With experience as an alligator wrangler and a race car driver already under his belt, 14-year-old Talon Leuchter has one heck of a diverse resume.
And there are more cool entries to come, vows the confident teen, who says he’s got a renewed enthusiasm for the working world after trying his hand at some more unconventional careers for a new reality show on YTV.
Talon was one of 18 Canadian teens who tested their mettle in a variety of jobs for “In Real Life,” a televised competition that sees kids aged 12 to 14 battling each other in a range of wild challenges for a shot at $25,000 in tuition and an all-expenses paid family vacation.
Split into teams of two, the teens fought against elimination by being among the first to master skills necessary to be a race car driver in Atlanta, an alligator wrangler in the Florida Everglades, a rodeo bull rider in Kansas and an ER doctor in Montreal, among other things.
“It was pretty amazing,” says Talon, a hockey-crazed jock from Toronto. “I never had a moment where I was like, ‘Uh-oh, I wish I didn’t do this.’ It was just all so amazing.”
Luckily, Talon was well-matched by his equally ambitious partner, 14-year-old Maddison Hartloff. She says the two developed a comfortable brother-sister relationship early on that probably helped them weather stressful challenges that derailed other teams.
A particularly cringe-inducing personality clash cripples one team early on, and it’s clear this “Amazing Race”-like premise is a test of more than just physical strength and keeping cool under pressure.
Show host Sabrina Jalees, known for delivering comic barbs on MuchMusic’s “Video On Trial,” says the show really pushed the young contestants emotionally and psychologically, and even taught her a thing or two about what it takes to be the best.
“It went from brains to brawn and back,” 23-year-old Jalees says of the skills needed for many of the tasks.
“And it seemed like no matter what it was… it was always the kids who just had the confidence and the drive (that came out on top)…. Some of those kids had this crazy drive that no matter what it was, no matter how hard the riddle was or how challenging the run was, they just (went for it). It wasn’t a yes or no answer, it was always yes in their minds.”
For those who didn’t make the cut, the disappointment could be heartwrenching.
Maddison says she can’t remember how many times she crumbled under the pressure, breaking into tears over lost opportunities or in shared anguish over a competitors’ shortfall.
“There were some really hard moments, really scary moments and I’m a pretty emotional person, so when I’m sad you’ll know,” says the bubbly teen, also from Toronto. “I just cried probably at least once in every episode!”
But she came away from the heart-pounding adventure with a renewed confidence in herself, she says, and with a clearer sense of where to set her career goals.
Thirteen-year-old Graeme Prendergast, a six-foot-three basketball player from Victoria, says the experience showed him that the working world can be an exciting place. He’s now thinking about studying engineering when he gets to university.
“It kind of opened my eyes to knowing that there is all this cool stuff in the world, that I’ve never even really heard about,” says Graeme, adding the show also helped him better cope with a fear of heights. “It was pretty cool how I could know about all these new things that I might want to do again in the future.”
Although some of the challenges involved risky professions, executive producer Jonathan Finkelstein says none of the youngsters was ever in danger of getting seriously hurt. The farm-raised alligators in episode 2, for instance, had their mouths taped while the teenage contestants shrieked and grabbed at their tails for one nerve-wracking challenge.
Meanwhile, professionals in each field were always on hand and the kids received careful instruction, even though those lessons weren’t always captured on camera. For example, the remarkable proficiency kids display in a firefighting episode is due to a day of equipment training that preceded the challenge, he says. For the ER episode, “dummy” patients were used, but the kids had to respond like real doctors.
Finkelstein, who also produced the defunct science-based series “Popular Mechanics For Kids,” says he began thinking about doing a show like this years ago, eager to combine lessons in real-world experience with adventure.
But since filming last summer he says he’s had a lot of trouble finding sponsors to provide money for the grand prize. The plan is to invest $15,000 into an RESP so that it grows to $25,000 by the time the teen is ready for university. Getting money for the all-expenses paid vacation has been especially tricky.
“It’s been a little slow,” says Finkelstein, of the Montreal-based Apartment 11 Productions, adding he’s not sure if it’s just the economy or something more.
“It’s hard to get sponsorship, let’s say, for the trip before you know what (locale) the challenger is going to pick. As for the RESP, we’re working on it, we expect to get it.”
Talon says he’s come away from the show excited about his future and eager for new adventures.
“It shows you that you can do a lot more than you think you can under pressure,” he says.
“It shows you that stuff you thought would be hard can turn out to be fun and it definitely, definitely shows you that you’re capable of anything older people can do.”
“In Real Life” begins Wednesday on YTV.