Ryan Murphy makes hits. The Emmy-winning showrunner and director is behind a lot of the 2010s television landscape, including "American Horror Story," "Pose," "Scream Queens," and — of course — "Glee." He's known for playing favorites with actors, to the point where fans joke about them living in a "Ryan Murphy universe."
But on "The Glee Project," it was Murphy's world, and contestants were, quite literally, living in it.
In 2010, "Glee" had taken over prime time. Its first-season finale nabbed 11 million viewers, making it the highest-rated final episode for any new show that year. The cast had 25 singles chart on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2009, the most by any artist since The Beatles. Online fan accounts were dedicated to sharing photos of the cast daily.
Meanwhile, the team behind "Glee" was looking for another way to cash in on the craze. The result was "The Glee Project," a reality show dedicated to finding the series' next star. The only criteria to win? Be inspiring to Murphy.
"What's interesting about the show is this was about somebody's creative vision," Shauna Minoprio, the executive producer of "The Glee Project," told Insider. "It wasn't about who's the best singer or dancer. It was about who Ryan Murphy was the most excited to write a character for."
The show ran for two seasons, from 2012 to 2013, on Oxygen, a cable network owned by NBCUniversal that's now primarily known for its true-crime content.
Murphy's only reality series inspired fanatical fans and led to a few scandals — which may be hard to remember since "The Glee Project" isn't available for streaming.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the final episode of "The Glee Project," producers, mentors, and cast members told Insider what it was really like filming the "Glee"-based reality-competition series.
'American Idol for theater-nerd kids'
Minoprio: "Glee" was super-hot property. It's hard to think of an equivalent. The idea for a competition to get on the show probably came from Ryan or his team and was probably gonna air on Fox.
Development of the show went so far as to call for MySpace auditions in early 2010, but for a while, nothing came of it.
Robert Ulrich, "Glee" casting director and "Glee Project" mentor: We thought the show wasn't gonna happen.
Damian McGinty, cowinner of "The Glee Project" season one and Rory Flanagan on "Glee": I saw on MySpace there was a nationwide search for someone to be on season two of "Glee." I recorded a quick version of "Lean On Me," then forgot about it for about a year.
Samuel Larsen, cowinner of "The Glee Project" season one and Joe Hart on "Glee": I sent in a video and they said we'd hear back in a couple of months. That time came and went, and I didn't hear anything.
At the beginning of June, "The Glee Project" was dead in the water because of Murphy's busy schedule. But by the end of the month — just two weeks after the first-season finale of "Glee" — the show got a second life through a syndication deal.
Ulrich: Oxygen was going to pay Fox a considerable amount to air episodes of "Glee," and part of their deal was they'd get a reality show out of it.
"The Glee Project" was a sticking point for Oxygen. The network paid about $500,000 an episode for"Glee" and nabbed the still-mysterious "Glee"-based reality series, which was scheduled to air in June 2011. And Murphy was back on board.
Ryan Murphy, "Glee" and "Glee Project" executive producer, in 2011: I went from not wanting to be involved to realizing I had to be involved, because it's part of the brand. The person we choose will be on the show next year.
Jason Klarman, Oxygen president, in 2011: No deal like this has ever been done where you've got a reality spinoff of the hottest show on television — on another network.
Once "The Glee Project" had the green light, auditions for the next "Glee" star began again.
Ulrich: When the show came back, it was completely different. We did open calls and online submissions. Thousands of people showed up.
Minoprio: It was like "American Idol" for theater-nerd kids.
Cameron Mitchell, contestant on "The Glee Project" season one: When I showed up to the casting call, there were like 3,000 people in line. I waited all day.
Though hopefuls had to be over 18, they also had to be young enough to successfully play a high schooler.
Lindsay Pearce, runner-up of "The Glee Project" season one and Harmony on "Glee": I was 19. Technically, it was legal. But we were children.
Minoprio: I wanted to give all of those kids auditioning a hug. It's only "Glee," it's not the most important thing that's gonna happen in your life. Probably.
Around 50,000 people auditioned for the first season and the casting team narrowed that group down to 500 applicants. But "The Glee Project" wasn't just looking for the best singer.
Ulrich: It was about finding somebody Ryan could feel inspired to write a character for. That's what made it stand out as a very unusual show.
Christopher Orne, "The Glee Project" supervising story producer and editor: Some of them could sing but didn't have a story — they got the boot.
