Screengrabs and photos obtained with permission by Thomas Hobbs
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The disputed legacy of There’s Something About Miriam: how the “trans trick” lives on

Did the offensive TV dating show with a “twist” sow the seeds for how trans people are depicted today?

When it first aired on Sky 1 back in 2004, There’s Something About Miriam took reality TV to strange new places. Taking its cue from dating shows such as Blind Date, the concept was relatively simple; six straight British males fight for the attention of a beautiful Mexican model called Miriam Rivera.

The twist? In the last episode – which was viewed by 1.4 million Brits, according to Rivera’s now defunct “fan site”  – it is revealed she’s actually a trans woman. Each of the men laugh hysterically, with the final scene framed as if to urge viewers to point at the screen and shout: “HA! She’s got a penis!”

Watching the show in 2017 is a glimpse into a Britain where transgender people were mere comedy props for the media. In fact, one tabloid headline mockingly asked at the time: “Would you guys?”

“It just confirmed what I already sensed about the world – that I was a joke”

“The contestants were disgusted because they felt they had been deceived into ‘acting gay’ and being gay was such a terrible thing back then,” remembers Shon Faye, a writer and comedian, who watched the show when she was just 14. Faye, a trans woman, was still trying to make sense of her gender identity back in 2004. To her and thousands of others, There’s Something About Miriam showed them one of the first real transgender women they’d seen on mainstream television.

“Whether I was ‘just’ gay or something else – the show told me I was screwed either way,” she adds. “It didn’t scare me – it just confirmed what I already sensed about the world – that I was a joke, that this world wasn’t built for people like me [or Miriam] and that society was fine with that, which is why television was able to make this show.”

Although the “twist” was blindingly obvious to viewers from the outset, the contestants were never told during filming and many would kiss Miriam on camera. Subsequently, following the completion of the show, each sued producer Endemol for conspiracy to commit sexual assault, defamation and personal injury due to the “psychological and emotional damage” they had suffered; all six eventually settled for an undisclosed fee. One report suggested they’d been paid as much as £500,000 each.

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Unsurprisingly, There’s Something About Miriam is a show Sky looks to have buried, with episodes about as easy to track down as a copy of Shazaam. But its creator Remy Blumenfeld, who back in 2004 was a rising TV producer who had just sold his Brixton-based production company Brighter Pictures to Endemol for £10m, is now willing to reflect on the show publicly for the first time.

“It’s hard to produce TV that gets people talking. Miriam made headlines around the world,” he says. Blumenfeld, who also has reality shows such as Gay, Straight or Taken and Tabloid Tales with Piers Morgan under his belt, claims the show was progressive.

“We were helping the audience to get to know one trans character very well”

“You have to remember that at the time, so like ‘03 to ‘04, transsexual people were very seldom seen on TV. So just by casting a trans person in the title role, we were helping the audience to get to know one trans character very well. And while today, that in itself might not be groundbreaking, at the time it felt important,” he tells me.

“For me, the show was always about finding an engaging, populist way of exploring whether attraction is primarily from the neck up or from the neck down.”

Not everybody agrees with his assessment. Or, as equality campaigner Paris Lees tells the New Statesman: “He’s talking out his arse! All Miriam did was tell trans people: ‘We will put you in a swimsuit and sexualise you, but we will laugh and feel ashamed about it afterwards!’

“It shows just how low the bar was back in 2004 in terms of trans representation; when just to see someone trans, even if they were the butt of a joke, was somehow seen as progress.”

I ask Blumenfeld how he would respond to those – like Lees – who believe representations such as There’s Something About Miriam stirred up hatred and ridicule for transgender people.

He claims steps were taken to cast men who would be “sympathetic” to Miriam. However, he does admit: “I deeply regret the way her suitors, and subsequently the tabloid press, sought to deal with their own unresolved issues around gender and sexuality by making her the joke.”

The show was supposed to end with the winner taking away £10,000 and going on a romantic holiday with Miriam. But “peer pressure” meant that winner Tom Rooke, then in his early twenties, was too shy to follow through with the romantic getaway, despite initially accepting the offer on camera. This is an ending Blumenfeld also regrets.

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Just two months after the last episode of Miriam aired, Endemol (also the producer of There’s Something About Miriam) casted Nadia Almada, a trans woman, in the fifth series of Big Brother. Faye recalls: “Nadia won Big Brother right after all the Miriam controversy and I think that reversed some of the damage to trans people’s public image, fortunately.”

But while Almada did win the reality game show, the mainstream media still routinely mocked her for doing so. TV “funny man” Leigh Francis infamously poked fun at her in a Bo’ Selecta! skit, where he played a caricature sitting in the Big Brother diary room chair with testicles hanging out of his dress.

So was Nadia an apology by Blumenfeld and his producers following the fallout of There’s Something About Miriam?

