This is the true story…
It’s been 25 years since The Real World debuted on MTV and unwittingly launched an entire TV genre. Hundreds of young people have participated in the televised social experiment that claims to “find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” The on-screen flirtations, fights, and friendships among the cast members create a sense of intimacy with the audience, but little is discussed about what happens to the shows’ “stars” when the cameras stop rolling.
It would be easy to imagine that after participating on a reality show, one either returns to television via all-star spin-offs like the Challenge or simply resumes their “normal” life. A recent article in the New York Times about Real World: New Orleans alum Preston Roberson-Charles, however, highlights the difficulties cast members can face after filming. After some of his particularly unflattering behavior made air, he received a lot of negative feedback — but more importantly, his mistakes were now searchable online. The digital footprint of his time on the show made it almost impossible for him to find a job, leaving him homeless for two years. While an extreme example, his story did not surprise me; as a former cast member on the MTV reality show circuit, I have seen dozens of participants experience similar consequences after their time in the spotlight.
At 18 years old, I was cast on The Real World’s sister show, Road Rules, and ultimately participated in seven seasons of MTV reality programs. For me, a white, perky blonde, the show provided an income, adventure, and (mostly) positive attention. Most of my seasons were filmed before the rise of social media, and I largely avoided being GIFed and memed. Participants who are portrayed as aggressive, promiscuous, or villainous, however, can struggle upon returning to their life, leaving them caught in the strange state of being semi-famous, yet alone. And people who lack financial resources or misbehave on the show (at the not-so-subtle behest of producers) are often forced to choose between entering the cycle of reality appearances or risk financial devastation. We don’t hear the stories of reality TV trauma, though, unless they end up in a “Where Are They Now?” listicle or their mugshot or death announcement makes it onto TMZ.
Some cast members experience financial woes, health issues, professional frustrations, and substance abuse relating to their appearance on television, and are left with few resources to handle the challenges (no pun intended). This is particularly true for people of color, LGBT folks, and women on the shows who are often portrayed as accessories to the main event, while the white, straight, cis men are heralded as the shows’ unofficial heroes and mascots.
The mythology of reality tv begins with Mary-Ellis Bunim, the executive producer of soap operas like As the World Turns, teaming up with news producer Jon Murray who pitched a documentary-style program by promising, “[Producers] were not going to step in. We will chronicle what happens to [the cast].” The mix of soap opera drama with documentary voyeurism was a hit.
The Real World made a name for itself as a groundbreaking documentary series, both in its inclusion of people from underrepresented groups and its unflinching portrayal of controversial subjects including abortion, gay rights, and racism. The early seasons included the show’s signature drama, but seemed to have a higher cultural purpose.The creation of its competition spinoff coupled with the mainstream success of Survivor and other series changed the tone and direction of the franchise. Producers felt the pressure, and cast members paid the price.
Producers control every aspect of the filming environment, and when they perceive a lull in the action, they accuse us of being boring and “not making the most of the experience” — which is code for: “Do something interesting.” These implicit directives lead to fights, hookups, and bullying among the cast.
When placed in an environment where bad behavior is incentivized, cast members often exhibit unsavory behavior, and the magic of editing exaggerates the high-intensity personalities. If the behavior is scandalous enough there can be consequences in terms of professional viability and personal relationships in real life, but those concerns seem insignificant from inside the bubble. Additionally, cast members receive mixed signals regarding their behavior. Contracts include punishments for violence, yet the physical and verbal fights that arise are used to promote the show. Furthermore, violent cast members are often invited to return for subsequent seasons. What is punished in the moment is often rewarded in the long run.
Much of the drama, violence, and sexual activity on The Real World and The Challenge results from heavy on-set alcohol consumption. Producers forbid the use of recreational items like books, phones, computers, playing cards, and crossword puzzles, but they provide virtually unlimited amounts of alcohol, which creates a frat-house atmosphere that naturally acts as a lubricant for hookups and other shocking antics. This party lifestyle isn’t restricted to the house, however, as high-profile cast members are sometimes paid thousands of dollars to do “bar and club appearances” after their show airs.
Nate Blackburn, who appeared on The Real World: Seattle, claims his wild on-camera persona as the life-of-the party bled into his real life. He felt pressure from fans to be an exaggerated version of himself off the air, which led him into years of drug addiction and alcoholism. “Drinking and being funny and just being wild was my identity from of the show, and people knew that,” Blackburn says. He also describes a deep insecurity that he would hide with drugs and alcohol. “I felt like if people really knew who I was, they wouldn’t like me…so I had to put on that mask.” Blackburn eventually got clean, and now works full-time helping other people get sober.
