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A chat with the ''Kid Nation'' pioneers

”Lord of the Flies” exploitation or ground-breaking reality TV genius? CBS’ new reality series has been accused of both, but the young ”pioneers” who participated certainly don’t seem to have any regrets

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Monty Brinton

With a tagline of ”40 children, 40 days, no adults. Can they build a better world than grown ups?,” CBS’ new fall reality series Kid Nation conjures images of a network television Lord of the Flies. Questions over who would subject their child to hard labor and grueling competition with the entire nation as audience have already troubled the show, which debuts Sept. 19. But a behind-the-scenes look quickly douses the critics, revealing a show far more creative than a reincarnation of Golding?s gruesome novel. ”The participants in reality TV had all started to feel the same,” executive producer Tom Forman says. ”We wanted to do something really different and turn the genre upside down.”

To understand Kid Nation, picture summer camp. In the Old West. With campers doing all the chores. As a group, they were told to make a society that works. Unlike LOTF the show doesn’t kill anyone off. And you didn?t need a conch to be able to speak. What they needed to do instead was hold council meetings, compete in showdowns, and try to win $20,000 each episode — in the form of a star made of real gold.

Now picture the quintessential group of reality TV personalities — from loud and abrasive to shy and sensitive. These ”pioneers” come from all corners of the U.S. Some were found in open auditions while others were plucked from gifted-and-talented organizations, music camps, theaters, national spelling bees, or the local rodeo. EW caught up with 12 Kid Nation pioneers, who told us what they think they got out of having spent 40 days together in the desert.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you want to be a part of the show?
MORGAN, 12: I was like, ”Yes! Kids finally get a voice.”
KELSEY, 11: It looked like it was going to be a good adventure. I don’t appreciate all the technology at my home, so I decided I might as well learn to appreciate it.
TAYLOR, 10: I looked at the name ? Kid Nation ? and I read about it and it said we would be running our own town, and I thought, That’d be real neat. You wouldn’t have to listen to adults or nothin’. You’d go out there and run your own town, literally.

What was it like with cameras following your every move? Were they hard to ignore?
MICHAEL T, 14: For the first three hours they kept saying, ”Don’t look at us! We’re not here!” But it’s like, ”You keep running around tripping over things.”
DK, 14: I really did try to not notice them. When you’re completely 100 percent conscious of cameras being around, you get self-conscious and you start saying stuff your parents want you to say. That’s not what it’s about, it’s about being your own self.
ANJAY, 12: I didn’t like if they got too close and started interrupting us when we’re doing something important. Like I’m building a fire and my hands are in the fire, so I’m like, ”Get lost! I don’t want to burn myself here!”
GREG, 15: One time I got tired of the cameras so I went and sat in the outhouse. When I came out there were cameras right there, waiting to film me. They were ready.

What was it like out there in Bonanza City, N.M.?
ZACH, 10: It was so much harder than it looked. I see a well. I see dishes. I see chickens and goats and canned food for 40 days. I didn’t even know if I could do it.
TAYLOR: I’m a major beauty queen; I’ve done pageants since I was 2 or 3. And I was out there like, ”I’m a beauty queen, I don’t do dishes.” Because I did not want to do those nasty dishes. Then I was like, “You know what? I’m a beauty queen. I might not do dishes, but I’m ready to get down and dirty.”
SOPHIA, 14: We could only bring three outfits, no toothbrush. We were dirty, we were gross, we got used to it. We learned, running our own world, that physical appearances didn’t matter so much anymore.
ALEX, 9: Sometimes it got freezing, freezing cold, and sometimes it was really, really boiling hot, like 100 degrees. It was scorching.

Was it at least fun being in the ”Old West”?
MICHAEL T: I think I was the only kid not to bring a cowboy hat, which was entertaining. It was like one of my favorite movies, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but without the buried treasure and the shooting.
SOPHIA: I always wanted to go around and say, ”This town ain’t big enough for the two of us.”
KELSEY: I’m a suburban girl. I like the city and shopping. But I actually liked it because we were really free and we had animals to play with. Whenever I got upset and my friends weren’t there, I’d go to the animal pen to the goats and I would pet them and talk to them about it. It got some things off your shoulders, off your chest.
DK: It was completely, utterly different from Chicago. It was like stepping into a whole different world. You’ve got desert and cacti around you. We’ve got none of that in Chicago! We’ve got skyscrapers, buildings, trees. It was ”Wild, Wild West” style. The whole atmosphere was great.

What did you miss the most from home?
ALEX: My parents, and washing and drying machines. That I missed a lot, because laundry strained my shirt really bad. [Whispers] I reused my underpants.
LAUREL, 12: I’m a real materialistic girl. I love fashion big time. But I didn’t miss it. I was the happiest I ever was in my life. I loved it there. I would go back in a minute.
ZACH: My family and friends of course, but also Chicken Francese, which is my favorite dish. It’s a lemon chicken and it’s really, really good. I get it at an Italian joint near my house.
MICHAEL T: What I missed more than anything was the Washington landscape and environment.
ANJAY: My brother, who turned 9 while I was away. He left a little note in my backpack that said, ”I miss you, I love you.”

Did you get homesick?
ALEX: Just the first few days, but I thought about how my parents would want me to keep going on. I thought about everything that was good there. I thought about all my friends. I thought about why it’d be good to keep staying.
ANJAY: Not really. I adapt quickly to anything.
SOPHIA: Towards the end when I wanted to talk to my mom for advice I’d go in my little corner and think about it and then I’d be upset. It was like, I’ve got no one to talk to.

