Vidalia removed her mask, tucked her hair behind her ears, and leaned forward instinctively towards the makeup artist. He sprayed something into his hand, applied it to her face, and cocked his head, so that he would have been looking into her eyes had she not already been gazing into the distance.
All contestants had been asked to come “hair and makeup ready” to the set each day, which Vidalia had assumed meant she could turn up in no makeup, but the producers had taken one look at her and blanched, which told her that at least she really was passing for a woman now. This was still somewhat surreal and funny to her—she had enjoyed upsetting people and was still getting used to the banality of not being gawked at in a skirt. In all honesty, she did not prefer it. It made womanhood a little boring, when what she generally liked about it was that it was anything but.
The only other contestant forced into makeup was James, a cisgender man with bright white teeth, biceps emphasized by his tight shirts, and an affable nature that manifested in a bashful hand run across his scruffy chin whenever complimented. The resulting eye and lip situation looked garish in person but lovely on camera.
All nine of them—Vidalia, James, a twin, a bodybuilder, a crypto trader, a mother of five, a competitive swimmer, an unassuming woman Vidalia kept forgetting, and a health nut—were there to compete in the first season of a competitive reality TV show about facing fears. Most stunts were physical, and, inspired by the success of a big cat-themed program earlier that summer, the show was named TerROAR, because of the tiger who would sort out the top three.
Vidalia did not know how they were expected to handle the tiger, except that she had been assured repeatedly by the producer that not only a medic but several experienced tiger trainers would be on set, and that the top three contestants would be extensively prepared for the experience. She expected the show to be short-lived and was only hoping to take part in the gaudiness, and the fifty-thousand-dollar grand prize, before it ended.
The makeup artist unscrewed something, blended it, and applied it to her face. He was short and probably transmasculine: shapeless in a gray sweatshirt and a fluffy blonde undercut, which she guessed he dyed based on his skin color. She disliked asking or being asked about her gender on principle and thus extended him the same assumptive courtesy she did James.
“What’s your name again?” she asked, suddenly recalling this as an option, and blinking as he applied something to her eye. “Excuse me.”
“It’s fine. Brayden,” he said—so definitely transgender. She almost laughed, only it would have looked cruel.
“That means ‘salmon,’” she said, holding still for him to vigorously swat at her cheeks with a fat, fluffy brush.
“Really?” He squinted at his work. He had a round, babyish face for his age, with two moles near his jaw. “How do you know that?”
“I hear it often.” She had no idea whether he knew she was transgender, and as he leaned back she wondered if that was exactly what he was working out. She couldn’t remember whom she’d told, except for the executive producer, who had immediately assumed she was a transgender man and made a fool of himself.
“You’re done,” Brayden said, finally, and, “Shoot’s in fifteen,” which meant they hadn’t gone over time today. She nodded, thanked him, and got up, sweeping her eyes away from the impromptu makeup corner and toward the rest of the set. She liked having conversations in public, which was why, she supposed, she was here in the first place.
James cornered her between shooting the announcement of the second challenge and the challenge itself. Interviews had begun in the order of competitors, assigned allegedly at random.
“Good job on the last one,” he said, first, and Vidalia nodded before remembering to thank him. They had been put on a balance beam at one hundred feet in the air, essentially a thick wooden tightrope. Vidalia did not have a fear of heights and therefore had felt luckily unbothered. James had needed several minutes to compose himself before walking out, all of which had been captured with ultratight zooms and the refocusing of six cameras. The bodybuilder and mother of five had been eliminated for falling.
“You too.” She added, “I appreciated your vulnerability.”
“It was real,” he said, though she knew it had been. “Anyway, I wanted to clear something with you. I think the producers are setting us up.”
“For me? Definitely.” There went the bashful run through the beard again. “Anyway, they kept asking me leading questions, and I think I managed to avoid most of them, but, you know, they can clip together whatever they want, so just in case...”
“I understand. I’m happy to play into it.” This seemed like a logical extension for a show about people debasing themselves for money before being fed to a tiger. “If you’d like.”
