THE PRICE OF FAME
With reality shows coming top in annual TV ratings, fly-on-the-wall programmes are going nowhere. But are they making headlines for all the wrong reasons – and are we enjoying them at the contestants’ expense? WH reports on the dark side of reality TV
The mental health cost of being a reality star
Taking her place on stage to address the 150strong audience that morning, the woman could have been mistaken for a professional public speaker. Dressed in a sharp black suit and crisp white shirt, she proceeded to talk with eloquence and authority before taking questions from the floor and leaving the stage to applause. The woman was Sophie Gradon, contestant on 2016’s iteration of reality dating show Love Island. Three months after sharing her personal story about the dangers of cyberbullying with a room filled with teaching staff, she was found dead at her parents’ house in Northumberland. No one could claim to know what Sophie encountered between that conference in March and her death in June of this year, and as this issue of Women’s Health went to press, an inquest had yet to determine the cause of death. But the mental health challenges Sophie faced after she appeared on the show were well documented. ‘Imagine someone highlighting your deepest insecurity, pointing it out online and having that shared by hundreds of people,’ she told the conference. ‘We became public property overnight. Everyone had an opinion, be it good or bad. On leaving the show, I descended into quite a dark place.’ Reality television has come a long way since a social experiment invaded living rooms in 2000 with the arrival of Big Brother. And while interest in the original Orwellian premise might have waned – Channel 5 has announced that the most recent series of Big Brother will be the last – the public’s fascination with the format hasn’t. The latest social experiment came in the form of Channel 4’s The Circle, in which contestants were only permitted to communicate via a fictional social media platform – the show was an instant hit and Netflix has announced plans to make international versions. And let’s not forget each instalment of Love Island, The X Factor and First Dates that you tune into if only to understand the comments that will fill your office and phone for as long as they’re on the air. But beyond the water-cooler chat, there’s an uncomfortable side to reality television, and it’s one the cameras don’t capture. Sophie isn’t the only former contestant who opened up about her deteriorating mental health in the aftermath of a reality show appearance. Her friend and fellow Love Island contestant Zara Holland has revealed that her experience left her feeling depressed and on medication; earlier this year, Cheska Hull revealed that she left Made In Chelsea after a therapist deemed her unfit to film and that depression and anxiety were the price she paid for reality TV fame. These could be isolated cases, but when you delve into the archives of reality television, mental health challenges faced by former contestants are worryingly plentiful. From Britain’s Got Talent’s Susan Boyle to Big Brother’s Nikki Grahame, some of the most high-profile contestants have endured well-documented struggles both before and after appearing on the shows that turned them into stars. Over in the US, the statistics are scary – 21 reality stars have taken their own lives in the past decade. From the highstress situations cooked up by producers to the reality of reading what people think of you online, is entertainment overshadowing a darker side of reality TV?
While no data currently exists on the rate of mental illness among reality contestants, you only have to consider a person’s motivation for putting themselves in that situation, says media psychologist Dr David Giles. ‘If a scientific study looked at the predictors of psychological breakdown in reality stars, I’d expect the greatest sign to be a person’s mental health profile before they appear on television,’ he says. Part of the problem, he explains, is that reality TV is seen as a relatively low-risk, simple and legitimate route to fame, with people viewing it as a way out of their current situation, which, for whatever reason, isn’t serving them – be it poor prospects, debt or boredom. ‘It’s easy to blame certain shows for producing psychological disturbance, but if you see [being a contestant] as an “easy way out” of your current situation, then you may well be experiencing a mental health issue already, The diagnosed or otherwise.’ And easy it definitely isn’t, says duty of care psychologist Jo Hemmings, who producers call on to assess whether would-be contestants are mentally strong enough to take part. ‘The pressure points vary from show to show, be it a pre-recorded episode edited down to 30 minutes of entertainment or a show like Big Brother, which is at least three weeks cut off from the outside world with cameras on you 24/7,’ says Hemmings. Pressures like limited food (Shipwrecked), stripping naked to be judged by potential love interests (Naked Attraction) and being sleep-deprived for days on end (Shattered). The latter required contestants to compete to see who could stay awake the longest. A second series was never made. In order to assess whether a potential candidate will be able to cope, Hemmings uses something called the Beck Anxiety Inventory, a psychological test that has participants rate their anxiety levels over the past month. But Hemmings admits it’s ‘not a perfect science’, and one former reality contestant told Women’s Health that hopefuls ‘lie through their teeth’ in order to be cast.