Not all cast members are as lucky as Blackburn, however, as the deaths of Joey Kovar (The Real World: Hollywood) and Ryan Knight (The Real World: New Orleans) demonstrate. Kovar told the Chicago Tribune that part of the reason he was cast on the show was because of his “honesty about using drugs and partying,” which raises questions about the ethics of such a casting decision. Knight also struggled with addiction, and ultimately died of an accidental overdose after filming Season 26 of the Challenge. According to a source quoted in the Boston Herald, ‘“He felt stuck, like he was just waiting for the next Challenge.”’
The system of recycling the cast members like Knight who provide the best (and most scandalous) storylines encourages the individuals with the fewest resources in real life to misbehave as a means of job security. The “all-star” re-casting process occurs on numerous competitive reality shows like Survivor, The Bachelor, Top Chef, and RuPaul’s Drag Race, and if participants see reality television as their only potential income, they are more likely to behave in a way that will ensure future invitations. That behavior is also what makes it more difficult for them to thrive in the (real) real world, creating a vicious cycle.
The producers of these shows are also under pressure to stand out in an ever-growing sea of entertainment (reality tv and otherwise), so they must continuously up the ante to ensure “the most dramatic rose ceremony ever” or “the most difficult final challenge.” To create drama, producers often push cast members to their physical and emotional breaking point.
The physical challenges, while exhilarating and potentially financially rewarding, have their drawbacks, and they leave many participants with injuries that extend beyond filming. In the last few Challenge seasons alone there have been broken bones, a ruptured spleen, dislocated fingers, and one person was knocked unconscious, fell 30 feet into water, and was filmed floating lifeless until he was pulled out and taken to the hospital (this was used as a promotional clip for several weeks before airing). “Minor” injuries are treated with ibuprofen and eyerolls from some producers who refer to contestants who request care as “high maintenance.” The “perfect” injury requires an ambulance (great for on-air suspense), but doesn’t result in a lawsuit or death. Less severe injuries interfere with production, but don’t provide story.
One participant who experienced a life-changing injury was Tim Beggy, who originally appeared on the second season of Road Rules and returned for several seasons of the Challenge. Beggy was an accomplished marathoner, triathlete, and Ironman competitor. That all ended, however, after a Challenge elimination round gone wrong. He was placed in a enclosed triple-pane glass box suspended in the air and, to win that week’s challenge, had to punch his way out faster than his opponent. Beggy explains, “I don’t believe the game was tested properly…because as the broken glass piled up, it chewed through the ‘protective’ gear, and turned my knees and patellar tendons into hamburger meat. For up to a year later, I would get large bumps on my knees, pop them, and glass would come out. I went from a guy running marathons to the old man limping from one ill-fated Inferno.”
For many, however, the worst pain is not physical, with many cast members experiencing emotional and psychological difficulties related to their time on television. I am among the many who was diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety due to my time on the show and a violent encounter with a cast member off-set. My psychologist equated the experience of filming the show to the Stanford Prison Experiment, which explored questions of power, torture, and relationships using unethical means. But because television shows are under no obligation to be ethical, the methodology of their social experiment is designed to create the same effects without concern for the well-being of the participants. Other cast members have experienced PTSD as well, and Frank Sweeney (Real World: San Diego) sought counseling after the show (an option less available for cast members from lower socio-economic backgrounds) and said coming off the roller coaster of tv created a “complex post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Beyond addiction, injuries, and mental health concerns, cast members encounter logistical difficulties. Some legally changed their names, others paid to have their Google search results scrubbed, and many avoid social media in an effort to regain control of their lives, careers, and identities. Some were told by potential employers that they were not hired because they appeared on the show. In an age of branding, many companies don’t want to be associated with “trashy” tv stars. I was told I was rejected from a law school despite having competitive scores and credentials, because my presence would be a distraction to the other students and would “lessen the credibility” of the institution.
Reality creators often frame the experience as an “opportunity” for participants and a “springboard” to bigger and better things. Unfortunately, for many of us, it’s a springboard into an empty pool. At best, our time in the spotlight becomes a story we’re forced to retell at cocktail parties. But having an edited version of your best and worst moments on national television can leave some participants vulnerable to financial and emotional ruin. For many of your favorite tv “characters,” things don’t truly start “getting real” until they are home picking up the pieces of the reality wreckage without a camera crew to document it.
The casual viewer may imagine that being on a reality show is just a parenthetical aside within the larger story of someone’s regular life — a brief, if exciting, pause from the narrative, from which you can quickly resume normalcy. The truth is that these experiences are our real life. They aren’t separate. We form relationships and rivalries and experience pain and redemption, and it’s all on the public stage. People aren’t interested in listening to z-listers bellyache about the difficulties of being famous for nothing, but the reality (!) is that producers and networks get rich off the personal narratives of the casts then leave them worse off than they found them. We become your memes and gifs while we’re being diagnosed with PTSD and filing for bankruptcy. Your guilty pleasure is our literal reality, and it’s unseemly to whine about the price we pay — even if the experience leaves us broke and broken. As it turns out, fifteen minutes of fame can be expensive.