LOS ANGELES –Glenn Stearns was facing a common– well, semi-common – dilemma.
He had it all – the cash, the cars, the houses, the charity. What else might he want?
A ranch? An island? He had them, too. (In fairness, he merely shares them – one with John Elway, the other with Sir Richard Branson.)
What’s left? Reality shows – first “The Real Gilligan’s Island” and now “Undercover Billionaire.”
“When I felt the most alive was when I was going through struggle and pain and adversity in my business,” Stearns (shown here with wife and kids) said. “So I thought: ‘If I could do it all over again, what would I do?’”
Now we find out. He is dropped into Erie, Pa., with $100 and a fake name, “This is like ‘Naked and Afraid’ for business,” said producer Aegus James “What happens when you strip somebody of their contacts, their wealth and their name?”
The reactions from people in Erie?
— “My first impression of Glenn was a man having a mid-life crisis,” said Dawn Van Scoter.
— “I was, ‘I’m going to take advantage of him, because I need help at my store,” said RJ Messenger.
She’s 37 and a decorator; he’s 31 and prints and sells shirts and stuff. Both are heavily tattooed and bring a blue-collar likeability. Neither seems to have much in common with Stearns, 55.
Or, at least, this version of him. An earlier version, as he tells it, was quite different.
He grew up in Maryland (just outside Washington, D.C.), with problems. His parents were alcoholics (but not mean ones), he says; he was dyslexic and repeated 4th grade because he couldn’t read.
At 12. he “found a gun near a playground and carried it around for a while.” At 14, he fathered a child. At about 18, he graduated in the bottom 10 percent of his class. But mentors steered him to Towson University, where he got an economics degree and was ready for a standard life.
“I was in a college bar,” Stearns recalled. “I’m laughing because my friend fell down. And I started thinking, ‘I laughed at this the first time it happened and I’ll probably do it again and again.’”
There might be more to life than this, he guessed. Stearns and four friends drove to California and shared a one-bedroom apartment, with no jobs or prospects.
“I was out at the beach a lot,” he said. “I saw all these amazing lives, all these beautiful people.”
He joined the hot California housing market. After 10 months as a loan officer, Stearns started a firm, bundling escrow, title, mortgage and more. “For a time, it was the biggest title company for HUD.”
When financial crises trimmed the competition, Stearns expanded. “When the world fell apart in 2007, I was able to get some great offices.”
He met Mindy Burbano in Las Vegas, but failed to get her phone number. The next morning, he saw her doing an entertainment report for a local station. A quick romance followed, with the appropriate rich-guy wedding – 74 waiters and 18,000 flowers, at his $12 million estate.
Mindy has done some TV acting and hosting, as well as impressing Oprah Winfrey with her special skill. (“I can bark and cluck,” she said, soon proving it.) They also did the Gilligan reality show as, of course, the rich Howells; he won, she was runner-up.
Their kids are 13 and 10, alongside his four previous ones, up to age 41. There was also a detour:
“About five years ago, I ended up getting diagnosed with cancer,” Stearns said. “When that happeed, all of a sudden, my life flashed before my eyes.”
He wanted to revisit the start-up phase, so the rules were set up:
— With one exception – at a hospital, where doctors needed medical records – he used a fake name.
— He found local people, including Van Scoter and Messenger, to join in, getting a stake in the project.
— Afterward, an evaluator decided if it’s million-dollar business; if not, he had to kick in a million.
For now, Stearns is only saying it wasn’t easy. “Ninety days comes really quick – especially when the first part of it is more about survival.”
— “Undercover Billionaire,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, Discovery, rerunning at 1 a.m.
— Opener, Aug. 6, is at 10:04 p.m. and 1:04 a.m.
— Reruns include 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 8; 10 a.m. Friday, Aug. 9; 6 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 11; and 4 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 13.