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

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - words NIKKI OS­MAN and SO­PHIE GOD­DARD im­age ma­nip­u­la­tion COLIN BEA­GLEY

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.’

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