By Ashley White
wo Willmar High School graduates have broken into the biz. Show business, that is.
For two months last year, Ashley Foster, class of 1999, and Chris Axelson, class of 2005, worked on TLC's summer reality show "Mall Cops: Mall of America."
The show featured Foster in her job as mall security's special operations supervisor, and Axelson worked on the crew as a field production coordinator.
"I've always had an interest in photography and filmography," said Axelson, who now lives in Duluth. "I had a really great time."
The show, which was slated for 12 episodes this season with a finale on July 1, began as a one-hour documentary for TLC called "Mall Cops." The special premiered in October and attracted 1.2 million viewers, securing the network's request for a series, according to TLC's website.
The crew worked six days a week, 12 hours a day from November to January to shoot the series, which premiered at the end of May.
"Even though the shifts were long, it was nice that not every day was the same," Axelson said. "You never knew what was going to happen. You had to think on your feet and be aware of your surroundings."
As the show's field production coordinator, Axelson's job consisted of operating the boom microphone and doing much of the shooting.
Foster, on the other hand, went about her security job as usual -- except for a crew of cameramen who followed her wherever she went.
"It was a lot of fun, but at the same time, it was a little strange," said Foster, who lives in Bloomington. "This was a good opportunity to show people what tools are in place to keep them safe."
Over the course of the season, the show depicted mall cops busting shoplifters, escorting drunken customers out of the mall and even stopping a group of streakers from running around in their underwear.
On more serious days, the security officers dealt with knife fights, bomb threats and crowd control, especially when celebrities like 'tween star Demi Lovato or politician Sarah Palin came to visit.
The mall security profession became the punch line of many jokes after last year's big-screen comedies "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," starring Kevin James, and "Observe and Report," starring Seth Rogen. TLC's reality show works to disprove that negative stereotype, Axelson said.
"Most of the cops (at the Mall of America) are ex-military or on their way to becoming a police officer," Axelson said. "Maybe other malls have that stereotype, but not here."
He said that all security officers at the Mall of America receive training in Krav Maga, an Israeli form of combat. The security officers are also in direct connection with the Department of Homeland Security, Axelson said.
As a plain clothes officer working in the field of counter-terrorism, Foster agrees that Mall of America security is nothing to joke about.
"Our job is very serious," she said. "We respond to all sorts of calls, and we are very highly trained. We're all professionals at what we do."
According to the Mall of America website, about 40 million people visit the mall each year -- more than the populations of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Canada combined. Along with 520 stores, the country's largest mall is also home to a wedding chapel, an amusement park, an aquarium, several bars, a movie theater and even a secondary school.
"With 100,000 people in the mall on any given day, it's more like a small city," said Bridget Jewell, public relations coordinator for the Mall of America. "Quite often, (mall security) is saving lives."
Axelson said he is grateful to the show for jump-starting his career and hopes "Mall Cops" is only the beginning for him. He'll be moving to Los Angeles at the end of the summer to find a production job in the entertainment capital of the world.
His boss at Northland NewsCenter in Duluth, anchor/producer Kevin Jacobsen, said Axelson will "make a fantastic producer."
"He has a lot of life experience outside of the television and video realm that will help him make it big in whatever he may end up dong," Jacobsen said. "He's a team player who gets to work right away. He's also fun to have around."
Foster said she would "definitely" continue to be featured in the series if TLC picks up the show for a second season. Right now, TLC has not yet made an official decision for next year, according to Jewell.
"The public response to the show has been great," Jewell said. "We think (a second season) is a possibility."
Second season or not, Foster will continue working in mall security for one simple reason: She loves what she does.
"I love the field of counter-terrorism, and I love the people that I work with" she said. "I wake up every morning and I love going to work."
TLC will continue to air reruns of "Mall Cops: Mall of America" at least through July.