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‘My Strange Addiction’ makes the most of its Chicago base

Heather Beal drinks from paint marker seaspremiere 'My Strange Addiction' TLC. | VIOLET MEDIA

Heather Beal drinks from a paint marker on the season premiere of "My Strange Addiction" on TLC. | VIOLET MEDIA

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Updated: April 14, 2014 4:42PM

Bizarre behavior is the stock-in-trade of reality TV, but few shows celebrate the abnormal like TLC’s “My Strange Addiction.”

The Chicago-produced series kicks off its fifth season at 8 p.m. Wednesday. Viewers will meet a St. Louis woman addicted to eating mattresses (she’s consumed eight beds in 20 years), identical twins obsessed with being exactly the same, and a cosplay fan who regularly dresses up like a pony and prances around a stable.

“It can’t just be a shocking addiction — that gets old fast,” said Melissa Cutlip, president of Violet Media, the West Loop-based television production company behind the show. “I don’t think we’d be on season five if there wasn’t a story and a bit of a journey these folks are going on.”

The series itself has had a bit of a dramatic journey. Co-executive producer and creator Jason Bolicki came up with the concept in 2010, when he and Cutlip were working at 20 West Productions in Chicago. Discovery Health Channel was looking for programming to fill its mental health week. Bolicki successfully pitched the idea of an hourlong special devoted to unusual addictions.

The channel wasn’t looking to commission a full-blown series; it was about to become OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network). Another Discovery Communications property, TLC, snapped it up instead.

In December of 2012, Cutlip lost her job at 20 West. Bolicki and others left the company not long after.

She started Violet Media a year ago, and the show went with her. Cutlip said she hopes to help rebuild the city’s nonfiction television production base. That segment of the industry, which took a big hit when “The Oprah Winfrey Show” turned off the lights in 2011, suffered another blow over the summer with the drastic downsizing of Towers Productions — a Chicago company that at its peak had a staff size second only to Harpo Studios, according to Crain’s.

“To have a series [‘My Strange Addiction’], a pilot and four or five development deals is a pretty good track record a year in,” Cutlip said about her fledgling enterprise.

“A lot of cable networks like History, TLC or A&E are excited to work with a Chicago-based production company because we live where their viewers are,” added Bolicki, a Northwestern alum who thought his TV career would take him to the East or West coasts. Instead, he got a job at Towers after graduation and stuck around Chicago ever since. “Bringing that sensibility and the ability to find interesting subjects in the Midwest is appealing to the networks. We’ve been told that many times.”

“My Strange Addiction” doesn’t confine itself to Midwest “addicts,” although there was a stretch when you had to wonder if there was something in the water in Michigan.

It’s not difficult finding people willing to bare their bizarre addictions on television, Bolicki said. He estimated that hundreds of potential candidates reach out to them each year via TLC’s website.

That’s what Heather Beal, a paint drinker featured in the 9 p.m. Wednesday episode, did.

“It was nerve-wracking,” the Huntsville, Ala., woman said about her decision to go on the show, where she comes clean about her habit to her two children and a close friend. (Cutlip said participants don’t get paid to be on the program, other than reimbursement for time off work during filming.)

The show’s crew spent four days with Beal over the summer, filming her pour the content of paint markers into her mouth. Cameras tagged along during a visit to the doctor, who told Beal that her unorthodox hobby had damaged her kidneys.

Beal said her real turning point came when Bolicki asked her how she’d feel if her kids said they wanted to drink paint, too.

“It was like being punched in the stomach,” said the single mom, who insists she’s kicked the habit. But she’s nervous about how friends and other family member will react after seeing the show.

“Even so, I’d do it again,” Beal said. “My only regret is not doing it sooner.”


Twitter: @lorirackl

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