Get out the throwing wine: ELLE.com is celebrating the best (and worst) of reality TV this week.
When Survivor season one first aired, it took the media landscape by storm. Mark Burnett debuted a world where starving and highly irritable humans were filmed 24-hours a day while competing in athletic challenges for food and advantages. It was essentially The Hunger Games, before The Hunger Games.
During the finale episode of the first season, contestant Sue Hawk compared the final two contestants to vermin. In Hawk’s estimate, only two types of people exist in the world— snakes and rats—and the snake will always come out on top. That’s how she prefaced her decision to vote for Richard Hatch (snake) to win Survivor over Kelly Wiglesworth (rat). The speech not only went down in reality TV infamy but forever changed the lives of the three contestants. Twelve years later, Hawk says she can’t walk down the street without someone referencing her speech. She told Access Online she’s “recognized all the time, even with the blonde hair and the big old fake boobs.”
Her speech wasn’t forgotten by those it indicted, either. Kelly Wiglesworth was forever branded a rat and accused of cheating in the game by other contestants. Richard Hatch went to prison for tax evasion, largely based off his unreported earnings from Survivor. Sometimes snakes don’t come out on top.
Reality television is a fickle beast. One minute you’re competing for a life-changing one million dollars on a deserted island and the next you’re crying into a confessional after not receiving a red rose from a stranger who just wasn’t that into you. Or, ya know, you’re in jail.
Viewed from the vantage point of our couches, the reality genre can feel frivolous and low stakes at best, and humiliating, moronic and a symbol of cultural decay at worst. But reality television producers who thrive on schadenfreude and their own sense of omnipotence can completely change the outcome of a contestant’s life. A 28 to 42 minute episode can’t, of course, file the divorce papers or appear for you in court, but the logistics of Murphy law seem to extend to every normal-turned-reality contestant’s fifteen minutes of fame.
Take the Bachelor franchises—all of them—and the show’s former stars as a cautionary tale. “It [The Bachelor franchises] was hurting me mentally and physically,” explained Chris Bukowski, of The Bachelorette, Bachelor Pad, and Bachelor in Paradise to Business Insider.
Tanner Tolbert, from The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise echoed the same sentiment in the piece. Tolbert said that he almost lost his job at the car dealership because he continued to go on different franchises—a consequence that absolutely was not worth it, he says.
Former Bachelor in Paradise-r Demario Jackson was, as the show’s official synopsis reads, embarking on an adventure to “a romantic paradise hoping to turn a potential summer fling into the real thing.” But, often, the largest problems that sprout from reality television aren’t the immediate consequences of not getting the final rose. These shows record every moment of your life then refract them in the most entertaining way possible, regardless of what actually happened. For Jackson, this became all too clear when he was accused of raping an intoxicated and unable-to-consent Corinne Olympios. The claim halted production and launched a conversation about what exactly happens when a show dedicated to alcohol-fueled hookups is forced to grapple with the harsh reality of what that can lead to.
Both Jackson and Olympios lost sponsorship deals, were kicked off the show, and faced media speculation for days following the incident. After it was discovered that Jackson was innocent of all charges, the harsh truth of being a black man in our current climate came to light for the former contestant. Jackson told the Hollywood Reporter the scandal would never have happened if he were a white man. “I would hate for my biggest enemy to go through what I’ve been through this summer,” he added.
The stakes don’t just reach new heights on competitive shows—although they do bring out the worst in people—but the gravity of the effects of reality TV also extend to those with diary-like formats.
The White House crashers from the first and only season of Real Housewives of Washington D.C. caused a national security breach and forever changed how functions are held at the White House. “The members of Congress, like today in the rain, have to go down a block and then go through security there with double the number of guards and then come up and go through security again and go through guards again,” explained Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert just after the crasher incident . “Security is tighter not because Secret Service messed up or the armed guards that are now doubled in number, but because somebody in the White House staff screwed up,” he added.
In the New Jersey Housewives franchise, Teresa and Joe Giudice both went to jail on fraud charges. While the crimes were committed away from the bright lights, the spotlight of fame heightened the family’s legal woes and negatively affected their five daughters. The youngest daughter, Gia Guidice, wrote a song about the turmoil of being just another hashtag at such a young age and how it has been hard for her to cope with her family’s sentencing.
If reality television is Godzilla, running rampant and leaving nothing but crushed rubble in its wake, it saves true destruction for people trying to make love work. Couples who agree to share themselves through reality television seem to fail at an exponential rate. Carmen Electra and Dave Navarro’s 72-day marriage was ruined by the camera crew, according to the latter. “You’re not gonna be real with an eight-man crew in your house,” Navarro told MTV in 2004. “So you end up getting the most realistic portrayal of your life with eight guys with cameras around.”
Nick Lachey also blamed his MTV reality show Newlyweds for his breakup. The pop star told Rolling Stone, “Jessica and I began playing these parts even when we were by ourselves. It became a really blurred line, there was a question about what truly was our reality.”
Britney Spears called her TV show with Kevin Federline, Chaotic, “the worst thing I’ve done in my career.” Jon and Kate Gosselin divorced after a few seasons of TLC’s Jon and Kate Plus 8. Kim Kardashian discarded Kris Humpries, who told People, “it’s never easy to go through the embarrassment of something like that — with your friends, with your family but when it plays out so publicly, in front of the world, it’s a whole other level. It was brutal.” Worst of all, think of how we’ve been punished: Jon Gosselin.
When people elect to have their “normal” lives filmed for 24 hours while they sign all rights away to viewer-hungry networks, it’s hard not to wonder: why? How could that possibly be worth it?
But it’s naive to not take into account all the benefits. For every relationship or personal brand that goes up in flames, there are a few success stories who manage the drama with six-figure paychecks. The Kardashians are the first family that come to mind, followed by the Lauren Conrads and Cristian Siriano’s of the reality world. Conrad was able to turn her mascara tears into a successful home goods line. Siriano turn on Project Runway established him as a superstar designer.
The odds of becoming a reality television success story might be unlikely, but is there anything more American than striving to become one anyway?