By Christy Strawser
CBS Detroit Managing Editor
WEST BLOOMFIELD (CBS Detroit) Dan Gheesling, 28, thought he had it all figured out when he saw his first reality TV show: outsmart opponents, win thousands of dollars, become an overnight sensation.
He was 16 years old.
“I looked into it, but you had to be 21, I was pretty devastated,” Gheesling said. “I spent five years planning how to win. I was a little more than obsessed. To shrink it down … It took me more than eight auditions.”
All that failing meant success in the long run because Gheesling ended up as the winner of CBS’s hit reality show “Big Brother 10.” He was the only person in the history of “Big Brother” to win unanimously, claiming a 7-0 victory, and was also voted “America’s Player” by viewers.
He was called the “nicest winner in Big Brother history,” by Entertainment Weekly and is also considered one of the best to ever play the game. He won $500,000.
So, how did a regular guy from Dearborn, a football coach and high school teacher, win a half-million dollars in reality TV land? Well, he basically refused to fail. Gheesling is passing on this tip and many others in his new book “How A Normal Guy Got Cast On Reality TV.”
“I got rejected so many times, each time I applied, I learned something different,” Gheesling said. “I went from being a rookie to kind of knowing exactly what I needed to do and when to do it. But it took me a long time to get to that point. Trying to tell someone how great you are, in front of a camera isn’t as easy as you would think.”
Gheesling caught “Survivor” fever the first season, and said he was intrigued to realize winning wasn’t about physical strength, but mental toughness. He watched every episode and quickly became a fan of “Big Brother” when it premiered, too.
“It was like ‘Survivor’ without the Wilderness,” Gheesling said. “It intrigued me because I saw someone win the game because they were smarter than everyone. I thought I could win a decent amount of money.”
With that cocksure attitude, the Divine High School grad started applying for a spot on “Big Brother” when he was a student studying business at Michigan State University.
“I had no clue, I sent in a video audition, then just sat back waited to be called,” he said. “At age 21, I got a call and started to go through the process, had to go to Chicago for an interview, then I found out they rejected me. That was the first of many rejections.”
Planning to win, Gheesling started to realize producers were choosing contestants with very specific personas, so he listened closely to the kinds of questions they asked and started to hone his own image.
“You’ve got to start with a story,” Gheesling said. “You’ve got to have a story to tell, it’s one of the most difficult things to do. You have to figure out who you are as a character. ‘Are you a nurse who’s a NRA person at night?’ Define your story.”
Gheesling chose “conservative Catholic school teacher” as his persona because “I answered as a Catholic school teacher, they asked me about my political affiliations and something clicked in my brain. I said, ‘I have to take this and run with it… It looked like I was further right than Ron Paul.’”
“That was the fun part, here I was playing this role, my family was beside themselves, all these people were saying that this wasn’t who I was, then when I got on the show, I could more or less be myself. Things I said in casting, I never said in the show.”
So, who was the guy on the show?
“It was like my personality, but on steroids — Once I got on, I had a very positive reaction,” Gheesling said. “I had been such a big fan that when I finally got there, I enjoyed every minute of it, even when we were deprived of food or whatnot, I felt lucky to be there.”
In fact, one of the guys he aligned himself with on the show, Memphis Garrett, is his best friend. Garrett stood up in Gheesling’s wedding, and he plans to fly to Los Angeles later this year to return the favor and stand up in his.
“We never would’ve met in everyday life,” Gheesling said. “It’s funny how we came together.”
Beyond having friends who live in L.A., not much has changed for the “Big Brother” winner. He still lives in metro Detroit with his wife Chelsea, teaches and coaches football at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. He said he managed to “slip back into his life” without fanfare.
“I drove a 2005 silver Ford Taurus when I was on the show, and in 2012 I still drive that same car,” the West Bloomfield resident said.
He still watches every episode of “Big Brother.” “But I’m kind of like an armchair quarterback now,” Gheesling said. “I think my wife gets sick of me because I have commentary the whole time. I look at all these shows like chess or mental warfare.”