As saddening and tragic as any suicide is, the news that 21 reality TV stars have ended their own lives over the past decade isn’t entirely shocking. Of all the genres to have ever graced or disgraced the small screen, reality television is probably the most likely to have alumni who are driven to the point of no return, since reality television itself is a form of suicide. This isn’t to say it had a direct or even indirect hand in the deaths of some of its former stars, such as The Bachelor contestant Alexa McAllister, whose overdose of prescription pills in February adds her to an unfortunate and unfortunately growing list of screen suicides. Rather, it’s to say that there are numerous significant parallels between entering its cruel world and entering a state where suicide appears to present itself as the only option.
Not only are there parallels, but there’s continuity as well. With reality TV, there’s the desperation that afflicts those contestants who believe the only way for them to be famous, successful, happy or fulfilled is to have themselves filmed eating some insects, while with suicide itself, there’s the desperation that afflicts those of us who believe the only way to end our suffering is to end our lives. Given that there aren’t that many steps from the first kind of desperation to the second, it’s therefore not incredibly startling that 21 reality TV stars have veered towards suicide in the last ten years. Still, it’s nonetheless alarming, not least because the suicide rate for the American population as a whole is 12.6 per 100,000, whereas in 2013 the total number of people to have participated in reality programs since 2005 was estimated at 34,080 (putting today’s total at somewhere around 42,000). And yet, as alarming as these figures are, TV continues to exploit people who are already looking for a way out, who rashly assume that flash-in-the-pan reality programs are a route to a better life.
Failing to Accept the Banality of Everyday Existence
Even though the likes of Survivor and The Bachelor are pretty old these days, there are apparently many of these exploitable people. Over the years, 100,000 have auditioned for peak seasons of American Idol, and while it’s an unfair exaggeration to label all or most of these thousands as “desperate,” it’s likely that few if any of them believed they had any other opportunities to succeed or become famous. As almost any quick YouTube search for auditions for the program reveals, there are no shortage of wannabes whose inadequacies as singers are no match for their near-delusional fervor to enter the spotlight. Even with the ones who possess natural talent, there’s still the clear impression that they can identify no better chance for themselves to grab some fame, as is witnessed by the career of Kelly Clarkson, who won the program in 2002 after having her demos rejected by a litany of record labels.
Research corroborates this interpretation. For example, studies by Sociology Professor Rebecca Skeggs have found that working-class viewers of reality programs see them as providing “a structure of opportunity when all other opportunities have closed down,” a fact reflected in the high numbers of people who queue up to audition for the likes of American Idol. Similarly, Prof. S. Mark Young of the University of Southern California discovered in a 2006 paper for the Journal of Research in Personality that, of all celebrities, reality TV stars exhibit the highest levels of narcissism, meaning not only that they’re more self-centered than other segments of the population, but that they’re also needier and more insecure to boot. Quoting US cultural historian Christopher Lasch, Young concluded his article with the observation that it’s “more difficult for [the narcissist] to accept the banality of everyday existence,” which is why he or she desperately gravitates towards reality programs, and why he or she bears interesting similarities to the potential suicide who also can no longer accept their everyday existence.
That a kind of failure draws many people to reality television, and that reality television takes advantage of such failure, is brought home starkly in such shows as Kitchen Nightmares. In this Gordon Ramsay-fronted program, openly struggling restaurateurs flocked to Ramsay for his help in turning their unhealthy businesses around, apparently unable to do so themselves. Under the glare of TV cameras, Ramsay huffed and puffed his way to “rejuvenating” the participating eateries, only for it to emerge in 2014 that over 60% of these establishments ended up failing anyway: exactly the same proportion as fail within three years if left to their own devices.
If nothing else, this figure is a defining testament to how reality TV simply preys on desperation, on people who’ve already neared the end of their tether (e.g. Kathy Sleckman), and of how rather than actually helping these folks it generally chews them up and spits them back out. This is what happened with Joseph Cerniglia, who was already in debt in 2007 when he appeared on the first season of Kitchen Nightmares, and in 2010 jumped into the Hudson River.
