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Don't trust the B—— on reality TV: Ballet West dancer endured Web comments

Published January 2, 2013 9:07 am

Television • Ballet West dancer is learning to take 'Breaking Pointe' drama in stride.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Fame sounds so exciting.

Maybe that explains why so many people, including a lot of Utahns, appear on TV reality shows. Most are hoping they might end up as the breakout character. Which sounds fun, until it happens.

Until you wake up one day and read in Entertainment Weekly that you're "bitchy Allison" on The CW docu-series "Breaking Pointe." Until you find yourself vilified across the Internet.

Ballet West demi-soloist Allison DeBona says she didn't see it coming.

"I never thought that they would find me interesting enough to be the one," said the villain of the first season of "Breaking Point." "The first two episodes, the backlash I got on Twitter and Facebook — I just shut down. I couldn't stop obsessing about what people were saying about me. I could barely watch it."

In many ways, DeBona's breakout turn as a TV drama queen is representative of all the Utahns who this year continued to appear eager to earn air time — and fleeting fame — on reality shows. But in the arts world, the professional dancer also appears to have set herself apart by learning how to take advantage of all the attention.

The Pittsburgh native was portrayed as a cold, calculating prima donna who toyed with the affections of wannabe boyfriend/fellow dancer Rex Tilton. That was a central storyline of the six-part series, and the relationship intrigue contributed to the show getting picked up for Season 2. Production is scheduled to begin in early 2013, with the second season to be broadcast later next year.

"I told [Ballet West artistic director] Adam [Sklute] he owes me for this," DeBona said with a laugh. "I took a big hit for him."

From DeBona's point of view, she took the fall for the entire company, who voted to do the show to raise Ballet West's national profile. "Allison was great," Sklute said. "It wasn't easy for her."

Even under the best of circumstances, it can be a strain to suddenly be on national TV. "I thought the entire troupe was great," said executive producer Kate Shepherd. "We didn't have to create drama, it was already there."

DeBona came away feeling a little like Jessica Rabbit in the movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" — "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way." Because that's the way reality TV works.

"These shows are successful when they are dramatic, and who better to add to that drama than a villain?" said Candace Haven, columnist for FYI Television and president of the Television Critics Association. "I can't think of a reality show that doesn't have a nasty person we love to hate."

From watching the first season, Havens considered DeBona to have a knack for stirring up trouble. On the flip side, the critic said, "she also keeps the show from being a bore."

Tyson Apostol, a Utahn who was featured on two cycles of "Survivor" — including on the villains side of the "Heroes vs. Villains" season — came off on TV as sarcastic and, at times, a bit mean. And he's not complaining: "I knew I was guilty of everything I'd done on there," Apostol said. "That's how it goes with TV villains. They have to compile enough evidence to make you look that way."

DeBona doesn't dispute that she gave the producers what they needed to make her look like the villain. "I did everything that you saw on TV," she said. "So it's not like they just are making things up. However, how they tell the story really changes what people think of me."

For example, she didn't roll her eyes in Episode 1 because she wasn't promoted to soloist. She rolled her eyes because her boyfriend of eight years had just told her — earlier and off camera — that if she signed that contract, they were through.

"My real life was hitting me like a train," she said "That was probably the most wild six months in my entire 29 years of life, and they just happened to be here with cameras."

Cameras that followed her from early morning until late at night. The only privacy she had was in the bathroom.

"We get paid, thankfully, because it's like a second job," said DeBona, who wouldn't say how much the dancers were compensated. "It leaves you exhausted. It really makes you crazy."

If you wear makeup all the time, people go online and call you vain. If you don't, they call you ugly.

When DeBona was seen trying to move to the front of the line at a costume fitting, she looked bad. But viewers weren't told that her dance partner had been out of the country for weeks and she was desperate to rehearse. "That's just me being dedicated to my craft," she said.

And it wasn't made clear on TV that DeBona was thrown into roles late in the process. "I do have a lot of confidence in Allison," Sklute said. "But people remember the scene when we weren't getting along."

Sklute viewed episodes a couple of days before they aired. Just before Episode 4 was on TV, he told DeBona, "You're going to hate me." "And I said, 'Well, I didn't like you that night, either,' " she said. "We kind of have that relationship."

Both said that, in that moment, they forgot the cameras were there. "That's what made it good for TV," Sklute said.

Just like the whole Allison-and-Rex storyline, which only alluded to her ex-boyfriend and made her unwillingness to jump into a new relationship seem unnecessarily cruel.

"I have this great guy here who really wants a relationship, and I'm not ready for that," DeBona said. "It's normal, everyday stuff. Everybody on this planet goes through that. But they just didn't tell the full story because I think they were struggling to make the show work."

The No. 1 question she's asked these days: "Is Rex your boyfriend?" Her answer: "You'll have to watch Season 2."

Most of us have bad days, yet most of us aren't being followed by camera. Some viewers understood that, and DeBona got plenty of support from fans. "Although some people think I'm just flat-out crazy," she said with a laugh.

Personal attacks go with the territory when you're a TV villain. Apostol recalled getting an email from a colleague of his late grandfather. "He pretty much said that I had shamed the family name and he hated to think what my dead grandfather in heaven was thinking of my performance on TV." (He replied with a faux form letter telling the guy his email had been counted as a vote for Apostol for fan favorite.)

What bothered DeBona most were comments one writer made about her 12- and 14-year-old sisters. They came to Salt Lake City for a Ballet West performance, and the only parts of their trip that didn't end up on the cutting-room floor were shots of them watching the troupe onstage. In an apparent attempt at humor, one blogger called the girls "mute" and "autistic."

The blogger "apologized to me for days, but I was like, 'Too bad. You have no integrity,' " DeBona said. "People can say what they want about me, but they're little babies. I was so mad."

Since Season 1 aired, she's recognized everywhere from the sidewalks of Salt Lake City to Starbucks in Times Square. "You can tell when people are staring at you," DeBona said. "I'm thinking, 'OK, I'm really nice. I'm not that mean.' "

And she's not complaining about her visibility. She gets a big smile on her face — and a bit of an incredulous look — when she recalls "pulling up Hulu and seeing [fellow dancer] Beckanne [Sisk] and me and I'm, like, 'Is this a joke?' Or being in magazines and stuff. That is the most wild experience I'll ever have."

Fame — or infamy — definitely has its rewards.

"Out of the entire cast, I've gotten the most opportunities outside the show because of it," she said. "Because people want to know if I'm really that bitchy."

She can't keep up with all the offers — everything from teaching a master class in Cleveland to a stint as a guest instructor at the Broadway Dance Center in New York City after fans of the show requested her.

"It made me realize there's life beyond this," DeBona said. "I'm not going to be afraid of how I'm going to make a living after I finish dancing."