It's only 'Glee,' it's not the most important thing that's gonna happen in your life. Probably.Shauna Minoprio to Insider
Once Murphy selected the final contenders — 12 for season one and 14 for season two — filming began in earnest. Each episode starts with contestants finding out the week's theme in a colorful lounge.
Larsen: On season one, you could tell that all of us — the producers, the cast — were figuring it out as we went.
Ulrich: I didn't know I was gonna be on the show until the day I showed up.
Minoprio: There were many, many, many times where we would be standing in the car park at 4 in the morning, trying to work out what would happen next.
During season one, "figuring it out" extended to the contenders' living quarters, which is something fans didn't get to see on-screen.
Mitchell: We stayed in a Jewish summer camp. We slept in retrofitted bunk bedrooms that didn't have AC. Fans had to be brought in.
Pearce: The first thing they told us when we got there was to watch out for ticks. Our outhouse bathrooms didn't have roofs.
Orne: Mosquitoes were everywhere, biting everybody.
Minoprio: It was the only location we'd come across that worked for our budget and timing.
Pearce: We couldn't read magazines or books. We only had MP3s to practice our own songs on.
Mitchell: It felt like half we were being detained against our will, and half "This is TV."
Minoprio: It was a bit mad because we were trodding through the woods in the mud to get from one room to another — none of which you saw on the show.
Mitchell: It wasn't a set. It certainly wasn't any kind of Hollywood, MTV "Real World" house.
During the second season, contenders actually did live on the retired "Real World" set.
McGinty: Those kids had it easy.
Pearce: We were definitely the guinea pigs.
Ali Stroker, runner-up of "The Glee Project" season two: They turned a soundstage into our home, with a kitchen, two bedrooms, and a living space. That kind of stuff isn't made to live on, so things started falling apart.
Orne: It was awful — it sucks to live in a studio on Ikea furniture.
Minoprio previously was a producer for "Top Chef," which inspired the three-part format of the show. First, contenders would compete in a group musical number — or "homework assignment" — in a colorful choir room with classroom chairs to win extra mentorship time with a "Glee" cast member.
Ulrich: In season one, nobody from the "Glee" cast knew what "The Glee Project" was.
Mitchell: We didn't have a ton of contact with the "Glee" stars. They came in, did their little bit, and were out. They didn't want anything to do with us.
Then contestants would then film a music video, rehearsing choreography with "Glee" choreographer Zach Woodlee and prerecording vocals with singing coach Nikki Anders.
Pearce: The filming was — in every way, shape, and form — a boot camp.
Minoprio: We wanted to do a big number every week to really get that DNA of the "Glee" group number. We recorded vocals, then worked on a routine.
Finally, Ulrich, Woodlee, and Anders would decide that week's bottom three, who'd sing for their life to Murphy. Murphy, Woodlee, and Ulrich would judge each performance from the front of what appeared to be a school auditorium.
Minoprio: With the last-chance performances, we wanted a dramatic final act that was relatively quick to shoot, 'cause Ryan's a very busy guy.
I didn't care what happened each week, I just didn't want to see Ryan Murphy's face at the end of it.Cameron Mitchell to Insider
Orne: Ryan knows exactly what's good and what's bad. He's not afraid to tell you — and he shouldn't be. You should be open to his criticism, because he's a mad genius. You know he's gonna make the right call.
Minoprio: Ryan wanted everything to be very efficient. He'd turn up for the last-chance performances, and I'd brief him on everything that happened in the episode while he was in makeup. After the performances, he'd tell me who he was going to eliminate, then he'd go away.
Larsen: I'm going to be careful with my words here. Ryan's a sweetheart, but he is also a genius and knows it. He likes to push people's buttons a little bit.
Pearce: He was incredible. I don't think he liked me, but I think that was skewed by my insecurity, fear, and stress.
Mitchell: I didn't care what happened each week, I just didn't want to see Ryan Murphy's face at the end of it.
For last-chance performances, Minoprio and her team selected a song for each contender to sing.
Minoprio: We made Damian sing "Danny Boy," which he wasn't happy about. It was very on the nose because he's Irish, and I really regret that.
McGinty: I was discouraged and I wanted to go home, then I was told to sing "Danny Boy." I didn't know how to deliver that song — it felt so wrong. How can you fight for your life on a TV show singing "Danny Boy"?
