Three days before a fancy wedding, Addi Somekh, Brian Asman, and Katie Laibstain are suddenly handed a mission: Make the bride’s dress, complete with five-foot train. Make it look spectacular. Make it fit perfectly.
And make it out of balloons.
There is, of course, only one world in which such a challenge could possibly take place: Yes, this all happened on reality television. Somekh, Asman, and Laibstain, better known in the District as Katie Balloons, are the stars of TLC’s new series The Unpoppables. The show, which finished airing its first six-episode season last week, documents the trio—who together comprise the balloon collective New Balloon Art—as they create large-scale balloon installations at events that range from the aforementioned wedding, to a celebration at a fire museum, to the BURST! party at Arlington’s Artisphere complex.
In each of these cases, the artists are shown to be given only three days to prepare. However, producers make arrangements at least several weeks in advance. Laibstain’s appearance at the Artisphere was reported four days before the party.
Laibstain, 26, who lives in Bloomingdale, first began working with balloons four years ago, as a supplement to her fledgling acting career in Richmond. She started off making simple balloon animals, but her future changed after she attended her first balloon convention. “And then I saw these amazing balloon sculptures, and I knew I would be able to do them even better,” she says. “I knew it was a business that I would be able to conquer within a few years.” The Newport News native relocated to D.C. in 2008 and started her one-woman balloon business. Laibstain’s creations have appeared at events that range from baby showers to corporate parties, and include a giant hockey player, toothbrush centerpieces, and snowflake-like ceiling hangings.
For Laibstain, doing the show was a sudden immersion in a reality TV world where “reality” often seems only tangentially related to the product that hits the screen. Laibstain—whose Unpoppables creations include, in addition to the wedding dress, French-inspired cocktail dresses and a “crazy plant lady” costume—is billed as the show’s fashion expert, although she hadn’t considered balloon fashion as being a particular specialty of hers beforehand. Prior to the show, in fact, she was unaccustomed to making clothes for anyone other than herself—though you wouldn’t know it. On an adjustable dress form, Laibstain weaves small balloons, called 160s, to create her fashions. The balloons follow the contours of her clients’ bodies and are surprisingly flattering. Laibstain’s wedding dress has detailing at the bodice; a dress she created for a fashion show has cap-sleeves and a flirty “ruffle” at the hem of the skirt. The creations look more hyper-futuristic than bulbous.
That sort of reinvention is fairly common in shows like this. “It is absolutely impossible for reality shows to convey a realistic depiction of life,” says media critic Jennifer L. Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV. “It’s storytelling—it’s not about journalism. Producers are using real people as props to achieve a particular master narrative.”
But that’s precisely what Somekh, already well known in the world of balloon art, was hoping for. Somekh, who lives in Los Angeles, where most of the filming took place, was the subject of the 2005 documentary Balloonhat, and has long had dreams of translating his work into television. Somekh developed the show’s concept with a television producer, who took it to the production company Authentic Entertainment. Authentic then brought the show to TLC, home to another one of their shows, Toddlers & Tiaras. Somekh sought out Laibstain and the San Francisco-based Asman to form a made-for-TV balloon team. “I looked for people I could work with on TV that would be great to work with in real life,” he says. “Beyond working well together, Katie and Brian and I get along really well.”
Photos of Laibstain’s balloon fashions on the website Balloon HQ first caught Somekh’s attention. “I saw a picture of Katie online in a dress she had made; it was tight, and so funky,” he says. “I’d never seen anything like it before. I thought, if this woman is making stuff like that this young, she has unlimited potential.”
Laibstain didn’t hesitate. “When Addi called, it was like getting a call from Elvis,” she says. “He’s legend in the balloon world.”
But what followed was brutal. Laibstain flew out to Los Angeles last September for two months to make The Unpoppables. She estimates that while shooting, her workdays averaged 19 hours; about 60 percent of that time was spent filming and 40 percent sculpting. The “idle” time spent filming caught her off guard. “There’s a lot of standing around, and often times that’s when we need to be building,” she says. “I’d be thinking to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to be working, I have balloons to make.’ But then I had to remember, ‘No, we have a show to make.’”
Between the long days and being 3,000 miles away from her life in D.C., Laibstain says shooting was “emotionally and physically exhausting.” She also has fears about the show’s implications on her personal life; she broke up with her long-term boyfriend shortly after filming wrapped, although she says the split was a long time coming. “I feel like in the long run it’s going to be worth it, but I want to stay close to my friends,” she says. “I don’t want to just get wrapped up in this industry. Some of the horror stories I was told by the crew—some of the marriages split up. It’s just really hard to have a personal life.”
Despite all the attention she’s gotten from the show, she finds herself with extra time on her hands now. She’s cut her workload in half since returning from L.A. in early December to accommodate potential demands of the network. In the past three months she’s made trips to L.A. and New York for reshoots and promotional events. “I feel like I’m in purgatory since I’ve gotten home,” she says. “They’ll call me to California at a moment’s notice.” She says she took only three jobs in December, usually her busiest month, and she’s cleared her schedule entirely this month.
The show’s other challenge for Laibstain was the glimpse it gave her of her perfectionist ways. “Even though she hates the b-word, I’m her boss,” Somekh says. In the Artisphere episode, Laibstain becomes dissatisfied with the flower pot portion of her plant lady costume and wants to start over. Somekh doesn’t think she has time and tells her no one’s focus will be on the pot anyway, but Laibstain protests. “Katie’s kind of like a wild horse,” he tells the camera. “She wants to do what she wants to do, but we have to keep each other in check.” But he says he sees that drive as part of her artistic vision: “She’d really rather die than make a bad balloon sculpture.”
Laibstain seems at peace with the show’s portrayal of her as an uncompromising perfectionist. “It’s interesting to see myself the way other people see me,” she says. “We all have growth to do. I just get to do mine in front of millions of people.”
Nevertheless, she hopes the show is renewed. “I worked so hard on that first season, and there’s a part of me that has such deep faith that we’re going to get a second season,” Laibstain says. “It was one of the most amazing and rewarding things I’ve done.”
There’s no word yet as to when TLC will determine whether The Unpoppables will be renewed or not. “It varies from series to series,” says a TLC representative. “We all have our fingers crossed.”
Laibstain hopes it’s sooner rather than later. If all goes well, she could be back to work filming the second season later this month. “I’m kind of at my wit’s end with the suspense,” she says. “I keep on smiling, but deep down, I’m scared. Also excited, anxious, thrilled.”