It’s a TV programme, I tell the shop assistant. Dancing with the Stars. “On RTÉ One. It’s supposed to be filmed near here?” I am standing in a shop in Bray about to buy a notepad. The gum-chewing sales assistant looks bored. “Dunno. Get a taxi. Ask them.” I think of my bank balance. Outside it is minus two degrees Celsius and the sludge has already seeped through the toes of my boots. All this because I wanted to find out all about the world of reality TV.
I take the taxi.
Dancing with the Stars is RTE’s flagship reality show. It’s the Irish version of Strictly Come Dancing. A “star” is paired with a professional ballroom dancer and each week is taught to perform a ballroom dance. It is filmed in a business park outside Bray, not that you’d know it. The taxi driver tells me that no one in Bray has a clue it’s filmed there. “It’s awful”, he warns me. “Awful. If you paid me €50, I wouldn’t go and watch it.”
When we get there, Ardmore Film Studios is a decidedly less glamorous affair than I had anticipated. The press room, where I will pass the evening Googling the show’s “stars” on my phone, is a room with a large screen TV and a couple of couches. Three or four journalists sit gossiping and typing. Plates of tuna, salmon and egg sandwiches, cut into triangles, sit on the coffee table. An Irish Sun journalist introduces himself to me with a handshake.
I am lucky because before the live show begins, the press representatives get to join the live audience for the pre-recording of the “professional dance”. The executive producer ushers us into the studio. I bring my notebook and immediately wish I hadn’t. We are sitting front row, and my journalist friend hisses that it likely that we will be on telly. I start to feel mildly anxious. Franc, a veteran TV personality and “Ireland’s most famous wedding planner”, is sitting two places up, beyond the reporter from RSVP magazine. He advises me to keep a neutral, natural face. I inadvertently adopt a half grimace, half gormless stare. So this is what it’s like, trying and failing to ignore the camera and lights. Because I am actually part of it: I am on reality TV.
I’ve been trying figure just how people get on reality shows
I can’t help feel a little cheated. I’ve been trying figure just how people get on reality shows. I filled out an application for Channel 4 show Naked Attraction and had to agree to be assessed by an independent psychologist if shortlisted. I had to agree to possible background checks and to disclose anything that might damage the show. I accepted all the terms and conditions. I gave up my right to disclose programme information to third parties. So far, I’ve heard nothing back.
So I tried submitting a Love Island application. I disclosed my gender, my sexual orientation. I told the producers I would choose love over money. I uploaded two selfies from holidays two years ago, blatantly flouting the requirement that they be “recent”. But I chickened out when they asked for a video, remembering that the producers often ignore the application forms anyway, instead scouting talent on social media. I have less than 200 followers on Instagram. So I gave up.
So just how hard is it to get on reality TV? In its early days, it was very hard. In 2007, journalist Tanya Jones attempted to get a place on Big Brother. It was a frankly horrible process. She was ranked the least attractive female in her audition group and endured countless hours of waiting. Her progression depended on revealing her neuroses and dysfunctions and declaring her intention to “kick the chavs to the dust”. Jones got through the process almost till the very end, when she suspects the producers rumbled that she was an undercover journalist.
This sort of cynicism and nastiness chimes with the story of Charlotte Scott, a former guest-booker on daytime viewing staple The Jeremy Kyle Show. Scott told journalist Jon Ronson about how she’d ask potential participants what medication they were on in order to determine whether they were “too mad to come onto the show or just mad enough”. If the potential guest was on no medication they were “probably just not mad enough to be entertaining”.
But what if you’re not mad, bad or sad? Just how do ordinary people get their faces on the box? Clark James, who took part in the second series of Married at First Sight UK, told me that as he sat on his couch the day after his birthday swiping through Tinder, an advert came up: “would you like to participate in a social experiment?” He swiped right. James sent a photo and a brief bio, fully expecting that he wouldn’t hear back. He did – within 24 hours.
