Jen Schefft pops one red grape after another into her mouth as she sits at the kitchen table in her parents' Mentor home late one October morning. She's slowly but surely destroying the fresh-fruit centerpiece while waiting for a camera crew to begin shooting scenes for "The Bachelorette," ABC-TV's popular reality dating show.
One might assume that the effervescent 28-year-old event planner's grape binge is an attempt to quell her jangled nerves. She is, after all, about to begin her search for true love: 25 men vying for her affections on national TV (airing 9 p.m. Monday, Jan. 10, on WEWS-TV 5). But if anyone in the house is nervous, they do a darn good job of hiding it.
Schefft's mother, Diane, a physical-education instructor at Lakeland Community College, glides down the steps of her center-hall colonial in a long-sleeved pink T-shirt and jeans. She dismisses compliments about her immaculate house — vases of fresh flowers in the kitchen and small pumpkins and potted mums flanking the front steps — with the air of a woman accustomed to domestic perfection.
"I did my normal cleaning, maybe a little beyond, but that was it. I didn't make myself crazy," she later says.
Schefft's father, Dave, a retired human-resources manager for Rockwell Automation who now works for Enterprise Title, walks through the front door almost a half hour after the camera crew arrives. When a producer asks him to take off his Polo button-down shirt and put on something without a logo, he blandly replies that everything he owns has something on it. The shirt stays.
Schefft, in fashionable boot-cut jeans and a clingy, long-sleeved pink T-shirt, excuses herself for a few minutes of primping before curling up in a leather chair next to the family-room fireplace for a Cleveland Magazine photographer. When asked to remove her high-heeled black-leather boots, the pretty, petite blonde obliges.
"I've got holes in my socks," she says cheerfully as she settles back in the chair and smiles for the camera, drawing laughs from her mother and the producer. "Is that OK?"
The family, of course, has been through all this before. Local TV news crews began showing up at Schefft's childhood home in March 2003, when she was making her debut on "The Bachelor" as one of 25 women courted by Andrew Firestone, heir to Los Olivos, Calif.-based Firestone Vineyard and great-grandson of Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. founder Harvey Firestone.
The phone rang continually after Firestone slipped a 2.8-carat Harry Winston diamond engagement ring on Schefft's finger during the season finale. And the media attention — some of it unwanted — continued until the couple broke up in November 2003.
So why go through it again?
As Schefft sits at her parents' kitchen table, she attempts to explain why a nice Midwestern girl devoid of show-business aspirations — a woman who, according to one friend, captures the heart of every man she dates — would once again choose to look for love on a TV series rather than in the lively dating scene in her adopted hometown of Chicago.
Along with the handsome suitors and spectacular dates comes the intrusion of having life's most intimate moments caught on tape and critiqued in tabloids and Internet chat rooms, not to mention the possibility of being rejected in front of millions. Yet Schefft and her family and friends, even those opposed to her wading back into the reality-TV dating fray, use words such as "opportunity" and "adventure" to describe the experience.
"Most girls, if given this chance, would do it," she declares.
There are certainly advantages to being "The Bachelorette" — the VIP treatment, for starters. Instead of bunking with competitors in a Malibu mansion, Schefft is taking up residence alone in a trendy Soho apartment (the show is being taped in New York City instead of Southern California this time around) and working out with a personal trainer so she'll look her best in a wardrobe provided by high-end retailer Henri Bendel.
And she'll be doing the pruning during those now-famous "rose ceremonies," where the presentation of a single red rose to each suitor systematically narrows the field until only one remains. So there will be no long hours spent wondering if and when she'll be sent home.
Then there are those dates, which in the past have included everything from hot-air balloon tours of the desert to romantic dinners on the beaches of exclusive resorts. Schefft points out that the very nature of the show allows her to ask questions about marriage and children, "things that I would be afraid to ask a guy early on in a relationship."
But this bachelorette has a perk that no one before her on either show has enjoyed: She helped cast her prospective love interests, all attractive men supposedly ready for a commitment who have submitted to extensive background checks and physical and psychological examinations.
"We showed her pictures, we showed her videotapes, we talked through applications," explains co-executive producer Lisa Levenson. "We brought her in for a casting weekend and let her ask the guys questions without their seeing her face or hearing her voice."
Still, Jen Schefft was the last person you'd expect to find on a reality-TV show when she flew to Southern California to begin taping "The Bachelor" in early 2003. She certainly wasn't a fan of the series when it debuted the previous year.
"I remember thinking, What a stupid show! Why would anybody do this?" she told us a month after she and Firestone became engaged.
She certainly wasn't in the market for a husband. In fact, she'd become "extra picky" about her dates during three years without a man in her life. "I had a boyfriend all through college and for a little bit after college," she explains. "I wanted to be by myself for a while."
She only completed the show's online application to shut up a couple of happily attached friends.
"Jen never really was out there trying to meet people," says co-conspirator Abby Smith, an Orange High School grad who got to know Schefft while both were working in the Windy City as account executives for stock-photography agency Getty Images. "I think, after a while, she just got discouraged because she was just not seeing anybody she wanted to be with in Chicago. So we thought, Reality TV! Let's try it out!"
The friends, however, were as shocked as Schefft was when the online application generated a phone call from producers a week later. "We did it as a joke — we didn't think it would go anywhere," admits instigator Michelle Kaminski, a Parma native who met Schefft while both attended Ohio University. Although Schefft took off the six weeks from work required to tape a season's worth of shows, she was certain "The Bachelor" (she didn't even know Firestone's name until five minutes before meeting him) would send her packing within a matter of days.
