“The Hills” are no longer alive with the sound of Kirstin Cavallari and Audrina Patridge getting their Joan’s on Third granola fix while they bicker about Justin Bobby.
For years, MTV gave us the glossiest glimpse of young adulthood in Los Angeles: faces were powdered, scenes were lit, homeless people were carefully cropped out of shots at Sunset Plaza. Emotional moments were identifiable by dainty mascara rivers.
“Chelsea Settles” is not that show.
MTV’s newest reality star wouldn’t fit into the sample sizes on Whitney Port’s Teen Vogue rack… nor could she afford to. When the series begins, twenty-three year old Chelsea lives in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, where she spends her days taking care of her ailing mother, avoiding most social interaction, and feeling ashamed about the fast food cartons piling up in the foot wells of her car.
When presented with the opportunity to move to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams of a career in fashion, Chelsea finds herself confronted with plenty of roadblocks. In particular, the show highlights her weight issues. At 324 pounds, Chelsea is a long way from fitting into Lauren Conrad’s skinny jeans. Not only a health issue, Chelsea’s weight impacts everything from her career goals to her social well-being. In one scene, she musters up the courage to attend her cousin’s birthday celebration at a club, only to be asked by the bouncer to step aside as he lets thinner girls in the door.
For someone so reclusive, agreeing to be on a documentary show seems extreme. Chelsea tells us she felt like she had to do something drastic. “I’ve always wanted to do something more for my life and I had all these dreams but because of my weight and my lack of confidence I was living in a bubble,” she tells Zap2it. “I was nearing graduation and I kind of hit a wall and bottomed out. Randomly, I was browsing MTV’s site, I clicked on the ‘Be On MTV’ tab, and there was a casting call for an overweight girl who had a weight-loss journey. My grandma told me I was wasting my time, but [laughs]. I remind her of that every day.”
Though her weight is certainly a focus of the series, her anxiety issues are also incredibly relatable. The first time she visits a gym, she nearly turns back — just standing in the parking lot gives her a panic attack, and she has to literally talk herself into just walking through the door. As she stands outside of her new roommate’s home in Los Angeles, she’s struck by the fear that her roommate will take one look at her and turn her away.
“I’d really internalized a lot of my feelings, starting this whole journey with the production was the first time I’d ever let out any of the insecurities and fears,” Chelsea says. “That was something I’d just take home with me at night and deal with. I had to learn how to confide in people and find a balance. You don’t want to tell everyone everything, but you do have to lean on your support. I had a hard time opening up because I thought people would judge me and be harsh.”
She does find shoulders to cry on. Her roommate, Jenna, who Chelsea found through a CraigsList-type search for a place to live, is just what Chelsea needs. A recovering addict, Jenna is bubbly, outgoing, and, perhaps, a little bit pushy. Even as their friendship is in its early stages, Jenna is unwilling to watch Chelsea retreat into her own insecurities. Chelsea is also supported by her cousin Jarell, whose plan to move to Los Angeles spurred Chelsea’s own decision.
“I’m honestly surprised that Jarell and Jenna have not killed me,” Chelsea laughs. “I’ve cried on their shoulders. They’ve had to console me through this whole experience. I should be Public Enemy No. 1 with them, but they’ve been so amazing throughout.”
Chelsea admits that she had a “glittery” idea of what moving to LA would feel like, and of what her weight loss journey would feel like. Instead, she finds herself initially disheartened when her boss asks her to make an effort to dress like the thinner girls at work, and when her weight loss gets off to a slow start.
“‘Biggest Loser’ was my whole reason in wanting to apply to this casting,” she tells us. “I was like, ‘Oh gosh, they’re going to send me to a ranch! I’m going to lose weight tomorrow! It’s going to be amazing!’ and I found out that was not the case. I had to do it on my own. Things were not provided for me, tools were not provided. I had to go off and figure it out.” It was difficult for her, she says, but the struggle is what now makes the experience worthwhile. “You’re taking my number one insecurity here, the thing that wears me down the most, and you’re putting it on display. I’d hated myself for so long and I’d never taken care of this. I had to do something so that I would be proud of myself.”
Physically, Chelsea has undergone a significant transformation in the nine months since the cameras met her at her mother’s home. Still, the true transformation is evidenced in conversation — after watching the pilot, we expected a timid, awkward interview, but on the phone, Chelsea is bubbly, warm, and most importantly, confident.
Chelsea says that seeing the clips from the first episode make her realize how far she’s come, as well. “At the time, I felt like there were two extremes,” she says. “I was going to be thin and happy, or I was going to be overweight and miserable and hide. I had to make a change, and I did. My only disappointment is that I didn’t make it sooner.”
The series premieres tonight, Tuesday Oct. 11, at 11 p.m. on MTV. You won’t want to miss this refreshingly honest look at young adulthood in America. There will be something you can relate to, regardless of whether you’ve struggled with weight or anxiety.
Chelsea will be watching, too, with a well-deserved level of pride… and, she admits, some of that old worry. “No one likes to hear their voice on the answering machine and here I am baring my life on TV,” she laughs. “I’m crazy.”