The launch of the current series of My Kitchen Rules has undoubtedly been successful, both in terms of television ratings and in capturing a social media audience, clearly winning the battle for the Twitter audience on premiere night, and maintaining a lead over both The Block and The Biggest Loser since then.
But it is the controversy surrounding Perth contestants Kelly Ramsay and Chloe James that has dominated media coverage today, detailing the abuse to which they have been subjected on social media, with Facebook posts of the sort: “I wish these girls would f** off and die”, and images shared with the “pair being hung from a tree and others of them having their eyes poked out”.
Why were they subjected to this abuse? They’ve been characterised as “bitchy princesses” by TV critics and accused of cheating by using pre-made ingredients when they served a low-scoring Great Gatsby themed meal to judges.
Loving to hate reality TV contestants
Such controversy is nothing new in the realm of reality TV, which often turns contestants into caricatures in order to engage the public.
Similarly, in her 2006 review of international studies of reality TV, Dutch scholars Liesbet Van Zoonen and Minna Aslama concluded that one of the big draws of Big Brother is “discovering and assessing the ‘authentic’ versus ‘artificial’ behavior of the participants”.
Negative reaction from fan communities is also fairly common.
One need only look to the case of Jade Goody in the United Kingdom, who in 2002, before the advent of current social media platforms, was being described as “a nasty slapper”, “public enemy number one”, and “the most hated woman in Britain”.
Similarly, and more recently, Big Brother series 15 in the United States saw contestant Aaryn Gries make racist remarks, and a torrent of abuse was directed at her (very quickly made private) Twitter account:
Business as usual
While the hateful comments are given the most attention, it is rarely a one way street. The hashtag #TeamAaryn was being used by Twitter users defending Aaryn and supporting her on the show – and a cursory glance at yesterday evening’s #MKR stream also shows some support mixed in for Chloe and Kelly.
Given the immediacy of social media, such behaviour presents moral and ethical challenges for both producers and the audience. While in the case of Big Brother, Goody and Gries were protected from much of the real-time reaction as they remained contestants, pre-recorded shows such as My Kitchen Rules expose participants to the public’s reaction immediately; an experience Kelly Ramsay described as “like a car wreck”.
Similarly, Kaitlin Barnaby, evicted from Big Brother series 15 while the racism controversy was prominent in the United States, described “hateful” comments from “cyber-bullies” that she had received through Twitter following her eviction.
After reality TV, who are the winners?
History suggests that life post-show may not be so bad for those portrayed as reality TV villains.
Goody (who died in 2009 following a very public period with cancer) went on to build a substantial brand based on her name, although slowed by the subsequent 2007 racism scandal.
Similarly “Evil Dick” (Dick Donato), a contestant from Big Brother 8 in the United States, has built a brand around his negative image, now hosting an unofficial pay-per-view talk show on Vimeo.
In the more recent case, Big Brother 15’s Aaryn Gries saw a rapid turnaround in attention after her eviction from Big Brother 15, becoming a Twitter “celebrity”. Twitter users no longer focused on the racism scandal – but rather wanted to receive attention from Aaryn, a phenomenon Alice Marwick and danah boyd have described as “a public performance of access”, in which users see “receiving a message from a highly followed individual [as] a status symbol in itself”.
Kelly Ramsay is quoted in the Brisbane Times as saying “People have no idea that we’re real people, we’ve been made the villains of the series”, and that she hoped viewers would re-evaluate as the season evolves.
Perhaps the worst thing for reality contestants, however, is not being hated, but being forgotten, for it is memorable characters that get invited back for “all-star” seasons, or for crossovers with other Reality TV formats, and it is memorable characters that are able to build a brand for themselves through social media platforms such as Twitter.
As evidenced by today’s coverage, Ramsay and James have the spotlight; now they just need to work out how best to leverage it.