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‘Not What I Signed Up For’: The Reality TV Reckoning Is Here (The Daily Beast)


In 2013, nine “privileged twentysomethings” faced the reality-TV switcheroo of the century when they arrived for the Canadian reality show The Project: Guatemala. They thought they were headed to a luxury retreat in Guatemala, but instead they’d been enlisted to build a community hall for orphaned children. Along the way, they’d also face tasks that would test them “physically, mentally and emotionally.” For one “challenge,” producers convinced the cast that they were about to die in a plane crash.

When they heard there was a “problem with the engine,” the young passengers screamed, cried, and prayed. As soon as the plane landed some could be seen sobbing, hugging one another, and kissing the ground. One young woman said through tears that she wanted to go home. Host Ray Zahab later revealed that it was all just a ruse.

“That’s not even the worst thing I’ve heard,” Love Is Blindalum Jeremy Hartwell told The Daily Beast during a recent phone interview. Having spoken with reality stars from across the decades (and around the globe) along with his Season 2 castmate Nick Thompson, he’s heard far too many anecdotes of deception, betrayal, and exploitation.

Some viewers might insist that “fame-hungry” reality stars know what they are signing up for, but some veterans of the genre argue the opposite. Earlier this year, Hartwell and Thompson founded the UCAN Foundation—which aims to provide legal and mental health support to cast members, advocate for change in the industry, and educate the public about the working conditions on these shows. In doing so, they’ve joined a growing number of former reality figures who’ve used their platforms to speak out about their experiences.


Speaking with The Daily Beast, international feminist attorney Ann Olivarius compared the boundary manipulation and violations reality participants can face to the ways in which the porn industry can prey on young women as they break into the industry.

“I think we’ll see a lot of lawsuits coming out of these players,” Olivarius said of the reality studios. “We’ve actually been approached by a number of these women who have said, ‘No, what happened to me there was not the deal. It was not what I signed up for. I wasn’t told about this.’”

As Olivarius pointed out, a union would standardize and enforce reasonable workplace terms and conditions including wages and overtime. It could also provide a powerful venue to file complaints if and when things go awry. In other words, “a union could be God’s gift for this whole profession.”