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  • Dr. Lillian Nejad

Reality TV Contestants Reveal the Dark Side of Instant Fame: A decision that can lead to devastation

Updated: May 21, 2019

Reality TV has a dark side. Everybody knows this. But do we really know the extent of the harm that appearing on a reality TV show can inflict on the contestants? Recent interviews on “Sunday Night” on Channel 7 and “That Radio Show” on SEN radio delivered more insight into the perils of participating in so-called ‘reality’ shows from the perspectives of the contestants.

Contestants from Married at First Sight (MAFS), The Bachelorette, Big Brother and My Kitchen Rules gave important accounts of their treatment both during the show and after it aired. For some contestants, there was an upside to appearing on reality TV, but for others, the decision to appear on reality TV had unexpected and unintended repercussions.

The Reality of Reality TV

Reality TV is akin to a traumatic experience according to Clare Verrall, who participated in the second series of MAFS. Stu Laundy from the Bachelorette and Benjamin Norris, who won Big Brother also were negatively impacted by their reality show experiences. They all recounted their stories on Channel 7’s, Sunday Night True Stories an investigation into the dark side of reality tv by Angela Cox . A common complaint from all of these contestants: they reported being completely unprepared for the onslaught of attention, mostly negative, from the media and general public.

Sudden fame, particularly for people who are already psychologically or emotionally vulnerable, can damage self-esteem and lead to even more deleterious outcomes. Clare Varrell gave a harrowing account, saying that MAFS producers purposely recruited vulnerable people (including her), pressured her and lied to her to convince her to stay on the show when she wanted to leave, and didn’t provide appropriate support when her mental health significantly deteriorated after the show aired. The impact on her mental health was severe; Clare reported that she suffered with extreme anxiety and clinical depression which eventually led to two suicide attempts.

Are the contestants to blame?

Shouldn’t the contestants take some responsibility? Wasn’t it their choice to go on a show like this? Aren’t they just trying to get famous no matter what the cost?

No, says Clare. She was genuinely looking for love on a show that purported to be conducting a social experiment under the guidance of mental health professionals. She thought she was going to be looked after. She admits she was gullible, “I just wanted a love story.” Instead, she believes the show set her up to fail and used unethical tactics like sleep deprivation to control what she said and did on the show. “It is actually torture—you get to the point that you will say whatever they feed you.”

Stu Laundy, who went on the show to find love and admittedly to also promote his businesses, also stated that he didn’t really know what he was signing up for. He was also shocked at the lengths producers would go to create drama. Like out of an episode from the TV drama, Unreal, producers manipulated situations to make contestants more vulnerable (often under the influence of alcohol), unfairly characterised people on the show, and went as far as using editing tricks to literally put words in people’s mouths.

Clare agrees, stating, “They can create you into whatever character they want you to be by cobbling things together. They can make you say anything. You are a character. You just don’t know what the character is until it’s on air. So, it’s a part you never read for and probably would have said no.”

Is it all bad?

In an interview on “That Radio Show,” on the SEN Network, former Neighbours star and now radio host, Nicola Charles, and I spoke with MKR contestants and couple, Mick and Jodie-Anne Barlow. Overall, they were happy with their experience on the show, and they gave us some insight into some of the factors that made them more resilient: they had a solid relationship and could rely on each other for support, they were emotionally and financially stable, they had a clear vision about what they wanted from the show, and they had realistic expectations that they were going to have to work “incredibly hard” to make that vision a reality once the show finished. Jodie-Anne had also had a previous experience on a reality show so she had an idea of what to expect.

So it can work. We know this--we've seen the success stories.

Who is responsible when it doesn’t?

But when it all goes wrong, who is to blame? What is the responsibility of the producers? It is reported that most reality shows have robust procedures to screen out those deemed psychologically unsuitable and that they provide psychological support to their contestants for up to 6 months after the show. However, upon closer inspection, this does not seem to be the case. Mick and Jodie-Anne said that MKR did offer psychological support. This support was in the form of one group email two months into filming asking if everyone was okay, and then upon their exit, telling the contestants that although no one ever takes it, further psychological support was available. Jodie-Anne explained that the producers did warn them that they would "fall into a void' three or four days after their exit, and to contact the psychologist if needed. Jodie-Anne and Mick did not think they required additional support, but Mick said, “There is a natural resistance that you don’t want to make that call because you’ll be admitting something.”

It was a surprise to hear that psychological support was optional. Particularly on shows where there are questionable recruiting practices, and manipulative and unfair portrayals of participants as ‘bad’ or ‘crazy’ or ‘stupid’ that will inevitably lead to abusive, threatening and harsh criticism, it can be argued that exposing them to such public attention and scrutiny is purposefully putting the contestants at risk. Even on shows that have more ethical practices, wouldn’t the minimal adherence to duty of care require at least one session to provide information about what to expect both during and after filming, and to provide strategies and skills to manage the probable outcomes (both negative and positive) of being on a reality show?

Benjamin Norris, from Big Brother, thinks so. After appearing on the show, he was unable to handle the barrage of negative comments from social media platforms. “It was one of the hardest times of my life. And I wasn’t prepared to deal with what I had to deal with by myself. And no one understood what I was going through. And I was really suffering.” Stu Laundy, from The Bachelorette, agrees, saying that he was also surprised at how intense the media attention would be and about the hurtful comments from ‘trolls’, “I didn't know they existed.”