“Well, I don’t mind either way. I just wanted you to know. Also...” He winced. “They really wanted me to say something about you being a woman. You know, asking me if I think you’re too pretty to win, if you’re strong enough, stuff like that. I panicked and said the strongest people in my life are women, and they left me alone.”
“I’ll have to be prepared if they ask me about your biological disadvantage based on your relative lack of slow-twitch muscle fibers,” said Vidalia.
James looked very hard at her. “Is that true?” he asked, eventually.
She loved cis people. “Yes.”
She was surprised when they asked her directly, “What do you think about James?” Robbed of the opportunity to use any of her catty, subtle, prepared lines, she instead said that he seemed gentle and nice, which confused the prompter even though it was true. When they prodded for something else, she tried throwing in that he had a delicate gait, and when they didn’t give up after that, she said he would look wonderful in a sweater dress and was approaching the point where she would have implied he belonged in the kitchen when the prompter asked her to please take this more seriously; she’d signed a contract.
She had signed a contract. It had not included a clause reading NO FUN ALLOWED. It had, of course, contained infinite NDAs, which was fine with her because she had no friends and her family wasn’t on speaking terms with her lately.
The producer waved his hand in a semicircle and told the prompter to move on. Vidalia assumed they would find some way to cut her words up for the lowest common denominator. The prompter asked this time what she would spend the prize money on, and she launched right into a speech about how ever since childhood she’d been a big fan of a particular retro TV show about a batty professor who traveled through space, and if she won the grand prize she’d take herself on a congratulatory trip to its themed amusement park. The producer gave her a big thumbs up for that one, probably because he didn’t have to redirect her from student loans or medical bills. She smiled politely at him and congratulated herself on a decent, extremely pro-capitalism answer.
In reality, she was hoping to win so she could spend not a single red cent of the money on facial feminization surgery. Just to prove something.
“You should make me look hot today,” Vidalia said, and before she could add the rest Brayden said, “Aw.”
This stopped Vidalia for a moment, because initially she assumed he meant, Aw, don’t you think you’re hot as-is? Which she did, of course—but it would have been nice to hear. Then he continued, “I don’t do a good enough job usually?”
“Oh,” she said, and, “You do. It’s just that I’m now apparently romancing James.”
“Makes sense.” Brayden tucked one hand under her chin, tilting her face so he could get at her eyes better. She tried to feel out through his movements whether she was getting a cateye, the only style of eyeliner she could recognize. “I hear you did a good job on both challenges.”
She had. The second challenge had been holding her breath while attached to a ball and chain on a pool floor. Her time had been just slightly longer than the unassuming woman’s. James had nearly tapped out, but had visibly rallied at the last moment and held on for an incredible extra thirty seconds. Vidalia thought, personally, that putting a shark in the pool was overkill, but it had made for incredible television.
“I don’t know whether to act up for more screen time or completely ignore it,” she admitted. “I didn’t think through what kind of villainess I’d be.”
“I’m not supposed to influence the show.” Brayden crooked the corner of his mouth up in a smile. “Technically, I shouldn’t be talking to you. Telling you my name was kind of a no-no.”
“Aw,” Vidalia said. She hummed quietly, as if struggling to remember. “What was it? Jayden? Rayden? I know it wasn’t Aiden, that would have been too normal.”
“Brayden,” he said, and shook his head. He tilted up the other side of her face. “See? You made me do it again.”
The unassuming woman approached her just before the next challenge announcement, flanked by cameras. Vidalia, waiting completely alone by the dock, understood she was supposed to find this unsuspicious, and so opened with, “What’s your name?”
The woman stopped. She opened and shut her mouth a few times. Someone lowered a camera.
“Shiloh,” she said, finally.
“That’s pretty,” Vidalia said. “I’m sorry I forgot. I’m Vidalia.”
“Like the onion?” She had an interesting accent, perhaps Swedish.
“My parents were comedians.” Vidalia didn’t mention their assuming she was a boy, which was what she personally found funniest about them.
“I wanted to talk to you,” Shiloh said. She looked like she was gathering steam, and failing, like a train slowly realizing it could not climb the mountain it was already sliding down. “I wanted to talk to you about James.”