"When she left, we honestly were expecting her back in two weeks," says Smith. "We're like, She's not going to like the guy.' "
Schefft surprised her friends by gradually falling in love with Firestone. "I liked that, [considering] where he came from, he was as down-to-earth as he was," she remembers. "He was funny and very affectionate." In the process, she became a fan favorite by good-naturedly going bowling with Firestone when their romantic overnight date in the Arizona desert was rained out and openly worrying whether she'd fit in with Firestone's wealthy family before meeting them.
"Of the 150 women who have come and gone [on the show], who have been famous for being so beautiful or so controversial or so crazy, Jen was famous for being just so wonderful," Levenson says. "Behind the scenes, she was the same way."
Yet Schefft describes her first reality-TV dating experience as "the strangest and the most abnormal thing I've ever done." There was the challenge of going out on group dates and getting to know Firestone during one-on-one outings caught on tape by a camera crew, the stress of waiting up to two hours in limousines parked outside the house Firestone occupied before being invited inside for the rose ceremonies.
"Of course, that made everything so much more stressful," she says. "I felt like they would do that to us just to exhaust us, make us a little more tentative."
Life after Firestone presented her with the final rose was even more bizarre. Schefft returned to Chicago after taping concluded, met Firestone for secret trysts and watched the show each week with her friends, unable to tell anyone (including her parents) of the outcome.
"I don't know what was harder: watching myself and thinking, Oh my God, I just hate watching myself! or watching Andrew with the other girls," she says. When the season finale aired in May 2003, she became an overnight celebrity, complete with autograph-seeking fans, cover stories in Us and In Touch magazines and invitations to star-studded events such as the MTV Movie Awards.
"I was just shocked by all of the attention, everybody knowing me," she said last summer of the notoriety. "It was hard at first."
A week after her engagement was broadcast on national television, Schefft moved into the San Francisco duplex Firestone shared with a male roommate and began working at Firestone Vineyard as a sales and marketing associate. She and her fiance, who quit his job as a currency trader to take a position as the winery's sales manager, traveled around the country, using their newfound fame to promote Firestone wines at supermarket bottle-signings and wine dinners.
"We were in a different city every other day," she remembers. "It was pretty crazy."
The couple's schedule grew even more hectic when they became what Schefft calls "goodwill ambassadors" for Firestone tires. She assumed the pace of their lives would eventually slow to something approximating normal, but it never happened. The pair's vastly different attitudes about living on the road figured prominently in their decision to end the relationship.
"When I'm working, I like to be home and I like to be settled," Schefft explains. "We were out traveling so much, it was just too much for me. Andrew enjoys that — that's what he wants to continue to do. We couldn't really ever find a balance that would work for both of us."
Smith adds that the couple's new life together suffered from their immediate immersion in the Firestone family business. "The winery was the focus of their relationship," she says. "They were together nonstop." She dismisses the notion that the couple split because Firestone enjoyed living in the media spotlight and Schefft did not.
"Jen didn't have a problem with the limelight," Smith says firmly. "It just wasn't her first priority — it was Andrew. Andrew's first priority wasn't Jen."
Schefft moved back to Chicago and into Kaminski's Lincoln Park apartment after the breakup, taking free-lance public-relations and event-planning assignments. "She was sad, disappointed, upset that she had not made it work out," Smith says.
While Schefft was reclaiming the life she left for Firestone, producers first broached the subject of her becoming the next "Bachelorette." Her parents were surprisingly supportive of her possible return to the show, suggestive overnight-date scenes and all. Despite the breakup, Diane Schefft saw "The Bachelor" experience as a generally positive one for Jen.
"Maybe we're just very open-minded people," she shrugs. "I enjoyed watching Jen on TV with Andrew. Not too many people get a chance to watch their child fall in love. She made a lot of promises before she left about not embarrassing us, not making a fool of herself. And she kept every one of them."
The friends who nursed her through the split were less enthusiastic. "Our initial reaction was, Are you crazy? No, you can't do this again!' " Kaminski says. "But she still had the flexibility to take six weeks off, and she really hadn't met anybody since she'd come back to Chicago. And it did sort of work out the first time around. She was pleasantly surprised." Schefft and her friends eventually came to share her parents' point of view.
"For a while, I just really couldn't even think about [the "Bachelor" experience]," Schefft says. "I thought, I'm getting away from that. I don't want to get involved in that. And then, time passed. I just thought, Why wouldn't I want to take this opportunity?"
So just what kind of guy is Schefft hoping to find this time around? "Somebody who's down-to-earth and doesn't take himself too seriously," she says. "He definitely has to have a sense of humor and get my sense of humor. I do want somebody who's ambitious, but someone who can balance work and downtime."
She's sure she'll be able to spot those men who see the show as a game to be won or a way to become famous.
"It's all about how someone makes you feel," she observes. "The person who just wants to win isn't going to make me feel special, because they're going to be so worried about trying to impress me vs. trying to get to know me."
As for the other drawbacks of reality-TV dating, Schefft believes her experience on "The Bachelor" has prepared her to handle them. "I don't think there's anything that I don't really know that I really need to find out," she says.
She's once again ready to give up her apartment and job, this time a position as an account executive with Chicago-based marketing consulting firm Rockit Ranch Productions, to be with the man of her dreams. She knows it will be hard to reject prospective suitors in front of millions of viewers, but accepts it as part of the process. And she's gotten used to kissing and cuddling on camera ("It's a mental thing — you just have to tell yourself it's all going to be worth it") and dealing with her celebrity, so much so that, if the opportunity arises, she doesn't rule out getting married in a televised extravaganza as "Bachelorette" Trista Rehn did in December 2003.
"Then, we can sort of disappear and be normal," she says. "I think you can do that once this is over. It's all in how you manage it."