Junior business major Cameron Zagami wasn’t sure how his professors would react last fall when he told them he needed to miss the final month of classes — to go star in a reality TV show on Fox.
“That was surprising,” says Adjunct Prof. Steven DeSimone, who had Zagami in his financial accounting class. “I had never encountered that situation before.”
It’s a safe bet few professors have. But for Zagami, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to appear on the military-inspired survival show “American Grit” — and the chance to win a cool $250,000 — was simply too incredible to pass up.
“I was very grateful that my professors were able to make it work for me,” says Zagami, a Salem, N.H., resident who enrolled in the Manning School of Business
last fall after earning his associate’s degree from Northern Essex Community College. “It was tough. I left Nov. 13, which is right around when classes were wrapping up and finals were coming. But I was lucky enough to come back after filming, finish up my classes and go into the spring semester.”
While living in the bubble of a reality TV show isn’t for everyone, Zagami is used to the spotlight. A former wrestler in high school, Zagami decided to try his hand at a WWE-style professional wrestling career when he turned 18. Now 22, Zagami trains three days a week at the New England Pro Wrestling Academy in North Andover and competes nearly every weekend across the region.
“Pro wrestling is one of the last live-action forms of storytelling,” says Zagami, who remembers getting into WWE as a teenager while watching “Monday Night Raw” with his younger brother Ethan. “When we go out there, as performers, we get to tell whatever story we want in the ring that night. And for a very short time we get to suspend the disbelief of the fans.”
Pro wrestling is what led Zagami to “American Grit,” in a roundabout way. Last spring he applied to be a cast member on “WWE Tough Enough,” a USA Network reality show that awards the winner a pro wrestling contract. Zagami didn’t make the cut, but his audition tape apparently caught the eye of the “American Grit” producers because a few months later he was flown out to Los Angeles for a weeklong series of interviews.
In late October, while driving back from a wrestling match in Connecticut, Zagami got the call that he’d been chosen for the show. Two weeks later he flew out to Washington state to begin filming.
“I was in shock,” says Zagami, who was in for another big surprise on the first day of filming when he discovered the show was being hosted by WWE superstar (and West Newbury native) John Cena.
“They never told us who the host was, so in the first episode when we all run down the hill and see him for the first time, I was completely losing it,” says Zagami, who told Cena during the show’s third episode about watching him wrestle at TD Garden in 2009 — and who hopes to one day follow in his WWE footsteps. “He’s been on my TV every Monday night since I was 14 years old, and now he’s watching me perform. It was just crazy.”
Filmed in the snowy shadows of Mount Rainier, “American Grit” features 16 contestants divided into four teams, each led by an elite former military member. The teams live together and compete in challenges, with one contestant being eliminated each week in “The Circus,” a punishing, endurance-based obstacle course. Contestants still standing at the end of the series each win $250,000.
The 10-week show premiered on April 14, drawing 2.4 million viewers. “I think the most people that have seen me wrestle is two or three thousand people,” Zagami says, “so to think that nearly 3 million people are at home in their living rooms, watching me fix my hair on a reality TV show, it’s crazy.”
Zagami, whose concentration is in marketing, hosted viewing parties for family and friends at local restaurants during the first several episodes (“It’s so cool to show them my experience and tell them how it really was”), simultaneously live tweeting to his growing base of fans on social media.
“The response on social media has been huge,” says Zagami, whose “American Grit Cam” Twitter account has more than 3,500 followers. “It’s humbling to see I’m some kid’s favorite cast member or that they’re tuning in to watch me. You don’t get that every day.”
While it might be easy for the sudden fame to go to Zagami’s well-coiffed head, the show’s youngest contestant says that wasn’t a problem.
“I came home from taping right before Christmas, and a few days later I went right back to work (at Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Manchester),” he says. “Then I signed up for spring classes and went back to making car payments. Then the real reality hit me again.”
DeSimone, his financial accounting professor, had no idea about Zagami’s pro wrestling career until he saw the show’s trailer. After watching the first three episodes, he likes Zagami’s chances.
“Cam is articulate, confident and outgoing,” says DeSimone, who adds that Zagami’s high level of physical fitness serves him well in competitions.
Zagami knows the exposure he’s getting alongside Cena on “American Grit” can only help further his fledgling pro wrestling career. His recent experiences could also serve as a fascinating case study in a marketing class.
“One of my goals is to get my degree,” he says, “but I always have wrestling in my back pocket. That’s a dream of mine.”
Zagami couldn’t reveal if he won the $250,000 until the series was over, of course, but he was able to give away one spoiler: He developed a “showmance” with one of the other cast members, who is now his girlfriend.
“Things happen for a reason, and I’m very lucky to have her in my life,” Zagami says. “Telling people I found true love on a reality TV show is the cheesiest thing you could ever possibly say, but for me it’s a real story.”