The reality of reality shows

We all know that so-called ‘reality shows’ are anything but, that they are as spontaneous as professional wrestling. But we never get to go behind the scenes to see what actually goes on because all the contestants are required to sign extremely restrictive and punitive non-disclosure agreements. Jessie Glenn, however, can write of her experience of being a contestant on the reality cooking show Master Chef with Gordon Ramsay because she did not send back the signed contract as she was expected to before being signed on, but the producers of the show seemed to have not noticed its absence. So she spills the beans and it is pretty ugly.

If you take 300 people and push them to an extreme stress level, some of them will die under the pressure. I believe producers of reality shows know this is true. There are no former reality show contestants who will candidly discuss the process of casting and filming a major reality show because the contracts contestants sign contain nondisclosure agreements in addition to frank threats against their family and friends. And, elements of reality show casting are horrific enough to deserve a transparent discussion. Full of dangerous, dirty secrets; no one can talk about the full details except me, an unlikely candidate from the start.

In the “MasterChef” contract, which a casting director later told me was essentially identical to those of most reality competition shows, they asked me to agree to be subjected to physical and mental distress, to agree to have my medical history used in any way that they wanted and to use it in perpetuity, to agree that my family would likely not be contacted in the case of an emergency. They asked me to release the show and its employees from liability for any injury to myself from risks both known and unknown. They asked that I release them from liability from the social and economic losses that could result and to please note that the consequences could be substantial and could permanently change the future for me, my family, friends and significant others.

They asked for a clause that could have kept me from working at my own media publicity company and to remove my own company website on their request.

They asked me to agree to pay a 15 percent “management fee” to a company called One Potato Two Potato (OPTP) owned by . . . Gordon Ramsay. This fee would then apply to any income or even gifts I received in any context potentially related to the show. I asked if OPTP would do any other career management. No, they said.

Despite the huge number of questions I asked, and despite the lawyers that they undoubtedly employed along with the detectives and psychiatrists, somehow someone missed that I never sent back the signed contract. I promised nothing.

On set through the day, the pressure mounted. I am not generally fazed by strangers trying to stress me out, but the wranglers and interviewers are pros. They also try out for the job that they have and the skill is being able to set people off balance. When contestants talk into the camera in a reality show, they are answering questions that have been carefully and tactically worded to create an interestingly uncomfortable moment. I was surprised to find myself flustered.

I learned later from speaking with a number of the runner-up cooks that every round longer that a contestant stayed in the competition, the symptoms of traumatic stress appeared more intense when they returned home. Many of the runners-up from each season appear quite damaged. Some are unable to hold jobs, have difficulties with explosive anger. The winners fare somewhat better but not always. I’m still friends with many of them on Facebook and there are secret Facebook groups to talk about all things reality, though interest for most contestants dies off over the years other than blatant self-promotion, fundraising and talk of appearances on other cooking shows.

The week the season finished filming, after he lost the finale to Christine Ha, Josh Marks, the self-titled “gentle giant,” was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He struggled with psychosis. Josh got into several conflicts, including a fight with cops, and heard voices in his head. Police said he claimed he had been possessed by Ramsay. It’s not hard to imagine the god that Gordon Ramsay became through Josh’s deep faith actually manifested. The week before he took his life, Josh was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

An activity I thought would be partially a lark and partially an unprofessional investigation became something else: an experiment in power and submission and subversion over which I had no control.

These shows seem like sources of serious psychological abuse for the contestants. I wonder how many would sign on if they were fully aware of what might happen to them. But the allure of fame, however shallow and fleeting, that comes from just being on TV is so great that I suspect that there will never be a shortage of contestants.


  1. cartomancer says

    I sometimes watch the original BBC version of Masterchef. It’s a fairly good-natured competitive cookery programme, with the focus tending to be on the commentary of the two presenters as to how well the contestants are doing and how the food looks. I saw an episode of the American version a few years ago, and the difference couldn’t be more pronounced. That awful, awful sentimentalism and discordant emotional screeching. Those ridiculous contrived tasks. I thought that what I saw was supposed to be a parody for the first twenty minutes, before it dawned on me that, no, this was supposed to be taken seriously.

  2. Mark Dowd says

    “Seem like”? The abuse is the entire point of these shows. They only exist so that people getting fucked by the system can watch someone else get even more fucked.

    And this shit is not recent either. I stopped watching American Chopper when I realized it was less about the cool custom bikes and more about the fucked up family dysfunction. If you ask how it took me so long, in my defense I was a middle schooler at the time.

    They even tried to get Adam and Jamie to do this bullshit on Mythbusters. It’s a damn good thing they didn’t.

    The best reality show I’ve even seen is Dirty Jobs. No artificial drama. No abuse. No bullshit. Just a very personable host doing unpleasant jobs with normal people, taking whatever laughs he can get along the way. The best one was at a farm that had a giant pool of liquid manure used for natural gas production. All he could do was admire the sight and say “This is Shit Creek!”

    Wholesome family fun.

  3. says

    I used to enjoy the more strategic reality competitions like Big Brother and Survivor. Obviously both have producers behind the scenes who try to move things in certain directions, but it got really obvious with Big Brother (and the online fandom is so toxic) that I had to stop watching. Survivor held out longer on my viewing habits but I’ve stopped watching that too (too many recycled contestants and not wanting anything to do with anything produced by Mark Burnett).

  4. says

    I thought that was a fascinating article, and was planning on doing my own take on it eventually.
    What I thought was most interesting is the way that they have refined the monetization process: the product comes in one side and comes out more valuable; if the product somehow manages to find more money as a result, Gordon Ramsay and his people get a slice of the action. That means they may line their pockets by supporting a good player with follow-on marketing.

    All the shows do that sort of thing, now. It’s not specific to Ramsay; he probably didn’t do any of that stuff, it was all negotiated between his agent and the studio, etc.

    I remember a podcast episode on Ben Blacker’s ‘cast, about writing for shows and show-running, and how “reality TV” was mostly the studios backlash against a script-writer’s strike. “Hey, I know. Let’s not have script-writers. Let’s just get some amateurs and frame out what happens each episode and roll video and cut it up into something interesting in edit.”

  5. Holms says

    The difference between Kitchen Nightmares UK and USA is unbelievable. It WAS a show about identifying problems, giving constructive cooking and business advice, and generally just turning a shabby restaurant around with perhaps some exasperation from Ramsay. It became a show almost exlusively about drama -- the learning process and cooperation with the staff was gone, but suddenly every chef and owner had family / marital / alcoholism issues, enraged ranting, tantrums, tearful breakdowns and tearful reconciliations. Ramsay was practically made of abuse for the first three quarters of every episode, followed by smiles and hugs in the remainder.

    It was disgusting.

  6. Holms says

    Nono, he’s actually good at that… or used to be. The pre-drama Kitchen Nightmares showcases this, he just threw it away for the US TV market.

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