“Really?” Vidalia asked. “That doesn’t pass the Bechdel test.”
“The Bechdel test. You know, when two women have to talk about something other than a man?”
If anyone else had been there, Vidalia thought, they would have found it very funny. Unfortunately, it was her and a crew of cisgender people. She comforted herself with the knowledge that she was, in fact, being very funny. She gave herself two points.
“I want to know what you’re doing,” Shiloh said, now apparently ignoring everything Vidalia was saying—which was smart; it would be easy to cut out Vidala’s side in post. “What’s between you and James?”
“This is good television,” said Vidalia. “Two women fighting over a man? Captivating. It would be even better if we kissed.”
That morning, someone had leaked the news of a trans competitor to the press. Vidalia knew it was her but had enjoyed briefly the pretense of imagining it might be someone else; she would have liked for there to be a secret Bonus Transgender among them. Scrolling through Twitter, she’d read Tweets about what an important milestone this was and how everyone had better show up to support trans people in reality TV #TransTerROAR. She could not believe this was real and had looked up, half-smiling, to find nobody whatsoever looking back at her, not that she could have told anyone anyhow. Her favorite actor from the retro sci-fi television show had been trending, and when she’d clicked on his name, she discovered that he was being pilloried for saying that transgender women should not compete on reality TV because their maleness made them less scared. Vidalia was just relieved this conversation was unrelated.
“You’re insane,” Shiloh said now, finally seeming to find her footing. This was a good footing to find with Vidalia. The camera crew shifted their feet, zooming in and out.
“I was being serious,” Vidalia said, and then, “What’s in it for you if you meet that tiger?”
Shiloh gave her a strange, squinting look. Her eyes were the color of water in narrow canals, stippled, and with a shadow to them that made them look as if they were moving when they weren’t. Vidalia was sad, for a moment, that they were almost certainly not going to kiss after all.
“Have you ever been attacked?” Vidalia asked, when Shiloh didn’t answer.
Shiloh’s breath twitched the loose strands of her straw-colored ponytail.
“Yes,” she said. The cameras zoomed in. At the dock, the only thing in the frame would be her face and the water. “By my husband.”
“I was attacked outside a bar,” Vidalia said. “A man I didn’t know. He shouted at me, and then he hit me.”
“Why?” Shiloh asked.
Vidalia shrugged. “They’re men, not tigers. They don’t need a reason.” This was lying, at least in part. She sighed and shifted her weight, making the dock creak beneath her feet. “If I get to the tiger,” she said, “it’ll be the most frightened I’ve ever been.” Vidalia smiled slightly, though Shiloh’s face was so drawn that each symmetrical, lightly lined side looked like half of a locked double door. “I’d like that.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Shiloh murmured.
“The same thing you are.” Vidalia turned back to the dock, sticking her hands in the pockets of her jacket. The rest of the cast was walking up now, despite the camera crew’s desperate get out motions. “If you want the gentleman, have him. I’m asking you to leave me the tiger.”
The final challenge featured a padlocked coffin, with arm holes to work the locks, hanging from a helicopter above the ocean. Periodically, the coffin would be dunked into the water, though small holes in the bottom would allow it to drain. Only James, Vidalia, Shiloh, the twin, and the swimmer remained, and though Shiloh was going first, everyone was being filmed, so that if the spectators gasped or covered their mouths with their hands the camera could zoom in on them. Vidalia had resolved firmly neither to gasp nor to cover her mouth, but this only led to her stoic face being endlessly zoomed in on, perhaps because it made for easy splicing anywhere. Vidalia stood where she had been asked to stand, right by James, and watched Shiloh slowly work her way to the top of the coffin, where she clung as it twisted vertiginously.
“I hope she doesn’t fall,” James said, watching Shiloh be waterboarded. “Is that weird?”
The perfect canned dialogue, though in his case it was probably real.
“That’s not weird,” Vidalia said, to say something. And Shiloh didn’t fall, though the swimmer, up after her, did. James went after that, and Shiloh, dripping wet, was herded to stand so close to Vidalia that her breathing was louder than the chopper.
