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LET THE BIDDING BEGIN: Husband and wife Brandi Passante and Jarrod Schulz team up to bag the most lucrative buys in History Channel's immensely popular reality series, Storage Wars. Picture: �A&E Network

They were just ordinary folk trying to make a living buying storage units in a cut-throat environment – until they caught the eye of the makers of Storage Wars. Now Brandi Passante and Jarrod Schulz are household names – along with their |co-stars. Debashine Thangevelo caught up with the couple in Los Angeles and found out how their fortunes have changed since being on the show.

OVERNIGHT stars – that’s what Brandi Passante and hubby Jarrod Schulz have become since they agreed to star in the History Channel’s Storage Wars.

And while Passante, more striking in person, is now inundated with fan mail – mostly from drooling male admirers – Schulz, the epitome of chilled, relishes their celebrity status and the trappings that come with it: countless photo and autograph requests.

They are the co-owners of the Now and Then Second-Hand Store. Passante keeps a tight rein on their purchases, while Schulz does have moments when he takes a gamble, but it is always a calculated one.

Giving a bit of a background on how he found himself doing what he does, Schulz says: “I was in the mortgage and real estate industry for, like, nine years. Unfortunately, some time ago, the mortgage industry in California fell apart. I was still working for a mortgage company when I bought my first storage unit and it was kind of just because I had nothing to do all day.

“I had a relative who worked at a storage facility and she said: ‘You should come and check out the options.’ I did that and then started bringing things home. It started taking over the house and the city was like: ‘Hey, you guys should probably open a store because pretty soon we are going to start fining you for keeping the stuff at your house’.

“So everything evolved out of necessity for us.”

On how they came to be characters in Storage Wars, Schulz recalls: “We were already out there running a business and buying storage units when we were approached by the executive producer at an auction. We were asked if we could speak for a few minutes on camera. And I guess we said the right thing!”

The bidding at the auctions does turn into a bit of a battlefield as they go up against seasoned rivals like Barry Weiss, 60, who is an antique collector; Dan and Laura Dotson, who have been in the industry for 37 years; Dave Hester, who sells his stuff for anything from $150 000 (R1.3 million) upwards; as well as father and son Brandon and Darrell Sheets.

Passante continues: “The demographics of the people who watch is vast. You have children who love the show, 80-year-old women and even really uptight people like it.”

Her husband jokes: “And even the not so uptight people like it.”

She continues: “All the auctions are open to the public. There are different people there. Of course, with us being the core people, we are the only ones featured.

“What you see in the show is really what is happening in front of the camera. We are all going towards the same goals, trying to run our businesses and feed our family. It is very cut-throat. And that, I feel, is why the show is so popular.”

Schulz says: “The pressure is real. If we do not make money today, people don’t get paid at the end of the week. If it means I have to beat Darrell or Dave out of a unit, it has to be done.”

On the cardinal rules of going into the auction, he says: “Don’t piss Brandi off. I just do my thing and I try to get a read on Brandi to decide on how far I can go.”

Passante expands: “You learn not to take your work home with you. You can’t stay mad about things. We are together all the time, so you have to learn to let things go quickly.”

As for spotting good buys, Schulz offers: “You tend to base it on what you can see. You have to judge on the 10 percent you can see. If you see a microwave, you have to decide if its high-end or low-end. If it is low-end, everything else in the unit is probably the same.”

Talking best and worse purchases, Schulz shares: “We have had some better finds while making the show. We have been willing to take a risk and spend a little more and the rewards have been a bit better.

“A bad move was spending $3 000 on a unit and only making $500 back. Then again, there have been units where we have made more than $10 000 on, which has been great for us.”

While Passante finds herself in a rather testosterone-charged environment, she is far from fazed by it all.

She laughs: “I grew up with big brothers, so I can take them. It is interesting, though… it feels like working on a construction site. And every now and again there are a few women who come through.”

Passante is also quick to point out that there is no love lost between their rivals.

“We are acquaintances and cordial to one another most of the time. At the end of the day, it is a competition. We have that underlying tone. We don’t talk about our stuff and they don’t tell us anything.”

How has life changed for them?

“I’d say is it ever-changing,” notes Schulz. “From not making a show to being on TV is a life-changing experience. The further we go, the more different our life becomes. The more pictures we take and the more autographs we sign. And you can’t do the same things you used to, like wander around town.”

Philip D Segal, president and executive producer, and Jeff Conroy, executive vice-president of programming, both of Original Productions, shed more light on the germination of the series.

Conroy explains: “According to national regulation by the states and on a federal level, when rents aren’t paid in 90 days it is assumed the locker has been abandoned. And when that happens, the proprietors are entitled to recoup their rent by auctioning off the contents. But there is a process that leads up to that. They have to first make an effort to find the owners. They do that by placing ads in the papers. After 90 days, the auctions are held.

“I believe, technically, whatever is left over after they have been paid off what is owed on the locker goes to the owner.”

On how they cottoned on to the idea for Storage Wars, Segal says: “We are curiosity seekers. There is a company called 1-800-GOT-JUNK; they go around and pick up old items from your home for a price. We followed them for several weeks. On one particular take, we noticed they pulled into these storage facilities. We filmed them taking everything that was left. In the background, we saw one of these auctions going off and we were more interested in what was happening behind the camera than in front of it. That’s how we stumbled upon the idea.

“Essentially, Storage Wars is real life, but also a game. Audiences watch it from the start and follow their characters’ decisions and moods. And in the end, they find out how they did. So there is a lot of play-along as well.”

With season four in production, Conroy says: “Our show resonates well because the audience sense the authenticity. When you look at Dave and Darrell, they’ve been competing for years. We stepped into their world as opposed to inventing it.

“We always pride ourselves on delivering something that is funny, interesting or ridiculous and we turn the camera on and follow it.

“A lot of the times, it is also about adding new characters and having the constant reminder that we have to chase the best stories. As long as we keep that spirit and kind of keep chasing shiny objects and interesting emotional content, I think the show will continue to grow.”

And so a new reality playground has been found where the highly-strung drama, rivalry, anxiety, egotism and competitiveness seems to have struck a chord with TV buffs around the world. Talk about striking gold!

• Storage Wars, History Channel (DStv channel 186), 8.30pm.


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