That Time When a Vague Memory From Childhood Forced You to Watch “Celebrity Wife Swap:USA”

This week I causally dropped the name Charo into a conversation. We were talking in our staff room about how there have been so many ‘celebrity’ versions of reality TV programs in Australia that the producers are scraping the bottom of what was already a pretty shallow barrel. I made the point that even American celebrity versions were skating pretty thin with the whole ‘celebrity’ tag.  “Think about Celebrity Wife Swap,” I said.  “The celebrity is usually something tenuous like…like… (insert picture of me trying to think of something suitably obscure)…like Charo’s third husband or something.”

Crickets.  Crickets.  More crickets.

“OK,” I said. “Clearly one has to be of a certain age to know of Charo, but come on, people!  She was the Sophia Vergara of her day! Someone must remember her from hideous American 1970s variety shows like the Donnie and Marie Show ?  Guest appearances on The Love Boat. Somebody?  Anybody?”

Nothing.  Nah-dah.  Hell, some of them claimed to not even have heard of The Love Boat. Tough crowd.

So I’m not sure why Charo popped into my head.  In terms of random thoughts, thinking of her is surely the random-est. I half expected to be reading her obituary today – like that time I randomly wondered what Dennis Weaver (television’s horse riding law man McLeod and star of Steven Spielberg’s early film, Duel) was doing now and the next day he died. But that is another story.

Well the reason is, clearly, that I am a little bit psychic.

This afternoon I was casually flicking through the Foxtel guide for something worthy of a sarcastic tome, and there it was.  Celebrity Wife Swap USA featuring The Love Boat’s Jill Whelan and occasional guest star, Charo.

I kid you not.

There are some freaky forces of the universe at work this week.

Let the ship wreck commence
Let the ship wreck commence

Charo is the first celebrity wife to be introduced. Charo says she was born on the stage, which must have been quite a surprise for theatre goers, particularly those in the front row. She lives with her husband, Kjell, which she pronounces “Shell”. Charo says that Kjell is the best husband in the whole world.  This must be because he doesn’t complain that she goes to bed on white satin sheets with a full face of make-up. Even after thirty-six years of marriage, Kjell says the cuchi cuchi, which must be Spanish for “honky bonky” (although that’s a bit disturbing because Charo once sang of how she would cuchi cuchi all of America) is as good as it ever was and to prove it he tries to eat her face off, right on camera.

She also has a son, who is conveniently named Shel.  Unfortunately, Charo doesn’t live in a beach house, because then she could see shells by the sea shore. There is also a sister, Carmencita, who lives with them.  It’s a Cinderella arrangement where Carmencita has been forced to a life of menial labour sewing sequins onto Charo’s costumes and adjusting the bust-lines to accommodate her sister’s eternally perky and ever expanding bosoms and has never been allowed to find herself a husband.

Next we are reintroduced to Jill Whelan, who reminds us that apart from being Vicky Stubing on “The Love Boat”, she also starred in the former highest grossing comedy movie of all time, don’t you know.  Jill doesn’t look like Vicky Stubing anymore.  Maybe you could say that’s because she’s fifty now, but her sister Nancy looks exactly like Vicky Stubing. Her eldest son resembles Vicky Stubing.  Whack her youngest son in a sailor suit and he could BE Vicky Stubing.  The only person who doesn’t look like Vicky Stubing is the person who played her.. Her son says that his mum is famous but she acts like a normal Mum.  That’s because your mum is so cosmetically modified that no-one recognises without her wearing her “I was in Airplane” badge.

jill whelan airplanejill whelan

Finally the two women head off to each others’ houses.  In regular Wife Swap, the experiment lasts two weeks.  In Celebrity Wife Swap, they only stay for a week.  I guess this proves that even celebrities find other celebrities unbearable. Jill is canny.  She recognises Charo’s old house except all the guitars are mysteriously gone.  Charo enters Jill’s house.  It is in the Valley, which Charo doesn’t like and she walks around making disparaging comments about the size. “Small houses are very convenient,” she says.  Then she breaks out an excited “cuchi cuchi” when she see the back yard, because it is big enough for her to turn around without her breasts hitting a wall. Conveniently, Jill has left a framed photograph of herself and Captain Stubing on a coffee table and Charo gets all excited because she thinks she’s in the home of Gav-eeeeen McLeod.