“He said he hoped you wouldn’t fall,” Vidalia said, to Shiloh. Shiloh nodded, teeth chattering, looking as though she was not ready to process speech.
“That must be why I didn’t,” she said, eventually. The twin cast a glance at the two of them, then looked away. “But that kind of attitude isn’t going to help him win. The whole time I was up there, I was praying every one of you would fail.”
“He’s a lover, not a fighter,” Vidalia said, just as a wave crashed. She could hear the cameras whirr as they raced to capture her.
“Could you say that again?” someone called off-camera, and she did.
“It’s good to see you again,” said Brayden the next time, presumably illicitly.
“Good to see you.” She had improved at holding still by now, and was able to tilt her head for him properly as he worked. Occasionally he would use his thumb to smooth out a contour, then seem to remember where he was before wiping his hands off and returning to brushes.
“Less precise,” he said, without her asking.
After half an hour, the silence became melancholy, as though preoccupied with her imminent exit from the show. They were running late, but he paused, looking over her face, before examining his eye shadow palette. He selected an electric gray, then a liquid violet, and worked both over her lids in meditative strokes.
“So what are your dinner plans?” he asked, as if there wasn’t a tiger between now and then.
“Salmon and onions,” she said. “There are a lot of recipes online. You can get it really spicy.” In case she wasn’t laying it on thick enough, she added the complete non-sequitur, “Real fish.”
He laughed, leaning forward to apply what looked like nail polish to her lips. It tasted peachy.
“So?” she asked, when he paused to reach for something else. “What about you?”
“I don’t think I’m allowed to say.” He uncapped a tube of clear gloss and peeked self-consciously at her, checking to be sure she’d gotten the joke. She smiled, and parted her lips as he applied the gloss, eyes closed. When she opened them again he turned away.
“Okay.” He scratched a hand through his hair. “I’m also not allowed to give you my number. If I did, it’d be pretty bad. It’s also—” he leaned back and reached for a pen, scribbling something on the back of a nearby business card— “definitely not on this card, which I’m leaving—”
She took it out of his hands.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll call you. If the tiger doesn’t eat me, that is.”
“You’re too tough,” he said, quietly. She smiled.
“Yes,” she said, “but I’ll look good between those jaws.”
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This might be my favorite story of the week. Holy cow, I loved this! There aren't nearly enough Transgender stories out there, so kudos to you for adding to the pantheon. So many things I loved about this. Vidalia's character was well-conceived: sarcastic, jaded, human. The whole story has a nice tongue-in-cheek tone that carries the reader through. It's engaging and fun and it feels like we're in on the joke. Great stuff. Also loved the dialogue throughout. Sounds completely natural, nothing stilted or forced, and has layers of subtext and...
Ahhh, I'm so happy you enjoyed it! I wish I could frame this answer... I like nothing better than a long, analytical comment, so keep talking as long as you'd like ('ω^) And I promise I'll keep writing trans characters forever!
Yves., I think this is in my top ten of fictional flirtations now: "“So what are your dinner plans?” he asked, as if there wasn’t a tiger between now and then. “Salmon and onions,” she said. “There are a lot of recipes online. You can get it really spicy.”" So fun & clever! I really enjoyed Vidalia's character and how she was so self-assured and unaffected by others not being on the same wavelength and not getting her jokes / trying to cause drama. It's refreshing - especially when comes to reality TV. And on that not, what a crazy sho...
I'm so happy! Honestly, I wasn't sure whether it would come through at all, so your liking it comes as a big relief ^_^ I quite enjoyed writing Vidalia, both because she's so clever at outwitting the typical TV plots and because I was able to give her a boost by, well, writing everybody around her! The show is based extremely loosely on Fear Factor, though, thank God, there's no tiger in the original. Thanks for your well wishes, and good luck to you as well!
A very enjoyable read. We get a look behind the scenes of a reality TV show, and of course real reality is completely different from what's filmed. Vidalia has a great voice. She's playing a completely different game from the producers and the other contestants. I also like that the romance developed between her and Brayden, even though it was looking like a possibility it would be with James. So we have another parallel between reality TV and reality. The TV romance is a catty love triangle between Vidalia, Shiloh and James, and the real ...
