my mom is watching TV in the kitchen, my dad is at work. The house is quiet. I rate: The TV roars from the kitchen. My mother will be there for a while. I switch channels. There is a naked woman on the screen, covered in clay, pressing herself against a wall. I’m not supposed to look at this. I glance nervously at the kitchen door and turn the volume down. Her lips move, but the words are inaudible. Now more people are going naked and rubbing clay on breasts, thighs and genitals. They jump up and down and cheer. They flatten themselves against the wall like flies on a windshield. I crawl closer to the TV. My chest rises and falls with the shallow breaths of someone so grounded they forget to breathe. I am 11 years old watching a Big Brother pottery making in the year 2000 spiral out of control. My two-decade love affair with reality TV is about to begin.
Reality TV has been a constant companion all my 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 dross: Newlyweds, I’d Do Anything, Wife Swap. The Pop Idol finale between Gareth Gates and Will Young was as seismic an event in my schoolyard as 9/11 or Diana’s death.
In adulthood, reality TV made bad decisions. When I was 21, I dyed my hair the same cherry red as Cheryl Cole’s when she was an X Factor judge. I ended up sobbing at the hairdresser the next day and had it taken off. My twenties were lost to Keeping Up With the Kardashians, as I watched Kim ascend to the pinnacle of reality TV fame in snakeskin boots and a Michael Kors handbag. I bought false eyelashes to look like these glamorous sisters with raven black hair. Now in my thirties, I drink The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills like a lab rat addicted to sugar water. Watching the housewives scream at each other in a Hollywood Hills mansion has a wonderfully calming quality. I love to lay in the bath after a long day and watch them fight.
So when I started researching my upcoming BBC Radio 4 podcast Unreal, co-written and presented with journalist Pandora Sykes, I thought I knew how the story would turn out. I provided a light-hearted summary of my favorite shows, accompanied by deep dives into unsolved questions that linger to this day. (Like: Did Lauren Conrad of The Hills really have a sex tape, or did her frenemy Heidi Montag leak the rumor to generate a storyline? Or: What became of the contestants carved out by surgeons in the gruesome makeover show The Swan? And is the Kardashian Kurse to blame for the misfortune that happens to every adult with an XY chromosome who enters their orbit?)
But what emerged was a dramatically different story. Reality TV has never been more critical than other formats, despite its commercial success and innovative production values. When The Only Way is Essex defeated Sherlock and Downton Abbey to win a Bafta in 2011, cameras flashed to Sherlock actor Martin Freeman’s expression of silent consternation. In a review of Keeping Up With the Kardashians when it launched in 2007, the New York Times announced that it was about “desperate women climbing to the margins of fame.” Fifteen years later, billionaire Prison Reform activist Kim Kardashian and former Keeping Up executive producer Farnaz Farjam told me when we spoke that she wouldn’t rule out a Kardashian candidacy for elected office. If fellow reality star Donald Trump can do it, why can’t Kim? Her 299 million Instagram followers would certainly help.
I suspect this mocking condescension toward reality TV is part class-based, part gender. Reality TV is a demotic form of entertainment – no opera lorgnettes here! – and it has given many working-class people their way into the entertainment industry. Jade Goody was the first, of course, but also 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 led by female executives (such as Farjam and Sarah Dillistone who worked on Towie and Made in Chelsea), or populated predominantly by women (such as the world-conquering Real Housewives franchise, with 32 spin-offs and counting). I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve had to justify my zeal for reality TV to guys who don’t like seeing people cycling very fast in circles all day long.
How do I like reality TV? Let me count the ways. I like the humor: Amy Childs vajazzling Sam Faiers with a Carry On wink. Curtis Pritchard claims he really, really wants to make coffee in the morning for his fellow Love Islanders to hug the girl he’s dating. Celebrity Big Brother’s roommates are confused and think David Gest is dead. I love the way the Real Housewives give space to women in their 50s and 60s—who are so typically walking away from our screens—and allow them 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 reality TV can convey serious messages to the general public. After Jade Goody was diagnosed with cervical cancer in August 2008, while appearing on Big Brother India, another 400,000 women attended their screening appointments.
But in recent years I’ve started to have conflicting feelings about my passion for the genre. In 2020, information began to leak about the effects of fame on The X Factor contestants. Former contestant Misha B said she felt suicidal after appearing on the show, especially after Judge Tulisa suggested she was a bully. Rebecca Ferguson, who came in second in 2010, said that after she left the program, she was forced to continue working on her music career while she suffered a miscarriage. “For those who say you knew what you were getting into! I almost died promoting music for all of you to listen to! No definitely not! ever! Sign up there in a million years!” Ferguson wrote on Twitter. The unstoppably bouffant-haired twins Jedward came on the scene saying that their “biggest regret in life was not telling the judges on X Factor to fuck off”, and that every contestant was a “slave” of the show who got paid “zero” while producers made millions. Suddenly all those Saturday nights I stayed in, humming along to a pre-fame Little Mix, struck different.
Love Island presenter Caroline Flack also passed away in 2020. Her suicide was the fourth suicide associated with the show: Two ex-contestants and an ex-contestant’s boyfriend had also committed suicide in recent years. Seeing last year’s group of young, genetically blessed islanders tanning by the pool made me feel complicit in something dark. My suspicions about the damaging effects of post-Love Island influencer fame were confirmed when I interviewed 2021 contestant Jake Cornish for the podcast. Trolls had threatened to kill him in front of his niece. Cornish was all manly roars—he was untouched, he insisted—but not everyone has such thick skin, and they shouldn’t. What happens to the contestants who can’t handle this sudden, sharp fame?
There are no two ways: creating an entertaining reality TV show, and an ethical one, can be incompatible goals. Historically, the public wanted conflict, even if this sometimes came at the expense of the participants’ well-being and personal safety. (Who can forget the now infamous “Fight Night” in Big Brother 5, which ended with security teams having to separate the warring housemates?). Frankenstein’s editing techniques make it possible to string together conversations that were never said. Off-camera producers manipulate participants like spinning puppets. (It’s worth remembering that Fight Night only happened because Big Brother producers showed roommates images of other roommates talking about them, and doused them with alcohol. Still, the episode drew great ratings: so in producer terms. it was a win.)
But there is positive evidence that these pillars of exploitation are being wiped out by a modern, socially conscious audience. On Love Island last year, a record number of complaints were made to Ofcom, who found Faye Winter’s outburst of force against roommate Teddy Soares was justifiably unacceptable. Aftercare has been beefed up on all the major reality shows, though I wonder if there’s a limit to what even the strictest wellness package can achieve against the stinking roar of social media. And there’s some indication that audiences may be losing their taste for conflict as a new crop of friendlier reality TV shows rise in the ratings, like the delightfully deranged The Masked Singer.
I express all my criticism with love. I have no more desire to see reality TV crumble than I have to stop the spring rains or the blooming of flowers. How could I despise the wonderful home that has brought me so much joy? But a few structural changes wouldn’t hurt. ethical producers; stricter controls before filming; less lustful exploitation. I selfishly hope these changes are made, and that for years to come you’ll still find me curled up in the reality TV Parthenon, watching the Housewives bicker under the large marble roof.
Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV airs May 17 on BBC Sounds†
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com† In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the emergency response service lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at: befrienders.org