Contestants found out they were cut through a "Glee"-style casting notice on a bulletin board.
Ulrich: I was right there week after week. It was a very intimate way to experience the casting process.
Minoprio: I was always happy we didn't have to make Robert announce it. It was hard enough for him to tell the cast the list was up.
Ulrich: I felt terrible every week. My wife used to tell me, "Robert, it's a competition. Somebody's gonna get cut."
Each eliminated contestant then sang backup on Avril Lavigne's "Keep Holding On" with the rest of the contenders.
Minoprio: I wanted to use "I'm Going Home" from "Rocky Horror," but everyone told me it was crazy.
Mitchell: There were real tears shed when people left. It was as genuine as reality TV could be.
Larsen: Everyone would cry when someone got kicked off, and I'd be fine. For me to win, everyone else had to lose. The show was a long job interview.
Despite the competitive nature of the show, the cast and crew say they were extremely close during filming, which lasted months.
Pearce: The laughter was very, very real. I will always cherish that.
Ulrich: We'd get home really late, like 2 or 3 in the morning. Then Zach Woodlee would call, and my wife would go, "Go talk to your girlfriend on the phone." I'd be on with Zach for hours.
Stroker: The people from "The Glee Project" feel like family because we lived together and weren't allowed any contact with the outside world. We were each other's everything.
Orne: On every show I've been on, I've had a powwow where I bitch about the show, its producers, and its talent. But I never had a bad day at "The Glee Project."
But as filming wore on, the competition became more intense.
Larsen: I was so determined to win. I'd just done "American Idol," and gotten kicked off. So I was like, "I can't just be the reality-show guy. How many of these am I gonna do?"
Abraham Lim, contestant on "The Glee Project" season two: You naturally become a bit more competitive. You clock when someone doesn't hit a note or struggles with choreography.
Larsen: There were a lot of egos going around.
Lim: There were so many great elements of the show, but it was also really anxiety-inducing and there was a lot of trauma. Trauma bonds were made.
Harper Grae, contestant on "The Glee Project" season two: They had a psychologist on staff to take care of us and prepare us for what was to come.
Pearce: I have no idea if anybody used the psychologist, but I didn't.
Ulrich: When you watch a reality show and see people crying, it's 'cause they're worn out. They're never alone. They never don't have a camera in their face. They're mentally and physically exhausted.
'The cost was high for some of us'
Orne: As in any reality show, the vibe's great at the beginning, and then as the weeks go on, everybody's — excuse me — fucking tired of having to go to confessionals and getting asked the same questions over and over again.
Minoprio: It's a competitive environment with a bunch of emotional, dramatic, competitive kids of high-school age, pretty much. That's inevitable.
Grae: I never felt tokenized or put in a situation that felt scripted. They were trying to get me and a guy contestant together for a long time — always partnering us up or putting us next to one another. When they found out I'm gay, they realized that wasn't gonna work.
Grae actually came out onstage to Murphy during "Sexuality" week, but it was not included in the final edit.
Grae: I was in the bottom four. Through tears and panic, I fully came out onstage. I'm very thankful they didn't air that. They could've. That would've been TV drama.
Minoprio: When the contestants are in front of Ryan and fighting to stay in the show, they'd say anything because it's such a big deal.
Grae: If someone else had taken that from me, it would've wrecked me. I'm from Alabama, southern Evangelical culture. That shit don't play down there.
But not every incident that came up was handled as well.
Lim: There are a lot of things on that show that, if they happened now, people would be getting canceled left and right. Certain things were handled poorly back then.
One of those things, Lim said, was an incident where Anders pressed him during a recording session, asking if he identified as "androgynous."
Lim: I think Nikki's fantastic, and I don't wanna villainize anyone. But when it came to androgyny, it was like, "Oh, what's the big deal? Why won't he just claim it?" You have to remember, I didn't grow up with a modern family or "Will and Grace." I was hurled a lot of criticism from people watching the show back in the day.
Minoprio: I don't know how anyone goes on TV anymore with the online comments. They are kids, and he said he wasn't comfortable. People should support that.
Lim said he was told by "one of the people on set and another" that production wanted him to confirm his sexuality and gender identity for the cameras.
Lim: They were trying to get an admission of sorts from me, and I'm like, "You're not gonna get anything, because I don't know." I'm not gonna sell my soul down the river for a seven-episode arc on "Glee." I'm figuring out who I am.
