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Reality TV is giving ordinary people the chance to become superstars ... God help us all

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Remember when the American dream was getting a good job with a pension and living happily ever after in a house surrounded by a white picket fence with your spouse and 2.5 kids? Well that dream is long gone. The new dream is being famous, baby. And, the rise of reality television shows like Survivor, The Real World, and The Apprentice is making it easy for average "Joes" to become overnight celebrities ... and that may or may not be a good thing.

Mike McCluney, better known to viewers of MTV's "Diddy"-produced Making the Band 4 as Big Mike, never doubted that he would be famous -- it was just a matter of when. He put in the work: sung in his church's gospel choir, served as captain of his high school's step team, performed in local talent shows and minored in music at Benedict College before dropping out to further pursue his music career. He was just waiting for the moment when his preparation met his opportunity.

The Gaffney, S.C., native thought his shot at the big time arrived when American Idol held open auditions in Charlotte a few years ago. "I tried out, but they told me I couldn't sing," he said. "It kind of hurt me, and I didn't sing for two weeks. But then I thought about it ... it was some British dude [Simon Cowell] telling me I couldn't sing. Who the hell is he?"

So he went back to working on his craft and patiently waited until another opportunity arose. That chance came when MTV held auditions in Charlotte for its wildly popular series Making the Band, which chronicles the journey contestants take from undiscovered hopefuls to recording artists on Diddy's Bad Boy Records. "The auditions were crazy," said McCluney. "They were cutting people for singing ... cutting people for dancing, and I kind of felt like [the judges] didn't really want me in the competition because back then I was a little heavier. If it wasn't for Michael Bivins [a judge on the show and founding member of the 1980s-era boy band New Edition] I probably wouldn't have made it on the show."

With his foot in the door, McCluney set out to maximize the situation. "I worked really hard and listened to what the judges were telling me. They basically made it seem like I was already in the band, I just had to keep my weight down," he said. "I felt like I did what I had to do. And if I didn't make the band, I was like 'OK, I'll take this experience and exposure and go somewhere else and try to make it happen.'"

Taking the judges' criticism about his weight into consideration, McCluney hit the gym hard, dropping more than 50 pounds by the show's end. Feeling lighter and vocally stronger, McCluney felt confident standing next to his fellow cast mates as MTV broadcasted their fate live from its Time's Square studio in August. Although McCluney felt like he did all he could and believed his chances of making the band were strong, he realized that he wasn't dealing with the average label exec -- he was dealing with Sean "Diddy" Combs, a man known just as much for his unpredictability as he is for his hits. During Making the Band 4, Diddy made contestants walk to all five boroughs in New York City singing and passing out flyers for a concert during the middle of the winter. And in past seasons, he made contestants walk from Manhattan to Brooklyn, about a nine-mile trek, just to get him a piece of cheesecake. "He's a very demanding guy," said McCluney. "He's hard to please, because you never know what he wants."

Now that he's in the band, McCluney is ready to move his career forward and build a name for himself, as well as his band, in the music industry. "I've been doing a lot of touring and performing, but I'm ready to get back in the studio," he said. "I'm ready to get paid, so I'm definitely ready to get in the studio."

McCluney and his fellow band members will start filming the next season of Making the Band, which will chronicle the highs and lows of the recording process, in November and their debut album will drop in early March 2008.

As McCluney has learned, reality TV can serve as a platform and launch the careers of many talented people who might otherwise remain unknown despite their tremendous talent. From Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken to Charlotte's own Fantasia, reality television has become a place for raw, untapped talent to be discovered.

Will Smith (no, not that Will Smith!) also found reality television to be the perfect avenue to display his talents. Smith, a contestant on the second season of HGTV's Design Star -- an interior design competition where the winner gets to host their own show on HGTV -- never really thought about being an interior designer; in fact, he was on track to work in the justice system.

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