Louis Gill, who appeared on UK First Dates on two occasions in 2014, had a similarly quick response from that show’s producers. He tells me he got a response from producers “almost immediately”. But Úna Harty, who appeared on First Dates Ireland this year, went through a far more arduous interview process. After applying last March, she tells me she received a phone call in June. Following a 45 minute phone interview, she was asked to video herself answering various questions before she was finally brought in for live filming in the Gibson hotel in Dublin. This still didn’t mean she’d make it on to the show: she says lots of people film interviews without ever making it to the screen.
Seeing as you seem to need James’s luck or Harty’s perseverance at the very least, to get on reality TV, is it really worth it? When asked, Larry Bass, the executive producer of Dancing With The Stars and maker of shows like The Voice and You’re A Star acknowledged that the winners of some of these broadcasted competitions haven’t become huge stars. Yet he tells me that reality shows can be “great platforms”. And that seems to be key: the idea of the platform. Gill appeared on This Morning after his First Dates appearances, and he was given the chance to appear on other dating programmes. Similarly, Clark had opportunities with This Morning, Heat and The Sun. However, he explains that capitalising on those opportunities was not why he took part in Married at First Sight. He genuinely wanted an experience: that was it.
Not everyone eschews the platform. I spoke to Phil Penny, who was one of the stars of TV3’s Tallafornia. He told me that if the Tallafornia reunion show does go ahead – it has been mooted for filming this year (a producer rang him around a month ago to see if he was interested) – he will definitely take part. Penny is a personal trainer so for him “it’s good exposure and hopefully it will get me more clients”. Penny says that someone in Dublin who’s looking for a personal trainer and sees him and “some other random guy” is “always going to go with the guy on TV”. Penny points to the Geordie Shore cast, such as Charlotte Crosby and “Gaz”. “They hadn’t got a pot to piss in and now they’re millionaires”. Even Dermot Bannon, the presenter of ratings hit Room to Improve, made his TV debut on the reality show Blind Date way back in 1994.
These shows don’t present themselves as platforms, though. They are supposedly about finding love or learning to dance. For Penny, who apologised for his vulgarity, the shows are often about “getting paid to get hammered and go off with girls”.
Does this mean the people on these shows are as fake as the participants’ tans? James doesn’t think so: he tells me that what’s on camera is what he’s like day to day – just minus the swearing. For Harty it’s more complicated: she says that while she was herself “100%”, she was conscious of how she would be edited or made to come across. And while Harty agreed to a second date on camera, she knew that if she didn’t, “the whole country would be like, ‘oh my God, she’s such a bitch’”. She admits that she had no intention of seeing her date again. (Dead right: as reality veteran Bobby Norris of TOWIE put it: “Chemistry’s like chlamydia. You either have it or you don’t”).
On First Dates, Harty tells me the cameras are hidden to make the dates feel more real. This wasn’t the case on Tallafornia, where there were three or four cameramen walking around with cameras on their shoulders, as well as a person with a boom stick. Penny says that while he followed producers’ advice to act as though these were ghosts and just be himself, “no matter how hard you try, you always know you’re being watched”.
Pretty much everyone I speak to acknowledges the role of producers and editors in creating narrative, even if that’s, as Gill says, to present you in “the best possible light” and to portray you as a “decent, likeable person”. Harty told me that her initial pre-recorded interviews were extremely detailed because the producers needed to cover their bases. “They don’t know which way the narrative will go on the date and they want to control that narrative.” Producers need to have pre-recorded footage of opinions. They want to be able to juxtapose a dater’s opinion of tattoos beside footage of her date showing her his tattoos.
One person who is not a fan of producers is Penny. He is not so angry about Tallafornia, although he does think that things were manipulated in the edit so as to suit the narrative of the TV show. Apparently, producers developed a character for each of the individuals on the show and edited it to suit that. He was the troublemaker, a portrayal he couldn’t dispute after signing a contract allowing TV3 to portray “whatever the hell they want”. Yet Penny says that they actually left out the “juicy stuff”. Perhaps, he thinks, Ireland wasn’t ready for it. Overall, though, he was happy. Not so with First Dates Ireland, on which he appeared a few weeks ago. He describes its producers as “absolute wankers”. “They don’t give a fuck”, he tells me, “they really don’t”.
