The concept of reality TV has always been fraught with danger. The average viewer often asks themselves, why would anyone willingly subject themselves to being on such shows?
Following reality TV’s birth in the 1990s and explosion in the early 2000s, it’s evolved to a curious state and it’s easy to cringe in hindsight at some of the concepts or episodes from previous years.
But that’s with justification because there’s been some horror examples when reality TV producers and executives have treaded over the acceptable line and gone too far, exploiting unwitting contestants, creating unnecessary risks and/or simply coming as across tone deaf.
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10 Fear Factor Goes Donkeys
NBC pulled an episode of ‘Fear Factor’ in early 2012, when contestants were forced to drink jugs of donkey semen and urine. Eating or drinking gross things isn’t unusual on some of these TV shows but typically the producers or networks fall back on the line that they’re a foreign delicacy. However, chugging donkey semen and urine is far from that, so once photos emerged of the stunt, it got producers nervous before they opted to yank it before it aired.
The episode, titled “Hee Haw! Hee Haw!” eventually got out, strangely via Danish TV, before ‘Fear Factor’ posted it on their YouTube channel two years later. The contestants, who were all twins competing to win $50,000, actually completed the disgusting stunt, albeit with a lot of dry retching, nose holding and all-round discomfort.
Host Joe Rogan had said in advance: “I say, in the real world, in a healthy society, you’re not supposed to eat animal d###, but guess what, here you have to eat animal d### if you want to win $50,000”. NBC never publicly explained their decision not to air it, or film it in the first place, but they also insisted contestants couldn’t speak to the media about it either. That was the last episode of ‘Fear Factor’ ever filmed by NBC.
9 That Thing About Miriam
On the topic of short-lived reality TV, 15 years on it’s hard to believe British Sky1 show ‘There’s Something About Miriam’ went ahead in hindsight. The show had a simple premise, six men vying to woo a female, Miriam Rivera, much like ‘The Bachelorette’. But there was a shock plot twist which the viewers knew about but the contestants weren’t privy to until the very end. That twist was that Miriam was pre-op transgender. She was born a woman and still had a penis.
Miriam revealed this to the contestants after picking the winner, Tom Rooke. The other contestants initially giggled while Rooke was completely shocked. Once the dust settled and the contestants realized how they’d been duped and how the show would portray them, they filed a lawsuit to prevent Sky1 from airing it given its deceptive nature. The men eventually settled for an undisclosed amount (reportedly as much as £500,000 each) and the show aired in 2004, with responses generally unfavourable as exploiting transgender people and deceiving contestants for the sake of a cruel reaction.
8 The Swan’s Cosmetic Surgery Horror Stories
Early 2000s reality TV show ‘The Swan’ was once described as the “the most sadistic reality series of the decade”, so it had to make this list. The concept is based on the fairy tale ‘The Ugly Duckling’ whereby contestants have an extreme makeover with the aid of specialists, including cosmetic surgery, with one eliminated each week depending on their progress and eventually one would be declared the winner, thus The Swan. It was widely criticized for its superficial message.
As you can imagine this cringe-worthy concept, inspired by “body culture media”, didn’t lend itself well to many of the contestants. Season two contestant Lorrie Arias has since had mental health problems which she attributes to the show for their lack of follow-up once eliminated, including bipolar disorder, lupus and depression.
She’s also had issues with unresolved surgery complications. Arias said: “I had the most surgeries of any Swan in the history of the show and it has all gone to absolute sh#t. I am a 300-pound mess of a person who is afraid to go outside.”
7 Pageant Mom Gets It Horribly Wrong
American reality TV show ‘Toddlers And Tiaras’ is awkward for most at the best of times but the outrage police got fired up in 2011 when a three-year-old was dressed up like a prostitute at one pageant. To be precise, the three-year-old’s pageant mom Wendy Dickey opted to put her daughter Paisley in a costume that resembles one worn by Julia Roberts’ prostitute character Vivian Ward from the 1990 film Pretty Woman.
The outfit included a tight blue mini skirt, thigh-high black boots, blonde wig and a waist revealing white blouse, with young Paisley strutting around oblivious to the obvious connotations.
There’d been controversy on the show before, including a child with Dolly Parton’s breast padding and one imitating smoking cigarettes, but sexualizing a child was a step too far. ABC’s The View host Sherri Shepherd said: “Your job is to protect your child … if you don’t think pedophiles are watching this show, I have a bridge I want to sell you.”
6 Naked And Afraid’s Near-Death Experience
Australian survivalist Manu Toigo had a near-death experience in the Panama Jungle when she appeared on an episode of ‘Naked And Afraid’, a Discovery Channel program where contestants are tasked with surviving in the wilderness for 21 days. Toigo made it through the 21 days but was bitten by a mosquito along the way and contracted the potentially fatal dengue fever, which is a mosquito-borne tropical disease. She was rushed to hospital three days after completing the challenge as her symptoms – fever, nosebleeds and gum bleeding – worsened to the point where she was bed-ridden.
