Business Maverick, Media

Reality bites – the trouble with commercial television

Reality bites – the trouble with commercial television

The truth about reality television is that there’s nothing real about it, writes MANDY DE WAAL.

Deleese Williams is not exactly the most attractive woman in the world. She has crooked teeth. A partially deformed jaw. Ears that stick out of the side of her face. And a weak chin.

But she was perfect for the ABC reality programme “Extreme Makeover” which – if you’re not a reality television acolyte – is a personal “improvement” show of sorts. Men and women who aren’t quite attractive enough enter a period of isolation where the only people they get to meet are plastic surgeons, hair stylists, beauticians, dentists, personal trainers and stylists.

Then, when the ugly ducklings have been sufficiently transformed after having had breast implants, facial peels and liposuction, they are made over with slathers of make-up and taken to a big reveal, where the makeover participant’s partners, family and friends get to see them again.

Deleese wanted what has become the “American Dream”. No, not that “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” fancy that drives immigrants to the US to leave their homes in the hope of a better life in the land of the free.

The new American dream propagated by producers of shows like Bridalplasty (think young women fighting each other to the death for nip/tucks and the “perfect” wedding), is landing a part in a show that earns you a new house, new husband or reformed children merely for acting like a performing seal in front of a camera.

But back to the ugly duckling. Although Deleese wasn’t the best looking woman in the world, she had a sympathetic family who didn’t believe in eroding her confidence, and always told her that to them she was beautiful.

Deleese knew better though, because she did look in the mirror and hoped to change what she saw. She signed up for “Extreme Makeover”, but fixing Deleese’ jaw didn’t quite cut the drama the producers wanted to generate for the show.

So the producers coached her family into saying what they really, really thought of Deleese. Her sister Kelli had always told Deleese that she was pretty, but the producers goaded the girl to recant and tell the truth before she was transformed. That she was ugly.

Kelli told the producers the “truth” before Deleese was due to get her “Extreme Makeover”. Kelli was joined in this confessional by Deleese’s mother-in-law, who admitted she never thought her son would marry such an ugly woman.

Deleese, who was resting up in the room next door, heard everything, and became distraught, but not as disturbed as she would become later when the television producers informed her that they would no longer be doing her make up because it was now deemed too complicated. Deleese’s recovery would play havoc with the production schedule and budget.

Sjoe. Thankfully that horrid programme with its uncaring production values no longer airs on South African TV, although that bloody irritating Ty Pennington and his fake crew who shed a couple of tears while saving America’s downtrodden is hanging around on DStv’s BBC Lifestyle in “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”

And thankfully there’s TLC, which was launched here on subscription television. You know? THE. LEARNING. CHANNEL. Now let’s see what one can learn from Channel 186 on DStv.

If you’re a narcissistic mum with a touch of Munchausen’s by proxy, keep an eye out for “Toddlers & Tiaras” – which is a bit like “America’s Got Talent” meets “Miss Universe” for kids under 12, but with a strong dollop of child abuse.

On this show you learn how to give your five-year-old child an eyebrow wax and all over spray tan while she’s screaming and wriggling, while simultaneously manipulating her to perform, and convincing yourself this is actually in her highest interest.

But don’t take my word for it, listen to what The Daily Beast’s Andy Dehnart has to say: “Toddlers & Tiaras debuted as a series three years ago after airing its pilot in 2008, and it is the kind of freak show we’ve come to expect from TLC, which excels at finding and exploiting subgroups for its unscripted series (My Strange Addiction, Extreme Couponing, Hoarding: Buried Alive).”

“The series is a horrifying parade of freakishly made-up, sometimes bratty children being paraded around in hyper-sexualised outfits by their controlling mothers, who do things like feed their kids Red Bull and spray tan them until even Snooki would cringe. It’s now in its fifth season,” writes Dehnart.

But if kids who tap dance for mothers who could do with a little psycho- or even shock-therapy aren’t your thing, there’s “Cake Boss: The Next Great Baker”. Pretty harmless stuff hey?

Not so for Wesley Durden Jr. who was eliminated by Buddy Valastro of Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey. Not satisfied with just baking and decorating cakes on camera, Valastro went Gordon Ramsay with a spin-off show that put aspirant bakers through their paces.

You can’t have a boring show where there’s no drama or high tension, so: bada-bing bada-boom, Valastro gave Durden a verbal thrashing for using prepared cake mix in the first episode of this show. A military man, Durden came back with a Pecan Pie for a team challenge, but didn’t fare well and was sent packing by Valastro.

Durden had just got back from Iraq, was hoping not to be redeployed soon and hence had big dreams of going far on the show. When he got home in October last year, the 28-year-old put a gun to his head and blew his brains out. He left behind his wife and two young children.

The soldier’s not the only person who’s stared down a barrel because of a cooking show. Two people have offed themselves after coming face to face with Gordon Ramsay. Rachel Brown shot herself after not winning the 2007 season of “Hell’s Kitchen” (she came fifth).

Then there’s the matter of Joseph Cerniglia who was on Ramsay’s restaurant makeover show called “Kitchen Nightmares”. After Ramsay had done his magic, Cerniglia jumped into the Hudson River from the Georg Washington Bridge in 2010.

If reality television’s that bad for its contestants, what is it doing for viewers? A survey by the Girl Scout Research Institute showed that teens and tweens who watched reality television developed a taste for heightened drama in their personal lives, expected more aggression and bullying and measured their self-worth by their physical appearance.

This is echoed by Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory which is all about the long-term effects that television has on those who watch it. Developed by George Gerbner and Larry Gross of the University of Pennsylvania, the theory postulates about the socialisation of people into roles and behaviours. Gerbner will have us believe that the more you are under the influence of the box, the more your ideals, values, opinions and thoughts are reflective of the programming you’re watching.

There’s reams of other evidence to validate why excessive watching (and likely participating in) reality television is dangerous to the mental health of anyone who’s desirous of critical thought. I’d list it all for you here, but it is getting late and Joey Greco’s on soon with another episode of “Cheaters”.

So I’ve just enough time to finish off the story of Deleese, her sister Kelli and “Extreme Makeover”. Deleese and Kelli headed home, back to Texas where Kelli, who was bipolar, became increasingly depressed and fraught with guilt about what she had said about her sister.

Kelli eventually killed herself, and Deleese sued Walt Disney Co. and ABC television network, the good people behind “Extreme Makeover”, for a million. Her lawsuit included the statement: “Deleese Williams is considered ugly”. ABC settled and “Extreme Makeover” was cancelled in 2007, but not because of Deleese. It was canned because the show’s ratings had plummeted from a high of over 11 million, to a dismal couple of million. DM

Read more:

  • Should reality TV adopt a code of ethics? on Salon;
  • What Reality TV Teaches Teen Girls in Time Magazine;
  • Mother of all TV shows on FT.

Photo: Gordon Ramsay.


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