The Death of Former Selves
But reality TV isn’t a kind of suicide only in the sense that it’s born of desperation and receding opportunities. In many cases, it also involves the destruction of who its sacrificial lambs once were, their transformation into one-dimensional caricatures of themselves. This can be seen in the example of “villain” Omarosa Manigault from The Apprentice, of “gigantic douche” Jon Dalton from Survivor, the “fixated on fame” Heidi Montag from The Hills, and of countless other pantomime characters. Once upon a time, these such chancers were relatively normal — or at least nuanced — human beings, yet the exposure that comes from reality television has transformed them into figures of fun and ridicule, limiting the identities they could assume in public or perhaps even in private to narrow, simplistic personae.
This reduction of human beings to stereotypes, this “death,” if you will, of who they once were, isn’t helped by how, quite ironically, “reality TV” is often unreal. From the Real Housewives of Orange County to the Bachelorette, so-called reality television stages and contrives many of its scenes, encouraging its stars to do things they wouldn’t do otherwise. That is, it asks its typical contestant to be untrue to herself, while openly claiming — by virtue of its tag as “real” — that the resulting lie is actually the genuine person in all her truth. It doesn’t take much in the way of imagination to appreciate how this could create long-standing problems for the contestant concerned, forcing her to act a particular, clichéd part and to affirm that this cliché is who she “truly” is. This is what happened, for instance, to X Factor participant Bella Ferraro, who admitted in 2014 that she “was styled by the producers” of the reality program, which reportedly left her feeling “disillusioned and unsettled” after it finished.
In fact, it’s often this abrupt post-show fall to Earth that contributes most heavily to the depression of so many ex-reality TV stars. After appearing as Joe Millionaire in 2003, former construction firm owner Evan Marriott went “through a pretty bad depression” as he struggled to reconcile a new notoriety with an old life. Conversely, many less-loved ex-stars receive hate mail and verbal abuse, such as Big Brother graduate Jade Goody — “the most hated woman in the United Kingdom” — and Katie Gold, a onetime contestant of the Australian Survivor who “suffered clinical depression and had to undergo years of psychotherapy” so as to combat the “serious trust and abandonment issues” that marred her existence after the show.
In view of these psychological and social difficulties, it become less taxing to understand why a small portion of retirees from the world of reality television have ended their own lives. As many psychologists have already noted, fame can be incredibly addicting, so when people leave reality TV programs without the means or talent to regain their newfound fame, they can descend into withdrawal symptoms, which are only made worse if they happen to be on the receiving end of public ridicule. They become trapped between two worlds: the everyday world which rejects them for being a “villain” or a “douche” and which they no longer find exciting anyway, and the fantastical world of celebrity which has no demand for their lack of ability, except insofar as it wants some fresh victims to humiliate.
Yet in many ways, some of them were already trapped like this before ever entering American Idol or The Bachelor. Many applied for these kinds of reality shows because they had few other opportunities elsewhere, because their actual selves and lives seemed not to hold much promise for them. Because of this, they were prepared to effectively “end” these selves, to adopt new, orchestrated identities in the hope that this would end the disappointment or adversity of their former lives. This is why reality TV is its own kind of suicide, since it frequently involves someone being pushed by a want of options and outlets to give up control over their own selves. As such, it’s nearly as much a symptom of the hardness and harshness of modern existence as actual suicide, in that it flows from some of the same basic problems: isolation, materialism, low self-esteem, the wide gulf between the all-importance of social status and the opportunities for people to attain social status.
If reality television is, then, a form of suicide itself, this partly explains why more than 21 graduates from Survivor et al. have killed themselves in the past decade. However, it also explains, somewhat ironically, why more than this 21 haven’t committed actual suicide. This is because the “trading of lives” characteristic of reality TV is already a figurative suicide, and in several cases it actually “works” for the people involved. Their careers receive a boost after they hand over their lives to a production company, and even if there’s no objective way of determining whether these lives become “better,” they at least keep enough people strangely occupied. Of course, this doesn’t excuse those TV companies who knowingly capitalize on the already vulnerable and fragile, and who compound the pre-existing issues of these people with public mockery and scorn.
From one perspective, these companies perform a valuable economic service: transforming the dissatisfied, under-qualified, unsuccessful, rejected, feckless or desperate into an industry, into profitable commodities that can generate revenue for various markets. However, in simply taking advantage of people like this, they’re allowing the underlying problems and tensions of which these people are a symptom to continue unabated, to fester so that certain things — inequality, deficits of opportunity, discontentment, misalignments between aspirations and realities — only worsen. This is why, figuratively at least, their hands aren’t entirely clean of blood.
Photo: Beth/Creative Commons