Nearly two decades after the reality TV craze took a firm grasp on our culture, viewers are really good at pretending the stars of these shows are only characters.
Sure, we watch Lifetime’s revealing “UnReal” and skim juicy tell-all books and read about how reality TV is really made. But when we see cast members onscreen in outrageous situations (with a heavy dose of editing, of course), it’s so easy to forget that these are actual humans.
However, this summer, several incidents have made this fact increasingly difficult to ignore. In the past month, viewers have been forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about reality television as ugliness behind the scenes spilled over into real life, giving everyone a rare glimpse at what can happen to people’s psyches when they agree to live on camera.
There’s no better example than Rob Kardashian, the 30-year-old reality star who has become a tragic figure of his reality TV-famous family. Struggling with his own demons and serious health problems, he once shunned the cameras on the “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” franchise, only to reverse course last year and land his own spinoff with his fiancee, Blac Chyna. “Rob & Chyna” was a painful viewing experience that displayed all of the couple’s problems. The first season ended with the birth of their baby girl and coincided with Kardashian claiming on social media that Chyna cheated on him and had taken the baby away. She denied this and urged him to get help.
Regardless, E! renewed the show for a second season, though it’s reportedly in jeopardy given that they broke up earlier this year. (E! did not return a request for comment.) On Wednesday, Kardashian had a stunning meltdown on Twitter and Instagram in which he posted nude images of Chyna, published a video of her kissing another man, accused her of drug use and many more lurid claims. It was deeply sad and seemed primed for a wide audience — providing a disturbing example of what could happen if you’re used to living your life as the world watches.
Even people with just a taste of fame can be affected. Last week, “Big Brother” cast member Megan Lowder suddenly disappeared from the show after two episodes. The 28-year-old military member trained in the Middle East as a Navy interrogator. “I was taught to lie, manipulate and get into people’s heads,” she said in the first episode. “So I think I’ll have things handled in the ‘Big Brother’ house.”
On the long-running competition series, which features 16 people in a house where they vote each other out week by week, Lowder was immediately put up on the block for eviction because, as one of the contestants stated, “I just don’t like you that much.” Later, Lowder thought she heard another contestant call an Asian woman “panda”; it was a misunderstanding that led to a blow-up fight.
Hours later, Lowder was gone because of a “personal matter”; contestants almost never leave voluntarily. Afterward, she posted a video online and explained: “When I was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, I was sexually assaulted and I got really bad PTSD from it,” she said. “So in the house … I had a lot of guys yelling at me and attacking me and it started really affecting me and making my anxiety severe and I was starting to get physically ill.”
Lowder’s statement was a stark reminder that, even though all reality contestants go through a psychological vetting process, you never know what will trigger something under the surface when you’re thrown on national TV — and a show that seems like all fun and games is always one step away from going horribly awry.
Reality TV fans saw that lesson firsthand only weeks earlier, in mid-June, when E! posted a short item that ABC’s hit “Bachelor in Paradise” had abruptly halted production because of alleged “misconduct” on set. In the following days, conflicting details leaked out at a dizzying pace, revolving around an incident in the pool between contestants Corinne Olympios and DeMario Jackson. People magazine reported that the show allegedly filmed “a drunk sexual encounter with a female contestant who may have been too intoxicated to consent.”
Olympios hired a lawyer and said she was seeking therapy to “deal with the physical and emotional trauma stemming from that evening.” Jackson said he did nothing wrong and that his character was being assassinated; he promised “swift legal action” against “false claims and malicious allegations.”
About 10 days later, the studio, Warner Bros., said footage of the incident revealed no misconduct had taken place — production has since resumed, and producers noted they would implement changes to the show’s “policies and procedures” for safety. “Paradise” is notably all about drinking and hookups, and the most ridiculous of the “Bachelor” franchise, with many self-aware winks to viewers. Can it still be fun to watch?
Author and New York Times columnist Jennifer Weiner, once a prolific “Bachelor” live-tweeter, wrote that the only surprising element of the situation is that it took so many years to happen, as “We always want more drama, more sex, more fights, more tears” — but only to a point. Weiner wrote:
There’s an implicit bargain that gets made at the start of every reality show’s season. We want our stars to suffer, and we’ll watch them drop 30 pounds while subsisting on a mostly rice diet on ‘Survivor.’ We do not, however, want to watch them fall into the campfire and sustain second-degree burns. We want steamy hookups, drunken antics and tearful regret. We do not want to be faced with a woman saying she was too intoxicated to consent to sexual activities.
Recently, after ABC announced that “Bachelor in Paradise” was back on, Olympios (who will not be returning) said: “My team’s investigation into this matter has now been completed to my satisfaction. I am also happy about the changes that have been made to the production of ‘Bachelor In Paradise.’ ”
Changes might be in place, but viewers are still left with the lingering memory of why they needed to happen.