I'm not gonna sell my soul down the river for a seven-episode arc on 'Glee.'Abraham Lim to Insider
Pearce said that one of her most negative experiences on the show came during "Vulnerability" week. Contestants were asked to share some of their darkest moments and insecurities, which would be boiled down to a word or phrase to wear in the "Mad World" music video.
Pearce: They sat us down and essentially asked us to tell them our deepest, darkest secrets. I shared about my sexual assault. I said something like, "Going through that made me feel like I wasn't a person — like I was just a body and a nice face." To deal with those emotions, I had to put on a front.
She shot the video wearing a sign that read "fake."
Pearce: That story wasn't on television. The cut is me saying people like me because I'm pretty, which makes me feel fake. That was gut-wrenching, 'cause I wouldn't have shared my experience if I knew how it'd be edited. It didn't fit the narrative that they were trying to make.
Pearce was also involved in one of the show's biggest dramas. During season one's "Pairability" week, Pearce kissed Mitchell while shooting the "Baby It's Cold Outside" music video, but Mitchell told Insider the kiss was "a setup."
Mitchell: When we'd choreographed the scene, it didn't end with a kiss.
Pearce: Erik White, our video director, said something like, "In this next take, kiss Cameron. It's what we need."
Pearce said White told her kissing had worked well for other contestants, so she should do it as well.
Pearce: The minute I pulled away and saw Cameron's face, I realized I'd been played.
Mitchell: After, I made it clear to everybody that it wasn't cool and that I had a girlfriend back home. I felt blindsided because no one asked me about it. That's where the strings of producers started to twist. They were like, "Oh, that's a hot topic for Cameron. How can we push his buttons even more?"
Pearce: I couldn't sleep. That night, I snuck to the boys' dorm to apologize to Cameron. I said I was just listening to the director and wished I could take it back. All he could say was it wasn't my fault.
Mitchell: I was very upset and felt taken advantage of — not by Lindsay, obviously.
Pearce: I wish I had the language that we have today surrounding consent and awareness and respecting people's boundaries. I will always take accountability for my own side of things, but I was 19 and being manipulated.
Mitchell was in the bottom three that week, but stayed in the competition. Then, two weeks later, the same producer asked Cameron to kiss a different contestant, Hannah McIalwain, during "Sexuality" week's "Teenage Dream" video shoot.
Mitchell: The same producer came up to me halfway through our video and was like, "Hey, would you mind kissing Hannah in this next take?" This was after I made it very clear that's not something I wanted to do again.
Minoprio: There was this sense from Ryan and the writers of like, "This is what 'Glee' is. This is the show you are applying to be on. It's quite a sexual show, and there's a lot of romance. Can you get comfortable with that? Or is this not for you?"
Mitchell: I wasn't an actor and didn't care to be one. So he asked me about it and pushed, and I kept saying no. By that point, I was fed up. I didn't wanna be a quitter, but I didn't feel right about everything.
Mitchell quit the show that episode. The final cut attributed his departure to his religious values.
Mitchell: It truly was one of those moments that altered the course of my life. I was forced to stand up for myself. I was forced to confront what it is I wanted, who it is I wanted to be. You don't have a lot of moments like that in life.
Pearce: It was abuse, whether they thought it was or wasn't. They made a successful reality-television show, but the cost was high for some of us.
Mitchell: It was very traumatic.
Minoprio: There's probably stuff in that show we would do differently now — inevitably.
Pearce: I don't hold any hatred or harbor any resentment.
'Ryan's going to do what Ryan does'
Mitchell leaving opened the door for McGinty and Larsen, who'd become the cowinners of season one.
Larsen: I wanted it the most. Producers were coming up to me before they announced the winner and were like, "Listen, Samuel. If you don't win, it's not the end of your life."
McGinty: It was a crazy cocktail of emotions.
Larsen: I didn't know how the hell I'd win because I felt like the least talented person in the final four. Backstage, I opened my Bible, closed my eyes, and prayed. I asked for a message I needed and put my finger on the page. When I opened my eyes, I was pointing to how David defeated Goliath.
The entire season, viewers had thought there would be only one "Glee Project" winner. But after Murphy awarded the grand prize to Larsen, he said McGinty was a winner, too. Pearce and Alex Newell, the runners-up, were also awarded two-episode arcs on "Glee."
McGinty: I thought I'd lost. Then Ryan was like, "Well, you've also won." I went from the lowest low to the highest high.