But passing your psych test with flying colours and landing a much-coveted spot doesn’t mean you’re equipped for the reality of reality television in 2018. While the Big Brother stars of the 00s could pretty much guarantee a summer in the spotlight before returning to their everyday lives, the vast increase in reality programming has spawned an uplift in contestants – and not everyone will get their 15 minutes, let alone longevity as a celebrity. ‘When I ask people whose career they want to emulate, they tend to say Rylan,’ says Hemmings. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, Rylan Clark-neal’s first reality appearance was on the Sky Living show Signed By Katie Price in 2011. He went on to appear on The X Factor and Celebrity Big Brother before landing a job on This Morning. He became famous for being famous, and such a trajectory is in demand. ‘But what is far more likely to happen is contestants end up floating around in a twilight world,’ continues Hemmings. ‘They don’t want to go back to what they were doing before, but they haven’t seen the fame or success they expected – and there can be a huge sense of failure attached to that.’ The competitive nature of modern-day reality fame means there’s a pressure to be visible – a pressure that can lead contestants to do something they might regret. Dr Giles has studied the changing nature of fame, and while the ways in which contestants stand out from the crowd haven’t changed, the repercussions have. ‘When you look at someone like Big Brother series three contestant Jade Goody, she became famous because of things she said and did during the time she was on television, and that concept hasn’t changed,’ he explains. ‘Only, these days, you have the amplifying effect of social media. Not only are contestants talked about in ways they can’t control, but the public have direct access to them.’ Research into the psychological impact of trolling is still in its infancy – much like the act itself – but you don’t need to be a qualified psychologist to see that knowing exactly what everyone thinks of you is likely to take a toll on your wellbeing. Zara Holland’s story reads like a cautionary tale for the digital age. When she flew to
Mallorca in 2016 to be a contestant on the second series of Love Island, she thought she might have fun. She met a man she felt a connection with and the two of them had consensual sex. While the act itself wasn’t shown on television, Zara and her Love Island castmates revealed that it had happened in ‘morning after’ discussions. Subsequently, she learnt at the same time as viewers that she had been stripped of her ‘Miss Great Britain’ title and, shortly after, she left the villa for good. To say she was unprepared for what happened next is an understatement. ‘They wanted to kill me, come to my house, stab me, wait for me outside work...’ she told the audience at the cyberbullying conference last March. ‘I did nothing wrong. I didn’t bully anyone. I didn’t have an affair. I was a normal girl who went on a TV show at 20 years old… It all got too much for me at one point… If I didn’t get the help then, I don’t know what would have happened...’ You don’t need to have sex on TV to incur the public’s wrath; social media can up the temperature of the nation quicker than you can say Roxanne Pallett. The Emmerdale actress-turned-cbb contestant found herself the subject of a witch hunt earlier this year after accusing fellow housemate Ryan Thomas of deliberately hurting her during a play-fight. Having witnessed the footage, the public sided with Ryan and, by the time Roxanne left the house and was interviewed by Jeremy Vine on his Channel 5 news programme, where he was accused of being too soft, he said he was afraid that she might take her own life. It’s public shaming – the 2018 equivalent of being forced into stocks and having villagers throw rotten fruit at you – and, unsurprisingly, it’s bad for your health. Research into the impact of shame reveals two types: the healthy kind, which instils a humility that will curb the behaviour in question, and an unhealthy kind, which leaves you questioning your identity. And the latter can take a physical toll on your body, as well as your mind.