Was crying a normal part of life in Bonanza?
DK: Most of us tried to hide it; we didn’t want to seem too wimpy. This is national TV. But there were definitely tears shed and tempers lost.
SOPHIA: Yeah, because for the first time it was everyone for themselves. There was no one there who cared about you more than anyone else, so I was crying a lot.
KELSEY: There was crying every day. Your friends would be the best at comforting you, but then there’d be your enemies who would be really rude to you when you were crying. They would criticize you even more and that could make you cry even more.
ALEX: Some people would cry because other people were crying.
ZACH: We’re just kids. Putting us through this experience, it’s tough. People who say, Oh that’s easy, I could do that — they don’t know half of it.

Did kids fight or bully each other?
SOPHIA: The people who would have been bullies weren’t so much because the cameras were there. If you’re going to be on national television as a bully…
GREG: There was a few times when it got tough. People were mad, people were yelling. Then people would talk it out and work it out and everything would be fine. Then another one would start right back up.
DK: Sometimes we were going at each other’s throats and literally wanted to choke each other.

Your ages varied quite a bit — from 8 to 15 — did it make a difference in the game?
GREG: It’s hard for me being 15 and having a 9-year-old be the leader. But a 9-year-old could be a better leader than George Bush. I think anyone could be, but whatever.
MORGAN: With the wide age range, it was pretty easy to have a lot of drama and a lot of controversy.
MIKE K, 11: In the beginning, it became ”I’m older than you, I don’t need to listen to you.” Eventually age didn’t even matter.
MICHAEL T: It was very important to learn that an 8-year-old could come up with a different solution and not be the same type of leader as a 15-year-old, but they’re different and that’s something to be valued.

Your group represents many different religious, cultural, and geographic backgrounds. How did those differences work together?
ANJAY: We had to do a religious service and one of the council members said, ”The Christians are gonna go over here, the Jews go over here, and…is that it?” I kept on saying, ”Mike? Hello? Hello?” Because I’m Hindu. And someone finally pointed me out to him.
LAUREL: We don’t focus on all of that, we just focus on who we become friends with and who we like being around. It doesn’t matter what’s on the outside.
DK: Some of the biggest wars have been fought in the name of religion. That’s a very tough subject to come along on. There were Christians and Catholic Christians and pagans. It was weird at first, but everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

NEXT PAGE: Returning home

Let’s be honest, after chores were done, was there still time to be kids?
ANJAY: We had parties in the saloon. I can say I got sick several times.
KELSEY: At nighttime, we would play pranks. We would take toilet paper and wrap it around the outhouse. We would have cornstarch fights. We wanted to be like kids sometimes and not always adults.
ALEX: We played games like tying ropes across the street so that they formed an X shape, then jumping up and down on it. Talking was really popular, that’s why we’re so noisy.
ZACH: I feel like it’s important to have your childhood, but in situations like these you have to buckle down and be mature. You can’t mess around and be a kid when you’re in a tough situation like that.

Anything you did that you’re really hoping the whole nation doesn’t see?
MICHAEL T: When we got into world issues I hope I don’t look like a complete, ultimate, left-wing neo-liberal. I don’t think I will, but if I do, that might creep some people out.
GREG: Yes. There were a few arguments and things where I probably look like an ass on TV, but it worked out in the end.
SOPHIA: I went in a bathing suit on camera. I was like, Okay, now I’ve done that I can pretty much do anything.

When your 40 days was up, what was it like being home again?
MORGAN: I could actually smell the fast food, I was like, “Ahh, finally, society!”
MIKE K: There were times my mom had to remind me that I don’t make the rules anymore.
MICHAEL T: It was a burden off of your shoulders to not be making every decision. It was also sad, missing being a really active hand in the society you’re living in.
ZACH: It was hard to get out of that competitive state of mind. My parents would say, ”Why are you working so hard?” I’d say, ”I’m trying to get ready for the next show…down.”
LAUREL: I got updated on all my teen soap operas I missed. I’m addicted to them. Then I was like, [Sighs] ”I wish I was back so bad.”

What was the first thing you did when you got back?
DK: I went to the bathroom and flushed the toilet for like 30 minutes. It sounded like music hearing the toilet flush.
MICHAEL T: I took as long a shower as I possibly could because I was filthy and smelled disgusting.
ANJAY: I went to Denny’s and finally had something civilized.
ZACH: When I was there I decided I’m going to be a vegetarian. Yeah, that’s gone. I ate a steak the first night I got back.
MIKE K: I come home, I step out of the car, my 9-year-old brother and sister come running at me and I lift them up in the air and throw them over my shoulders. I’m like, “Couldn’t do that when I left, wow!”

What did you gain from this experience?
LAUREL: I learned a lot about myself. What I wanted out of life was more clear. I was a better friend. I’m more secure about myself, I don’t doubt myself so much.
MORGAN: Every person went there for a really specific reason. I went there to find myself, and I think I did.
MIKE K: I felt really proud of myself that I could just be myself there and be so great when I was just myself. I didn’t have to change to be good.

What do you hope viewers learn from your experience?
GREG: I hope we proved to adults that kids can do more than they think they can do. Parents don’t have to put their kids on a leash until they’re 18 and then boot them out.
DK: People don’t always see kids as mature. This was our chance to prove we’re more than these innocent youths. Sometimes we can even do better than some adults, I’m not ashamed to say.
LAUREL: That they can’t underestimate us because we can do just as much as they can.