With The Biggest Loser and So You Think You Can Dance hitting the finishing line this week and MasterChef Australia exploding onto our screens, it’s worth sparing a thought for the ugly duckling of Australian reality TV.
Unlike their cousins on higher profile shows, the girls from Channel Nine’s Ladette to Lady, which ended only a few weeks ago, seem to have got the roughest deal ever in the history of the genre.
Admittedly it’s a tough sell asking the public to feel sorry for anyone on a reality TV show — most people think if you’re stupid enough to go on a show you kinda deserve everything you get. But as more details emerge of this program it’s now becoming clear what a raw deal the young women who appeared on the show actually got. It’s fair to say they got it worse than people in any reality TV show before them.
At least on shows like Australian Idol and So You Think You Can Dance participants are venerated for their skills — as well as paid a stipend to participate. Both shows also offer winners $200,000 for professional development, representation with a top agent as well as record deals and the chance to perform in the US respectively.
The Biggest Loser, leaving aside its hurtful title, allows people a life-changing opportunity — which in their case also happens to be an opportunity that could save their life. Oh and $200,000 to the winner doesn’t hurt either. The Farmer Wants A Wife, while incredibly cringe worthy, could snag a willing participant an akubra-wearing bit of beefcake and a tree-change to boot.
Even the granddaddy of them all, Big Brother, awarded all housemates a $500 "second prize" for every week they were on the show, and most received additional rewards such as cars and holidays. Many made thousands on the nationwide nightclub appearance circuit which contestants automatically embarked upon after leaving the Gold Coast fishbowl. Winners of the show walked away with up to $1 million.
But the girls from Ladette to Lady had it very different.
To start off with they were deliberately sold as misfits. Introduced to the nation as a grab-bag of professional tarts, drunks and strippers we were told their only hope was to be sent to England to be bullied for five weeks by a team of sour-faced pretend aristocrats whose ideal model for a woman was a 1950s housewife. John Howard would have been proud.
But you could excuse them being portrayed as trash if they weren’t treated as trash as well.
Channel Nine has already had to defend itself against claims that producers of the show plied contestants with alcohol before filming the "back story" clips that introduce each participant to the viewers.
One girl, Bianca Stevens, says producers arrived to film the package with eight litres of "goon" (cask wine) to drink, before stuffing $50 bills in her pockets when she and some friends were later taken to a pub. "I’ve never been that drunk ever, I couldn’t remember it, I almost got fired because I didn’t go to work the next day," the 23-year-old says.
Likewise another contestant, Zoe Irons, drank so much of a bottle of vodka given to her by producers that she was able to be filmed vomiting into a bucket.
Runner-up Kristyn Gohrt says producers filmed her driving her ute even though they knew she was unlicensed and drunk. The 22-year-old had lost her licence earlier that month for drink driving. Channel Nine says producers had no knowledge that Gohrt had been drinking before driving or that she was unlicensed.
But these were minor complaints compared to the effect the show would turn out to have on competitors’ bank balances. Irons was literally rendered homeless by the show — due to the show’s policy of not paying participants’ living costs during their stint on the program, the 20-year-old was unable to afford her rent and so had to move back to her parents’ house.
The same thing happened to Gohrt, from Perth. "I was living in Subiaco with a friend but had to move back home because I wouldn’t be earning any money off the show so I couldn’t’ afford to pay rent while I was away," she said. Likewise, Bianca Stevens also had to move out of her share house in Port Kembla back to her mother’s home so she could participate.
Maria de Corrado, who left in the first week of the show, says that since then she has looked closely at the contract she signed to join the program and is disgusted. "I have a friend who is a lawyer and they say it’s a volunteer’s contract," says the 23-year-old. "The thing that annoyed me most was that they took but they didn’t give." The same contract stipulates contestants are sworn to confidentiality for three months after the conclusion of the show.
Industry professionals, who declined to be quoted, say Channel Nine could expect to make between $1.8 million and $3.6 million in advertising revenue from the show. The cost of paying the girls $500 a week to cover their living costs back home would have been about $15,000.
