Ubly ‘Big Brother’ alum still just a superfan at heart

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Nicole Franzel still gets emotional when she talks about “Big Brother.”

“I could cry thinking about it right now,” she says. Her eyes well up with tears when she recalls being chosen last year as a season castmember for the CBS reality show, where 16 houseguests are locked inside of a soundstage rigged with cameras in a summer-long power struggle for a $500,000 prize.

“It was awesome,” she says, wiping away tears from her eyes behind her black-rimmed glasses.

For Franzel, “Big Brother” was a dream come true, and an experience she’d love to relive. She had watched the show for years and grown to become a superfan, and she applied to be in the cast as soon as she met the minimum age requirement of 21. (She was ready to apply when she was 16, but had to wait five agonizing years.)

Her tears were not her first physical reaction to “Big Brother.” A few years ago when she was a nursing student at Saginaw Valley State University, she was feeling pains in her chest while watching the show and wouldn’t let a friend take her to the hospital until the episode was over. (Turns out she only had mild heartburn.) When producers contacted her within hours after she sent in a video application to be a part of the cast, “I was so happy I puked,” she says. “That was the first time I’ve been so excited that I’ve puked. My roommate was like, ‘What the heck?’ ”

Roommates just don’t understand. “Big Brother” has a cult-like following of obsessives who invest heavily into the show, tuning in three nights a week and following the action online on 24-7 live feeds. It’s not a show for casual fans; you’re either hooked on it or you don’t realize it’s still on TV.

Franzel was one of those fans, and now that she’s been a part of the show, her fandom has only increased.

“It’s going to be weird to watch,” she says of the new season, which kicks off with a two-night premiere Wednesday and Thursday. “I’m very excited, but I want to be in that house. It’s selfish of me! I’ve already been in the house once, and I want to do it again.”

Franzel is back living in Ubly — rhymes with bubbly — a small town in the center of Michigan’s thumb (population 834 as of 2013). She lives with her parents and works as a registered nurse in nearby Bad Axe, her 328,000 Instagram followers in all likelihood making her the most popular nurse in the entire state.

Her work schedule — five days on, seven days off — has afforded her plenty of downtime, which she has used to spend time with Hayden Voss, the surfer-type with whom she struck up a romance in the house during her season. Together they have traveled across the U.S., and they plan on spending more time together this summer. (Voss will be in Ubly next month during the Ubly Homecoming Parade, where this year’s theme is “Big Brother” and Franzel is the grand marshal.)

She’s used to getting recognized and regularly poses for pictures with fans, even if her hair’s in a bun and she’s just picking up a pack of turkey from Wal-Mart. She understands: “If I saw somebody from ‘Big Brother,’ I would be really starstruck, and then I realize that’s how people feel about me,” she says. “It’s kinda weird.”

It’s also weird that Franzel hasn’t yet watched her season of “Big Brother.” She got about halfway through her season — her mother still has her episodes saved on her DVR — but the emotions were still too raw to revisit. “I got so angry!” she says. “Watching it puts you right back in it.”

Franzel finished seventh in season 16 last year, though her final standing is not indicative of the impact she made on the show. Viewers took to her, and she placed in the Top Three for the season’s fan favorite award, which nearly netted her $25,000. Meanwhile, her unwitting nickname “Froot Loop Dingus,” coined by fellow houseguest Zach Rance, is a callback she still hears on a daily basis.

She has regrets about how she played the game and is still upset she didn’t make it further, and she admits to being burnt out when she earned a fresh start upon her re-entry into the house after initially being voted out. But while playing the game she learned a lot, especially about her own toughness. “I can be a lot stronger than I thought I could be,” she says.

And she’s trying to take that lesson and apply it to her life. “I think my outlook is a little different now,” Franzel says. “I want to do something different. Being a nurse is awesome, but I also want to do something else. Something bigger.” She mentions maybe opening a business and wanting to travel more. At 22, she’s still figuring things out.

But she knows one thing for sure: If she got another chance to be on “Big Brother,” she would take it in a heartbeat, no hesitation.

“I don’t want my own show, I don’t want to be an actress, I don’t want to be a singer,” she says. “My No. 1 thing would be to go on ‘Big Brother’ again. I want to win!”



Big Brother

8-9 p.m. Wednesday, 8-9 p.m. Thursday

CBS (Channel 62)