Reality show, Music City style

In today's technology-crazed culture, everybody is a celebrity. While people are afforded a wealth of avenues to share their daily joys and sorrows, it's often hard to cut through the clutter and get your message heard.

For those living on the outskirts of society, especially members of the GLBT community, it's an even greater struggle to be taken seriously. But one cable network has provided them a platform to express their dreams and ideals while being an example for a marginalized population.

Based in Nashville, the second season of Sundance Channel's hit series Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys features four pairs of participants offering up their privacy for an opportunity to shape the cultural landscape. Billed as an unscripted series that "celebrates and explores the special relationship" between women and their gay best friends, Girls begins airing new episodes Friday, Nov. 18.

Tenisha Jackson, an author born and raised in Memphis, and Jared Allman, an actor and model from East Tennessee, accepted the challenge of advancing the dialogue surrounding gays in the South. A couple small-town kids from conservative backgrounds, they suddenly found themselves living very public lives in a more liberal environment.

At first it was a difficult adjustment to their new circumstances, but Jackson stresses how easy it is to become comfortable in front of the cameras.

"Sometimes we'd be so involved in a conversation that we would forget we were filming. But the best footage comes from when we were ourselves," she says. "I don't have any regrets and I felt very blessed to have this opportunity."

For showrunners, building an audience requires a focus on the angry squabbles and silly arguments of the show's stars. Case in point: Just before filming began, Allman had broken up with his boyfriend after a four-year relationship. The dissolution of their union led to some tumultuous moments.

"There was one night at Jared's birthday party where we were drinking a lot and Jared's ex-boyfriend was there," Jackson says. "I probably won't watch that episode."

Though producers often catch them throwing a tantrum or going off on a crying jag, the show's overall purpose is felt in the more thoughtful moments. Allman acknowledges that part of the show's audience includes closeted gays who receive insufficient support from their family and friends.

"The South has a lot of issues that NYC doesn't," he says. "In the South, a lot of times if you're gay you might as well be a murderer. I felt unique and blessed to be a part of the show, and to get to be who I am with the world watching. I'm proud of my accomplishments, and I feel like I've come a long way."

As a straight ally, Jackson also feels a responsibility to portray the GLBT community in a positive light.

"I do have a desire to be an advocate for gay rights," she says. "One of the issues we talk about is the problems for gay men and gay women also. Jared had some issues growing up. He had to hide himself. I feel like once he came out of the closet he became a better person. There are other gay people in the world going through the same thing. They're afraid to be themselves."

Fights between friends are a common occurrence on the reality show circuit, but the unshakable bond between these partners has remained their anchor.

"This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime chance to show our friendship to the world," Allman says. "The first episode is going to be a bit explosive. (Our relationship) is very real on the show. Sometimes we have things to yell about and scream out. We've had cameras around us all summer. Sometimes you get lost in your own delusions. The world may see you in a certain way that you don't. I'm excited mixed with nervous. "

Music industry veterans Sherrie Austin, a singer-songwriter with four Top 40 country hits to her credit, agreed to participate in support of  her gay best friend Shane Stevens.With songwriting credits for Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton and George Strait, Austin also built a successful career as an artist for Arista Records. Stevens earned success by co-writing Lady Antebellum’s No. 1 hit “American Honey,” as well as penning songs for Kellie Pickler, Jordin Sparks and Sara Evans.

It's hard to be the subject of a reality show without at least a little thirst for the spotlight, but Austin was surprisingly shy about opening up for the cameras.

"We did try to have fun with it, but there are times that we opened up and that touches some place that you don't realize," Austin says. "There was one day when they were interviewing me, and I was talking about my Uncle Pat who committed suicide and all those memories that I hadn't dealt with. (This experience) has kind of been like therapy to me."

"It's a great therapy," Stevens adds. "It's made me think about a lot of things that I would have differently, like the relationship that I'm in. It's made Sherrie and I closer. We're not dramatic people, and in those type of situations we run the other way."

Austin, a native of Sydney, Australia, grew up with a number of gay friends and family members. Her goal for the show was to prove that gay men are normal, everyday people.

"One of those things that really intrigued me about this was the chance to gay people in the South," she says. "In a way, Shane and I are loosening up the buckle of the Bible Belt. This is an opportunity to challenge the way people think about homosexuality in the South. It's just gonna be really fascinating to get people having a conversation and trying to break some stereotypes."

According to Stevens, attitudes about gay people are often kept quiet within the country-music industry. Acceptance can vary from one fellow artist to the next.

"As a whole for the most part, people in the music business are pretty accepted and open-minded," he says. "The thing you have to worry about is if you're writing country songs as an openly gay man writing to hard-core staunch Republicans. They probably don't want to know you're a gay guy, so that might pose a bit of a challenge."

Girls will also serve as a showcase for Austin's career, which hit a major roadblock in 2003 after a few failures at country radio. Though she's bounced back with a new album, Circus Girl, her on-air partner voices his displeasure about the sexist undertones of Music Row.

"Women are still being treated differently (in the industry)," Stevens says. "If you're super-independent as a woman, many think of you as a bitch. Sherrie is just a normal everyday girl trying to be successful."

Both partners ultimately relished the opportunity to strengthen their unique bond and also grow as individuals.

"The producers were really good about it. It's more of a documentary/reality show," Austin says. "Everyone's intentions seemed to be honest and truthful. If I felt uncomfortable about something and didn't want to discuss, I just stopped the cameras. They said they weren't exploiting us, but wanted to have genuine moments."

In recent years nothing quite captures the foibles and the failures as dramatically as a reality show. Interested parties must wait for a few weeks to see how the drama unfolds, but they can expect a few treats from this case study of flawed, conflicted individuals.

"This concept definitely makes for entertaining television. You have eight different people that know each other, so there's a lot of fun and a lot of drama," Allman says.

The new season debuts with back to back episodes on Friday, Nov. 18 at 9 p.m. Beginning Friday, Nov. 25, one episode will air every Friday at 9 p.m.

The first episode will be premiering at Tribe at 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17. All episodes will play at Tribe each Friday at 8 p.m.

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