From the first days of reality TV—narrative, character-driven storytelling that uses real people and real lives as its subject matter—the genre has left a trail of human wreckage. Its stars have been arrested for DUI, assault, drug possession, sex with minors and domestic violence. An MTV Road Rules alum and Challenge cast member who was arrested for public urination later smeared the walls of his jail cell with his own feces and then bragged about his misbehavior on Twitter. Survivor’s first winner is in prison—again—for tax evasion, the same charge a recent Big Brother winner eventually pled guilty to, in addition to possession with attempt to distribute oxycodone as part of a drug ring the government says he funded using his $500,000 prize from the CBS reality series.
Another Big Brother contestant morphed into a hard-core gay porn star, and he’s not alone. Familiar faces show up in adult films with surprising regularity. The first celebrity reality-TV show took cameras into the home of Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne for MTV’s The Osbournes. Two of their kids went to rehab for drug addiction, and Sharon went on to appear on other reality series, including VH1’s Rock of Love: Charm School, which ended with an out-of-court settlement following Sharon’s physical confrontation with a cast member, a woman who got her own series, which featured her dating millionaires and which was pulled off the air because one of them killed his wife and later committed suicide. His death was one in a series of suicides that received media attention in 2009 because the dead people had all once appeared on reality-TV shows.
These are just a few examples. Eleven years since reality programming came to prime-time network television in the United States, thousands of people have been featured on unscripted series across nearly every channel. Does reality TV attract or prey on people who are more likely to engage in horrific or illegal behavior? Does the experience send once-sane people down a path that ends in jail, where they proudly shit in their hands? Or does it attract media attention because these people are now familiar to us or worked on familiar shows, like the co-creator of Pimp My Ride and former Survivor producer who was arrested for murdering his wife in Mexico? What are the consequences of bonding with people we get to know on TV, of commercialized voyeurism?
While tens of thousands of people regularly apply for a chance at fame and new experiences, some who have appeared on television have publicly and privately complained of its impact. “I don’t think the cast or the producers knew what we were getting into that first season of The Real World,” executive producer and co-creator Jonathan Murray explains. Nineteen years after his MTV series debuted and defined reality television, it’s difficult to recall a time when real people’s lives were not prime-time entertainment. That first group of seven, he says, “had no way of knowing how exhausting it is to have a camera on you 24-7.”
And they certainly had no way of knowing what it would look like once they saw fragments of their lives in half-hour episodes.
The retracted red-and-white-striped awning on the former Woolworth’s in Wildwood, New Jersey is tattered, but inside everything is perfect—except no one can go inside.
Inside is Randyland. Randyland is a maze of fascinating things, including Fascination games, an early-1900s combination of Skee-Ball and bingo. And in between rows of old pinball machines are many more games, including boardwalk games, handcrafted and patented by Randy Senna, in which players shoot water at a urinal or toilet that has a mechanically flapping lid.
And there’s Randy. Not just the one Randy Senna but hundreds of Randy facsimiles: mannequins with blue eyes open with childlike wonder, plastic curls of brown hair and faces frozen in wide smiles. Some are just heads peering quietly out of ice cream cases or perched amid Enchanted Tiki Room memorabilia from Walt Disney World, where Senna once worked. Many of the Randyquins wear his old Disney costumes, their name tags still attached.
I’m inside only because a TV crew is here to film Senna (the human one) for the A&E reality-TV show Hoarders, which debuted on the cable network in 2009 to record ratings, probably because it featured a refrigerator full of gag-inducing liquefied rotten food that its owner wanted to keep because she thought it was fine. On a typical episode, two people whose hoards have created some kind of crisis, such as the threat of eviction, get help from an organizer and a team of workers who help clear the mess while a psychologist works with the hoarders to deal with the emotions that inevitably arise. It is obvious, as many of the Hoarders crew will say during my three days there, that hoarders’ brains work differently than ours. These reality-show cast members are mentally ill, and Hoarders illustrates that visually and viscerally. If someone says he loves cats but his cats are dead and petrified in the shape of the box they died in, something is very wrong.
