IRT’s Lisa Kelly talks trucking, reality TV

John G Smith

Lisa Kelly was a professional driver before the cameras began to roll on Ice Road Truckers – the reality TV show that brought Alaska’s Dalton Highway into family living rooms.

Lisa Kelly shared her Ice Road Truckers (IRT) experiences during Trucking HR Canada’s annual Women with Drive event in Toronto. (Photo: Peter Power)

It’s not a job she always dreamed about. The self-described tomboy didn’t grow up in a trucking family. But the stories her parents told about work as a nurse and dental hygienist scared her away from any type of medical career. Her early jobs were temporary; the type of placeholders that bring in paycheques until something different comes along.

Then she started delivering pizza and found herself enjoying the hours behind the wheel. That’s what steered her toward the idea of earning a CDL, and her first job at Alaska’s Carlile Transportation.

The job wasn’t easy, especially in the early days. Kelly says she always believed she had to work twice as hard as her male counterparts, just to prove herself.

“As a girl, they’re all kind of waiting for you to fail, I guess,” Kelly explained during a presentation at Trucking HR Canada’s annual Women with Drive conference. She found herself scolded for things like failing to wind up the straps on the flatbed even if other truck drivers seemed to get away with it.

“I was just being watched closer.”

The IRT cameras

Then the cameras came calling.

Her boss came forward with a phone number and asked if she wanted to be on TV. Kelly agreed, even before asking what the show would be about, and signed up for the screen tests.

But those behind Ice Road Truckers had a specific idea about the role she would play as the first female driver on the show.

“I was told right upfront on the first season, ‘They picked you for eye candy,’” Kelly recalled. “I was like, ‘I’m going to prove that I’m more than that.’”

“I was told right upfront on the first season, ‘They picked you for eye candy.'”

– Lisa Kelly, Ice Road Truckers (IRT)

Working with a camera operator in the passenger seat was undeniably different at first. She still has no interest in driver-facing fleet cameras because they fly in the face of the job’s traditional freedom. These cameras, though, were only turned on some of the time. The shoots were measured by weeks.

“I can refrain from picking my nose for a couple of months,” she added with a laugh.

Except for a year off in Season 6, she was a staple on the program from Season 3-11, and did two seasons of IRT Deadliest Roads, which took her from South America to India.

“I don’t know how it went so long. I’m just pleasantly surprised,” she admits. “Friends was on for 10 seasons, you know?”

Media portrayals

The ice road trucker shrugs off some of the media reports that seemed more interested in how she looked than the work she did. References to “cuts a pretty figure” and “sexiest trucker alive” are found in many of the stories about her.

“Better than fattest trucker alive?” she added to more chuckles from the Trucking HR Canada audience.

If anything, it was weird being recognized. There was the time in Peru, when a carload of people chased the truck and insisted on taking pictures when she stopped to inspect her load. In Canada, fans in remote communities would run from truck to truck, banging on the doors when the show came to town: “Is Lisa in there? Is Lisa here?”

Kelly learned to remove stickers with her name from the cab.

“I was hanging out with some friends and one guy was like, ‘Lisa! Lisa!’” One of her friends jumped in: “She’s just a truck driver. Calm down.”

But the TV cameras made her more than a truck driver alone … even if the money was the same.

She rolls her eyes at comments made by producers who later said they paid cast members like truck drivers so the series would seem more authentic.

“I didn’t even get paid for the first two or three years that I was on the show. I was just got paid extra from my company for taking the time and doing it.”

The reality of trucking

She knows there is a difference between the reality of trucking and trucking for reality TV, though.

“It’s really hard to feature a three-dimensional person on a two-dimensional screen,” Kelly explained. There was a character to establish. She always wanted to come across as an optimist, acting like she loved tasks even when it involved chaining up at -20 F.

“I think I was more experienced than I came off on camera. And just ‘cause I had blonde hair, they were kind of, ‘Let’s play the dumb blonde character.’”

“It’s really hard to feature a three-dimensional person on a two-dimensional screen.”

– Lisa Kelly, Ice Road Truckers (IRT)

When reflecting on the time in front of the camera, she says the scariest work involved driving in settings like Peru, Bolivia and India, rather than traveling Canada’s remote and seasonal ice roads. In the countries featured on IRT Dangerous Roads, there was little thought to regulations like weight restrictions. “They just load up your truck, and like ‘Go.’”

“You got some truck that’s falling apart, that’s overloaded on some cliff edge, and I kept trying to get it going, and it kept stalling out and rolling back. And every time it rolled back it came that much closer to the edge.”

Of those roads, she preferred India to Peru and Bolivia. At least India’s roads were established on solid rock rather than dirt.

“Rock holds up. Dirt crumbles,” she says.

The reality of ‘reality TV’

While Ice Road Truckers was officially unscripted television, the producers didn’t just sit around waiting for something exciting to occur. Each show needed a beginning, middle and end. Settings had to be described at different times of the day so they could be used to line up the story.

And each run, something had to happen.

At one point, when they were discussing that nobody had fallen through the ice, Kelly raised her hand to volunteer. They found a lake that was six feet deep, and spent the day drilling and flooding the surface to prepare.

She missed the prepared hole on her first approach, but the wheels dropped through when backing up for another try.

“That reaction,” she says, “was genuine”.

Then castmate Art Burke dropped through the ice the following week. There was no planning for that one.

“There was times when things would happen for real, and then other times there was the potential that it was going to happen, so we kind of helped it along a little bit to make it a story,” Kelly admits. “It wasn’t a script, and we could say what we wanted – but you had to say certain things in order for the story to make sense.”

And she was reminded on occasion that, if she didn’t say something, narrator Thom Beers would provide the voiceover.

“I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s terrible. OK I’ll say it.’ Because he can make up whatever he wants,” Kelly said. “If I say it, it’s going to be more true.”

John G Smith

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Inside Logistics, Solid Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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