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Will spouse swap = star status?
SSL astrophysicist Barry Welsh journeys to the mysterious Fox Galaxy

| 05 April 2006

By any estimation, Barry Welsh leads an exciting life. When he's not developing NASA satellites for Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory, he plays rugby, or tackles wacky adventure sports on family vacations. But when the 53-year-old English-born astrophysicist decided that he wanted more from life - namely, fame - he went where other notoriety-seekers before him have gone: the Fox television network.

Barry Welsh and his real wife, Sheila
SSL's Barry Welsh is the common element in both these photos, posing with the two women to whom he was simultaneously "married" for entertainment (and enrichment) purposes. His real wife, Sheila, is in the top photo; at bottom he appears with his "traded" spouse, Patricia Plonsker. (Photos courtesy Fox)
Barry Welsh and his "traded" spouse, Patricia Plonsker

The next two Fridays, April 7 and 14, Welsh and his family will appear on "Trading Spouses", Fox's reality-TV program in which two families swap wives/mothers for a week and get paid a cool $50K for their troubles.

Welsh applied to participate on the program in late 2004, after spotting an ad in an astronomers' newsletter. He fired off a provocative e-mail to the show that read, in essence, "If you want a beer-swilling, rugby-playing rocket scientist, call me." He received a return call from a casting agent for the show, who assured him that the program's producers were seeking either an astrologer or astronomer - because people in these professions are "really neat" and can tell the future. Oracle or no, the astrophysicist, allotted 10 minutes to sell himself over the phone, claims he had his interviewer "wetting her knickers" by the end of the call.

Welsh's two teenage sons were keen to appear on television, and his wife, Sheila, a high-school career specialist, was happy to follow their lead. With all of the Welshes on board, the long process of being vetted began: The family filled out numerous questionnaires (with "incredible irreverence," Welsh recalls), submitted to background checks as well as medical and psychological screenings, and finally got their screen tests. Welsh sent the show's producers plans of the family's Pleasant Hill home and photographs of every wall in the house.

Throughout the process, the family (which, Welsh avers, is "sort of normal") adhered to its plan: "We will never take this seriously, and whatever they ask of us, we will do the opposite of what normally would be expected."

Rules of the game
The drama of "Trading Spouses" depends largely on the lifestyle differences between the two families. The female spouses, after joining their new families, participate nominally in each other's routines (save for sleeping with their mates) and offer suggestions about how their "new" family's life could be improved. Their weeklong visits, compressed into two one-hour episodes, culminate in a meeting between the two women, at the end of which each writes a letter dictating how her counterpart's family will spend its $50,000 - based on insights gleaned from close observation and, only occasionally, the desire to get even with her temporary family. The letters trade hands, remaining sealed until each woman arrives home to share hers with her family.

Though "Trading Spouses"' usual approach is to pair two families that are as different as the Cosbys and the Bunkers, the Welshes were not all that dramatically distinct from the family with which they were paired. None of the four adults involved, for instance, voted for the current president. The differences between the two families were abundantly evident, however, in lifestyle choices and parenting approaches.

Patricia and Jeffrey Plonsker, who head a financial-consulting company in downtown San Francisco, typically begin their day at 4 a.m. The Welshes' regimen is more similar to most people's schedules - both parents rise at 6:30 a.m. The Plonskers enforce a strict code of conduct at home - Patricia Plonsker even brought in an etiquette coach for her teenage son and daughter - and place a premium on academic perfection, sending both children to exclusive private schools. The Welshes, by contrast, have no rules in their house at all.

Thanks to their professional success, the Plonskers live extravagantly: They enjoy lavish vacations and shopping sprees, collect art, and employ tutors for their children as well as maids and a dog walker. The Welshes soldier on sans maids and mutt escort, but manage to lead successful lives nonetheless. "We are happy-go-lucky versus stressed-out," says Welsh.

The grass is not always greener
This past February, a 35-person "Trading Spouses" crew descended upon the cul-de-sac where the Welsh home is located, camping outside in an enormous RV and renting a neighbor's garage. A portable tent was erected so that crew members could mix the audio and video.

On a Wednesday morning, Sheila Welsh headed across the Bay to the home of her new family, who live in San Francisco's Sunset district, while Welsh drove to the Pleasant Hill BART station to meet Patricia Plonsker, his mate for the week. While a husband on "Trading Spouses" typically brings a bouquet to the airport to greet his visitor, Welsh, who says he "had a plan for everything," purposely left the flowers at home and strolled down the BART platform in a T-shirt he had had made for the occasion that read, "I'm the man you're looking for." (Plonsker cracked up when she saw him.) Back at the house, Welsh's teen sons greeted Plonsker with cries of "Mommy" while Barry escorted her to the backyard, where chilled bottles of Champagne were waiting. Welsh wanted to differentiate his family at every turn from the people he had seen on "Trading Spouses", so he didn't take Plonsker on a tour of the Welsh domicile until they had downed a couple of bottles of bubbly.

Although Welsh and his family had been expecting "a complete opposite, someone militaristic and bossy with right-wing politics," the woman who came to his home was "very personable, smart, and well-read." She also, upon being subjected to his sons' wicked sense of humor, decided to go with the flow and participate in the Welsh brand of fun. "Patty was a puppy - or perhaps that's my effect on women," says Welsh. The week held few surprises, primarily because Welsh had sent a list to the program's producers detailing what he wanted to do during Patricia Plonsker's stay, including taking his spouse-for-a-week to a rave, his lab at SSL (where she had to don a clean-room suit), and an all-boys rugby game.

The fact that the Plonskers are simply Type A in contrast to their own relaxed style was a letdown for both Barry and Sheila Welsh. "We would have loved to have been able to rip into a family for their political or religious views, but we didn't get a chance to do it," Welsh says ruefully. "We're overeducated people and very opinionated. We would have felt better about putting down creationists."

Being on "Trading Spouses" brought the Welsh family even closer together, discloses its pater familias, because they planned and schemed for months in preparation for their 15 minutes of fame. Welsh's hope is that Fox will be inundated with fan letters raving about his charismatic performance, which, in his fantasy, will lead to an offer to host "a more intellectual version of "The Osbournes," followed by film contracts." Then, the astrophysicist predicts, he'll be voted in as governor of California, "because that's fame's natural progression."

The Welsh family will appear on "Trading Spouses" the next two Fridays, April 7 and 14, at 9 p.m. on Fox TV. Though San Francisco Fox affiliate KTVU will be pre-empting the April 7 program to broadcast the Oakland A's game against the Seattle Mariners, viewers can watch "Trading Spouses" on the Fox San Jose affiliate, KICU. No local pre-emption appears scheduled for the April 14 episode.

For information about the program, visit www.fox.com/tradingspouses or familywelsh.com.