Paging Dr. Pamela Ling: Catching up with reality TV’s first Asian American

May 1, 2005

Everybody remembers The Real World: San Francisco—bike messenger Puck; cute Pedro, who was HIV positive; and one of our own, Pam, the overachieving med student. Eleven years later, Dr. Pamela Ling is married to one of her housemates from the show and still gets recognized on the street.

What made you originally sign up for the show?

It was a little bit of a lark, actually. I was already living in San Francisco and they flyered all around my neighborhood. A bunch of my roommates and I all signed up.

Why do you think you were cast?

I think they look for potential chemistry between people. I was a med student at the time, and because Pedro, one of the housemates living with us was HIV positive, I think they thought that would be an interesting dynamic. And San Francisco has a big Asian population—we were the United Colors of Benetton cast.

Do you think you filled a particular role on the show?

At first I was definitely the overachieving Asian American med student—you start with a placard over your head saying what you are. But as you get to know people, the little boxes don’t fit so well.

I thought I’d be the voice of reason about HIV, because everyone was freaking out about AIDS at the time. But Pedro was actually a very experienced AIDS educator. I ended up learning a lot more about HIV than educating about it.

Did being on the show have a lasting influence on your life?

For me personally, yes. I met my husband on the show! I ended up marrying Judd Winick. So it had a big impact.

We didn’t get together until after the show was over. At the time I was totally oblivious… but people say they could tell. Within a year we got together, and we got married three years ago.

Did being on the show, in such an intense environment, impact your relationship or make it stronger?

It’s a very intense experience. I mean, we feel like we’ve been to the moon and back. It was intense especially because of Pedro’s illness. So we went through the best and worst of times early on. Early on our relationship had a trial by fire.

Everyone who’s been on reality TV is like in a big, dysfunctional family. You all have the same show issues, so you have that
common ground.

What kind of issues?

You have no control over how you’re portrayed. So suddenly you have no control over how you’re perceived by a whole bunch of people. They’re shooting 80 to 100 hours a week to make a 22-minute show, so of course the picture is going to be incomplete. They take shortcuts, they abbreviate, and if you’ve lived it, you’re inevitably going to feel dissatisfied.

Reality shows have become much more sensational. They’re all about the contests and they’re like game shows. Before, all we had to do was live in the house and that was cutting edge. Now it’s all about eating bull testicles and being naked in hot tubs all the time.

Do you think you were treated differently as an Asian American?

I don’t think so. I did think it was nice to be on. I still think there’s low representation of Asians on TV, but I don’t think I was treated differently.

Are you still recognized?

Oh yes! Still. I’m still surprised that people recognize me. It was 10 years ago, so now people don’t know why they know me. I get a lot of, “Did you go to high school in Modesto?” “Are you the bread maker at LuLu?”

And Puck was on your show?

Yes. He’s the most memorable person from our cast. He only lived with us for seven weeks, but he was very featured—and sanitized. He was actually far more abusive than they showed.

If you had a daughter or a niece who wanted to go on a reality TV show, what would you say to her?

I wouldn’t oppose it. I’d probably say, “Be mindful, you’re giving up your privacy and you’re giving up control.”

It depends on what kind of show it was. I don’t recommend eating blended rats. Fear Factor is not a show I’d recommend.

The guy who created Fear Factor was a producer on The Real World. He was the only one we could talk to because we weren’t supposed to talk to the crew. So he was the only one we could call up and abuse. I’m not surprised that he created Fear Factor. He is getting back at all of the people who want to be on reality shows. missing image file

—Jennifer Huang

Magazine Section: