Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sex, murder, action

From yesterday's Review in the Irish Independent...

The brutal killing of Jasmine Fiore by her husband, US reality show star Ryan Jenkins, raises worrying questions about the choice of contestants in this increasingly exploitative format, reports Susan Daly

Saturday August 29 2009

On the small screen, reality TV star Ryan Jenkins was a charming romantic. In the US show, Megan Wants A Millionaire, the 32-year-old estate agent recently vied with other wealthy contestants for the attentions of beauty Megan Hauserman. Jenkins played a strong hand, whisking Megan off in an Aston Martin to a fine French restaurant. "A sexy car for a sexy girl," he purred.

In the 'real' world, Jenkins was a murderer who strangled his new wife, former swimsuit model Jasmine Fiore, cut off her fingers and pulled out her teeth in a bid to prevent police identifying her body. He then stuffed her mutilated corpse in a suitcase and dumped it in a rubbish bin in San Diego.

The week-long manhunt for Jenkins ended last Sunday when he hanged himself in a cheap motel in British Columbia.

Understandably, a new reality show in which Jenkins had participated -- I Love Money 3 -- has been pulled from TV schedules. Yet no matter how deeply the footage is shelved in the VH1 channel's vaults, the fact remains that an extremely unstable person made it past all the psychological screening processes of two national reality shows.

He had a track record -- in 2007, he was convicted of assaulting a former girlfriend.

The case of Ryan Jenkins highlights two major issues: that the 'reality' of reality TV shows is deeply skewed, and how easy it is for a mentally disturbed individual to make it on to one.

Irish broadcaster and journalist Anna Nolan, who took part in the first UK Big Brother -- which after 10 years is being wound down after plummeting ratings -- back in the innocent days of 1999, was just ending a visit to Toronto on Monday as news of Jenkins's fate broke. "It is massive news in Canada," she said. "It was pretty sensational stuff. It reminded me of the way in which Jade Goody died, how horrific it was and so grotesque how her life had crossed over into a public obsession."

It's hard for Nolan to comprehend how far her experience as a reality TV contestant was from the shows that air today. The current series of The X Factor has been criticised for introducing a live audience to the initial audition round -- a development that some mental health experts think puts unnecessary stress on contestants.

Colm O'Driscoll is principal psychologist with the Forest residential treatment centre in Co Wicklow. The Forest clinic has treated several patients dealing with the pressures of living in the public eye.

"I think lots of different types of people present themselves for these shows," says O'Driscoll. "Some people are just talented and want to showcase it and see if they can build a career from there. But some are doing it as emotional compensation for some lack in their lives. They are definitely the more vulnerable group.

"I think they [the judges] are getting better at spotting if someone is fragile. I've seen Simon Cowell do this more and more; he will say, 'Let's get on with this: yes or no?' and wish the person the best. But that's easier to do in a private room with just a camera crew and the other judges. When you introduce a crowd that is heckling in the background, you lose the possibility to soften the blow."

The producers of competitive reality shows say they do their best to protect contestants. Phil Edgar Jones, creative director of Big Brother production company Brighter Pictures (part of Endemol), has spoken of the "talk of doom" BB contestants are given to "manage their expectations" of how their lives will be when they leave the isolation of the house.

Anna Nolan says she received ample offers of support after her time in Big Brother. "It was very funny on the night of the eviction. We had to meet the psychologist half an hour after the final show. He asked me, 'Do you need to speak to me about anything?' and I said, 'No'. He asked, 'How do you feel?' and I said, 'Fine.' That was it. But that was just me and I did feel fine; and I was told that I could have contact with him any time I needed him, whenever.

"Today, I don't know if they are made to go and see the psychologist but when we were in the house, we got an hour or two or whatever we wanted with him in the diary room, completely off the record, every week."

Nolan and her housemates were pretty normal compared to some of the reality TV contestants to follow in their wake. In 2006, mental health charity Sane warned that the UK Big Brother was "playing fast and loose with people's lives" after a number of very vulnerable contestants were placed in the house together. These included "paranoid" pre-operative transsexual Sam, former anorexic Nikki, plastic surgery obsessive Lea and sexual abuse victim Shahbhaz, who threatened to kill himself live on television before quitting the show.

As the premise of most reality shows is that contestants "survive" through to the next round -- and those who don't can return to their lives feeling like failures. Sree Dasari, a contestant on this year's Big Brother, self-harmed in his university dorm after being voted off the show. Several suicides have been attributed to the isolation contestants feel in the aftermath of some shows: in September of last year, Tania Saha, a 21-year-old woman who was rejected from Indian reality show Fatafati swallowed a bottle of poison immediately after her failed audition and died.

