what I said I would get, but it was such a bullshit answer. But in that moment, I was like, “I’ll do whatever you want!”
David Keystone: During the auditions, I wasn’t a maniac trying to get airtime. I went back to school thinking, “There’s no way I’m going to get that.” I got a phone call a little while later, and the producer said, “We want to invite you to the loft, but I have one last question: Are you okay to jerk off on camera?” I’m lying in my dorm, like “What the fuck is this?” They were trying to be edgy. So I said, “Jerk off on camera? I’ll jerk off all over your face.” I think that was when I got it. I walked out of my dorm room and said, “I’m out of here.”
THE FIRST SEASON
Fiorella Grossi: All of us were a bit deer-in-the-headlights, like “Oh, shit. It’s here.” My father was dumbfounded that I was putting this stuff on the air. I think he thought I was running a brothel or something.
David Keystone: I walked in the first day so excited. Everyone thought I was some sort of lunatic. They made [one of the first] storylines about how “Dave’s crazy.” I was like “You’re fuckin’ crazy for not freaking out right now.” Like, look at this place! We’re in a fully wired loft! This was on Richmond Street when it was a real club district, and we were living on camera for a year. It was insane.
Jennifer Hedger: I remember thinking, Oh, my god, they did a really good job casting, because half of these people I wanted to kill, a couple I could see myself being friends with, and I didn’t know where the other ones even came from. I had never lived with roommates before that. I remember thinking those first few nights, when the dishes were piled up in the sink and Tre was coming in super-late and being loud and drunk, that it was exciting but also, “Holy shit, this could be a long year.”
Kalen Hayman: At the beginning, Dave and I were like, “How are we gonna get high?” I mean, what do you do at 19? You’re in school, you’re smoking weed. We didn’t realize how much our friendship was going to help us through [the experience]. At the time, it was like, No, smoking weed is going to get us through.
Fiorella Grossi: I noticed the show was starting to get traction with the whole big Tre and Sandy [Medeiros] fight, when Sandy’s sister came to stay. It kinda reminds me of Jersey Shore—the show didn’t do really well until Snooki got punched out.
Trevor “Tre” Smith: You could throw any name out there and I probably got into it with them. Valéry [Gagné], for some reason, had launched a campaign against me. I remember she started calling me names, tapping me on the head, and…this had been going on for months. I was sitting on the pool table drinking a coke and she was giving me grief seven inches from my face. I couldn’t ignore her anymore. I said something she didn’t like, so she threw her drink in my face. I, instinctively, threw my drink in her face. Of course, all the Lofters girls who were watching her and had said nothing gasped with their hands over their mouths, like “How could you?!” [That clip] was played on the show for weeks.
Arisa Cox: It was such a high production load. Four new half-hour TV shows a week, plus all of the stuff we did online and 21 cameras going around the clock. Sometimes, it made for incredible storytelling, and other times, it meant scraping a story together. There was one episode [focussed on] like, “Is Arisa gay?” because I hung out with the bisexual chick [Valéry] on the show. It was so obvious to us when things were stretched.
Ed Middleton: The rules [for the crew] were to keep a distance—no fraternizing, no dating—because [the producers] wanted the show to be as unbiased as possible. They didn’t want us to be afraid to film them in some kind of a hard moment. But we spent so much time with these guys that you’d have to be almost inhuman not to become friends. I won’t say the names now, but there was one cast member who was suspected of cheating on their outside boyfriend or girlfriend. I remember waiting outside of a movie theatre, waiting to get a shot of this person leaving with whoever they were with. I was filming that and thinking, “Ugh, I feel a little dirty right now,” you know?
Mathieu Chantelois: We were only alone once without any producers or cameras, and it was so exciting. The cast members created a prank that we would play on the viewers, the producers, everybody. Sandy and I were in the kitchen making a cake, and we thought Tre was always eating our food, so instead of putting water in the cake, we pretended to put pee in it. I went in the washroom and came out with something yellow—it was apple juice—and mixed it into the cake. So, Dave and Tre came home in the middle of the night, pretending they were drunk, and for like 10 minutes they’re talking about eating the cake. Jennifer woke up in the night, ate the cake, and pretended to puke it up. The next morning, we get in a huge food fight; there’s cake all over the wall. Then, for three or four days, we talked to the cameras, saying how mad we were at each other. On the Friday live show, the eight of us were there, and we were like, “Okay, guys, it was apple juice.” The producers were so furious.
Kalen Hayman: You can only plan so much for anything, especially on reality TV, so you throw the ants in a box and see how they climb all over each other.
Fiorella Grossi: The whole point was to try and document the lives of these twentysomethings in Toronto, and, yes, that involved sex, drugs, rock and roll, fights—all of those things. We didn’t want to shy away from that; that wouldn’t be real life.
THE SECOND SEASON
Fiorella Grossi: We tried to change the format to see if there was a way to get more interest, like adding some competition [with an elimination process] and rotating characters, so it was fresh. It put a lot more stress on the Lofters—they had to work harder. We went with people who were older and had more experience.
Jason Ruta: I remember the press conference when they were introducing us to the media. One reporter said to Fiorella, “Wow, they all seem to get along!” and she was like, “Yeah, they do quite well, don’t they?” Carolyn, Donny, Dan, and Heather and I got along really well. Annie and Danny were sort of the misfits of our crew who most of the drama surrounded. Mine was like a coming-of-age story, Carolyn and Donny were having this romance, Heather was this bubbly Energizer Bunny type having some family issues. It was a bit more personal drama, but a bit more loosey-goosey.
