Ma mom is watching TV in the kitchen, my dad is at work. The house is quiet. I rate: the TV is booming from the kitchen. My mother will stay there for a while. I change the channel. There is a naked woman on screen, covered in clay, pressing herself against a wall. I’m not supposed to watch this. I look nervously at the kitchen door and lower the volume. His lips move but the words are inaudible. Now more and more people strip naked and rub clay on their breasts, thighs and genitals. They jump up and down and clap. They flatten themselves against the wall like flies against a windshield. I move closer to the TV. My chest rises and falls with the superficial gasps of someone so transfixed they forget to breathe. I’m 11 and watching a Big Brother pottery stain spiral out of control in the year 2000. My two-decade love affair with reality television is about to begin.
Reality TV has been a constant companion throughout my life. Pre-teen then teenager, I watched all the hits: Big Brother, Popstars, Pop Idol, The X Factor, The Simple Life, but also lesser-known slags: Newlyweds, I’d Do Anything, Wife Swap. The Pop Idol finale between Gareth Gates and Will Young was as seismic an event in my schoolyard as 9/11 or Diana’s death.
As an adult, reality TV fueled bad decisions. At 21, I dyed my hair the same cherry red as Cheryl Cole when she was an X Factor judge. I ended up at the hairdresser the next day sobbing, having it removed. My 20s were wasted on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, as I watched Kim rise to the pinnacle of reality TV fame in snakeskin ankle boots and a Michael Kors handbag. I bought false eyelashes to look like these glamorous raven haired sisters. Now, in my thirties, I chuckle The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills like a lab rat addicted to sugar water. Watching housewives yell at each other in a Hollywood Hills mansion has a wonderfully calming quality to it. I like to lie in the bath after a long day and watch them fight.
So when I started researching my next BBC Radio 4 Unreal podcast, co-written and co-presented with journalist Pandora Sykes, I thought I knew how the story was going to unfold. I envisioned a light-hearted recap of my favorite shows, along with deep dives into unresolved questions that linger to this day. (Like: Did Lauren Conrad of The Hills really have a sex tape, or did her frenemy Heidi Montag leak the rumor to generate a storyline? Kardashian Kurse to blame for the misfortune that befalls any adult carrying a an XY chromosome entering its orbit?)
But what emerged was a radically different story. Reality television has never enjoyed the same critical celebration as other formats, despite its commercial success and innovative production values. When The Only Way is Essex beat Sherlock and Downton Abbey to win a Bafta in 2011, the cameras turned to Sherlock actor Martin Freeman’s expression of silent dismay. Reviewing Keeping Up With the Kardashians when it launched in 2007, The New York Times called it “desperate women climbing the fringes of fame.” Fifteen years later, Kim Kardashian is a billionaire, prison reform activist and former Keeping Up executive producer Farnaz Farjam told me when we spoke that she wouldn’t rule out a Kardashian candidacy for the elections. If fellow reality star Donald Trump can do it, why can’t Kim? His 299 million Instagram followers would surely help him.
I suspect this mocking condescension toward reality TV is partly class-based, partly gender-based. Reality TV is a demotic form of entertainment – no opera glasses here! — and it provided a path into the entertainment industry for many working-class people. Jade Goody was the first, of course, but also Rylan Clark, Alison Hammond, Gemma Collins. And it’s a historically female-dominated genre, with many of the most successful shows of the past two decades run by female executives (like Farjam and Sarah Dillistone who worked on Towie and Made in Chelsea), or overwhelmingly populated by women (like the world-conquering Real Housewives franchise, with 32 spin-offs and counting). I can’t say how many times I’ve had to justify my passion for reality TV in front of men who don’t mind watching people ride their bikes very fast in circles all day.