But the exploitation of the program’s "stars" didn’t just stop at making them effectively pay for the privilege of participating in the program. Irons, along with Stevens and other contestants Maria de Corrado and Skye Harper, did a scantily clad photo spread for Zoo magazine. But Irons was not paid by the lads’ mag, which is owned by the same company as Channel Nine, and says the other girls weren’t either.
For Stevens the indignity did not end there. By coincidence she had worked for Channel Nine affiliate WIN in her home town of Wollongong before appearing on the program — it was in fact through her job that she’d heard about the show. But since it aired she says her old employer won’t even return her calls.
"I was told I had to quit my job to [do the show]… and they pretty much said I’d have no problems getting a job when I got back. But I called them once or twice a week for about a month and they said there was no work available," she says. Stevens also says she has been struck down with depression since the show aired — especially after copping a bollocking in the local Wollongong media.
Another casualty, the show’s winner Nicole Mitchell, has cut herself off from other former contestants and is said to be struggling with the fallout from the program.
Only down to earth former electrician Sarah Brunton, who came fourth on the show, seems to have fared well from the experience. But she is concerned by what she sees as exploitation of her fellow contestants. "I’ve done well from the show, but then I had a plan and was a bit older and more worldly than some of the other girls. It worries me how unhelpful the show has been to most of them," the 30-year-old said.
For its part Channel Nine says none of the girls asked for payment, though it refuses to say if participants would have been paid had they dared to ask. A Nine spokesperson also says girls who were forced to move home to go on the show never raised this as a problem with the show’s producers.
But Brunton says she did ask for payment — and that she was told that there was "no chance" her contract would be amended so she’d get paid or that her rent and other expenses would be covered. She believes if she had pushed the issue she would have been excluded from the show.
But the broader issue of whether reality TV contestants should be paid, like the army of producers, camera people, editors and publicists who work on the shows, is a vexed question as old as the reality genre itself.
However, even where the rewards are not enormous, most reality TV producers at least offer some kind of compensation, whether they call it a payment or not.
Simon Whip, director of the Equity division of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance — the union which covers actors and other performers — says it comes down to whether you think participants are in a contest or doing work in a traditional sense. "My view would certainly be it is a form of work," he says. "Strictly speaking our union would have coverage for them, but not having worked in the media before it is unlikely they would have contact with us.
"Most people who participate in these shows won’t be familiar with the appropriate value of their work — how much the network makes in advertising revenue and how much the producer gets from the network as a licence fee. But without them there is no show."
Whip believes there is no doubt that reality TV participants are grossly exploited. "Reality television can be some of the most exploitative media there is and some of the producers in Australia have perfected it to an art form," he says.
He says even comparatively less exploitative shows like Australian Idol and So You Think You Can Dance fare poorly when compared to overseas versions of the same programs.
"In Canada and the US, Idol contestants are actually on union agreements. We have tried to negotiate with So You Think You Can Dance — but they barred us."
"We have advised performers not to go on So You Think You Can Dance … we don’t think the contracts which are offered to those people are appropriate for what is professional work."
While many point to the "opportunity" for further achievement presented by reality TV the vast majority of contestants will never go on to other high profile work. This has led many to argue they therefore should receive a fair share of the income they generate for the networks. Others believe "fame" itself and the chance to have an experience you literally cannot buy is payment enough.
It’s an issue with a lot of differing viewpoints, but a simple core. While opinions differ on whether reality TV participants should share in the profits of a show they help to make, most people would agree the simple principles of fairness dictate that the mostly young, inexperienced participants should not finish these shows with less money in the bank than they started with.
Think what you like about the manners of the girls involved, the reality is that the show took advantage of some inexperienced and not-very-well-off young people. For them, the producers of Ladette to Lady provided virtually no compensation — not for the way they portrayed the girls or for the extreme way they took advantage of the youngsters’ wish to appear on TV.
With that in mind, Ladette to Lady signals a distinct low point in what is now a well-established genre.
Auditions for the next season of the show are already underway. Channel Nine now needs to come up with some decent minimum standards on how its programs treat their vulnerable recruits.
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