Michael-Carr Gregg, a clinical psychologist, commented on Sunday Night’s expose, that it should be the producer’s responsibility to protect the psychological well-being of the contestants, and I (also a clinical psychologist) agree. Perhaps as a cost-saving measure, shows may offer psychological support as an option but have procedures in place to subtly deter contestants from utilising it by minimising its use or importance. The breadth and depth of psychological follow-up is likely to vary considerably among reality tv productions; it may be time for the development of a standard guideline to protect the mental health and well-being of reality show contestants.

The impact can be fatal

At least 11 contestants on reality shows overseas have committed suicide after their appearance on a reality TV show. Whether this is associated with already present vulnerabilities, or associated with the impact of sudden fame on their mental health or (most likely) both, Clare Varrell is telling her story on Sunday Night’s programme to help prevent this from happening in Australia. We are “watching people rip each other apart for our entertainment and we’re clapping and we’re entertained. It’s dangerous and someone is going to die.”

For those who would say, this is what she signed up for, her message is clear, “I didn’t sign up to be bullied to be the point that I wanted to kill myself. I didn’t sign up to have absolutely no support. I didn’t sign up to have my life completely ripped to shreds. I didn’t sign up for that.”

“I will always wear the scars on my wrist from that show. Always.”

So who bears the responsibility for the damaging impact of reality television? The answer is, we all do. Below are some ways that all of us, the contestants, the tv execs, and the general public can be accountable for our part in this and hopefully improve the way we interact with these shows and with the people who take part.

What can contestants do to prepare for reality TV and to protect themselves afterwards?

Mick and Jodie-Anne provided a useful framework to give yourself the best chance of having mostly positive outcomes from appearing on a reality TV show. Before you go on the show, make sure you have:

  • A clear vision—know what you are there for and have a plan beyond the show of how to get there. The plan should go beyond, "I want to be famous." If it doesn't, disappointment awaits.

  • Emotional and psychological stability—you may need to get an independent assessment of this while producers work toward creating better vetting systems and safeguards for potential contestants. Reality tv will not solve your problems, it will amplify them.

  • Stable and supportive relationships—you will need to rely on your family and friends both during and after the show airs. Those who do not have a strong social network to fall back on, suffer most.

  • Realistic expectations—instant fame does not necessarily mean instant success. You need to be aware and be willing to accept and deal with the potential positive and negative outcomes of the show and understand that you will have to work hard after the show to achieve your career goals.

After you appear on the show:

  • Use social media wisely—stay on message and learn how to manage negative comments (both practically and psychologically). Disconnect if necessary to maintain your mental health and well-being.

  • Build on your skills and strengths—continue to develop your skill, don’t lose sight of your passion. Remember what you went on the show for in the first place.

  • Focus on the future—create new goals, challenge yourself and develop new skills to continually boost self-worth and confidence.

  • Seek help and support--psychological help is available whether the show provides it for you or not. Medicare provides up to 10 subsidised sessions per year with a mental health care provider, see your GP for details. If you are feeling depressed and/or suicidal, call Lifeline 13 11 14

What should reality TV producers do for contestants as part of their duty of care?

The development of a standard guideline may be the best way forward that takes into account the following:

  • Develop responsible recruiting practices that do not put ratings before the health and well-being of vulnerable people

  • Provide at least one session before finalising contestants that provides information about what to expect both during and after filming, and that ensures that the contestants’ expectations of the show are realistic, and informs them of how to seek help if needed

  • Be transparent about the tactics and practices on the show that will be utilised to attract viewers

  • Provide contestants with strategies and skills to manage the probable outcomes (both negative and positive) of being on a reality show

  • Require at least one session with an independent psychologist post-show with the option of ongoing support if wanted by the contestant or recommended by the psychologist. Having this as a requirement rather than as an option reduces the stigma about needing support and ensures all contestants have equal access to mental health care.

What can the general public do to respond to reality TV more conscientiously?

  • View reality TV with a critical eye— It’s fun in the moment to scream and laugh at contestants on TV but it’s important to acknowledge that we are being manipulated to a degree—you are seeing snapshots of a person to tell a particular story. You are not seeing the whole person, who they truly are. And if you're watching with your kids, highlight for them the ways the show presents their version of the truth to attract viewers.

  • Have compassion—Imagine being filmed all day and someone else has control over which parts other people will see! How would people perceive you if they only saw your worst moments? If someone wanted to portray you as stupid or crazy or mean—they probably could—just based on little snippets of your everyday life. So be nice and give people the benefit of the doubt.

  • Be nonjudgmental—“Lay off” as Stu Laundy said on Sunday Night’s show. Do not lash out at people in person or on social media or at the TV especially in front of your children. You are not perfect either, which is clear if you are making derogatory, nasty comments about others.

  • Be responsible—don’t delight in others’ misfortunes. Remember who you are and what you value and hold reality shows to account. Ask yourself, what are you willing to consider acceptable as a form of entertainment. And be a good example for the next generation of viewers.

For more, watch Melissa Doyle & Angela Cox on Sunday Night on Channel 7

And listen to Nicola Charles & Lillian Nejad with Mick & Jodie-Anne on That Radio Show on SEN+ 1377 AM

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