“Three words to describe my drive in life,” starts Daniel Cusimano in his first appearance on The Circle, a Netflix reality show that’s been described as a cross between Catfish and Big Brother. “I like to be! That! Bitch!”
Essentially a virtual popularity contest, The Circle features competitors who live in separate apartments inside one building, but primarily interact online using a profile they create. They can opt to play as themselves, or craft a fake profile to front as someone else, in a game where the highest rated player wins a $100,000 prize.
Cusimano, an East Lake High School graduate “born and raised in Florida but still pasty,” didn’t feel the need to hide his true personality while competing. The self-described “20-year-old twink” from Palm Harbor beat over 100,000 applicants for a spot, becoming the youngest contestant on the show. But don’t let his youth fool you.
“It don’t matter if you are my mother. It don’t matter if you are my pastor. It don’t matter if you are my organ donor who saved my damn life,” said Cusimano, who recently turned 21, in the series premiere. “I am willing to stoop as low as I need to go to win.”
The Tampa Bay Times caught up with Cusimano on Zoom to discuss his love for reality television and experience with Netflix. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I see on your Instagram that you did a lot of theater at East Lake High. How did growing up in the Palm Harbor area shape you?
In high school, I did everything. I did track, cross country and musical theater. I was part of 10 honor societies, over 10 clubs. Like, I did the most. I worked at Publix. I felt like I had so much of the community support by doing musical theater. It actually helped me get on the show because you have to stand out. I was like, ‘I did every social group and now you want me to win a popularity contest? I won prom king, I won like homecoming court, let’s get into it.’
What did you learn about being popular then that translated to trying to be popular in this competition?
I literally do bowling league with my family and a bunch of old people. So I was like “Daniel, just take all the skills you’ve learned to acclimate to each group.” I said this on my audition tape. You know, I hung out with the theater kids, the jock kids, the young kids. I’m very malleable in who I talk to and who I am just because I can get along with a lot of different people. Even the older people who helped me out on the show so much. I just said, “Daniel, be personable. Move how they move, figure out how they’re talking and what you can connect on, and do what you do in your every single day life.”
What made you want to apply for this in the first place?
I’m telling you, I would die for reality TV. Big Brother, I would give my life for. Survivor, all that jazz. Everyone was like, “Daniel, you need to watch The Circle.” Quarantine hits. My brother’s fiance’s friend [tweeted], “hey, tag someone who should apply for The Circle.” I got tagged. I watched the show, and what I love so much about Netflix specifically is the inclusivity they have. The diversity they have in their cast just was so appealing. I was like, I have to do this. Did I ever think I was getting on? Hell no, mama!
It feels like it was 18 years ago. Can you not see the wrinkles? The stress? Hello! I applied April 5. I heard back a month and four days later. I was watching Never Have I Ever on Netflix. I was up for 28 hours straight and I had a missed call and a voicemail from a producer that was very interested in me. I called them immediately. When we started filming it was exactly seven months from when I applied. Then we had to wait another eight, nine months for it to come out. The show just came out. So we’ve been waiting, baby!
What would you do with the $100,000 if you win?
I always said it was never about the money. You know, I really wanted the title. You could put it to a million dollars and I wouldn’t care. But if I did have to use the money on something, you know, my parents have been married for 42 years. When they first got married, when the dinosaurs were walking the street, they were poor. They literally had a little wedding thing in my dad’s mom’s house. So I always think every girl should have the big beautiful wedding with the white dress. I want to throw them their own wedding that they never got.
Now that the episodes are coming out this month, what has the response been from people who know you?
Everybody was like, “You were so you.” I’m very crazy, I’m over the top. I wasn’t playing anything up for the camera. There’s a lot of people who don’t know me on social media where they’re like, “He’s trying so hard.” And I’m like, well, no, when you get put in a high stress situation for $100,000 you’re going to lose your mind.
People would ask when I was younger, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” People would say doctor, lawyer, engineer, and my ass is like, “Oh, yeah, I want to be on reality television. Can I do that as a major in college?”
What are you studying? Since you can’t really major in reality TV?
I’m at the University of South Florida in Tampa. My major is in mass communications with a concentration in broadcasting news and theater performance with a minor in political science. There’s a lot going on there.
I mean, I shouldn’t say you can’t study reality TV. Look at John Cochran from Survivor. Like he would write papers about it for school before he got on the show, right?
Oh, Cochran! That’s what I want to do.
What do you see coming next from you?
I would do anything to do more reality TV. I just love it. It’s not for the fame. It’s not for the followers. It’s not for brand deals. I’m just so competitive. I love the strategy. I love the socializing of it. I heard from little birdies that Netflix has more reality stuff in store, so I would love to do more. But I would literally chop off my foot to get on Big Brother or Survivor or something like that. They can have either foot they want, really.
All three seasons of The Circle are available to stream on Netflix. The series finale of Season 3 airs Sept. 29.