BLACKSBURG — Amy Elliott sat with friends and fans at a bar and eatery on Wednesday to watch her final episode as a contestant on the season finale of Discovery Channel’s new reality TV show “Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius.”
Her roommate cringed as the competition turned sour and Elliott was sent packing. The Virginia Tech student came in second place, just one spot away from winning the show’s grand prize: $50,000 cash and an engineering dream job.
“It was sad; it was so sad,” Elliott said. “But we gave it a good run.”
The experience wasn’t a total bust. Elliott won’t get the prize money, but said she was paid a stipend for her time on set. She also got some free publicity that is already paying off. She’s been invited to speak at a couple of events and even got a boost at a job interview with NASA this week.
“The interviewer kept saying, ‘I feel like I already know you because I’ve been watching you on TV,’ ” she said. “For the first time I went somewhere and somebody recognized me that I had never met before. That was really cool.”
“Big Brain Theory” was a typical competition-based reality TV show. Ten engineers were given a challenge each week and worked in teams to build a solution.
Episodes ended with both teams putting their gadgets to the test to see whose design performed best. A panel of expert judges would eliminate one member of the losing team.
The show premiered in May, filling Discovery’s 10 p.m. spot on Wednesdays. It received mixed reviews as the season went on and was eventually bumped out of its prime time slot to 7 p.m.
Elliott, 27, a graduate student in mechanical engineering from Fayetteville, Tenn., said she doesn’t have cable television at home and hadn’t watched many reality TV shows before she was forwarded an email casting call.
“Everybody keeps saying, ‘Oh it’s going to be like “Big Brother,” ’ or this or that. I’m like, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ ” she said. “I was not prepared to be on reality TV.”
The filming took seven weeks beginning in October of last year. Elliott said the crew put microphones on all of the contestants as soon as they woke up. From the time they ate breakfast until they went to sleep at night, cameras followed them everywhere they went.
Elliott has the kind of personality not to mind the privacy invasion. In fact, she said she forgot the cameras were there at all after a couple of weeks.
“I think [the show’s editors] actually kind of toned me down,” she said. “They’ve painted me as a nice person. I am a nice person, but I did make mistakes. But they thankfully have not shown some of those mistakes.”
Elliott’s contract forced her to keep the show’s outcome a secret when she got home from filming. Each week she would watch the broadcast with friends, anxious to be allowed to fill them in on all the behind-the-scenes action.
“I’ve been shaking as I’m watching them, just kind of reliving those experiences,” Elliott said. “I get really into it too because I don’t know how they’re going to portray things or what they’re going to show next.”
In the final episode, Elliott and the only other remaining contestant had to build a bridge capable of carrying a truck across a ravine. While her competition built a standard bridge, Elliott’s team went for something more complex. Her bridge was much larger and would extend out across the gap. Ultimately, that would be her downfall.
The bridge became unstable and sagged just feet short of clearing the gap. The judges ruled her bridge unsafe and eliminated her from the competition.
“Looking back, it was probably too complicated,” she said. “But I didn’t mind going after an inspiring idea like that and trying to make it work. If it had worked it would have been awesome.”