True, the College can’t brag about the Olsen twins walking its hallowed halls. There are no paparazzi hidden under tables at Brower Student Center or trailing students as they walk to their English classes; no bodyguards securing the dining hall before lunch; no torrid tabloid incidents taking place on our campus. For the most part, we’re just a bunch of regular, wholesome college kids … or are we?
As a matter of fact, the College is home to some unique faces that have made headlines in the last few years.
Who can forget Lauren Wanko, the junior communication studies major who allowed MTV cameras to follow her around and document her senior year for an episode of their hit series “True Life”?
What about Kate Stelnick, a sophomore business management major who, last year, made both local and national headlines by being the first customer ever to down a six-pound hamburger at a popular Pennsylvania pub?
Read on to find out what two of TCNJ’s most recognized campus celebrities have been up to since they first made news at the College!
Catching up with “MTV Girl”
Back in 2003, prospective college students could tune in to the popular cable channel MTV and watch a New Jersey teen coast through the ups and downs of her last year of high school and, after much debate, decide to attend The College of New Jersey in the upcoming fall. That teen was Lauren Wanko.
While some might grapple with the choice to air their lives on national television, the decision was an easy one for Wanko.
“My background in high school was drama and TV production,” she said. “So therefore, when I was told that MTV was coming to school to look for some candidates for a reality show, I thought it would be an amazing opportunity for me, given what I was interested in pursuing in the future.”
After participating in a casting call in her high school’s library, Wanko was selected by MTV producers to be profiled for “True Life: I’m a High School Senior.” Taping began one week after the initial interviewing process, and MTV’s cameras followed her around from February until her graduation.
Although the special aired months before the College’s freshmen moved in for Welcome Week in the fall of 2003, Wanko was still recognized by the majority of her classmates.
“I did not expect to be recognized as much as I was when I arrived on campus,” she said. “Total strangers were commenting about how I changed my hair color. I was definitely surprised by the amount of students who watched the show. I quickly realized just how large of an audience MTV had.”
Although it has now been two years since the show first aired, people still ask Wanko about her “True Life” experience and make an array of comments to her about the way she was portrayed – both good and bad.
“Being on a reality show such as ‘True Life’ wasn’t really my life story but what the producers wanted to create for their ratings and their audience to enjoy,” she said. “After two years, I’ve learned that people will either get to know me, a typical college student who is no different from anyone else, or choose to make their own assumptions about me based on a reality TV show that I had no control over.”
These days, Wanko has taken charge of launching her career, without the help of MTV’s cameras. Last April, she signed a contract to work at NJN (New Jersey Network), located in nearby Trenton. She is both a reporter and associate producer for a weekly, half-hour program called “New Jersey Works.”
“When I’m not in school, I spend my time at the station, writing stories, covering stories, or shooting my news casts,” she said.
So, was appearing on “True Life,” and later hosting a marathon of “True Life” episodes for MTV, worth the more difficult adjustment into college life?
“Looking back, would I do it again?” asked Wanko. “If it would give me more opportunities in the industry, I definitely would!”
Catching up with “Burger Girl”
It’s been a little more than seven months since Kate Stelnick journeyed five hours, along with her freshmen floormates, to Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub in Clearfield, Penn. And although it’s been more than half a year since Stelnick downed the pub’s famous six-pound hamburger, complete with over five pounds of condiments, not much has changed.
She is still recognized all over campus, and wonders if she will always be known as the “burger girl.”
“I didn’t think people would hear about it or recognize me, so I was surprised at first,” Stelnick said, speaking of the attention she received soon after The Signal published its first article on her record-breaking hamburger binge. “It still hasn’t stopped. I think this burger ordeal will forever haunt me.”
With the close of her freshman year, Stelnick tried to restore some semblance of normalcy to her life. She did not participate in any competitive eating events this summer.
“I’ve been getting tons of e-mails from people in competitive eating organizations asking me to enter contests,” she said. “Quick Chek hosted an eating competition and offered me $1,000 just to enter, but I turned them down because I’m not really into eating competitively, though it was nice that I got that offer.”
After being a guest last year on both “Good Morning America” and “The Tony Danza Show,” the offers for Stelnick to appear on national television have yet to abate.
“Jimmy Kimmel asked me to appear on his late night talk show, but I turned him down as well,” she said. “I’m trying to let this fame die down a bit.”
For the time being, Stelnick does not have any other records she’d like to break.
Surprisingly, something as small as eating a giant hamburger has taught Stelnick a great deal about society at large.
“Eating this hamburger made me realize how much people do not focus on the more important things going on in the world,” she said. “I ate a giant hamburger and it was on the 11 o’clock news! I guess, sometimes you need a break from all the crime and other serious issues, but it was just so crazy!”
Perhaps more important than the lesson that Stelnick learned about others in the world are the lessons she learned about herself.
“I’ve gained a great deal of confidence (from appearing on live TV), and I’ve learned to be comfortable with myself and not care so much what others think,” she said.
While reactions to her stunt have ranged from idolization to hatred, Stelnick has taken only the positives away.
“I am not going to let anything hold me back,” she said. “I want to experience everything there is to experience – even if that means driving five hours to beat a record I knew I could beat all along.”