He described the producers on first dates as ‘absolute wankers’
Penny claims RTÉ edited the programme “so badly for me”. He is adamant that he was nice to his date, but that all that was shown was him “messing and buzzing off her”, while the fact that she was “bantering back” was left out. He feels as though he was made to look like “a fucking prick”, while they neglected to show him paying €165 for a meal he says was “fucking horrible”. Harty wasn’t overly impressed with the fare in the First Dates Ireland restaurant either. There was only one vegetarian option: a mediocre risotto.
Penny had no idea that he would be made to look so bad and he thinks the production team used that to their advantage. The producers, Penny says, just wanted to get everyone talking and that all they cared about was “getting the viewing rates”. He would never do a dating show again.
But on every reality TV show, eventually the cameras do stop rolling, and I wonder about what happens next. Reality TV propels its participants rapidly into the public sphere: it might not make stars of them all, but it does open them up to scrutiny and speculation. Surely participants should get some kind of help from production companies, or support in some form. When Bass tells me that none of his shows require much by the way of aftercare, I think he’s missing the point. It’s not necessarily the content or the experience of the shows themselves that make support necessary: it’s putting people out there to potentially be ridiculed, scorned and even – in extreme cases – subjected to death threats. And while some in the industry seem to recognise this (Gill and Harty speak positively about the support they received both before and after their episodes aired), others don’t.
Penny paints a very bleak picture of how things worked out for him post-Tallafornia. Appearing on the show held him back “100%”. Prior to appearing on the show, he had worked in an office. Afterwards, at every single interview he went to, interviewers invariably looked at him like he had 10 heads. They just couldn’t take him seriously. It was 2014, he tells me, and he was 27. He had no idea what to do with the rest of his life. He was forced to sign on. It was “the most fucked-up feeling in the world… that morning you’re collecting the dole and then that night… you have people coming up fucking hounding you for pictures. People think that you’re rich… but money is an issue”.
Thankfully, he managed to turn things around and he is now a successful personal trainer. But the fact remains that the Tallafornia team just left the cast “hanging” and “in limbo” without even a phone call to let them know the programme had been cancelled. They had no help or support in dealing with abuse on social media either, and Penny says he is glad he is thick-skinned. He tells me he has heard of people hurting themselves, physically and mentally, after the kind of abuse the cast got. Even though he was “not bothered”, Penny can see how that might happen.
But maybe people are wising up to reality TV. In 2017, comedian Lee Nelson set out to show that reality TV show Britain’s Got Talent is “contrived” and “manipulative” to expose its dependence on a good backstory (in reality-TV parlance, “a journey”). Disguised as a rapping rabbi – his rap about the greatness of Britain featured such lyrical gems as “National dish is vindaloo/We beat the French at Waterloo/Tescos and Poundland/Plumbers around the land”, Nelson was received very favourably by the judges. Simon Cowell said Nelson’s rap made him proud to be British. Amanda Holden said the lyrics “meant a lot”. Nelson received four yeses from the judges before he was eventually rumbled by producers.
Then again, this is the generation of fake news. Nelson’s stunt doesn’t spell the end for reality TV, or even for Britain’s Got Talent: not today. Harty informs me that things are different for the millennial generation who’ve grown up with and have become comfortable with reality TV. “Although you may recognise that they are using you, you can also use them”, she says. “I think we see it more as an opportunity to platform ourselves than to use it for what it was originally for – to examine social interactions between humans.”
I think she’s right. The line between fake and real is blurring everywhere – and so too is the line between “reality” and reality TV. Millennials now create their own personal reality shows, be it on Snapchat, Instagram or YouTube vlogs. It’s all about constructing a narrative and a self, whether that’s the participants’ or the producers’ doing – and about making money. At the Dancing With The Stars press screening, mercifully free from advertisements, money was nevertheless on my mind (and not just because of my unexpected taxi journey). It felt as though I was constantly being told to vote, to invest, to buy into the contestants’ journey.
It is a genre that’s dominating our screens. Last year, half of the top 10 most-watched programmes in the UK were reality shows. They can be very cheap to make (for example consider the per-hour cost of making shows like Gogglebox). With alumni including Katie Hopkins and Kim Kardashian, and even US President Donald Trump, we really ought to pay attention to reality TV. It is destructive. It is disingenuous. And it is not going anywhere.