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The support system among Black reality TV stars who make history

Stars such as ‘Big Brother’ winner Taylor Hale and ‘Bachelorette’ lead Rachel Lindsay formed a bond after becoming reality show ‘firsts’

Photo illustration of reality tv star Taylor Hale
Taylor Hale, the first Black woman to win CBS's "Big Brother" reality show, has had help as she navigates the next phase of her career. (Washington Post illustratin; Shawn Laws O’Neil/CBS)
12 min

In the moments after Taylor Hale won “Big Brother,” confetti rained down, the studio audience started screaming and her castmates wrapped her in a giant hug. Before she could even process that she had just earned $800,000 in prize money, the producers brought out her mother and grandmother, whom she had not seen since she entered the “Big Brother” house three months earlier to compete on the show and be sequestered from the outside world.

“You have over 100,000 followers on Instagram! All of these famous reality stars are tweeting about you! You won an award on E!,” her mother called out before Hale was whisked away to do interviews and officially kick off a new chapter as a newly minted reality TV celebrity. And also, a historic one: Hale was the first Black woman to win the long-running CBS reality competition series, which has been on the air since 2000.

So not only was Hale’s life suddenly a whirlwind of opportunities, but she also had to navigate a post-“Big Brother” path that no one had traversed before. Black reality TV stars have been key to defining the genre for the past two decades, but they continue to face challenges that their White counterparts do not, including racism, microaggressions by castmates and unflattering edits by producers that play into cruel stereotypes. Then, there’s life after the finale, where their portrayal on the show can affect how they’re treated back in the world — particularly on social media — as well as the possibilities for business deals and future projects.

“It’s so weird saying ‘making history.’ … I won a TV show. I’m painfully realistic here,” Hale, 28, said during a recent interview in Los Angeles, where she has traveled to frequently in the past seven months as she plots her future, ideally in the entertainment news world. “But when you make history like that, you kind of don’t really know where to turn.”

But as Hale has tried to find her way through this complicated space, she has been relieved to discover one of the bright spots: the network of Black reality TV contestants who have found one another over the years, and whom she can rely on for support in the surreal post-show world. They get what she’s going through, because they went through it themselves.

One reality TV alum who has been especially helpful for Hale is Rachel Lindsay, the Texas attorney who made history of her own in 2017 as the first Black star of “The Bachelorette.” She parlayed her time on the show into becoming a TV personality, “Extra” correspondent, podcaster and author. The impetus for Hale’s Los Angeles trip was to attend the launch party for Lindsay’s new book.

“Rachel has just been so crucial in helping me build a good team: one that’s not taking advantage of me, one that understands the intricacies of what I need as a Black woman in L.A.,” Hale said. “It shows me how important it is that we build this network, a sisterhood.”

She noted that the community goes even further than just sisterhood, because the person who connected them was attorney Xavier Prather, who also made history a year before Hale as the first Black winner of “Big Brother,” and happened to know Lindsay from law school. (“I consider Rachel my reality TV big sister, so I wanted Taylor to be able to have that person as well,” said Prather, 28.)

“It’s all of us protecting each other,” Hale said. “And the way that Rachel is taking care of me and other people like me, from what I’ve heard — it makes me excited to be somebody else’s Rachel one day.”

Lindsay, 38, remembers what it was like to walk off a reality show when all of a sudden you’re the hottest new star of the moment. But it was an isolating experience as the first Black lead of ABC’s “The Bachelorette,” she recalled; even though she was added to a very helpful group chat of former Bachelorettes, no one could completely understand her experience.

Although it’s important for women to support women, Lindsay said, it goes even deeper with Black women supporting Black women, when “a lot of times you don’t see that reaffirmed in public.”

“This is somebody who is a first, and she’s made history in a very similar way that I did,” Lindsay said in a phone interview, speaking about Hale. “So it was a natural ‘If you need me, I’m here’-type situation.”

Lindsay said she cautioned Hale that it’s important to have a focus on what you want to do next and to not get distracted by low-hanging fruit, such as being cast on another reality show or taking questionable product sponsorships. She also told Hale that if she wanted to stay in the entertainment world, it was critical to have a trustworthy team — manager, publicist, lawyer — when you don’t know how people will perceive you when you’re coming off the show.

“It’s also a little different when we navigate this world separate from our White counterparts who are on very similar shows. The path is a little easier for them, because it’s been done before,” Lindsay said. “People are more accepting of them; they understand those type of leads. They get it, whereas we’re navigating new territory. You need somebody to help you. … That can be a very lonely place to be.”

Lindsay publicly cut ties with the Bachelor franchise two years ago after reaching a breaking point over how the series dealt with its many race issues. But she said she’s always open to talking to people of color who are on the show and seeking advice, and tells them, “If you want to reach out to me, I’m there.”

“We’re like our own sorority and fraternity within the franchise,” Lindsay said.

In one of the early days of “Big Brother” Season 24, Hale strolled through the house in a supremely sparkly one-shoulder bodysuit that she mentioned she brought in case she made it to finale night. Her castmates encouraged her to show it off: “Wooooo!” they cheered, as Hale, a personal stylist and recent Miss Michigan USA winner, showed off her patented pageant walk. They all laughed and seemed as if they were having a great time, but behind her back, some of those same castmates were making fun of her, cackling as they imitated her walk and calling her confidence “aggressive.”