You're the second person to hit the nail on the head with the parallels re: performance as television and performance as gender. Good job catching that; it's just what I was thinking and I'm glad it comes through in the text. Thank you for such a wonderful lengthy comment and good luck on Reedsy!
Very original! Love the characters, sassy dialogue, unique ideas. Really enjoyed this story.
Thank you so much! I'm glad you liked it.
This is so good. My first idea for the reality show prompt was actually a fear factor show as well but I'm so glad I didnt write it because nothing I could have written would have come close to matching this. Perfection.
Oh my gosh, thank you so much for the kind words. It's funny that my immediate thought was Fear Factor in part because I was worried I wouldn't be able to do the dating shows better than the rest! I'm so happy you enjoyed this one ^_^
The dialogue flowed. It is engaging really. Fine story line too.
Thank you; much appreciated!
I'll see you around ^_^
Smooth read, creative game show idea, and consistent humor and personality thorough out. I liked your totally random assortment of contestants, which is so realistic to that kind of tv. Seeing “behind the curtain” into the inner workings of filming, into the inauthenticity of it, made this so interesting. Well done!
Thank you! That's exactly the things I find so interesting about reality TV, so I'm glad they came through. Your kind words are much appreciated ^_^
Oh wow, yves. this was spectacular! I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. It was so beautifully written, crisp and engaging. I loved the themes running through this piece and I enjoyed the dry, witty humour. This was a treat to read. Thank you for sharing. :-)
I'm really glad you liked it! It's one of those pieces where everything just started coming together themewise so I'm glad that became apparent to readers as well. And, of course, I'm glad the humor worked! Thanks so much for your comment.
An interesting story about reality tv. We seem to have both written 'reality tv procedurals' about the mechanics and manipulations of it all. I've been endlessly fascinated in what's happening behind the scenes after watching the fictional tv show about a reality tv production, 'UnREAL' In your story, I really liked some of the natural dialogue you used, and lines like“They’re men, not tigers. They don’t need a reason". Also threading trans issues into the story was done well, and its clever how its all takes place before the tiger scene ...
Thank you so much! And thanks for the TV show rec-- I had to leave so much vague in Paper Tigress because I just don't know the truth behind the scenes. I'm glad you enjoyed the dialogue and the leaving off of the tiger; it's a relief to know that this wasn't too in the weeds of transgender discourse or too avoidant of the tiger tension for readers. Good luck to us both!
(Baffles me this entry didn't make the shortlist.) Sweet and savory layers—like the onion, this story is all flavor, but thankfully, does not inspire tears. What I love most about Vidalia: she has shoulder-chips to spare, but her wincing aloofness comprises a protective mask likely fashioned from her implicit experience with adversity; however, it's the steel-coated guts concealing a soft underbelly (most openly revealed during her interactions with Brayden) that solidify her humanity. You have taken a prickly character (who has the poten...
Thank you so much for this wonderful, detailed comment! You mentioned so many things I worked hard to get in there, and so many of my favorite parts of writing this story. You also caught a lot of the implied and subtextual elements, which makes me really happy-- it's not always clear to me in the writing of a piece if all of my thoughts will get through to a reader (and, of course, much of the fun is in that ambiguity and in finding out after publishing). It's really exciting to see all of that made text in your response. Were you there whe...
You're welcome. It was truly a pleasure to read. Re: analysis -- yes, I remember you said that! ;) Ask and ye shall receive. :3
Really liked this one. The first few paragraphs in and I could already relate to Vidalia. I love protagonists like that. I also love stories where everything is so self-aware. Good job!
This is so sweet, thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it.
What can I say that hasn't already been said. You write with such authority and confidence, Yves. I was convinced while reading that you had worked behind the scenes in Hollywood. Have you?
Please say whatever you feel! This is so kind of you-- honestly, I think all the confidence comes from the love of the story; I felt attached to this one and had to put it out there. I have not had any Hollywood experience! After a substantial amount of Googling, I realized that there was no way I was ever going to be 100% accurate to how these shows are filmed, and especially given the variance among different styles of shows, I figured I could write anything as long as I did it with confidence. I'm glad it paid off. Thank you so much for...
