Tampa middle school teacher Phyllis Tucker-Wicks has moved one step closer to earning a show on media mogul Oprah Winfrey's new cable channel, placing second in online auditions for the unscripted series Your OWN Show: Oprah's Search for the Next Reality Star.
But her victory has not come without controversy. About two weeks ago, allegations surfaced that the online voting process may have been unfairly skewed in Tucker-Wicks' favor, hampering the then-top-vote getter, 25-year-old Texas resident Zach Anner.
The dispute took on an ugly racial dimension when some online posters suggested Winfrey was favoring Tucker-Wicks, who is black, over Anner, who is white and has cerebral palsy. Even Anner disavowed the notion of Winfrey rigging the process, telling ABC News "This is Oprah. ... she helps people for a living."
Tucker-Wicks, 50, who teaches English at Young Middle Magnet School, declined to comment, saying OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, asked her not to speak with the media. Similarly, a publicist for the channel refused to speak on the record about the contest - though a news release announcing the top winners said a third party vetted the online votes before the final results were announced, eliminating votes that could not be authenticated, and the top 8 winners did not change.
In the final tally, Tucker-Wicks placed second with 8.4 million votes, while Anner landed in seventh place with 3.4 million votes. The top vote getter was Jacqueline Wattimo of Waterton, Mass., with 9.3 million votes. The contest drew more than 143 million votes over seven weeks, according to OWN's news release.
But the announced final votes are different than those shown on the contest's website, where Anner is still in first place with 9.1 million votes, Tucker-Wicks has 8.2 million votes and Wattimo has 7 million votes.
During the competition, hopefuls uploaded audition videos to the contest's website, where the public could vote on the contestants they liked best. Anner's video, where he talks about "having the sexiest of the palsies," was a viral hit, sparking interviews on ABC and Fox News, along with an offer from pop star John Mayer to write his show's theme song.
Calling herself "Dr. Phyllis," Tucker-Wicks pitched the idea of a reality show about teachers dubbed "All My Teachers: the Re-enactment," noting that teaching is the "mother to all professions." Some online sleuths noticed a spike adding 300,000 votes to her total in 20 minutes, but another website featured an anonymous e-mail from someone claiming to have rigged sites to deliver votes automatically to Anner.
Executive produced by Mark Burnett, who also produces CBS' Survivor and NBC's The Apprentice, Your OWN Show will fly the top eight online vote getters to Los Angeles, along with at least 32 people selected from in-person auditions across the country. In all, more than 15,000 people auditioned in person and online.
Producers will whittle that group down to a top 10, which will compete in the show's "host boot camp" - a series of challenges aimed at finding one winner to give a six-episode commitment for a show on OWN.
Your OWN Show is scheduled to air on Winfrey's channel next year; OWN itself has a Jan. 1 start date.