Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson made her reality TV debut Wednesday in the season premiere of the CBS show “Undercover Boss,” reports NWI Times. The Indiana mayor made a physical transformation — losing her glasses, donning a wig and taking on a Southern accent — in order to work alongside employees in the city’s parks, fire and police departments, and the wastewater utility, without them knowing who she was. The program typically has an out-of-touch CEO work entry-level jobs in his or her company and learn more about what’s working and what’s not in terms of morale and productivity. The idea is that workers are willing to be more honest with a stranger than they are with the boss. In the end, there’s a big reveal and those who were giving it their all on the front lines are given bonuses or promotions or promises to change procedures to make their jobs better.
Episodes often feature one employee who is doing a bad job, but Freeman-Wilson said her experiences were all positive. In the episode, she rakes sludge at a sanitation facility, dons a firefighter’s uniform, undergoes some police training, and helps pick up trash at the beach using a 25-year-old beach cleaning vehicle.
“I made my first and last trip up and down the beach on a piece of heavy equipment,” she said. Based on that experience, she’s decided a payloader would be better suited for the job. She also said that the sanitation job was the worst — “It stinks in there, it’s over the top for me,” she says in the clip — and committed the city to rehabbing Gary’s firehouses, and obtaining additional police vehicles.
Freeman-Wilson said the experience working alongside and under city employees left her “with a real sense of pride and a sense of gratitude.” She said many of the employees are underpaid and overworked, “but they are some of the most dedicated people I ever worked with.” Employees believed she was a woman named Sheila, competing on a game show called “Tough Jobs.” (This is usually the cover story.) Gary residents were invited to watch the premiere Wednesday night at the Genesis Convention Center.
A popular and oft-photographed mayor, Freeman-Wilson said she was concerned at first she would be recognized. “I was very worried because a couple of the people I know and had spent a little time around,” she said. But (supposedly) no one saw through the disguise. Freeman-Wilson said she thought the show would be good publicity for Gary, and provide an opportunity to celebrate its workers.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.