Even at her own engagement party, Devyn Simone is helping people get their lives together.
This December night it’s Meiko, Simone’s 13-year-old cousin. Meiko has found the perfect dress for an upcoming school formal and also, it seems, the perfect shoes.
“Nuh-unh. Nope!” Simone says, surveying a picture of the dress. Standing in the kitchen of her aunt Nevada’s Overland Park home (“the family spot,” Simone calls it) in an impeccable snow-white, two-piece halter top/skirt combo, Simone offers her caveat: “No heels with that.”
Moments pass and Meiko, in an attempt to sway Simone’s opinion, tries the dress on. She models in front of Simone and other women of the family — Simone’s mother, Daphne, her cousin Joi, her aunt Nevada — and Simone’s fiancé, Nathan Littlewood. But Simone is resolute. With a pursed lip Miranda Priestly would be proud of, she admits hesitantly: “It’s cuuute … but it’s short. Shows a lot of leg. This dress needs flats.”
Only thing is, this dress is too cool for flats. Meiko is unimpressed with the suggestion.
But moments like this highlight Devyn Simone’s greatest strength: an ability to perfectly sculpt the clunky blocks of granite others give her — hodgepodges of expectations, doubts and insecurities — into phenomenal final images.
“OK,” she acquiesces, sensing Meiko’s disapproval. “Maybe not a stiletto heel. It can be a wedge.” Now that, Meiko can work with.
“But you better have some shorts under that dress!”
Simone won’t be handling the fashion on her new prime-time cable network show “Love at First Swipe” — that job belongs to her good friend and co-star Clinton Kelly (of “What Not to Wear” and “The Chew” fame). Instead, TLC has fused her online dating expertise with Kelly’s style prowess to create “Swipe,” a show with a never-before-seen concept: taking woefully clueless (read: disastrous) female online daters and revamping their dating profiles to help them find true love.
It’s the latest and most impressive stop in the 27-year-old Kansas City native’s career, one placing her alongside Stonestreet and Rudd as the latest local face millions of Americans will have to get used to.
The allure of “Love at First Swipe” lies in its novelty.
American TV doesn’t lack for reality dating shows. Yet the locomotive for these shows is more heartbreak than heart-eyes. Who cares if Flavor Flav actually finds his soulmate on “Flavor of Love”? Give us the drama of the elimination and the catastrophic cattiness of his love interests.
Even with ABC’s “The Bachelor,” perhaps the most popular dating show ever, the interest in the possibility of things going horribly wrong supersedes the delight of events ending blissfully. “Love at First Swipe” operates less nefariously.
“Millions of Americans are online searching for their soulmates,” Kelly announces on the show’s opening montage. “But many are making bad first impressions. And a disastrous dating profile can kill your chances of finding love.”
Therein lies the weekly “Swipe” challenge: coaching folks on how to put their best cyber-selves forward.
According to Pew Research statistics, 11 percent of Americans have used an online dating site or mobile app. And it’s even more popular with young people: 22 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds and 17 percent of 35- to 44-year-olds have been online daters.
In 2013, 66 percent of online daters have gone on a date with someone they’ve met from either a site or app (up from 43 percent in 2005), and 23 percent have found a spouse or long-term relationship (up from 17 percent in 2005). Whether on match.com, Tinder, BlackPeopleMeet or Grindr, Americans are embracing tech as a way to meet their mates. This is the impetus for “Swipe.”
In each episode, the misguided are shown a “composite online profile” comprising actual status updates, taglines and photos they’ve used on real dating sites. One woman, 40-year-old comedian Paige, has a style reminiscent of “The Magic School Bus’ ” Ms. Frizzle. Another, Lynette, lies about her age and sports a different-colored wig in nearly every photo. Jenny, a 34-year-old hand-model, operates under the screen name “DumPoopyGirl.”
These ain’t the Kardashians, OK?
After introducing the train wrecks, Kelly and Simone reveal how unattractive the women are making themselves look by asking 100 random men if, based on the women’s profiles, they could see themselves in a relationship with them. As of the fifth episode, the highest number of men saying they could was 17 percent. “She looks like a bunch of gum balls vomited all over her,” one guy comments about Paige. “Another gold digger,” another says about Lynette.
After enough deprecation, the real work begins, usually with a question about what type of mates the women are searching for. This is where “Swipe” gets interesting: watching Simone and Kelly work to reveal the underlying reasons the women are displaying themselves so horribly. “Peeling back the layers,” Simone calls it.
Eventually, revelations are made. Jenny’s awkwardness stems from not being comfortable in her own body. Lynette, in a struggle many black women will find palpable, wears wigs because she has never felt confident in her natural hair. Paige’s goofiness is a coping mechanism to hide the pain of the death of her husband.
“No one’s one-dimensional,” Simone says later over the phone.
Basically, Simone says, the daters the show features are doing exactly what they shouldn’t. They are overplaying the traits they think work in their favor — personality, sex appeal, money — because they’re clueless and afraid and trying their best to hide it.