Zev Shalev: We didn’t want to repeat characters or storylines, so we looked for people who brought freshness to the show. I think we did that, but it was a fun, less complicated kind of crowd, maybe.
Jason Ruta: I was nervous as heck to host my first SoGay TV episode. Scott Thompson from Kids in the Hall was doing a show called Lowest Show on Earth in Toronto at the time, and I introduced him as “Scott Thompson from the New Kids on the Block.” I was so outside my body that day. We had a meeting a day later with [producer] Jason Ford, who was like, “That was not good.” By the end of the show, though, Thompson had his shirt and pants off and he was in our hot tub in his underwear.
Zev Shalev: I think it was such an open book in the first season that everyone started to sort of contain themselves a bit more. We got better at the production.
Jason Ruta: When I was eliminated, I was ready to go. I felt in a way that I got what I needed from the experience. Four months is a long time—I was ready to get out and live my life. I was actually glad. Now I look back and I wish I had stayed, but who knows where I would have ended up?
Mathieu Chantelois: When we watch reality TV now, people are on an island or they’re in the Big Brother house, but the contestants don’t see what viewers are saying about them. We had the online chat, so 24/7, I was turning on a computer to 1,000 people [commenting on] what I was wearing, asking why I didn’t brush my teeth for more than two minutes, why I drank someone else’s milk, saying that I was a loser or looked fat. Sometimes, I was getting 50 emails a day. I went to get an HIV test on the show and they did a full week about it, and I would get emails from people, saying, “I’m a high-school teacher in Winnipeg and my kids can’t sleep at night because they are afraid you have AIDS. Can you please tell me the results now?” I was always an average gay guy living my life in Montreal, and suddenly I had Tiësto or Honey Dijon coming on Friday night to spin in my living room, I could invite 50 of my friends, and Budweiser would sponsor the party. I was one of the coolest guys in Toronto. It was very, very strange.
Trevor “Tre” Smith: I remember one morning talking with [someone online], and they were like “Hey Tre! I’ve been waiting all night for you to wake up! I was watching you sleep, and you kicked off the covers, and I just watched you lying there in your underwear.” It hit me like a bag of bricks.
Fiorella Grossi: I remember thinking, “Michael [MacMillan] asked to see us! Maybe he’s going to give us another year!” When he told us [about the cancellation], we were all devastated. This was a project we lived and breathed for three years. It wasn’t a nine-to-five job we went home and forgot about. It was 24 hours a day, always on call. It was almost like I had died and was seeing my life flashing back.
Zev Shalev: It was a lot to take on, and I don’t know that any of us really anticipated what it would be like. Very few shows go without any sort of break or hiatus or anything, so it was exhausting, though we could easily have kept going.
Kalen Hayman: I always remind people that we were slated between Martha Stewart Living and Dogs With Jobs. Not ideal.
Mathieu Chantelois: [After the first season ended], I went to Australia with my boyfriend, Marcelo. I needed to be where no one could recognize me. I remember swimming with sharks and looking around like, “Where’s the camera?” I was used to being filmed eating yogurt, and people could comment on me eating the yogurt in a chat. I had been sitting in front of producers all day who asked me questions like, “What do you think of your roommate?” Or they’d ask about the celebrity who was coming to visit the loft, or the decoration of my room. Then I had no one asking me questions. Nobody cared.
David Keystone: Right out of the loft, I got a job for three months date-stamping individually wrapped donuts in a freezer in Richmond Hill for some donut distribution company. I went in every day at 7 a.m. and my bosses were like, “How is this guy fucking happy with this job?” I would put on my snowman suit, lock myself in a giant freezer, put on headphones, and I couldn’t have been happier. I wanted to be as far away from the limelight as possible until I figured out what I wanted to do.
Fiorella Grossi: The whole point of The Lofters wasn’t just watching eight people go crazy and party in a loft—it was about people watching it and identifying with it, and feeling less lonely. All of them were raising issues that made viewers feel less like freaks.
Ed Middleton: Even at CBC, where I work, we now have a factual entertainment department, which includes shows like Dragon’s Den, George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight—shows rooted in reality. That didn’t exist when I started there. We were at the beginning of something huge and had no idea.
Trevor “Tre” Smith: Did I do and say things and was I portrayed in ways I didn’t like? Sure, but I like to think that that guy helped mould this guy. I never would have wrestled a 900-pound tiger that bit me while doing a live show; I covered Ground Zero two weeks after 9/11. I was looking for something like that my whole life and didn’t even know it.
David Keystone: As much as there was controversy and bullshit, it was good times. It’s weird, like, you haven’t seen some of these people in 12 years and your last memory of them is this really intense experience. It was a crazy crew, man. The only term you can use to describe it perfectly is “shit show.”
Jennifer Hedger: Without the loft, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I wouldn’t have gone on Off the Record, I wouldn’t have met Michael Landsberg, I wouldn’t have interviewed at TSN, and I wouldn’t be hosting SportsCentre right now. So when people say to me, “How did you get your job?” I say, “Well, it’s kind of a long story.”