REALITY BYTES

… or how a chemistry major from Concord was the last contestant standing on TV’s “Big Brother”

By BILL STUDENC MPA ’10

So, what does Rachel Reilly ’07 do for an encore after pocketing half a million bucks as Season 13 winner of the popular CBS reality television show “Big Brother?” After returning to her alma mater to deliver the game ball as part of Homecoming 2011 in October, the WCU chemistry major who has become a reality TV superstar apparently is back in front of the cameras for the upcoming season of another CBS program watched by millions, “The Amazing Race.”

Although network officials have yet to officially announce the lineup of competitors in Season 20 of “The Amazing Race,” numerous media outlets have reported that Reilly and fiancé Brendon Villegas, whom she met as fellow contestants on “Big Brother,” are among those who will be vying for the grand prize when the show begins airing in late February. Production purportedly began in late November, which, if true, would explain why Reilly could not return frequent messages seeking follow-up comments after an exclusive interview with The Magazine of Western Carolina University.

During that Homecoming weekend conversation, she talked about recent opportunities and upcoming activities made possible in large part because of her notoriety on “Big Brother,” including a recurring role on the CBS soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful” and an appearance on the TLC show “Brides of Beverly Hills.”

“I also have some other projects in the works, a few fun projects that I can’t really talk about right now,” said Reilly, a native of Concord who now calls Los Angeles home. “And I’m engaged! I met my fiancé on reality TV – who would have thought? We don’t know when yet, but we’re getting married and we have a few other fun things coming up, so keep an eye out.” Little did we know that one of those things may be appearing on “The Amazing Race.”

After graduating from WCU, Reilly moved to Las Vegas for a chemistry laboratory job, but soon switched gears to become a VIP cocktail waitress where she found herself surrounded by show business movers and shakers. Stints as a swimsuit model for Hawaiian Tropic and spokes-model for the international Sturgis motorcycle rally helped attract the attention of Hollywood producers.

“I never imagined, when I was getting my chemistry degree at Western, that I would be involved in the entertainment industry,” said Reilly, named the No. 2 reality TV star for 2011 by TV Grapevine. “I always had a dream of doing something with science and education, and maybe being a science show host on PBS or something with education through entertainment, because it’s a really great way for students to learn, especially younger students. But I never had a dream that I would go into reality TV, or go on ‘Big Brother’ or win ‘Big Brother.’”

Although the university does not offer a course titled “Reality Star 101,” Reilly said her experience and education at WCU nevertheless helped her prepare for the rigors of the entertainment world and reality television. “My time at Western taught me so much about life and how to really be a focused and determined individual. Western Carolina University gave me all the fundamentals I needed for moving to Los Angeles and winning in every game of life, including ‘Big Brother,’” she said. “Every life lesson I’ve had has helped with my game and how to be a good competitor. One thing you have to do if you’re going to do well in any reality TV game is to be a good competitor.”

That’s especially the case on “Big Brother,” where a group of complete strangers are thrown together into a house where they live under the constant eye of the camera with no contact with the outside world, competing in various tasks and attempting to avoid eviction. “There are so many different facets to playing the ‘Big Brother’ game. You have to be social. You have to be a good competitor. You have to make alliances. You have to make deals and break deals. But really what it all boils down to is you just have to work it when you get out there,” Reilly said. “That’s something that Western Carolina University taught me, and I’m so proud to say that I am a Catamount.”

Reilly originally appeared in Season 12 of ‘Big Brother,’ but was evicted before the finale, becoming known as the contestant that viewers loved to hate. That reputation, however, earned her and fiancé Villegas an invitation to compete again this past season, which featured a mix of show veterans and newcomers. Her Cullowhee connection also earned her a legion of fans back home.

“It’s always exciting to see anyone connected with Western be successful,” said Stefanie Conley ’08. “Once I realized she was an alumna, I was rooting for her even more. You always want one of your own to win.” Betty Allen ’68 admitted she wasn’t initially a big fan of the “Las Vegas cocktail waitress.” “But when I found out she was a Western alum, and a chemistry major nonetheless, I started pulling for her. Rachel impressed me with her intelligence as well as her competitiveness. When she came back the second time, I was her biggest fan from day one. I loved the way she played the game and was so proud and happy for her when she won,” Allen said.

And how will Reilly do on “The Amazing Race?” Don’t bet against her, Conley said. “She already has a proven track record of being a winner, so other teams are going to be out to get her right off the bat. If her partner complements her style of play, if she plays ‘nice’ with other teams immediately, and if she and her teammate make as few mental mistakes as possible, then she will do just fine. She’s a competitor,” Conley said. “On ‘Big Brother,’ viewers either loved her or hated her. There was no in-between. But she played the game. She won. She obviously did something right.”

Editor’s note:
CBS confirmed just as this magazine was going to press that Rachel Reilly is, indeed, among the contestants on this season of “The Amazing Race.”