July 21, 2016
Sporting big sunglasses, a white top and a black-and-white dress that reaches her feet, Alexa Brunetti sits outside Yianni’s Café in Brigantine, barely touching the Caesar salad she ordered for lunch.
She’s seven years removed from winning the Miss Teen New Jersey USA pageant, but on a recent midweek afternoon, she’s talking about her future. Specifically, she’s pondering what will happen after everybody in her seaside hometown gets a chance to see her appearance on the VH1 show, “Dating Naked.”
She can’t go public with any spoilers about what happened when she traveled some 6,300 miles from home, left her clothes on a Bora Bora beach and attempted to win the affections of an also-nude male suitor in front of cable-TV camera crews. But she can share the fact that the unexpected opportunity helped her figure out what exactly she wants to do with her life.
The story of how a former Miss Teen USA competitor became a contestant on a reality show that wields nudity (albeit, blurred) as a unique dating prop started 22 years ago at the 1994 Little Miss Atlantic County pageant.
She was a 4-year-old girl who decided she wanted to compete in pageants. Hurdles quickly presented themselves.
“My mom said we don’t know anything about it, and I only had a flower-girl dress,” she recalled. “Finally, she said, All right, if you really want to, let’s do it. I won, and ever since then, I’ve been a pageant girl.
“There’s nothing that I’m embarrassed about, and nothing that my family will be disappointed in me for." —Alexa Brunetti
“I liked the hair and makeup and just being on stage. I was very shy, but once you put me on stage, I just shined. I always wanted to watch myself on TV. You know those old home videos? When I was little, that’s all I wanted to watch. Over and over and over and over again, I would watch myself on the TV screen.”
As the granddaughter of Brigantine’s former city manager meant there was always something of a spotlight on her family in the small town, she said.
Brunetti said she wanted to attend Atlantic City High School, like many of her childhood friends, but went to Holy Spirit High prep instead. The fact that most of her friends there were boys — and that she was taken out of school for acting and modeling endeavors — meant she’d face some bullying from female peers.
“It was ‘Who does she think she is?’ bashing from a lot of girls, and the fact that my friends were boys had people saying ‘she must be a ho,’” Brunetti recalled. “I was just so innocent, and pageant-y and ‘world peace.’ I was so naïve. I finally went to a nun to tell her when a girl threatened to smash my face.”
When she was 18, her mom suggested she give the Miss Teen New Jersey USA pageant a try. She’d been out of the pageant circuit for a while, so she considered herself “a rookie” again, but agreed to do it anyway.
“I took two months, worked out and studied current events, which I really didn’t pay attention to at that point. My mom was like, ‘If you finish in the Top 15, I’ll be so proud of your accomplishments,’” she recalled. “So, I made the Top 15. Then, I made the Top 5; they called me last. And then, the finals are me and this girl. Standing up there, I was so proud of my accomplishments, that made it this far.
“Then, they announced that I was the winner. It was an amazing feeling. It was all kind of numb. I had no idea what to say. I was crying. I just went blank. If I knew I was ever going to win, I would’ve written a winning speech. Girls have been competing and training for four or five years, and I come in as a rookie and just win? Of course [some got catty about it.]”
After taking classes at Atlantic Cape Community College, she won a scholarship to the New York Film Academy, where she studied film, acting and television journalism.
“I felt free there, in New York City, like nobody cares who I am,” said Brunetti, who will turn 26 a few days before her “Dating Naked” episode airs Aug. 10. “Here, I say a curse word, and it’s ‘Oh, look at Miss New Jersey,’ but that didn’t matter there.”
While she made good connections in the broadcast world, she was 21, living away from home for the first time and “my mind wasn’t in the right place. If I had the brains and thinking patterns about how I look at life that I have now back then, things would be so different. There were huge opportunities; I had the industry by the balls. But, you live and learn.”
She’s kept up with modeling and acting aspirations in the years since. Romantically speaking, she said she’s been single for the past three years, both as a way “to find herself” and not interfere with her dreams of moving away.
She works at the casino to establish her financial footing – and has really come to dread those long shifts in a market where the clientele isn't exactly respectable toward her – and enrolled at a cosmetology school to foster her ambitions to be a make-up artist and hair stylist. She graduated in May.
“At 26, I’ve figured out what I really want to do, what I’m good at, what I love. I want to make people feel beautiful and confident,” she said. “I still want to be in the [entertainment industry]. I hate it because it can get oh-so-dark, but I love it too. So, I’m thinking of something like doing hair for a studio, or hair and makeup for theater, like ‘Wicked’ on Broadway.”
While at cosmetology school, she was still applying to appear on television shows, including last year’s attempt to get on MTV’s “Are You The One?” While she didn’t land a part in that show, she got a call from VH1 earlier this year based off that earlier audition.
“I didn’t even know ‘Dating Naked’ existed before that, but yeah, why not?” Brunetti said. “I’d been out of the industry and in school. So, we had a phone interview, they loved me. A Skype interview, they loved me. And finally, it was ‘Come out to LA and audition.’ In the beginning of March, I got a call: ‘Next week, you’re going to Bora Bora.’
“If I frickin’ knew in a million years that this was going to happen, I’d have prepared way differently. I was working out sometimes, but if I knew I’d be on national TV, I’d have been at the gym three times a day!”