In hospital she was diagnosed with dengue hemorrhagic fever, which is the worst kind of dengue fever. Toigo said she arrived in hospital just in time, otherwise she may have died. She spent two weeks hospitalized before several months in physical therapy recovering. It didn’t deter her though, describing it as “the most epic experience I could have ever done” and she re-appeared on ‘Naked And Afraid’ in 2019.
The original episode occurred in 2013 and a few years later a vaccine became available.
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5 Hot Or Not?
Believe it or not, there was once a TV show called ‘Are You Hot?: The Search for America’s Sexiest People’. The premise was as simple and superficial as the title suggests. Contestants would appear on stage, prance around, show off their ‘hotness’ and be evaluated by a panel of judges on how physically attractive they were. Sounds pretty basic? Yep.
Sadly for Network ABC the viewers didn’t really fancy the 2003 series which was canned after only one series of terribly low ratings despite airing at prime time. It’s easy to look back now at early 2000s reality TV shows and think discernibly towards them for their pure superficiality and lack of inclusiveness, but this one takes the cake.
4 Big Brother’s Turkey Slap
The concept of a ‘turkey slap’ is vile and equates to sexual assault. If you’ve not heard it before, according to Urban Dictionary it is “to be slapped in one’s face, possibly other places, with a male’s penis”.
Unfortunately such an incident occurred on the reality TV social experiment ‘Big Brother’ where contestants are isolated inside a house and filmed 24/7. The presence of cameras everywhere didn’t deter two male contestants on the Australian Big Brother in 2006 in a booze-fueled incident where ‘blokey fun’ went way too far and turned into sexual assault.
Female contestant Camilla Severi was pinned down by fellow contestant Michael “John” Bric, while another male Michael “Ashley” Cox slapped her face with his penis. Remarkably the incident was aired on Big Brother’s Adults Only late-night show. Outrage followed, the pair were removed from the house and the late-night show axed. No police charges were ever laid, but Bric and Cox received death threats and were called rapists in public, while the Australian Prime Minister said the show should’ve been pulled off air.
3 Shots Fired During Vehicle Repossession
Things went badly wrong during filming for an episode of ‘Repo Games’, which ended up with a man charged with attempted murder and eventually sentenced to jail time. The concept of the short-lived show was the hosts, two repo men, would offer owners of vehicles in danger of being repossessed one chance to have the debt fully paid off by playing a trivia game; simply answering five questions. If the owner got three right, the debt would be paid off. If not, they’d tow away the vehicle.
During an episode in Las Vegas, that didn’t sit well with Carlos Barron. It must be noted, the Repo Games crew weren’t visiting Barron’s home or threatening to tow away his vehicle. In fact, Barron was enraged that the crew had parked a van which blocked his driveway, when visiting a neighbour on the same street. As a result, he decided to confront the crew, turned irate before randomly opening fire. The crew fled the scene after Barron shot at their van.
No one was hurt. Charges were laid and Barron faced up to 22 years in jail although some charges were dropped, meaning he was sentenced to 90 days in county jail and five years of probation.
2 Gay Bachelor’s Cruel Twist
Bravo’s ‘Boy Meets Boy’ lasted one season back in 2003. It had the same concept as ‘Joe Millionaire’, ‘The Bachelor’ or ‘The Bachelorette’ but that the leading man was gay along with all the suitors. The idea was initially applauded for its inclusiveness, before it was later revealed that half of the contestants weren’t actually gay. They were simply pretending.
The cruel part was that Bachelor James Getzlaff wasn’t informed of that until late in the series. At that point, the twist was that if James picked a gay partner he’d win a cash prize, trip for two to New Zealand and potentially love (which really is what the show should be about!). But if he chose a straight partner, he’d walk away with nothing and the male who fooled James would win a $25,000 cash prize. Despite the deception, some viewers actually liked the twist, but others did not. The show never returned, although that’s partly because its popularity meant it was impractical to repeat given the twist.
And for the record James actually picked a gay partner but they split up before ever going on the New Zealand trip.
1 Transgender Outing on Survivor
Season 34 of the ‘American Survivor’, titled Game Changers, took an insensitive and unfortunate turn at Tribal Council in episode six when contestant Jeff Varner outed his tribe-mate Zeke Smith as transgender. You see, Zeke hadn’t revealed to his tribe mates that he was born a female, such is his right. But Jeff was trying to use his knowledge of that to desperately show that Zeke wasn’t trustworthy and should subsequently be voted out. “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?” he asked.
The immediate outrage from fellow contestants was clear for all viewers to see. The move backfired big time. All contestants were furious with Jeff’s insensitivity while host Jeff Probst also rebuked his tactic, but most disturbingly a silent Zeke appeared shattered by the public revelation which should have been left to him whenever, and if, he felt comfortable.
As a result, host Probst decided to take an open roll call instead of the traditional formal vote and Varner was promptly dismissed 6-0. Probst later said: “I cannot imagine anyone thinking what was done to Zeke was okay on any level.”
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About The Author: I am a Media/Communications professional and long-time Australian freelance journalist, having written for global publications including AAP, Sunday Times, FourFourTwo and many more. Follow me on Twitter @BenSomerford