Millionaire's Roll

We strike up a conversation with THE reality show Joe, who has quickly learned to play the fame game for all it's worth

By Rick Press

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Evan Marriott's got a bit of a Forrest Gump fetish. He's seen the movie "hundreds of times," knows every line and supposedly does a dead-on impersonation -- though he's reluctant to share it with just anyone.

Try as I might, I couldn't get one "Looo-tenant Dan" or "life is like a box of cho-ca-lits" out of him during our bowling interview last week at Fort Worth's Cowtown lanes.

But the more I got to know Marriott, the more Gump-like he seemed.

Built like an oak tree with deep-blue eyes and hair so wavy you could hang ten on it, the Virginia boy and former football player has been swept along in an almost random run of good luck. A few years ago, he was content working construction, training to be a pro wrestler and posing for a few underwear ads. Then one of his friends insisted he'd be perfect for a Fox reality dating show. After much prodding, Marriott met with producers.

A year later, he was on the cover of People magazine and on his way to becoming one of the biggest stars in the reality TV galaxy.

Behold the dating-show demigod: Joe Millionaire.

As Forrest would say: "It's a household name."

But more than a year after the Fox show's finale, which attracted a whopping 43 million viewers during its climactic moments, Joe Millionaire is still hanging around, and he's still baffled by the show's success.

"It's so surprising, because there's nothing really to that show. But it caught America's attention," says Marriott in his Brawny-towel-guy voice. "I think people that watch reality shows are generally nosy people. I think America, human beings are generally nosy. We've all picked up the phone and heard a conversation going on and didn't put it down in time."

The Joe Millionaire phenomenon has since given way to other reality men of the moment, such as Average Joe and Donald Trump on The Apprentice, but the original Joe Millionaire can still turn some heads, even on a Thursday afternoon during senior-league bowling at Cowtown.

Betty, who is a few decades older than the 20 hotties whom Marriott had to choose from on TV, sidled right over to Lane 16 for some friendly flirting.

"Oh, I watched every episode," she says sweetly. When Marriott tells her he's hosting a new show called Fake-a-Date on GSN (formerly the Game Show Network) and "we're taking all ages," she is flattered. "Oh, I've got one that I've had for 58 1/2 years."

Still, she couldn't help but be a little smitten by Joe Millionaire.

As Marriott posed for photos, she confided: "He won't break the camera, that's for sure."

I must confess that I'm not a fan of reality television. And Joe Millionaire, which was designed to deceive, manipulate and potentially humiliate women, was near the top of my must-miss list. But during the show's heyday, it was hard to avoid Marriott, whose curly locks and vacant stare became fixtures on magazine covers in the grocery checkout line.

In one particular Fox photo, Marriott is decked out in a tuxedo and he's shushing us, imploring fans to keep the secret that's he not really a millionaire. But I wondered, what are his secrets? Was he simply a programmed pretty boy, as superficial as his show's premise? Or was he wise to the whole thing, knowing never to take his fame and his Gumpian good fortune too seriously?

After joining Marriott for bowling, an activity that I find often reveals some of life's secrets, I'd say it's a little of both.

Over the course of an hour at Cowtown, Marriott quoted Popeye (inadvertently) and Robert Frost (incorrectly) to assert his individuality. He showed open contempt for the reality TV genre and the Hollywood system. And he proved he has more personality than a bowling pin -- something I wasn't sure about after catching a couple of minutes of Joe Millionaire.

In fact, Marriott, 29, seems to have a pretty good sense of humor and a healthy attitude about his just-add-water success. And he doesn't sweat his status as a pop-culture punch line.

"I wake up every day knowing I am who I am," he says. "I realize I'm not the brightest star in the sky. I don't have a Harvard degree. But that doesn't mean that I don't I have some form of intelligence. People are going to form their opinion on you regardless. . . . People who have known me for a long time know who I am."

I'd known him for only a few minutes, but I could tell one thing: He was no bowler.

Dressed in old jeans and a T-shirt, size 12 cowboy boots and armorlike jewelry, he strutted into Cowtown looking as though he had just walked off the set of a George Thorogood video. And his bowling was bu-bu-bu-bu-bad.

"Dude, I betcha I've been in a bowling alley about three times in my whole life," says Marriott, who was more of a skating-rink rat growing up.

When he plucked a 16-pound slate-colored ball off the rack and charged the pins like a bull bearing down on a matador, I was a little scared. He didn't bowl so much as assault the pins. And whatever he lacked in precision, he made up for in power.

Let's just say the gutters got a workout.

So if Joe Millionaire isn't a bowler, who is he?

"I've got ex-girlfriends that will tell you I'm a loner," Marriott says. "A hard guy to pin down."

A motorcycle enthusiast, he proudly points to the fact that his Harley only has room for one. "It's got a solo seat, and that's the way I like it."

Turns out, Joe Millionaire is more hunk-for-hire than hopeless romantic.

After weeks of weeding out gold diggers via romps in the hot tub, Fox's faux $50 million man chose Zora Andrich as the love of his life. When Marriott's shocking secret was revealed -- that he wasn't Joe Millionaire, but a Joe Schmo construction worker -- sweet Zora decided to stay with him. And America swooned. The happy couple got to split $1 million -- all in the name of love.

But their relationship, and any romance surrounding it, was tossed in the trash like a disposable razor right after the closing credits.

"It didn't go past the show," Marriott says matter-of-factly. "She lived in New Jersey, and I lived in LA. I didn't feel it was necessary to carry on a long-distance relationship."

When asked if he thinks he'll ever find Ms. Right, his answer is nearly as quick and cold: "Not on a network. I'll tell you that.

"That's why when I went on the show, I didn't take it all that seriously. They offered me $50,000 upfront, and that's all I thought I was gonna get. I thought, 'hell, I'm gonna get 50 grand, which I could put down on a house. I get to meet 20 girls, so where do I lose? It was a no-lose.' "

Turns out, Joe Millionaire is more realist than reality TV poster boy.

"I never watched 'em before, and I don't watch 'em now" says Marriott of the growing genre. "Looks like they're scrambling to find the new 'it.' And I think they're gonna wear out before they find it. You can only do so much to catch America's attention and they get bored with it."

And it turns out Joe Millionaire doesn't have grand illusions about his future in Hollywood, even though he's done a KFC commercial, a Mariah Carey video and some cameos on scripted TV.

"I'm not trying to be an Oscar winner, or an Emmy nominee or a sea anemone," he says, pausing to enjoy his rhyme. "The Hollywood scene is all made up of people going in one direction. And I've chosen the path less traveled by, my entire life."

But for now he's happy to keep riding destiny's "up" elevator.

"I think real estate is where the money is," says Marriott, who has invested his winnings in property in Palm Springs and Virginia. "But I'm gonna ride this out with GSN and see how this goes, and I might have a career as a game show host. You might be talking to me 20 years from now and I might be the next Bob Barker. I'll have silver hair and I'll be telling people to 'come on down.' "

One thing he knows for sure, he's sick of hearing that his 15 minutes of fame are up.

"Magazines thought they'd make fun of me with the whole 16th-minute thing," says Marriott. "You know, 43 million people tuned in to Joe Millionaire. And my response to all the people who bagged on me is: I'm now going on a year and a half after that show and if that isn't way past 15 or 16 minutes I don't know what is. ..."

Whatever you say, Joe. See ya on Hollywood Squares.

Final score:

Joe Millionaire - 80

Rick Press - 150

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