Q&A: How UnREAL Set Decorator Bobbi Allyn Sets An Everlasting Mood

On the Vancouver set of ‘UnREAL,’ Allyn talks fresh flowers, flying pigs, and sparkly distractions

How do you fall in love with a stranger over a summer with a swarm of cameras and your rivals’ drunken, accusatory fingers in your face at all hours? As we see on UnREAL, manipulating beautiful young women to fight for the only man around, even if they don’t know him very well, is a team effort, wrought by amoral producers, whichever beverage company sponsors each Everlasting season, and good old female competition. But just as important is the sense of heightened possibility created by the girly and gaudy Everlasting house of seduction.

On the Vancouver set of UnREAL, MTV News spoke with set decorator Bobbi Allyn about her own experiences creating and being maneuvered into that space between reality and unreality, her circus- and Tim Burton–inspired rooms, why she chose materials she’s never used before for Everlasting, and her own time on a reality show, where she was steered by producers into saying yes to a proposal they had scripted.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

What was your vision for the Everlasting mansion this season?

Bobbi Allyn: My inspiration was a take off the gowns. I wanted to have as much bling on the sets as we have on the actresses, so it really has that old Hollywood [feel]. I wanted it to be really glamorous, so I introduced sequins and very hot colors — hot red, hot pink, hot purple — colors I’ve actually never used in my 24 years [as a set decorator]. I’d never gone into the sequin world [either], or animal prints. We bought 10,000 feet of twinkly lights. It’s an over-stimulus of color and content, which I can only imagine is what the contestants are [experiencing].

What type of romance do you think it’s conducive for? It’s the opposite of what we traditionally think of as a romantic setting, like an evening at a dark restaurant with candlelight.

Allyn: It’s over the top. With the glitz, the candles, the rose petals — it’s epically fantastic. Who wouldn’t want that sort of a date? It’s pretty, so a lot of [the sets] are scenarios for dates. It’s an explosion of light and color, which is pretty exciting. Coming up, we’ve got the Hawaiian theme, which I’m designing right now [note: this conversation took place in April]. We handmake a lot of stuff, so we’re going to be making Hawaiian garlands that can just hang off [the mansion] — very romantic and beautiful. All our flowers are fresh. We make our flowers in-house — behind Darius’s room is where we have our flower area — because real flowers are beautiful, they play nicer on camera, and it’s also nice for the cast and crew, who have to be here 12 hours a day.

What’s the difference on camera between a real flower and a fake flower?

Allyn: The way that light is absorbed and reflected. If you have fake flowers, which are usually made of satin, they’re going to reflect light, while real flowers actually absorb light, so the color and texture is richer.

Did you watch reality dating shows as a reference point for Everlasting?

Allyn: Never. I don’t watch reality TV shows. Actually, I was on the first reality show ever done in North America. It was called The English Teachers, about people going abroad and being English teachers. You won’t be able to find it.

Are you relieved about that?

Allyn: Yes. I was asked to get married. They flew me to Thailand and we boated out to this private beach, and I had no idea that that was about to happen. My boyfriend at the time was an English teacher in Korea, and they were filming him and they invited me to come. They said, “Come to Thailand, we’ll pay for the trip, this will be really fun, you guys can have a vacation together.” But actually it was a whole setup, all about him asking me to marry him. I said yes on camera.

Did you get married?

Allyn: We didn’t, but we stayed engaged [for awhile]. He actually works on UnREAL [as a buyer], so we work together and we’re still the best of friends.

Had he been planning to propose the whole time when the show happened, or —

Allyn: No, he was just on the show and the producers said, “We want to make this really interesting.” So I think it was all basically set up by Life Channel. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him, but it was a whole setup to get where they wanted to go. They had written a whole script; they’d do things, we’d have private interviews. So basically they’d do the same thing [as on UnREAL]. I guess that would have been 18 years ago.

Did your episode air?