How can I love reality TV? Let me count the paths. I Love Humor: Amy Childs vajazzing Sam Faiers with a Carry On wink. Curtis Pritchard says he really, really wants to make his fellow Love Islanders coffee in the morning to avoid cuddling with the girl he’s in a relationship with. The Celebrity Big Brother housemates become confused and think David Gest is dead, ripping the covers off to see the bewildered TV producer sleeping soundly. I love how The Real Housewives give space to women in their 50s and 60s – who are so often driven from our screens – and allow them to discuss common female anxieties about aging and infidelity. . I love intrigue, and drama, of course – who doesn’t? – but also how reality TV can send serious messages to the general public. After Jade Goody was diagnosed with cervical cancer in August 2008 while appearing on Big Brother India, an additional 400,000 women attended their screening appointments.
But in recent years, I’ve started to feel conflicted with my passion for the genre. In 2020, information began to leak about the effects of fame on The X Factor contestants. Former contestant Misha B said she felt suicidal after appearing on the show, especially after Judge Tulisa suggested she was a bully. Rebecca Ferguson, who came second in 2010, said after leaving the program she was forced to continue working on her music career while suffering a miscarriage. “For those who say you knew what you were getting into! I almost died promoting music for all of you to listen to! No, definitely not! already! In a million years, sign up for this!” Ferguson posted on Twitter. The irrepressibly bouffant Jedward twins got in on the act, saying their “biggest regret in life wasn’t telling the X Factor judges to fuck off,” and that every contestant was a “slave” to the show who got paid “zero” while the producers made millions. Suddenly, all those Saturday nights I stayed, humming a pre-stardom Little Mix, hit differently.
Also in 2020, Love Island presenter Caroline Flack died. His was the fourth suicide associated with the show: two ex-contestants and an ex-contestant’s boyfriend had also committed suicide in recent years. Watching last year’s cohort of genetically blessed young islanders sunbathe by the pool, I felt complicit in something murky. My suspicions about the ill effects of post-Love Island influencer fame were confirmed when I interviewed 2021 contestant Jake Cornish for the podcast. The trolls had threatened to murder him in front of his little niece. Cornish was all male bluster – he was unaffected, he insisted – but not everyone has such thick skin, and neither should they. What happens to the contestants who cannot cope with this sudden and acrid fame?
There are no two ways to achieve this: creating an entertaining and ethical reality TV show can be irreconcilable goals. Historically, the public has wanted conflict, even if it sometimes comes at the expense of the well-being and personal safety of contestants. (Who can forget the now famous “Fight Night” in Big Brother 5, which ended with security teams having to separate the warring housemates?) edition. Frankenstein’s editing techniques make it possible to piece together conversations that have never been said. Off-camera producers manipulate contestants like spinning puppets. (It’s worth remembering that Fight Night only happened because Big Brother producers showed housemates footage of other housemates while talking about them and doused them with booze. Still, the episode got excellent marks: so in terms of producers, it was a win.)
But there are positive indicators that these pillars of exploitation are being chipped away by modern, socially conscious audiences. Last year, Love Island saw a record number of complaints to Ofcom, which found Faye Winter’s profanity-filled outburst against her housemate Teddy Soares to be rightly unacceptable. Tracking has been beefed up on every major reality show, though I wonder if there’s a limit to what even the strictest welfare program can accomplish against the fetid roar of social media. And there’s a hint that audiences may be losing their taste for conflict, as a new generation of kinder reality shows rise in the ratings, like the deliciously bonkers The Masked Singer.
All my criticisms, I pronounce them with love. I don’t want to see reality TV collapse any more than I want to stop the spring rains, or the flowers that grow. How could I disrespect the big house that brought me so much pleasure? But a few structural changes wouldn’t hurt. ethical producers; stiffer pre-shoot controls; less salacious exploitation. I selfishly hope that these changes are made, and that in the years to come you will still find me curled up in the Parthenon of reality TV, watching housewives bicker under its great marble roof.
Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV is on BBC Sounds from May 17.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by mail email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service safety rope is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org
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