The best horror is often understated and this one gave me chills for all the things it only alluded to and, even worse, all the things it left unsaid. Especially in the deceptively casual ending. The premise reminded me of Kim Newman's "Going to Series" (one of my favorite horror stories) though yours added an extra layer by juggling two seemingly unrelated themes, which helped tackling on their respective issues without laying it on too thick - which only makes the whole thing more powerful. Congratulations.
Thank you so much! That's so interesting-- it is a kind of horror, isn't it? I guess gender itself is horrific, in a way (^_-)
Lol. It definitely is, to some!
I love what you did with the genders here. It really gave a fresh spin on what could've otherwise been a typical story about reality shows. Great job!
Thank you! I admit at this point I find myself so bored by cis/het antics on reality TV; I feel as though to some extent it's all been seen and discussed before so I really wanted to try something new-- and I'm not sure I've seen a lot of trans reality TV stuff (though I probably wouldn't want to in this context!) I really appreciate your reading.
Just so you know, I read your story a few more times. It's very interesting. Honestly such a good idea and very relevant to today's society.
Oh my gosh, thank you so much-- a reread really is the highest form of flattery, particularly given your kindness in noting it for me. I'm so happy it was able to entertain you more than once.
Well I loved it so thank YOU for writing it. Heheheh.
Thank you so much again! I'm so glad it's connected with people; Reedsy is obviously a big gamble so any positive response assures me that there is a lot more to be gained here than just contest wins. Hope you enjoy all your reads!
I adore Vidalia. She's an amazing character. Cynical and inspiring, positive and upbeat, sarcastic and unyielding, and playful. I love that she has all of those dimensions to her. Also, all the characters had a depth to them, even the shallow ones ;)
Thank you so much! Thank goodness. I didn't realize it as I was writing, but I guess I couldn't help myself trying to add more dimensions to all the other stereotypical characters-- I don't think anyone is really as shallow as they're portrayed on TV, do you?
Reading about Vidalia was one of those fictive experiences where you can picture this person as actual flesh and blood, her thoughts and actions were rendered so well and so intimately. It was also an incredible juxtaposition between someone being their authentic self and "reality" TV where everything is so much plastic.
Thank you so much! I'm so happy that came across. Good luck this week!
Oh I want to see this Reality TV show! And the numerous spin offs because Vidalia is spicy! Great story!
Awww, thank you! It is so overwhelmingly wonderful to have so many people connect with Vidalia; she's such a catty, cynical protagonist I was worried nobody would want to read her. Spicy onion 🧅
I really enjoyed reading this story. It wouldn't surprise me if we did see this show on TV with the way reality tv is at the moment! I really enjoyed the originality of the story and the character of Vidalia (Love the name!) She's certainly a memorable character and to me, the best short stories are the ones where the characters jump off the page. Well done.
Thank you so much! I do love a character-centric story; I can't seem to keep from writing them.
OMG, what a delightful read, a new twist to telling of behind-the-scenes on these shows. I would have liked for the audience to know she was already trans; build more depth into her persona as far as that went. But you have a beautiful way with interesting words, excellent grammar, I am jealous, this was a read on till the end and a great ending. "You're too tough", he says, oh my, I would love to see a part two on this one. happy writing
Thank you so much! Of course I wish I had a little more room to build out the character and story; unfortunately I was already hitting 2985+ words with this! I'm so happy that I didn't overdo it and you were able to enjoy it up to the end.
I love this. Especially that last line. you have captured reality TV an I enjoy your characters!
Thank you! I'm so glad-- I wanted to get the exciting essence of reality TV without all the filler... and, of course, having to actually watch it.
You did a really great job without watching reality TV lol and I don't blame you for not watching it! I can't bring myself to watch it.
I've watched a bit of Fear Factor, which was the main inspiration for this specific type of show, but it's hard to get really into the typical reality stuff. I guess I had a lot of frustration to write out...