Unlike other spaces that have been featured on the show, Randyland has no dead animals and no animal or human feces. There is just Senna and, behind a never-opened door, his parents, who have declined to be included in the five-day production. Upstairs, above the museum-like presentation of Randyland, is storage—the hoard of antique games, piles of stained napkins, Priority Mail boxes, batteries, scattered quarters, buckets of tokens and box after box of VHS tapes. There are also slices of birthday cake, still under the plastic dome that protected the full cake in the grocery store, and a collection of Senna’s own hair, saved from haircuts past.
Like so many people featured on this show, Senna does not think he is a hoarder.
The possibility of a horrific outcome haunts reality TV. The first person voted off Expedition Robinson, the Swedish series that gave Survivor its format, threw himself in front of a train before the show ever aired because he worried about public humiliation. When producer Mark Burnett brought the format to the U.S. in 2000, his team turned to a psychologist, Gene Ondrusek, to help prevent a similar outcome. “We will put people through some potentially demeaning, degrading, stressful, humiliating experiences,” Ondrusek says producers told him. “They wished to not have someone who was psychologically vulnerable or fragile be damaged by that process.”
After signing a contract and consenting in writing to every possible outcome, including disease and death, potential contestants on many shows are now subject to medical exams, psychological testing and background checks. That is “so it’s clear they’re going to be able to handle the situation,” says Bravo executive vice president Andy Cohen.
The industry’s pursuit of compelling characters and stories has led some shows to cast people who may not be able to handle it, such as those who are in the middle of once-private crises. Alan Keck, a psychologist who practices in the Orlando area, says, “The harm for a lot of folks in that kind of position is that they’re already psychologically vulnerable.” Still, like the B-list celebrities who get paid and receive free treatment (never mind the attention they crave) on VH1’s Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew, people willingly sign up. “There are some addicts who are pretty narcissistic and who love that kind of attention,” Keck says. “That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good for them.” They will be affected to varying degrees. “To somebody with a good, strong ego it may not be a big deal. But most of these people don’t have good, strong egos. They’re already suffering. And this is just one more addition to that.”
On one episode of Hoarders the young son of a hoarder broke down and cried when he realized the show’s crew was leaving. Reality-show producer Chris Cowan says cast members can experience “a form of postpartum depression” when the show ends, because the attention evaporates and they are faced with watching the show and dealing with the fallout.
“I went through a lot, man,” Ben Wade tells me. “I really feel like they damaged me, and if I weren’t a Christian, I’d be screwed, man.”
Wade is a delusional liar. At least, that was the consensus when he first appeared on Survivor in 2009. I’ve been covering reality TV for 12 years and publicly called him “impossibly arrogant” and a “liarface idiot douche,” and those were some of the nicer things people wrote about him. We first met in Brazil before the 39-day production of Survivor’s 18th season began, when I was on location to interview contestants and observe the first episode. He went by the nickname Coach, compared himself to Jesus and told his college soccer team that he was being tested for brain cancer. After my interview was published, someone posted on a fan message board, “Ben needs to go DIAF”—that’s “die in a fire.” He soon became the most infamous reality-TV show contestant in the country, thanks to his over-the-top personality and the nonstop attention editors gave him. He called himself the Dragon Slayer and claimed to hold the world record for the longest solo kayak ocean expedition, a claim the editor of Canoe & Kayak Magazine disputed. He told fantastic stories, including one about his escape after being kidnapped and tortured by Pygmies while kayaking on the Amazon. He was ridiculed, on the show and off.
Day and night on reality-TV shows, cast members are pushed physically and mentally. Often sleep-deprived, they’re cut off from friends, family and the outside world, then asked to do things they wouldn’t do in real life. Survivor, with its $1 million prize, is a simple game complicated by starvation and exposure to the elements, and the experience is brutally real, with the exception of inconsequential cheats: During challenges, helicopter shots are of stand-ins, for example. In Brazil, Wade’s weight dropped from 205 pounds to 149 pounds as he participated in challenges that tested physical strength and mental acuity, all while competing to outlast fellow competitors in votes that took place every three days. He also had to answer producers’ interview questions. “When you’re out there, audience members are the producers, and you want to please them,” he says. But pleasing them turned him into a joke.