Such stories are easy to write off as something that happens to other people; people who did, after all, sign up for this. But given the circumstances of reality fame – turning people with a few hundred followers into the most famous people in the country, if only for a matter of weeks – do the people behind the shows have a responsibility to their stars? Yes, according to Ofcom, which points us to the broadcasting code, but while there are sections about fairness and privacy, there is no specific wording about reality television. It means there are no legally enforceable rules that production companies and broadcasters need to comply with. Every industry insider Women’s Health spoke to agreed that there’s a big variation between welfare-driven production companies, which take their responsibility to contestants seriously, and those that prioritise entertainment. Indeed, when we approached the companies behind some of the biggest shows, some were happy to share their approach to duty of care; others didn’t reply. A spokesperson for Love Island told us: ‘All of our islanders are offered psychological support before, during and after their time in the villa. We take our duty of care very seriously and this is always our top priority. We discuss with islanders, before and after the show, how their lives might change and the difficulties they might face.’ One former TV psychologist told us the problems begin with the casting process – she walked away from a show having grown uncomfortable with the way the process was going. Another recalls working for one popular show where the team began to use her psychological assessments to inform the casting process, and not in a good way. Sarah Goodhart believes she was on the receiving end of this. A couple of months after she appeared on the 14th series of Geordie Shore, the 25-year-old make-up artist took her story to Youtube. In an 18-minute video titled The Truth, Sarah
accused the reality television industry of deliberately targeting unstable people for the sake of entertainment. ‘I turned up to an assessment interview mortal drunk because I was so nervous,’ she remembers. ‘I think that appealed to them. I think they thought, “Oh, she’s unhinged, we’ll take her.” I cried a lot during the filming process, at the slightest thing. People thought it was funny and it was part of the storyline. “Sarah’s such a miserable bitch.” I don’t understand why nobody stopped and thought: “Why the fuck is this girl crying every night?”’ In hindsight, Sarah believes she was suffering from depression during filming. But it was after the show aired and the reality of life afterwards revealed itself, that her mental health really deteriorated. ‘My anxiety worsened to the point where I was having a panic attack every day. I did the odd Instagram thing that my agency would get me, but it wasn’t huge money. And I felt too embarrassed to go back to work. After I made the video, Sophie [Gradon] reached out to say she could relate to what I was saying and that there’s no shame in returning to work and stuff. She said that she was struggling. And I think there will be more people who take their lives because they struggle to deal with the pressure and the aftermath.’ A spokesperson for Geordie Shore told WH: ‘Contributors’ welfare is of paramount importance to us. We work alongside independent medical professionals to ensure an appropriate support structure is in place prior to filming and throughout. All contributors are additionally offered support post-filming if it is required.’ But what about you, and the millions more tweeting and talking about these contestants? Can you, hand on heart, say that you would keep on watching without the drama that you’ve come to expect from your favourite reality shows? Former TV producer Mandy Saligari calls your bluff. ‘In the age of streaming services, competition is fierce and the public demand storylines and action with ever more intense television,’ she explains. Now a Harley Street therapist, Saligari has treated stars both privately and not-so-privately on the Channel 5 series Celebrities In Therapy, including Nikki Grahame, Marnie Simpson (Geordie Shore) and Lauren Goodger (TOWIE). ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with [creating drama], as long as the tools of your trade – your stars – are fully supported,’ she says. ‘Reality stars are the production company’s product, their staff, and like any company they have to take responsibility for waking them up to the reality of what they’re walking into.’ Increasingly, this is what’s happening, reassures Hemmings, who is preparing to speak to an audience of television executives at the British Psychological Society on the issue. ‘I’m finding that more companies are using assessments and/or duty of care psychologists at some level,’ she explains. ‘I want to stress to them how important the welfare of their participants is and how they can ensure that they protect them while not compromising on entertainment value or viewing figures. It’s often unfortunate incidents that highlight this need, but, nevertheless, it does seem to be moving in the right direction.’ As for you, the viewer? While no one is telling you to switch off your favourite shows, Sarah asks that you become more discerning in the way you consume reality television. ‘It’s a ruthless industry. The more drama created, the bigger the pay cheque for all involved. That is reality television, that’s never going to change,’ she says. ‘What we can change is the viewer’s response. I want viewers to be more vigilant, to stop taking things at face value. And realise just because someone’s on TV doesn’t mean they’re automatically up for discussion and it won’t affect them. Remember, they’re someone’s sister, daughter, friend. They’re a person, just like you.’