Gav-eeeen McLeod with Charo
Gav-eeeen McLeod with Charo

Back at Charo’s house, Jill finds a picture of Charo in the dressing room.  “Oh my God! She hasn’t aged!” exclaims Jill, thinking she has stumbled across the Hispanic equivalent of Dorian Gray, not realising that it’s a promo shot for Laugh-in, circa 1968.

Then
Then
Now
Now

It’s time for Charo to meet Jill’s family.  The youngest child reluctantly gives her a hug, while the oldest asks where his Mum is, looking at Charo like she is some sort of alien collector of souls. Neither boy can understand a word of Charo’s broken English.  I must say that I too was surprised that Charo’s spoken English was so poor after so many years living in the USA. But then her circles included the likes of Dean Martin whose spoken English was mostly drunken slur, so maybe that explains it. Although she describes herself as “Speedy Gonzales in high heels”, she’s more like Speedy Gonzales high on speed.

Charo's English tutor self-medicates after a lesson
Charo’s English tutor self-medicates after a lesson

Over at the house of shells, Jill gets all excited when she sees Kjell and runs to embrace him.  He calls calls her a “son of a gun”, not knowing who the hell she is. Kjell warns Shel, not to have any hanky panky with “his friend”.  Shel apparently has three girlfriends and will root anything that moves.

Charo dons an apron and cooks a traditional meal for the Jill’s boys which begins with the ritual of rubbing the youngest child with a rubber snake while reciting indecipherable incantations.

Kjel takes Jill out for a romantic dinner.  He still hasn’t referred to her by name, but makes it clear that there will be no cuchi cuchi. Despite this, he brings her breakfast in bed and a yellow rose, wearing only his bathrobe and then shoots her off to a flamenco lesson. Jill is crap at flamenco, so she goes back to the house to whip up Charo’s signature dish.  Shel arrives in expectation of being whipped with a rubber snake. Carmencita takes Jill off to dress as a slutty bull fighter so that she can wheel a plate of paella out to the pool.  She has made a heap of it, so it’s lucky that a mariachi band appears from the bushes. Then Jill is forced to perform a flamenco in front of all of them.  Shel looks like he is starting to forget the no cuchi cuchi rule.

At Charo's house, dancing for your supper is taken literally.
At Charo’s house, dancing for your supper is taken literally.

Then it’s rule change.  Jill tells Shel that it’s time for him to cut the apron strings and that tomorrow they are going to do his laundry at his house.  Shel, raised in a family using all sorts of acronyms for sex, is very pleased by this.  In a parallel universe, Charo’s first rule change is that they are going to find Jill a man.

Charo gives Jill’s sister Nancy a cuchi cuchi makeover which means she dresses like a nun and they head out on the town. “I am going to show you all the things that can happen at night,”  promises Charo. She fronts up to a poster boy for America’s Most Wanted, eager to hook Nancy up, and the bloke has a ring through his nose which should make that task easier.

When Jill rocks up at Shel’s place he is disappointed that she has actually brought some laundry with her and calls it “barging into his bachelor sanctum”.  But then she promises him something special after he does his washing and his bachelor sanctum seems to be all aroused again.

Charo and Nancy interview an array of ex-convicts and paupers as potential suitors for Jill. Charo tells Nancy to shut up and let her do the talking, but none of the poor fellows can understand a word she is saying. Nancy picks a hairy biker to take back to Jill, which given her pent up sexual frustration might be just what the doctor ordered.

It was impossible for the episode to pass without some sort of nautical allusion, so on the last night Jill takes the family on a yacht. Shel discovers that the “something special” was him being forced to cook dinner. After the meal he sings a song about things getting hard sometimes.  Then we cut to Jill’s house where Charo is shaking her maracas around and she has also fashioned some musical instruments out of whisk and a pair of kitchen tongs.

Finally, Charo and Jill meet up, reconfigured face to reconfigured face, where Nancy admits she wants to keep the change involving her trolling bars for strangers and Charo does an imitation of a gorilla to describe the man she has found for Jill.  Charo says she won’t change anything, but commits to a catch-up in another thirty years, providing Jill’s Love Boat royalties haven’t dried up forcing her to move to somewhere worse that the Valley. Jill returns to her house and soon puts her son into therapy to cure his phobia of rubber reptiles.  Charo gets home and is so excited to see her son that she almost has cuchi cuchi with him.  Six weeks later, she’s still doing his laundry and Shel still hasn’t found himself a permanent girlfriend. Well, Shel, if things don’t work out with the Hell’s Angel…

It’s all just too weird.

And forces of the universe?  Sometimes a repressed childhood memory needs to stay that way.

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