MYour mother watches TV in the kitchen, my father is at work. The house is quiet. I guess the television is blaring from the kitchen. My mother will be there for a while. I change channels. On the screen is a naked woman covered in clay and pressed against a wall. I’m not meant to watch this. I look nervously at the kitchen door and turn down the volume. Her lips move, but the words are inaudible. Now more and more people undress and rub clay on breasts, thighs, genitals. They jump up and down and cheer. They squeeze against the wall like flies on a windshield. I scoot closer to the TV. My chest rises and falls with the shallow gasp of someone so fixed they forget to breathe. I’m 11 years old watching a Big Brother pottery assignment in 2000 spiral out of control. My two-decade love affair with reality TV is about to begin.
Reality TV has been a constant companion my entire life. As a pre-teen and then as a 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 harrowing an event in my schoolyard as 9/11 or Diana’s death.
In adulthood, reality TV encouraged bad choices. At 21, I dyed my hair cherry red like Cheryl Cole did when she was a judge on the X Factor. I ended up at the hairdresser the next day sobbing and had it removed. My 20s were lost on Keeping Up With the Kardashians as I watched Kim rise to the pinnacle of reality TV fame in snakeskin boots and a Michael Kors handbag. I bought false eyelashes to look like these glamorous raven haired sisters. Now in my thirties, I drink The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills like a lab rat obsessed with sugar water. Watching the housewives yell at each other in a Hollywood Hills mansion has a wonderfully calming effect. I like to lie in the bath after a long day and watch them fight.
So when I started researching my upcoming BBC Radio 4 podcast Unreal, which I co-wrote and presented with journalist Pandora Sykes, I thought I knew how the story would end. I envisioned a light-hearted synopsis of my favorite shows accompanied by deep dives into unresolved issues that continue to this day. (For example, did The Hills’ Lauren Conrad really have a sextape, or did her nemesis Heidi Montag leak the rumor to create a storyline? Or, what became of the contestants killed by surgeons on the grisly makeover show The Swan dismembered? And is Kardashian to blame for the tragedy that befalls every adult with an XY chromosome that enters her orbit?)
But what emerged was a dramatically different story. Reality TV, despite its commercial success and innovative production values, has never been as critically acclaimed as other formats. When The Only Way is Essex defeated Sherlock and Downton Abbey and won a Bafta in 2011, the cameras swung to Sherlock actor Martin Freeman’s expression of silent dismay. When it published Keeping Up With the Kardashians in 2007, The New York Times announced that it was about “desperate women climbing to the brink of fame.” Fifteen years later, Kim Kardashian is a billionaire prison reform activist, and former Keeping Up executive producer Farnaz Farjam told me as we spoke that she wouldn’t rule out Kardashian’s running for elected office. If reality star Donald Trump can do it, why can’t Kim? Her 299 million Instagram followers would certainly help.
I suspect this taunting condescension towards reality TV is partly class-based, partly gender-based. Reality TV is a demotic form of entertainment – there are no opera lorgnettes here! — and it has provided a path into the entertainment industry for many working-class people. Jade Goody was the first, of course, but so were 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 being helmed by female executives (like Farjam and Sarah Dillistone, who worked on Towie and Made in Chelsea) or populated overwhelmingly by women (like the world-conquering Real Housewives franchise with 32 spin-offs and counting). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to justify my love of reality TV to guys who don’t believe in watching people ride their bikes in circles very fast all day.
How do I love reality TV? let me count the ways Love the humor: Amy Child’s Vajazzling Sam Faiers with a Carry On wink. Curtis Pritchard claims he really, really wants to make his fellow Love Islanders coffee in the morning to stop cuddling with the girl he’s dating. The Celebrity Big Brother housemates become confused thinking David Gest is dead and yank back the covers only to see the confused TV producer fast asleep. I love the way the Real Housewives give women in their 50s and 60s – who are so typically pushed off our screens – space and a chance to discuss common female fears about aging and infidelity. I love the intrigue and of course the drama – who doesn’t? – but also the way in which reality TV can deliver serious messages to the general public. After Jade Goody was diagnosed with cervical cancer during an appearance on Big Brother India in August 2008, an additional 400,000 women attended her screening appointments.
But in recent years I’ve started to feel at odds with my passion for the genre. In 2020, information about the impact of fame on The X Factor contestants began leaking out. Former contestant Misha B said she felt suicidal after appearing on the show, particularly after judge Tulisa suggested she was a bully. Rebecca Ferguson, who finished second in 2010, said that after leaving the program she was forced to continue working on her music career while suffering a miscarriage. “For those who say they know what they’re getting into! I almost died promoting music for all of you to listen to! No definitely not! ever! Sign up for this in a million years!” Ferguson wrote on Twitter. The irresistibly plump Jedward twins chimed in, saying that their “biggest regret in life was not telling the X Factor judges to scoot out,” and that every contestant was a “slave” of the show who got paid “zero” while the producers made millions. Suddenly all the Saturday nights I stayed and hummed along to a pre-famous Little Mix felt different.
Also in 2020, Love Island presenter Caroline Flack died. She was the fourth suicide related to the show: two ex-candidates and the boyfriend of an ex-candidate had also committed suicide in recent years. Watching the cohort of young, genetically blessed islanders tan poolside last year made me feel complicit in something sinister. My suspicions about the damaging effects of post-Love Island influencer fame were confirmed when I interviewed 2021 nominee Jake Cornish for the podcast. Trolls had threatened to kill him in front of his little niece. Cornish was all manly rage – he was unaffected, he insisted – but not everyone has thick skin, and neither should they. What happens to the contestants who can’t cope with this sudden, biting stardom?
There are no two choices: creating an entertaining reality TV show and an ethical one can be incompatible goals. Historically, audiences have wanted conflict, even if it is sometimes at the expense of participants’ well-being and personal safety. (Who can forget Big Brother 5’s now-infamous “Fight Night,” which ended with security teams having to separate feuding roommates?) The Greek columns supporting the ornate marble roof of the reality TV Parthenon are conflict, interference from Producers and Editing. Frankenstein editing techniques make it possible to stitch together conversations that were never spoken. Off-camera producers manipulate participants like twirling puppets. (It’s worth remembering that Fight Night only happened because the Big Brother producers showed roommates footage of other roommates talking about them and harassing them with alcohol. Still, the episode got great ratings: Regarding the producers, it was so it’s a win.)
But there are positive signs that these pillars of exploitation are being dismantled by modern, socially conscious viewers. At last year’s Love Island there was a record number of complaints to Ofcom, who felt Faye Winter’s explosive outburst against housemate Teddy Soares was rightly unacceptable. Aftercare has been stepped up on all the major reality shows, although I doubt there’s a limit to what even the strictest social package can do against the stinky roar of social media. And there’s evidence that audiences may be losing their taste for conflict as a new breed of friendly reality TV shows soar in the ratings, like the delightfully zany The Masked Singer.
I express all my criticisms with love. I have no more desire to see reality TV collapse than to stop the spring rains or the flowers from growing. How could I disregard the great house that has brought me so much joy? But a few structural changes wouldn’t hurt. Ethical Producers; stricter pre-shooting controls; less lewd exploitation. I selfishly hope these changes are made and that for years to come you’ll still find me curled up in reality TV’s Parthenon and watching the housewives bicker under its grand marble canopy.
Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV airs on BBC Sounds from May 17th.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or via email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US it is National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the Crisis Support Service lifeline is 13 11 14. For more international helplines see befrienders.org