First, there were the tabloid headlines this summer: Former Playboy mansion resident and “Girls Next Door” star Kendra Wilkinson discovered her husband, former NFL player Hank Baskett, may have cheated on her with a transsexual model. Then, the sordid details tumbling out in an avalanche of gossip mag stories speculating whether Wilkinson would get a divorce. After that, the predictable In Touch Weekly interview with the Other Woman, who spilled more dirt.
Typical timeline for a celebrity affair scandal, but this one has a special twist: There’s a reality show chronicling every moment of the horror for anyone’s viewing pleasure. WE tv’s “Kendra on Top,” currently in its third season, kept the cameras rolling through all of this. Rumor is the couple will next make a stop on the network’s “Marriage Boot Camp” to dissect their shattered relationship.
And with that, we feel compelled to offer a plea to Wilkinson and Baskett: Please stop. Please stop showing your family falling apart on reality TV.
Fifteen years into the American reality TV phenomenon, this one really does feel like a sad new low of personal exploitation, particularly as two small children (four-year-old “Little Hank” and five-month-old baby girl Alijah) are also frequently featured on camera. They don’t know what’s going on, but someday they will. It’s stomach-turning to think about the effect this will have on them down the line.
Both Wilkinson and Baskett serve as co-executive producers on the series, which debuted in early October and airs back-to-back episodes on Friday nights. Presumably, that means they have a choice about what is aired. But it seems there was never a question about halting production to deal with a family crisis.
“The producers came to me, and were hugging and holding me. They asked, ‘Do you want to film this?'” Wilkinson told People magazine. “I said, ‘Bring the cameras to me. . . I can’t be alone right now.'”
This isn’t shocking, as Wilkinson has lived the last decade on reality television — and been financially dependent on it. After moving into the Playboy mansion at 18 as one of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends, she starred in E!’s hit “The Girls Next Door” (2005) with other Hef housemates Holly Madison and Bridget Marquardt. Wilkinson was the breakout star. When she moved out of the mansion and started dating Baskett, producers gave her a spin-off, “Kendra” (2009), lasting four seasons. When it was canceled, she went straight to WE tv in summer 2012.
Wilkinson has never been shy about showing personal details on television. This season, Baskett isn’t even around for the first few episodes, so it’s officially the Kendra show. The Season 3 premiere opens with Wilkinson bawling hysterically in her living room this past June, falling on the floor wracked with sobs as an alarmed friend wraps her in a hug. It’s the kind of scene you cringe away from because it feels so, so private. Then you remember she invited the cameras into her home.
Weeping, Wilkinson catches everyone up: She recently got a call from her agent saying there was a rumor that Baskett cheated on her with a transsexual woman in the spring, when Wilkinson was eight months pregnant with their daughter. Tabloids were going to run the story. “Usually if they run something it means they have evidence,” Wilkinson explains to her friend. “Because tabloids don’t want to get sued anymore.”
The trauma is painstakingly recreated for a viewing audience, from her friend’s obviously-prompted questions providing exposition (“Where’s Hank?” “How much truth do you know?” “You think he had sex with a transsexual?”), to the ominous flashback scenes establishing emotional stakes: A very pregnant Wilkinson snuggles in bed with Baskett. “You’re not over me yet after having two kids?” she asks. “Babe, we could have 20 kids and I’d never be over you,” he assures her.
Cut to: Back to present day, as Wilkinson grieves and speculates about why Baskett could have allegedly cheated: Was it because of her pregnancy, or was she too hormonal? “What have I done for someone to hate me so much?” she tearfully wonders.
The next few episodes are similar. It would be impressive editing work building a gripping story if not for the fact that, oh right, it’s actually someone’s life going up in flames. We see Wilkinson rehashing what went wrong, and if Baskett really cheated, and what she’s going to do. Her mother, with whom she has a famously difficult relationship — previously captured on camera — arrives to help. There are ridiculous dramatic segments with the paparazzi that appear staged, including one where she arrives at her lawyer’s office and cameramen are staked out in front of the random office building. (Hmm, wonder who tipped them off?)
Of course, everyone keeps couching the cheating as Hank’s “alleged” affair, even as Wilkinson flushes her ring down the toilet and throws their wedding album in the pool. Why doesn’t Wilkinson talk to him immediately to find out what happened? Well, that’s saved for a cliffhanger at the end of the third episode: Hank arrives home — he fled to his hometown in New Mexico when the allegations first surfaced — and there’s a brutally emotional fight as he sits sobbing on the sofa, denying everything and promising he can clear his name. (Although In Touch Weekly warns that on the upcoming “Marriage Boot Camp,” he fails a lie detector test. Oops.)
Why would anyone put their family through this? Dollar signs would be the obvious answer. Wilkinson has talked openly about needing financial security since Baskett left the NFL, and they make a reported $15,000 per episode for “Kendra on Top.” In one scene, Wilkinson asks her manager about possible endorsements she had lined up (a weight loss campaign, skin care line) and rages that Baskett’s affair may jeopardize all of that. The fact that the deals could also be damaged by airing all this dirty laundry on TV apparently does not occur to her.
In the same meeting, Wilkinson’s manager tells her that her kids should be the first priority, which really hits home the saddest part of the spectacle. Adorable four-year-old Hank is very shy around the cameras, though he obviously doesn’t have a choice in the matter. Wilkinson even ties the scandal to Alijah’s six-week check-up, pointedly asking the pediatrician if newborn babies can sense stress. The doctor says yes.
The whole thing gets more tragic by the minute and ultimately rings familiar to “True Tori,” Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott’s recent Lifetime reality series that chronicled the aftermath of McDermott’s stay in rehab following an affair. Jezebel laid out masterful evidence that the publicity-hungry couple created the scandal to help land the show. (Spelling and McDermott insist it was all real.)
Here’s hoping that Wilkinson and Baskett don’t elevate the dramatics any further — you can’t help but feel sorry for everyone involved. WE tv boasted that a million people watched the premiere earlier this month, a series high for the show. But closer to 750,000 viewers tuned in to the episodes last Friday, proving that maybe not everyone wants to watch a devastating family event that should be resolved without a camera in sight.