Anyone with an online profile of any kind can relate.
Watching “Swipe” begs the question: Are Simone and Kelly really changing these women or just providing a temporary fix?
“We’re not changing people at all,” Simone says. “What we’re doing is helping people realize that they’re layered, and how to market those layers appropriately.”
This is the ethos of “Swipe”: Online dating at its core is merely an exercise in personal branding. With every tweet, Snapchat, Instagram post and profile pic, users are constantly and publicly projecting their brand. It’s a practice Simone has mastered through a not-so-secret history of trial and error, beginning in her teens in Kansas City.
Jim “Grand Dad” Nunnelly has logged over 10,000 volunteer hours with KPRS Hot 103 Jamz as the adult sponsor of the station’s award-winning teen talk show “Generation Rap.” Since coming on in 1988, Grand Dad has supervised more than 1,200 kids on the Saturday morning show, including Simone, who served as host in the 2005-06 seasons.
“Devyn set the standard,” Nunnelly says. “She was more natural in the host position than anyone I’ve ever encountered.”
As host, Simone spearheaded the show’s overall direction, conducted interviews with local and national celebrity guests and curated a range of weekly topics: “She understood the value of being impressive.”
Perhaps this was because growing up, Devyn Simone was apparently rarely ever impressed.
She once told her father, Don Sims, that he needed to get her out of the first grade and onto second because things “were moving too slow.”
Her mother, Daphne Gates, recalls a 6-year-old Devyn’s reaction after watching kids on a national TV commercial: “She just stands up, turns to me and she goes, ‘Mom, I can do better than that!’ ”
Simone’s flair for drama led to pageantry. She competed as a Miss Missouri Teen and won the title of Miss America Teen in 2005. In 2007, she enrolled as a performing arts double major at the University of South Florida, albeit with little intent of staying. “I told my parents, ‘I’m going to college for a few years, and I’m going to land some type of television show.’ ”
That show wound up being MTV’s “Real World,” the cultural behemoth credited with birthing the concept of reality TV. As a 20-year-old castmate on “Real World: Brooklyn,” Simone gave viewers a front row seat to her life and growing pains: the romances and flings, cat fights and arguments. The embarrassments, triumphs and heartaches. Doing “Real World,” Simone says, “taught me how to embrace all of my past transgressions and failures.”
These transgressions and failures, as well as a longtime interest in the dynamics and psychology behind love and relationships (growing up, she would spend her weekly allowance on relationship and self-help books) influenced Simone to create her site, DevynOnDating.com, where she gives advice on how to find, maintain and grow healthy relationships.
Billed as the “Online Dating Gospel,” DoD is more plain-speak than platitudes, giving nuanced advice on real-life dating situations. Like, “5 Things to Never Do on First Dates” (use your cellphone) and “7 Signs He’s Relationship Worthy” (if he agrees to call before the first date).
There’s sobering he’s-just-not-that-into-you advice (“don’t get mad, don’t get crazy, don’t put all your eggs in one bastard”) and stats on how too many dog photos will keep you single (“multiple photos of you and Sparky will lower the number of new messages you receive by up to 53%!”).
In 2012, Simone returned to MTV as a contestant on the “Real World” spin-off “The Challenge,” where she quickly became an Internet and Clinton Kelly favorite. During filming he reached out to Simone on Twitter to profess his fandom. Over time their Twitter friendship blossomed into a real-life one.
The idea for “Swipe” was spawned over drinks. Simone and Kelly were chatting about a Tinder date Simone had just finished with Nathan, a strapping Aussie who would eventually become her fiancé.
While discussing her Tinder-born romance, Kelly and Simone logged on to Tinder and began to browse. They became increasingly shocked at the bevy of mistakes people were making and committed themselves to helping them.
“We’re not just teaching this,” she says. “We live it.”
There’s an upcoming moment in “Swipe” when Simone is pretty sure she’s about to get punched in the face.
While working to uncover why Jenni Sue, a bodybuilder, feels she needs to be hyper-aggressive and intimidating in her dating approach, Simone notices Jenni Sue’s rising anger.
“She was balling her fists, and she looked at me and I thought, ‘OK, I can yell cut right now, but then it won’t be authentic. I’m going to keep going.’ ”
It’s an ironic moment, a dating wreck about to wreck the face of the one trying to help her.
But Simone knows this reckless willingness is the reason she has come so far. “I became fearless a long time ago.”
Plus, what’s a little “Real World”-style small screen embarrassment if it ultimately helps create a breakthrough for someone else?
“I’ve dated like a dumbass,” Simone tells Paige on “Swipe’s” first episode. “So you don’t have to.”
Where to see it
“Love at First Swipe” with Devyn Simone and Clinton Kelly airs at 9:30 p.m. Fridays on TLC. Connect with Simone on Twitter at @DevynSimone.