Even those who do well on reality shows can be vulnerable. Nolan has her reservations about the new incarnation of The X Factor, a format that was first tested on Britain's Got Talent. It was there, of course, that Susan Boyle, who has learning difficulties, managed to silence the sceptical judges and audiences with her powerful singing performance, but not before she had been sneered and laughed at for her frumpy appearance. A single, middle-aged lady from an isolated Scottish village, she ended up in The Priory suffering from exhaustion after the final.

"I didn't see the new X Factor yet," says Nolan, "but I know I remember feeling badly about Britain's Got Talent. Such pressure, these people having to get up in front of the roughest and the toughest audiences."

Psychologist David Coleman, who has presented TV series like Meet the Family and Teens in the Wild, says that he feels a great responsibility towards the people who appear on his shows. "I wouldn't consider that the shows I have done would equate with reality television," he says.

'It's been directly focused on helping people and the educational value for the viewer. But what I've made very clear is that I follow through with families as long as they want me to -- I am still in touch with the lads from last year's Teens in the Wild.

"But the reality is that there are production companies airing shows where there is a whole difference in how they are made, and they are for entertainment value."

As anyone who enjoys the opening auditions of The X Factor and American Idol knows, the most entertaining contestants are not always the most stable.

The Forest's Colm O'Driscoll has huge concerns about this. "They showcase the really bad acts, but more significantly, the really bad acts who believe they are actually very, very good," he says. "It is among that group where there is a delusional element that you will have a high proportion of people with serious mental issues. And if you are showcasing that, there is an element of exploitation for sure."

REALITY BITES: When the fallout of TV infamy becomes too much for contestants.
JULY 1997: Sinisa Savija was the first person to be voted off a Survivor-style Swedish show called Expedition Robinson – he threw himself under a train, and his widow said that he had felt “degraded as a person”.
February 2005: Boxer Najai Turpin, father to a two-year-old girl, shot himself in his car on Valentine’s Day after losing a bout on a Sylvester Stallone-hosted boxing reality show, The Contender. He was 23.
July 2005: Carina Stephenson , 17, and her family spent four months filming the historical re-enactment show The Colony in the Australian outback but she hung herself on their return to their home in Yorkshire, England. Her family said she had become withdrawn after coming out as a lesbian and it was discovered that she had been exploring suicide websites.
September 2005: Bipolar disorder sufferer Kellie McGee died in the fallout from her sister Deleese Williams’ appearance on the US version of Extreme Makeover. Producers had Kellie make disparaging remarks about her sister’s appearance on camera. Deleese’s operation was cancelled at the last minute, sending her home asking, ‘How can I leave home as ugly as I left?’ Guilt-stricken Kellie killed herself.
July 2007: Cheryl Kosewicz, a contestant on CBS show Pirate Masters, killed herself two months after her boyfriend Ryan O’Neil committed suicide. She wrote on a fellow contestant’s MySpace page that: “I’ve lost the strong Cheryl and I’m just floating around lost. This frik’n show… was such a contention between Ryan and I plus it’s not getting good reviews… then I made the National Enquirer today so… the hits just keep on coming.”
October 2007: Nathan Clutter, a bipolar sufferer and a depressive, killed himself by jumping from a mobile mast weeks after finishing filming on Paradise Island 2 in the US.
February 2007: Former S Club 7 star Jo O’Meara told how she tried to commit suicide when she was accused of racially bullying Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty alongside Jade Goody. Her suicide bid, a cocktail of whiskey and Nurofen, was foiled when a friend found her unconscious in her bathroom.
November 2008: Paula Goodspeed had been stalking American Idol judge Paula Abdul for 17 years when she managed to audition for the show. She overdosed on prescription drugs in her car near Abdul’s house after she failed in her audition. Abdul said that she had asked producers not to let Goodspeed on the show but they ignored her pleas.
April 2008: Simon Foster, a participant on the UK’s Wife Swap, died of a methadone and alcohol overdose in Brighton after his life took a serious turn for the worse after the show aired. A friend said that the show had put “an enormous strain” on Simon, who had been shown to each openly have a girlfriend outside their marriage. His wife took their two children to live with her lover, Foster lost his job and he became homeless.
May 2009: Susan Boyle still lived in the rural cottage she was born in, with her cat Pebbles, when her turn on Britain’s Got Talent, made her a YouTube phenomenon and a global celebrity. She was admitted to The Priory clinic in London to be treated for exhaustion just days after the show’s finale. Her family spoke of how she had been “battered non-stop for the last seven weeks and it has taken its toll”.

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