Larsen: It was really cool, even humbling, when Damian won right after — it was God's way of telling me, "It's not all about me."
McGinty: A million things went through my head. I think the first was, "Oh my God, I have to move to LA. That doesn't sound fun."
Minoprio: This is Ryan's process. He's writing the show, he wants them in the show, so that's what's gonna happen.
After the season-one twist, Oxygen execs warned Murphy there could only be one winner for season two.
Orne: The season-two tagline was "There can only be one," 'cause Ryan gave Samuel, Damian, Alex, and Lindsay a prize on season one. But you can't tell Ryan what to do. Ryan's going to do what Ryan does.
Even though Blake Jenner took the crown on season two, Murphy also gave Stroker, the runner-up, a one-episode guest-starring role on "Glee."
Jenner would later go on to become a "Glee" series regular. Since the show ended, he has admitted to abusing his fellow "Glee" star and ex-wife, Melissa Benoist.
When "The Glee Project" premiered on June 12, 2011, the reaction was instantaneous.
Larsen: Immediately, people were all about it. What really blew my mind was the billboards everywhere. We were on the side of buses. We were on elevators.
Minoprio: "Glee" was white-hot, so a lot of the reaction had to do with that. It's fun to see behind the curtain.
Ulrich: For the premiere of "The Glee Project," I got a call from somebody saying, "What time do you want the car to pick you up?" Casting directors usually don't get treated like that.
Stroker: When you're in a wheelchair, people look at you. After "The Glee Project," there was this shift. When people looked my way, I thought, "Maybe they're looking because they saw me on 'The Glee Project.'" It changed my confidence.
Mitchell: It felt pretty cool and weird to be, like, an F-list celebrity. There were perks, like when me and Damian went to Nobu and didn't have to wait.
Lim: Sometimes people will still stop me and say something lovely about "The Glee Project." I'm amazed a reality show on Oxygen from 10 years ago can still have some sort of impact.
Even more intense than the in-person reaction was the online one.
Orne: If you looked at Tumblr in 2012 or 2013, it was literally all "The Glee Project."
Mitchell: The Tumblr fan fiction that started to roll in caught me off guard. I was enamored that someone could write a whole fantasy realm of stories about me.
Grae: In fan fiction, I always got paired with the guys, and we'd laugh 'cause we were like, "That's never gonna happen."
But the reaction wasn't all positive.
Pearce: I've never been so hated in my life. It's not easy for a 20-year-old to be called a sexual assailant, a sexual predator, an abuser — all because of the music-video kiss. Eleven years later, I still get hate mail sent to the theaters I work at and DMs telling me to kill myself. It's easy to think, "Well, you knew what you signed up for," but we were children. We all signed this contract but had no idea what that fine print actually meant.
'I learned a lot, at the very least'
"The Glee Project" was canceled on July 16, 2013, after two seasons. In October, Murphy announced that the sixth season of "Glee" would also be its last.
Orne: There was going to be a third season, but there were money issues. I don't know what I'm allowed to say, but it was a financial decision. Nobody said they didn't want it. Everybody wanted it.
Ulrich: It was so all-consuming for so long that when it ended, we were all so sad. We loved doing it.
McGinty: I've made peace with the fact that it's one of the most fun things I'll probably ever do in my life.
Mitchell: Honestly, I have nothing but love for that show and the people on it.
Pearce: I think it was a product of its time — we all were.
Stroker: For a lot of us, it was the first thing we did that broke us into the industry.
Lim: I don't know if I would've started acting if it weren't for "The Glee Project." I'm grateful, but there's a difference between gratitude and being indebted.
Pearce: It's a dangerous thing to say, "Well, you wouldn't have the career you have." Yeah, maybe not. But I also wouldn't be as wounded as I am today.
Lim: There were certain problematic things about it, but at the end of the day, it was people from all different parts of the world and the spectrum and different colors and sexualities and religions, and we came together and we did something we loved.
I don't wanna be bitter about it, you know? I wanna be like, "You know what? That was good." I learned a lot, at the very least.
Pearce: I learned a lot of lessons — they just happened to be on national television.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Oxygen declined to comment. Representatives for Murphy, "The Glee Project" production company Embassy Row, and White did not immediately respond to Insider's requests for comment. Insider was unable to reach Anders for comment. Murphy declined to be interviewed for the piece.