If you were to compare the place Zakiyah Everette was in her life one year ago to where she stands today, you might not – at first blush – notice much of a difference.
She’s still living at home with her mom in Charlotte; still commuting 45 minutes each way to UNC Charlotte, where she’s working on her master’s degree in child and family development; still hoping to own a preschool someday.
But underneath Everette’s sunny exterior, she says, there now exists a paranoia that wasn’t there before.
“At the preschool where I teach, there are cameras, and sometimes I find myself looking at them. Even in here, I look around and I’m just like...” She glances off to the corner of the ceiling of the Cold Stone Creamery where she asked that we meet, at the RiverGate shopping center, then gives a dismissive laugh. But seriously: “I’m more cautious of my surroundings now. Everything gets evaluated. I just feel a little different. I’m not as trusting anymore.”
That’s what being a cast member on CBS’s social-experiment reality show “Big Brother” can do to you, apparently.
It’s now been a full year since Everette started playing the game and nearly nine months since she stopped, so the 26-year-old has had plenty of time to reflect on being trapped inside a house with a bunch of strangers with questionable motives – and 80 cameras and 100 microphones recording everything they did and said.
Plenty of time, too, to reflect on her on-again, off-again, on-again and now-apparently-off-permanently romance with fellow houseguest Paulie Calafiore, which was chronicled on the show last summer (after their coupling became public, he famously passed up a chance to save her from elimination in Week 7) and on social media in the months that followed.
Here are the eight most thought-provoking reflections from our recent “catching-up” session with Everette:
1. “In my audition, I gave them this big Southern, happy, bubbly, sassy type of girl, and I think they thought that was gonna (clash) with the other African American girl on the show (Da’Vonne Rogers). I think they wanted that drama. ... When I didn’t give them what they wanted, it was just like, ‘Well, we’ve gotta do something else with her. Let’s make her seem like the crazy girl with Paulie.’ ”
2. Eventually, Everette and Rogers did get into it, of course.
“When that big explosive scene happened, I just wanted to go home. It didn’t seem like real life. I mean, I come from Charlotte, North Carolina, where it’s nice and simple and chill and people smile and it’s just genuine. But this felt like a really bad dream, where I was just like, ‘I’ve gotta get out of here. Send me out past the driveway, I’ll get a taxi, I’ll get an Uber, I’ll get a Lyft, but get me outta here.’ ... When you go to jury, you’re told, ‘You’re gonna be able to relax now. You can get your mind away from the game.’ Uh-uh. I lost 10-15 pounds. I was as skinny as I’ve ever been.”
3. “I waited months before finally going back and watching (all the episodes in sequence), and it blew my mind. They literally took bits and pieces of other moments and other days and pasted them together (to make me seem crazy about Paulie). They just put stuff together and made it seem like that’s what really took place. I was like, ‘Wow, they’re really good at this s---.’ I mean, they’re doing their job – they do what they’re trained to do. They’ve gotta work some magic, and this is what’s gonna sell. This is what people are gonna watch. It’s about ratings, money, and I’m just a number. ... For awhile, I was just like, ‘F--- CBS. This is some bull, this is crazy, I can’t believe they made me look like that. But I realize it’s a business and I shouldn’t feel so butt-hurt about it.”
4. In the months following the finale, Everette and Calafiore made a big show of their romantic relationship, routinely tweeting adorable photos of them hanging out together in Charlotte or in his home state of New Jersey. But Everette says it didn’t tell the whole story. “I think Paulie felt like ‘we’ve gotta do this, as like a big f.u. to all the haters. There was a ton of pressure not only from the haters but from our fans, too. I feel like a lot of people were just kind of obsessed with the idea of us being together.”
5. So obsessed that the “Zaulies” (as their fans were called) paid for the couple to take a vacation in the Dominican Republic together in January.
But after giving love one more try on that trip, they officially announced their breakup on Super Bowl Sunday in February. “It was like, ‘OK, this is a good time to do it, because nobody will be paying attention to it, but nobody can ever say that we didn’t say it. Let’s just get this video out and then we’ll delete it right after,’ and he was like, ‘Good idea.’ ... We experienced what it could have been like in a relationship – a romantic relationship – and we both figured out we are good friends. We’re really, really good friends. We talk like every other day. Me and Paulie are still really, really tight.”
6. But not so much with many of her other former castmates. “You would think after everything, because we did this crazy social experiment together, that we would be tight and we would understand and we would bond and be like, ‘You know what? That was a crazy summer, but we got through it, and now we can shake hands and be real with each other.’ But these people – no. They did a good job of casting, because these people don’t get along. They don’t like each other. ... I mean, the cast from my season still fights with each other. I’m like, ‘It’s over. Your 15 minutes are over. Let it die.’ ”
7. Meanwhile, she says, “ ‘Big Brother’s not my peak.” She recently launched a swimwear line, Sunning Swim, which she was inspired to create after fans complimented the suits she wore on TV last summer. And she’s determined to own that preschool someday. “You have different sides of Zakiyah. You have the teacher, the educator, and then you have this little fashionista. I don’t want to limit myself to just one thing. People go throughout their entire lives and they’re just like, ‘Oh, I wish I could’ve done that.’ Well, I’m not gonna limit myself like that.”
8. But as she pursues her dreams, she’ll be proceeding with that new sense of caution. “Before the show, I was a very open and naive type of person. I feel like being on the show made me realize that everybody doesn’t have good intentions like you think they do. You can sleep, but you need to sleep with one eye open. You need to be more wise about who you open up to, who you express your personal information to. ... I feel like my eyes are open now. I’m smart. I don’t just jump in head first. I brace myself. I evaluate things. And then I’ll probably put a foot in the water, but I don’t jump in straight ahead anymore. The experience taught me that you have to live life – you truly have one life to live, so live it ... but be cautious.”
Everette will be in New York at the end of the month to help celebrate the incoming cast of “Big Brother 19,” which premieres on CBS at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, June 28.