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Austinite Zach Anner competes to host show on Oprah network

Dale Roe

Austin's Zach Anner conquered a number of obstacles on his way to "Your OWN Show: Oprah's Search for the Next TV Star." The reality competition premieres at 8 p.m. today on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

For starters, there's the cerebral palsy. (Anner, who is in a wheelchair, calls it "the sexiest of the palsies.")

Then there was the controversy during the online voting process: Anner appeared to be way ahead of the pack of almost 9,500 hopefuls who uploaded audition videos in hopes of appearing on the show, but when the totals were announced he had suddenly dropped to seventh place (only the top five vote-getters were guaranteed to move to the next stage of auditions). The network said final vote totals were raised or lowered because of ineligible votes being counted and valid votes being wrongly disqualified. In the end, OWN sent the top eight Internet finalists, including Anner, to California to compete for one of the show's 10 contestant slots.

His final obstacle to getting on the show?

"There was an obstacle course, which I failed, but they let me on the show anyway," he joked.

In reality, the final auditions were a series of conversations with producers in which Anner had to pitch his dream show: a travelogue for people, like him, who never thought they could travel.

"I just tried to relay that I was trying to make the most kick-ass travel show there ever was and they seemed to be excited about that idea, too," Anner said. "It was mainly just talking to people and figuring out the best way that we could do it and it just all worked out. I got very lucky."

The OWN show will seem familiar to anyone who has watched an episode of "The Apprentice." The 10 contestants are divided into competing groups and given a show segment to produce with the help of a celebrity mentor. On tonight's premiere episode, the teams must produce a segment relating to sex with the help of Dr. Phil McGraw. (Appropriately enough, McGraw was the first person to get his own show from Winfrey.)

Each team chooses a producer, person-on-the-street researchers and on-air talent from within its ranks and performs its segment for hosts Nancy O'Dell and Carson Kressley. At the end of the episode, O'Dell, Kressley and the celebrity mentor choose a winning team and send one contestant from the losing team packing.

Anner says he hasn't seen the show yet, although all eight episodes have been filmed. And though he was unable to reveal the outcome of the series, Anner comes across well in tonight's premiere. His experience shooting man-on-the-street YouTube videos is apparent when he has to solicit questions from strangers, and he is as quick-witted, funny and comfortable on Winfrey's network cameras as he is with the handheld models he and his friends have used so often.

As McGraw lectures about "sexting" during his team's segment, Anner interjects that he cannot type and asks what alternatives McGraw would recommend. McGraw later asks Anner's co-host if his relationship has sparks. "I have zero sparks," Anner cracks to much laughter. "That's a whole other show." Anner is smart — he got off a number of good lines without appearing overbearing or greedy for the spotlight. And he remained cool through the entire challenge.

"Honestly, if I wasn't scared by the whole sex question, I don't think that anything they throw at me in future episodes will scare me too much," he said. "Because if there's one thing that is not my area of expertise, it's that."

Although dissension is played up through editing — on tonight's episode, it divides Anner's rivals — Anner claims that the environment was supportive. "It was a really, really collaborative, fun spirit on the set. And even though we're all vying for our dream, everyone wanted to see the other ones do well," he said.

After tonight, the show runs each Friday for seven more weeks. But Anner says he will be back in Austin next week. "We'll all get Mexican martinis when I get back there," he said. "And I just really am so grateful to have the entire Austin community behind me, man. It's crazy. It feels great."

Oh, and not to be a spoiler, but tonight's show features another special guest. I won't give it away, but her name starts with an "O."

'Your OWN Show: Oprah's Search for the Next TV Star': 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 7 on OWN