Hale’s dynamic personality made her an early fan favorite, but she was immediately targeted for eviction and was bad-mouthed among the houseguests, for no real apparent reason other than she just rubbed some people the wrong way. When Hale was reduced to tears multiple times, social media lit up with messages from enraged viewers. Prather tweeted his disgust: “Members of the black community (especially black women) and other people of color stand no chance in the Big Brother House due to the perpetuation of micro-aggressions and unconscious biases which plague our society.”

Hale had never even watched “Big Brother” — a “social experiment” where 16 people live in a house and vote each other out one by one — until summer 2021. The internet was buzzing about “the Cookout,” the now-legendary alliance of six Black contestants who shared one goal: Finally, after 23 seasons, get a Black “Big Brother” player to victory. The Cookout triumphed, with Prather being named the champion. Hale was thrilled to see it, especially considering “Big Brother” typically only permeated her social media feeds when a contestant said something racist, which has happened repeatedly over the years.

After lots of twists and turns and controversy during her season (one contestant, paranoid about the possibility of another Cookout, was voted out when the house found out he tried to form an all-White alliance), Hale made it to the final two with Monte Taylor.

So, on finale night, Hale stood in that sparkling jumpsuit — the same one people had mocked — and made a soon-to-be-viral speech about resiliency. “I have overcome so much in this game, and I have come to understand that I am not a shield, I am a sword. I am not a victim, I am a victor,” she said, adding that she “continued to fight, because like so many other women in the world, that is what we have to do to get to the end.”

In the end, she won by a final vote of 8-1 from a jury of her castmates and became the first contestant to win the $750,000 grand prize as well as the $50,000 fan-voted “America’s Favorite Player.” When Hale powered up her phone, her social media accounts were melting down with the number of follows, direct messages and supportive hashtags from her new fan base, called the #HaleRaisers, plus the news that something called the E! TV Scoop Awards had already deemed her “Favorite Reality Star.”

Following Lindsay’s recommendations, Hale hired a PR team and made the media rounds. She landed deals with fashion and beauty brands, as well as Lay’s (it was a running joke in the house about how often she snacked on its chips) and Virgin Voyages cruises. She has a lifestyle website in the works and is developing a podcast, and she hopes to fulfill her lifelong dream of working in entertainment news.

“I’m pushing against the idea that I had as a viewer, that you are only as big as the TV show that you are on,” Hale said. “Now I have an opportunity to show people that your dreams don’t have to be limited.”

Yet it has been challenging to be in the public eye, where many people have opinions on her life, still debate the choices she made on “Big Brother” and weigh in on her post-show relationship with castmate Joseph Abdin, whom she dated for about six months.

“I’ve been told, especially with Black women on reality TV, … when people put you so high on a pedestal, you have so much further to fall than anybody else,” she said. “And particularly with ‘Big Brother,’ the way that people feel ownership or personally invested in your success — if you don’t do the thing the way that they want you to do it, they’ll turn on you very quickly.”

In that sense, Hale has been grateful for her bond with the Cookout members, who know what it’s like to make “Big Brother” history and have thousands of internet strangers find you polarizing. One of the best parts of the Cookout, Hale said, is that all six members — Prather, Azah Awasum, Tiffany Mitchell, Hannah Chaddha, Derek Frazier and Kyland Young — are so different that she can rely on them for advice on varying topics, such as mental health and taxes. “I almost can’t find the words for how they’ve had such an impact,” she said.

Awasum, 31, said that although the Cookout has had its ups and downs, its members remain on an active group chat. In addition, she has become friends with people from other shows, such as J’Tia Hart of “Survivor,” who created the Soul Survivors Organization in 2020 with Black “Survivor” alums and lobbied CBS for more diversity. (The network later announced that its reality shows would be required to have at least half the cast be Black, Indigenous or people of color.)

Awasum is grateful to have met Hart, who gave her some valuable wisdom about life after the show. Awasum noticed that even though the Cookout made history, she had more trouble than her other castmates finding a brand agency to represent her.

“It was still kind of hard for us to break in,” she said, and was inspired by words that Hart told her: “If you’re not able to find a path, then create your own and use your community. And you can get to that place.” Now, Awasum has representation and worked on many campaigns, as well as a recipe collection and live event series, “House Chops,” that reflects her Cameroonian American background. Hart said it has been amazing to form connections with TV alums such as Awasum and fellow “Survivor” player Cirie Fields, “Black women who are successful and who are strivers, because that’s the type of people they put on reality shows.”

These conversations, Hart said, “are actually a form of therapy, because there’s not many people you can talk about this actual subject with.”

And now, as Hale builds her post-“Big Brother” career, she wants to pay it forward. When she saw the news that Charity Lawson, 27, was announced as the next star of “The Bachelorette” (the third Black woman to be the lead), she was immediately worried. She saw Lawson being described as “so graceful, so poised, so kind,” coded words that were similar to how Hale herself is often described — but now she knows that fanbases can sometimes turn on you if they think you don’t display those qualities on TV.

“That set off a red flag for me: Wrap your arms around this girl, because who knows what happens when this show airs and how she’ll be perceived after,” Hale said. So she sent Lawson a direct message on Instagram — and said if she needs her after the show, she’ll be there.