Most Cal State Long Beach professors don’t transition from teaching a classroom of nearly 100 students to being watched by more than 7 million people in a matter of a month. However, that’s exactly what happened to assistant communications professor Ragan Fox.
It all began when Fox was driving around Hollywood one day and his phone rang. It was his former neighbor who he used to watch the CBS reality show “Big Brother” with. She told him she was at an open casting call for its upcoming season. With only an hour left in auditions, Fox decided to try out.
Four months later he was packing his bags, preparing to spend his entire summer on television sets across the nation.
Fox was one of 13 contestants chosen to live in the “Big Brother” house, where cameras are constantly rolling and no outside contact is allowed. Weekly evictions took place every Thursday, leading up to the finale where one winner would receive the $500,000 grand prize.
The reality show aired three nights a week on CBS. Viewers could also tune into “Big Brother After Dark,” a live, uncut program on Showtime from 12 a.m. to 3 a.m. every night. In addition, fans could pay for an online subscription to a live, nonstop 24-hour feed of the “Big Brother” house.
Fox, 34, holds a doctorate in communications. However, he chose to keep that fact a secret from the other houseguests and, instead, told them he was simply a graduate student. The reason for this omission was strategy. He insisted that his academic training helped him pick out secret alliances and read communication between others more easily.
Like past seasons of “Big Brother,” this year had a twist. A saboteur would exist in the house, completing acts of sabotage such as casting doubt on whether an eviction would occur and placing a note under one houseguest’s pillow that said, “I know your secret.” America was given the chance to vote and chose Fox as the saboteur. After successfully completing select tasks for three weeks, without being evicted, Fox earned $20,000, which he said will be put in a money market account.
After 62 days in the house, Fox was evicted, placing fifth in the competition.
Sitting in a black swivel chair in his office located in the Academic Services building, Fox is dressed in a blue-checkered shirt and denim jeans. The casual clothes allow for a quiet first day back on the job since taking a leave of absence for “Big Brother.” Fox said he addressed the elephant in the room at the start of both of his classes, but dropped the subject after 10 minutes of discussion.
In regards to actually watching those episodes back on TV, Fox said he’s catching up by doing a “take it as I can take it thing,” but some are difficult to watch due to the network’s editing.
“It’s a television show and they tell a story,” he said. “But it’s a story that they’re constructing along the way.”
While in the house, contestants faced a number of challenges, including entire weeks where they became a “have-not.” A have-not must take cold showers, sleep on a lawn chair and eat only slop — a gritty substance that appears to imitate pig feed. Fox, who lost more than 20 pounds during the course of the show, said this was the hardest part about living in the house.
“When really dramatic things are happening to you, you want to talk to your family or your friends, but you don’t have any of that,” Fox said. “Then the next things that you turn to are, ‘Oh, I want to take a warm shower’ or ‘I want to get in a nice comfy bed’ or eat comfort food. When you’re a have-not, all of those things are taken away from you too. Anything that you have that will make you feel like an actual human being, rather than just a cog in a machine, trying to get ahead, is all stripped away.”
Still, Fox seemed a bit forlorn about permanently moving out of a place he had grown so accustomed to. Sitting in his office chair, he paused, trying to remember a metaphor one of his fellow houseguests had recently told him.
“If you’ve been in prison, you hear prisoners a lot of times say that they’re afraid to leave prison because they’ve grown so accustomed to it ⎯ that’s the way that I feel. I miss being in the house,” Fox said. “It’s kind of a protective cocoon.”
However, as soon as Fox was free from the constraints of the show, he was quick to dash to the Internet, an experience that he described as “really, really overwhelming.”
After referring to the “Big Brother” fan base as something like the Trekkies of reality TV, Fox could hardly show surprise at the massive amount of content available when he Googled his own name. His every move over the past three months had been chronicled down to the second.
“They’re a very unique fan base and make a big investment in the show,” Fox said. “There are people who watch the live feeds and blog the most mundane aspects of our life. ‘Ragan’s eating a chip. He just ate another one.'”
“Big Brother 12” raked in more than 7 million viewers nightly, placing first in its timeslot almost every week. According to Nielsen TV ratings, the show was ranked No. 1 in the 18-34 demographic and saw an 11 percent increase in viewers compared to last year’s premiere. Fox even became a trending topic on Twitter.
While sitting in his office, Fox thought back to one particular fan encounter last week at a popular Los Angeles restaurant and chuckled slightly to himself.
“I went out to eat at The Ivy with my mom and two friends,” he said. “A family came up to me and they wanted to take my picture. I’ve been to The Ivy several times and I’m not a celebrity, but when there are actual celebrities at The Ivy, nobody even looks at them twice. But because of this weird mix between a regular person who’s on TV, I think people feel more comfortable coming up and saying something.”
Despite his newfound fame, Fox said he has no plans to quit teaching any time soon.
There is one sheet of paper attached to the corkboard outside his office ⎯ a printout from LBPost.com that announces Fox as one of the “Ten Best Teachers in Long Beach.” In addition, academic plaques cover one of his office walls while another contains a 4-foot cartoon drawing of a judge, complete with a judge’s wig, but with Fox’s face glued on top. He said a student made it for him.
“I’m a professor. I’m not a reality television person,” Fox said. “I’m not trying to use ‘Big Brother’ to a media-related end like some people are doing … This is my career. It’s what I love doing. My priority is education.”
Senior communications major Bay Truong said she enrolled in Ragan Fox’s class at the end of the spring semester. During the summer, she was flipping through the channels on her TV when she recognized a name.
“I saw a commercial for a reality show that mentioned someone named Ragan,” Truong said. “I thought, ‘I’ve only heard of one person named Ragan, but no way is it him!’ Then I looked it up and found out he was a professor at CSULB. I was so shocked.”
Communications professor Ann Johnson substituted for one of Fox’s classes during the first four weeks of the fall semester. Johnson said she asked the class to raise their hands if they watched the show and, despite its high ratings, about 10 of 100 students did.
Johnson, who studies reality TV as part of her research, doesn’t think the show will hurt Fox’s credibility among students.
“All professors are human,” she said. “We may live a separate life than how we present ourselves on campus. He knows how to be professional and he’s even won awards for teaching … I’m sure he’ll be able to go back into the role, but it may be uncomfortable at first. Students may think they already know him from watching the show, but they don’t.”
Fox said, looking wistful, that as a result of the show, he sees his life with a new perspective.
“Be careful what you wish for because you might just get it,” he said. “Also, I think I have a greater appreciation for what my life
was before I went into the house — how much I love my job, how much I love my students, how much I love my family, how much I love my friends. There’s so many things that I would take for granted like listening to an iPod while at the gym. I don’t think I’ll take that all for granted anymore. And anonymity is among those things.”
Nevertheless, Fox was quick to add that, if given the chance, he would do the show all over again.
“Having said all that, if I was asked to do the all-star season, I would absolutely do it,” he said, with a smirk. “I really love the show and I love the game. I would play differently, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Maybe twice in a lifetime if you’re really lucky.”