Allyn: It did. They were playing it on flights from Toronto to Vancouver, so there were people going, “Hey, I saw you on that reality show.”

How was it being on camera?

Allyn: It was awkward at first, but then after a while you didn’t realize the camera was there anymore unless you were getting interviewed, because we were boating or scuba diving or doing other things. I’ve [also] been in this industry since I was 18 years old, and I grew up with cameras everywhere because my father [James Allyn] was the TV anchor for the 6 o’clock news in Saskatchewan, so there was always that sort of stuff in my world.

You said that clothes were your inspiration this season. Do you regularly coordinate with the costume designer?

Allyn: Yes, because what we don’t want is to have a dress blend into the backdrop and then lose an actress. Each episode I do a different color scheme, and I talk to Cynthia [Ann Summers] as to what’s going to work. For bedding and drapery and couches, you have to work hand-in-hand with the costumer to make sure your actors are looking good, that they’re in favorable colors.

There are a lot of animal statues all over the Everlasting mansion. What are they about?

Allyn: The dogs at the front door — I have an Italian Greyhound, so when I saw those, I was like, “Oh my god, I’m going to get the greyhounds.” They’re such a gentle, loving dog, so they’re the protectors of the hallway. That’s my little signature.

And the horse heads?

Allyn: The thing about horses is that they’re beautiful, but you can’t contain them or own them. You can’t tame a wild horse, so it’s like, the [women are] trying to make the suitor love them, but you can’t make him love you.

And the flying pigs on the walls are a warning to the contestants?

Allyn: Exactly, like “when pigs fly.” They have a comedic effect too, based on the kind of things that happen on this show.

It sounds like you’re using the set to lighten the tone of the show.

Allyn: Yes, absolutely. Because these girls get Stockholm Syndrome, and they really believe they fall in love with the suitor. Being on a reality show is like a mind trap for the girls because they’re stuck in this existence that has nothing to do with reality, and yet as time goes on, it becomes their reality. I guess that’s why it’s so unreal. So if there’s this element of lightness or disbelief ...

Is there something you wish viewers appreciated more about your work?

Allyn: How much the sets lend themselves to fantasy and fairy tale, because they’re so over-the-top and under the big top. That little gazebo area reminds me of circuses from the ’30s — that was the inspiration, then throwing a Moroccan flair in there. The black-and-white one was my homage to Tim Burton, because I love Tim Burton and I love black and white because they’re not colors.

I’ve had to pull back on stuff and say, “Pull back on the lights, pull back on the color, because this scene is about the dialogue, and you don’t want the audience to get distracted by all the shiny things.” I’m sure the actors sometimes have to work harder with what’s behind them, because generally to the audience at home watching, the eye will go to sparkly distraction.

How might a young person get started in your line of work?

Allyn: When I was a child, I would buy wallpaper with my babysitting money and wallpaper rooms in my house and get my mother to see if she could get pillow shams. Since I was 6, all I ever did was move my parents’ furniture around and decorate the house. So I came by it naturally.

How did your parents feel about you moving around all the furniture?

Allyn: They were really open to it. They had no problem. They were happy that somebody was always making the house beautiful. I do private [interior decoration] for actors: I’ve done Zach Galifianakis's home and I did Channing Tatum’s home just last summer in Beverly Hills. I’m doing his Magic Mike show in Las Vegas, too. So after this, I’m at the Hard Rock Hotel.

That’s a very different type of seduction.

Allyn: You got to keep it interesting, right? But for young people who would like to get into set decoration for TV and film, I would say design school, definitely, so you can get your computer skills [for accounting] and you can get your color and your lighting and all that stuff. And then volunteering. When I showed up in Vancouver, I volunteered on two shows and met people [that way]. So I would volunteer and do local theater and then apply — once you have 30 days in the field [in Canada], you can apply to the union. [Then] you would take a set decoration course that would teach you the tools, and then you work your way up. I just love doing it; I’m so lucky that I get to come to work and do what I love every day.