Having dropped 25 pounds during pre-show preparations, she took a month off from school and work. Her flight to Los Angeles departed Philadelphia International Airport around noon. From there, it was an eight-hour flight to Tahiti, then a puddle jumper and a boat to Bora Bora.
Upon arrival, she was exhausted. She’d also face body-image issues that she’d harbored for years.
“I was never big. I was just thick and curvy. As you see on TV and in magazines, that’s just not in. Being in Bora Bora, I was seeing all these in-shape, fit girls. They either have tiny figures or are very in shape, like, ‘I’m a fitness model,'” said Brunetti, carefully avoiding the public release of plot details. “And here I am: the makeup artist, but what are they going to see on TV: oh, the fat one, the fat one, the fat one."
She's heard it all before.
“I’m prepared. I have thick skin," she said. "I’ve been bullied my whole life, so I went into the confident this-is-who-I-am thing. I’ve really learned to push down those insecurities, especially now, with the videos and stories about ‘plus-sized models.’ I think it’s just beautiful. They’re starting an amazing movement. I hope I can help break down those barriers about body size and image.”
Knowing the cable-TV viewing world — and people who’ve long known her in this small town — will soon see her strip out of a bikini and bare her entire 5-foot-5 frame is a daunting prospect, of course.
Her mother and 22-year-old sister have been more than supportive, but she hasn’t told her grandparents about the show yet since “they’re pretty old school.” (They’ll find out soon enough.) The anxiety is tempered by the belief that American notions of nudity are puritanical.
“In Europe and other countries, but not the United States, nudity is a beautiful thing, the natural human body, and that’s how I approached it. It’s not viewed as sexual. There [are] boobs and et cetera on TV at noon in Europe. It’s normal,” she said. “But here, it’s viewed as sexuality, it’s viewed as negative, it’s used to talk down to females, if you know what I mean.”
"It’s just like ripping off a Band-Aid. You take it off, and then you’re fine." — Alexa Brunetti
On “Dating Naked,” two focal characters (one male and one female) date two new arrivals each episode, choosing one to keep around for the next episode. Contestants receive $1,000 per episode on which they appear.
Brunetti cannot say how many episodes on which she appears for no-spoilers sake, but noted contestants are clothed for much of the time, beyond the initial introductory scene, the dates themselves and, should they choose to stay naked, at the clothing-optional group house.
She admitted it was awkward to do the initial stripping scene about five times before the camera crew got the shots they wanted.
“There were a lot of good-looking people on the camera crews, but it gets to the point where you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, just do it.’ It’s just like ripping off a Band-Aid. You take it off, and then you’re fine," she shared. "You try to be respectful, keeping eye contact, but there were so many wandering eyes, especially with me! Everybody was checking everybody out. It’s normal, because everybody’s naked. It’s just looking at the human body. The only insecurities I had were because I was the only different one. I’ve really learned how to love myself, to love what I’ve accomplished. Owning it, loving the skin you’re in.”
Part of that is accepting people’s initial reactions to her lifelong “resting bitch face.” But that’s easy to fend off because, “Once I open my mouth, I’m so goofy and silly and bubbly. People usually say, 'I thought you were going to be a bitch.’ I got that a lot growing up.”
Show aside, the springtime adventure helped her in a lot of ways. She got to reconnect with her father, who left the family when she was five and currently lives in the Los Angeles area. (“I was a little salty on how everything went down, so I called and asked him to meet up for dinner,” she said, noting that the face-to-face time courtesy of her travels paid big dividends in that family-mending respect. “Now, we have the closest relationship we’ve ever had.”)
After filming in Bora Bora, she got a Facebook message asking if she wanted to appear on the WeTV show “Million Dollar Matchmaker,” a program on which potential mates are found for millionaires. Brunetti treasures the words that matchmaker Patti Stanger used in response to her body-image concerns (but can’t talk about the plot, as that episode will also air in coming weeks.)
In Bora Bora, she had a moment of life-direction clarity, namely when she interacted with the makeup artist who got to work in a tropical location. (“I want your job. I want to be you!” was the reaction.)
It was the second overseas trip of her life, the first being a voyage to the Bahamas for the Miss Teen USA pageant in 2009, but that was all work and no play.
“Bora Bora really opened my eyes to the fact that I want to see the world,” said Brunetti, who volunteers with the Humane Society of Atlantic County. “Never in a million years would I have been able to see these places if I didn’t do this show. You never know what doors this may open.”
She said she’ll always have the itch to be on camera, and hopes to find a way to blend behind-the-scenes work (i.e. makeup and hair) with acting.
“We’ll see. I’ve never had to be behind the scenes yet,” Brunetti said. “Maybe I can create something awesome with that.”
Despite the fear that she doesn’t know how she’ll be presented on “Dating Naked,” she said she’s proud of the decision to appear on a show that many would avoid.
“I don’t take anything back. I love how things are going, the struggles and everything. It’s made me who I am today,” she said. “There’s nothing that I’m embarrassed about and nothing that my family will be disappointed in me for. I love my hometown. It’s my foundation, and I’ll always love it for that. I can’t tell you how ready I am to get out of here. Especially when this show airs. I’ll probably go into hiding for a few days!”
And with that, she got her Caesar salad boxed up to eat before another long shift bringing drinks to people playing the slots in Atlantic City, her dreams of a brighter future blending with fears of what people will say after they see her strip naked on national television in pursuit of love.