Looking back at ‘Rock of Love,’ and other stuff Google told us about Bret Michaels

To celebrate Poison and Tesla opening for Def Leppard tonight, our Online Editor, an obsessive fan of mid-aughts VH1 programming, gives you the ultimate queer guide to Poison frontman Bret Michaels and his underreported universe of media and retail.

My introduction to Bret Michaels came when I was sixteen years old, through Rock of Love, his white-washed version of Flavor Flav’s Flavor of Love. Despite Bret, Flav, Tiffany “New York” Pollard, an immediately post-Kardashian Ray J, and the literally hundreds of women and men who tried to “date” them (and each other) giving VH1 some of their highest all-time ratings, these shows have somehow fallen into obscurity, which in hindsight isn’t a total surprise. “I competed to date Bret Michaels in 2006” is the sort of thing you might overhear in the North Hollywood CVS: boring to most people, but deeply fascinating to people like me, who are considering “North Hollywood CVS” as the theme for our First and Real 29th Birthday.

That whole programming block changed my destiny and informed how I view the world. I cried when I met New York at the Lovecraft Bar. It was like meeting, well, a rock star. All of their shows were produced by Endemol and 51 Minds Entertainment. Endemol is a Dutch media empire that has had its hands in producing contemporary reality TV guilty pleasures ranging from national successes to wild obscurities, like Fear Factor, Deal or No Deal, The Real Housewives, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Kid Nation and more. 51 Minds dealt specifically with VH1, and is credited with boosting their ratings during a slump period.

Rock of Love is like The Bachelor meets Rashida Jones’ Hot Girls Wanted: 20–25 women lived in a sprawling McMansion and competed in game show-based challenges to win dates with Michaels (copy/paste from Flavor Flav to New York, et al.) and were eliminated one-by-one until Michaels found his “Rock of Love.” The show lasted for three seasons, the last of which was based out of two tour buses filmed concurrently with a tour of his solo album.

I explain all of this because my editor has never heard of Rock of Love, which is beyond offensive, in my Expert-Cultural-Critic-Expert Opinion. So, in order to understand Rock of Love as a unified concept to celebrate Michaels’ arrival in the City of Roses (and Thorns), we explore the women, the man they loved, and the labors they performed to get rejected by him.

Bret Michaels today

The last time I checked up on Bret Michaels, he was recovering from a brain hemorrhage that may or may not have been caused by an accident at the Tony Awards. He had a documentary-style reality series filming right before the hemorrhage, but during a series of other health concerns, like a heart surgery. Based on his Wikipedia, he seems to have achieved legend status among the Monster Energy demographic, and has been working with Def Leppard solo and with Poison for the past five years.

Bret Michaels has a cologne, obviously called Roses and Thorns, with some of the most laughably bad product copy I have ever read. From the Roses and Thorns website: “After many months of trial and error and even a few shirt burnings, the final Roses and Thorns scent was locked. Michaels, a self proclaimed ‘drealist’ part dreamer and part realist knew that not only did he need to like the cologne but so did others. So the real life smell test began.” He also has an Overstock.com home decor and luggage line, which I just realized has always been a lifelong dream of mine.

Bret Michaels is a quiet Donald Trump supporter, like numerous other reality TV-based figures, including Paris Hilton, Omorosa Manigault-Newman and Nene Leakes. Make of it what you will.

The girls and body politics

Seventy-five or so girls vied for Michaels’ attention over the course of three TV seasons. The girls were likely cast from Hollywood, Chicago, and other cities related to the Midwest, as we often hear references to Chicago in casual conversation across the seasons. Over the three seasons, the audience and Michaels are introduced to women who occupy labor jobs across the entertainment industry, ranging from ingenue model-slash-actresses to straight-up porn actors and unapologetic strippers, all this back when Suicide Girls were revolutionary. We met women like Heather, who got Michaels’ name tattooed on her neck before he rejected her; Rodeo, who would launch a failed “organic BBQ sauce” and still tweets Michaels, who does not tweet back; Angelique, a French porn star and possible plastic surgery addict; and DJ Lady Tribe, a graffiti artist who took a jello shot from another girl’s vagina and later attended “a $10,000 rehab” for substance abuse.

Their fashions and lingo read like a 2004–08 mood board for a subset of American MySpace users who would probably find something soothing in mixing Miranda July with pre-2007 Britney Spears. I now know calling people “lame idiot skanks” is problematic on multiple levels and largely frowned upon in professional culture, but women like Farrah let me know that I would be accepted even if I couldn’t get above C+ in high school chemistry.

Bret Michaels commented then and now that he’s not great at traditional heterosexual dating, given that he’s been touring the world in some capacity since he was 15 years old. I’ve previously written a little bit about how contemporary youths struggle with global recognition, but people like Bret Michaels wrote the book on it before the internet. When you register that mentality in your viewing—a man in his mid-forties from blue collar Pennsylvania surrounded by fame-hungry twenty-somethings (and the occasional 35 year old) navigating traditional constructs in unconventional situations—Rock of Love becomes a fascinating, if only slightly condescending culture study.

Labors of love as intellectual labor

Looking back, there were some seriously eyebrow-raising qualities about VH1’s programming, and not just the part where a contestant on another show murdered his ex-wife and later killed himself. For Bret Michaels’ series, the women performed challenges like playing tackle football with seemingly-inadequate physical protection (several contestants complained on-air about not getting pads or helmets), designing album covers and writing/recording song parts for Michaels’ solo music career, and nurturing at least one swarm of strangers’ children. Almost every challenge on Rock of Love was physically, mentally or emotionally draining. Combining exhaustion with bottom-shelf liquor and anxieties stemming from housing insecurity and competitive polyamory makes for iconic moments, like the time an emotionally fragile former porn actor wrote five pages of wedding vows for the Wedding Challenge, the first challenge of that season; or the girl who got drunk and cried on a parking lot speed bump for hours; or the girls who consider titles like Miss Hooters of Illinois or Cyber Playmate of the Month 2006 or Penthouse Pet 2009 as aspirational.

Performing unpaid intellectual labor is the cornerstone of starting out as an artist, writer, etc. There’s a fine line between exploitation and the reality of low-budget production, and it’s hard to really know where Rock of Love crosses it. The exposed world of Hollywood music production reminds me of the studio life later exposed in shows like The Real Housewives of Atlanta, where Kim Zolciak is walked through the physical and intellectual labor of music production, only to utter lines like, “I don’t need to know about music, I’m a singer.” My first published story and photos were all unpaid, and in fact, I don’t actually get paid to write for the Vanguard. The question is, who is asking for unpaid labor and who is performing it, what does the laborer get if not fiscal security, and how often is unpaid labor being exchanged.

Today, Rock of Love and roughly 45 percent of VH1’s programming from that era lives on Hulu, existing as a time capsule of an era where a star is between legacies, where ladies are between girlhood and womandom, and the lines between real and fake aren’t blurred, but contoured. References to pre-Obama Donald Trump are occasionally peppered into the programming, and they read much differently than they did when they aired in the contemporary. Bret Michaels seems like an earnest, down-to-Earth blue collar man, especially when compared to women with pierced dimples and shattered psyches.

IF YOU GO: Def Leppard, Poison and Telsa play tonight at the MODA Center. Click here for tickets and other information.