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Almost Famous

Los Angeles Diarist

Not long ago, I flew to Los Angeles to be a contestant on “The Weakest Link” (the syndicated version with the American dude; British cruelty artist Anne Robinson now only does celebrity competitions in her prime-time slot). While in transit, I entertained fantasies of being picked up at the airport in a limousine. A man in a black suit, mirrored sunglasses, and a fancy cap would be holding a sign with my name on it; I would toss my hair over my shoulder and in a raspy voice say, “I’m Sacha Zimmerman.” People in the airport would turn and whisper—perhaps I was a celebrity, a TV actress; I would seem familiar to them. “I know I’ve seen her somewhere before,” they’d say. When the plane landed, I sauntered to the baggage claim, still nursing my reverie. But once I got there, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps my driver was supposed to meet me back at the gate. I started to run back to the escalator and promptly tripped over a loose carry-on bag, taking a decidedly unglamorous fall. I heard a man shout, “`Weakest Link’ contestants!” “Here,” I said, feebly raising my hand from a crumpled position on the floor. Busted.

At the baggage carousel, I chitchatted with a fellow contestant, the affable and animated Bill, a financial aid director and veteran game-show contestant who had won $500 and a case of Dinty Moore beef stew on “Scrabble” (bet you didn’t remember that was a show) in 1987. I thought about sizing him up intellectually to see how much of a threat he would be. Yet Bill was so sweet— “Isn’t this exciting? What are you going to wear? Do you think they’ll let me wear a sweater-vest?”—that I navely went to my limousine thinking we were allies. We were shepherded into separate limos (black sedans, actually, but fantasies of fame die hard in L.A.), lest we sneak in a covert strategy session. I toyed with telling the driver I was an actress on a new UPN program from the creators of “Sex and the City” called “Cosmopolitan Coeds” but decided I might not be thin enough to pull it off. At the hotel I made a number of long- distance calls to remind my friends and family that I was on the brink of fame (Wasn’t Kirstie Alley discovered on “The $10,000 Pyramid”?), before looking up the periodic table and studying state capitals. Then I took advantage of the free cable and called it a day.

The show’s officials had warned us not to “attempt to bond or talk to” our fellow contestants, so when I met the team, standing stoic in the lobby, I complimented them on not bonding. I think it broke the ice. There was Rob with the trendy shades, Cathy the lunch lady, Lamar the casino security inspector, Heather the radio station DJ, and Bill my friend from the airport. We went together to the NBC studios, where the producer explained the rules of the game to us while we all signed contracts and practiced our camera smiles. (Or at least I practiced mine—not too gummy, not too toothy, with a hint of raw, untapped potential.)

I had hoped to look like the blond, black-leather-jacketed woman with intelligent eyes who’s well-traveled and harbors an enchanting secret. Instead, once they’d finished with my hair and makeup, I looked like a bubbly, blond sorority girl from a Big Ten college who majors in marketing and has stuffed animals in the rear window of her Ford Explorer. No one noticed my new sorority do except for trendy-shades Rob who, at 37, still seems like the kind of guy who hangs out at college bars and buys drinks for young women. He told me I looked great and then lurked behind me the rest of the day, muttering something about a “psycho ex-girlfriend” and “nice Jewish girls.” I decided to vote him off first.

We went into the studio to meet our host, George Gray. He is, to be blunt, no Anne Robinson. Where Anne is a wry and calculating arbiter, George is a shmaltzy former stand-up comic. When the game started, I floundered. So focused was I on holding in my stomach and relaxing the twitch in my frozen smile that I utterly lost the ability to think. I was certain I would be voted off right away. (I had blown it, I told myself. I was a one-termer. I was George H.W. Bush.) Yet, unbelievably, I wasn’t expelled. Instead, DJ Heather, who had missed no questions, was given the boot. I surveyed the team: They all loved me; they couldn’t bear to vote against me. Either that or, as it suddenly dawned on me, the men had an alliance—why else would they all vote off Heather?

In the next segment I made a stunning comeback and was the strongest link. I felt brilliant, deftly answering questions on the finer points of golf (“What sport uses both putters and drivers?”) and the intricacies of Martha Stewart’s business empire (“What is the full name of the host of `From Martha’s Garden’?”). Screw “The Weakest Link”— I should have been on “Jeopardy.” As an added bonus, it was my prerogative as strongest link to break a tie and vote off trendy-shades Rob. But before I could continue my domination I was forced to banter with George—the portion of the show when the host ridicules the contestants. After establishing that I like to shoot pool, he asked me if I ever bet on games. I tried to tell him that I didn’t, but for some reason it came out as: “I’m not a pool whore.” It was then that I learned that introducing the word “whore” into a verbal spat (particularly a televised one) is not a smart move. Call it a life lesson. “Well, what kind of whore are you?” he beamed, leaving me to contemplate my sudden transformation from nice sorority girl to game-show tramp. “Nice rack!” George exclaimed, clearly pleased with himself. I wondered whether this would help my viability as a starlet.

My strong streak continued. (Strong, that is, except for a wee mistake wherein I said that Bill Clinton was older than George W. Bush; I’m sure my colleagues will stop teasing me about it any day now.) Ultimately it came down to me, casino Lamar, and airport Bill. Male alliance or no male alliance, I figured, Bill and I were friends and he’d protect me. Except he didn’t. Bill and Lamar voted me off. They claimed fear; each said he thought he had a better chance against the other than against me. Ah, the beauty of a game show that penalizes competence and rewards stupidity. For what it’s worth, Bill went on to win $10,250.

After the show, the team headed for the hotel bar, where each of us proceeded to analyze every possible avenue the show could have gone down—in other words, what it would have taken for each of us, rather than Bill, to win. Bill bought everyone drinks and apologized for voting me off the show. This seemed a classy move (at least once I’d had a couple of drinks), and I decided that I had been on television long enough to be discovered anyway. So I forgave Bill and yelled at trendy-shades Rob, who had been bitterly lamenting my ousting of him, “Seriously man, let it go!” Then I flew home. It’s been more than a week now since the show aired; I expect I’ll be getting my big break any day now.

This article originally ran in the March 25, 2002 issue of the magazine.