Forget the casting couch, wannabe celebs now use reality TV as a shortcut to stardom. The sad reality is: Hollywood won't let them in the tribe.

By Josh Wolk
Updated August 02, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

After Cheap Trick and Destiny’s Child’s Michelle Williams, George Boswell is Rockford, Ill.’s biggest star. All across the working-class city are signs of his celebrity: Over 1,000 T-shirts with his face on them were sold at the local meatateria, the Beef-A-Roo. When he sits for an interview at Lino’s, a cavernous Italian restaurant, the waitress announces that the owner would like to buy him a drink. (He orders a pitcher of beer.) Teenagers have stopped him at the bargain movie theater to ask why he’s there, being a millionaire and all.

George is part of the fastest-growing phylum of celebrity: the reality-TV contestant. This stocky, indefatigably jolly, 43-year-old father of three was locked in the Big Brother house in 2000, where he distinguished himself by dressing up as a spaceman and a soldier (complete with colander helmet). Upon being voted out of the house, the commercial roofer was astounded at the attention he got. He was featured in PEOPLE and on the Sally Jessy Raphael Show. Winnebago, Ill. (pop. 2,958), the farm town he grew up in, held a George Boswell Day, as did Kemah, Tex. (pop. 2,333), a city George had never heard of, which adopted him as a favorite son.

All this adulation taught George one thing: He was destined for showbiz. ”I would really like to do it, and I will do it,” he says. ”The bottom line is, I made that show.” He’d always wanted to stop his grueling roofing work, and now he has dismantled his business and devoted himself to acting full-time. He has spent two stints in L.A. going to casting calls (to no avail…although he did get one callback at Disney). He is also working on a kids’ show pilot called Uncle George’s Barnyard Adventures, which he is shooting in his garage. He hasn’t landed any paying gigs yet (his family did get 25 free pairs of shoes for appearing at a mall opening), and now his loyal wife of 24 years, Teresa, supports the family as a tax preparer. (Contrary to Rockford-teen assumptions, George earned only $4,550 for BB.)

”My ultimate goal would be to be on Saturday Night Live,” says George, who is now taking improv classes in Chicago. ”And I could do it.”

George is just one of many reality-TV vets who are convinced they can do it. After the cast of the first Survivor became dirt-covered cover boys and girls, the reality genre looked like a sure way to skip all that pesky thespian dues paying and make it in the biz. And with all networks loading up on their own backstabapaloozas, there are plenty of opportunities for anyone with a fame fantasy to make it come true. ”It’s contagious,” says Survivor and Amazing Race casting director Lynne Spiegel Spillman. ”On these shows there’s a camera following them and they become really comfortable. They forget they’re not an actor and they come off thinking, ‘That wasn’t so bad. I think I want to do that.’ You’re the celebrity of your town, and it all feeds off each other.”

With outsize personalities growing one size larger to ensure camera time, every reality show now feels like an audition tape for future work. And every time a series ends, Hollywood is invaded by a new graduating class of reality stars, each one sure that their first-name-basis relationship with America will speed the star-making process along. Packs of reality-TV cliques roam all over L.A.: Josh Souza from the first Big Brother (who is trying to sell a talk show for teens that he would host) is a next-door neighbor to and tennis regular with Temptation Island couple Kaya Wittenburg and Valerie Penso, and he gleefully provides phone numbers for his other ”really good friends,” who range from Real World: Hawaii’s Ruthie to The Mole’s Jim.