“The audience, who the tabloids had claimed were so shocked and appalled by Miriam voted Nadia the winner of Big Brother,” he replies. “Look, in 2003, before the age of Twitter and Facebook, we had no way of telling whether the public really were shocked at all [by Miriam].”

 “It was very ahead of its time”

Yet Lees and others were – and still are – deeply disappointed by the show. She says that for thousands of transgender kids watching, the message was that the only way they could gain value in the world was to be sexualised or made into “pariahs”. Such TV and film portrayals are the reason why so many transgender people turn to sex work, she adds.

What about Miriam Rivera herself? In 2010, the Daily Mirror reported that she was a £300-per-hour escort. Her internet listing reportedly included the promotional line: “You probably heard about me being one of the most beautiful transsexuals in the world and famous for my reality show There’s Something About Miriam.”

Nevertheless, the show was a big success for Endemol and Blumenfeld, and was syndicated in Australia, Argentina, the US and Poland. Rivera even promoted it as a guest on Polish TV chat shows. Blumenfeld says she spoke “positively” about her experience during these promotional appearances. However, he admits he’s not spoken to her since 2008.

He insists the show was “very ahead of its time”. But going by the enduring anger about the premise among high-profile trans commentators in modern-day Britain, that surely says more about the time than the show. A time that may not be behind us – while trans people are no longer represented in such crass entertainment formats, the default tendency to demean them or obsess over their bodies in our media continues.

Thomas Hobbs is a freelance journalist. He tweets @thobbsjourno.

Photo: Getty
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Linking Chester Bennington's suicide to Linkin Park's music is dangerous and irresponsible

How we write and talk about suicide is a matter of life and death.

We are so wrong about suicide. What we want more than anything is for it to make sense. To turn the life of the victim into a good story, with all the narrative beats leading up to a satisfying conclusion in their death. No mess and no untidiness. That’s especially true when the person who has died by suicide is famous – someone on whom we are already used to writing our own meanings. We start to wind myths around them.

So when Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington apparently died by suicide on Thursday, this is what happened. People started looking for patterns, turning his work into a prelude to his suicide, even implying that his death brought greater meaning to Linkin Park’s tightly-wound songs. “Linkin Park star Chester Bennington’s hurt made beautiful music,” said one headline;  “Those lyrics […] are of course now extremely poignant,” remarked one obituary.

It should be obvious why it’s tacky to turn a human death into an intensifying filter for our own aesthetic responses. It’s perhaps less obvious, but more important, to understand why this is dangerous. Saying that Bennington’s suicide proves the worth of his music comes under the heading of “[promoting] the idea that suicide achieves results”, something the Samaritans warns against in its reporting guidelines. The reason for this warning is that such narratives contribute to the risk of “suicide contagion”, where other people attempt suicide in imitation of the reported act.

Two things make contagion an especially urgent issue here. Firstly, Bennington’s confessional lyrics mean his relationship with fans was always one of intense identification: for many, his words expressed their own most private and painful emotions, binding singer and listener in shared feeling. Secondly, Bennington himself may have been influenced by another suicide, with reports emphasising parallels between his death and that of Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell in May (and not, it must be said, emphasising them with much care for reporting guidelines).

“Suicide influence is strongest on those who are close to the victim in some way, or like them, in all meanings of the word,” writes Jennifer Michael Hecht in Stay, her thoughtful book on suicide as a social phenomenon. Bennington was a fan, a friend and a professional peer of Cornell’s. All the conditions for “closeness” were there – so why is there such carelessness about emphasising that same “closeness” between Bennington and his audience?

This is the truth about suicide: it is always a hideous accident, a terrible conjunction of urge and opportunity that tears through families and communities. There’s a temptation to think of suicide as a crime in which the only victim of violence is also the perpetrator (no mess and no untidiness), but this is so wrong. Those left behind are victims too. Exposure to suicide, whether through immediate bereavement or through media representations and reports, is a key risk factor in suicide attempts.

I suspect we would all feel better if suicide was an unstoppable reaction to uncontainable internal forces. Then, we’d have no collective responsibility. People like to share a quote from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest where the author (who himself died by suicide) writes: “The person in whom Its [ie depression’s] invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.”

But suicide is hardly inevitable. Ninety per cent of people who survive attempted suicide once will not die by suicide. What does that mean for those who complete suicide at first attempt? How many of them, if they hadn’t had the dumb luck to be unsaved or unsavable, would have gone on to want to live? Suicide is a theft from the future self who could have chosen to go on, as well as a theft from those left grieving.

You can see how impulsive suicide is by looking at how suicide rates fall and rise. When particular means of suicide are taken away – for example, the detoxification of household gas, or the restriction of sales of paracetamol, or the introduction of barricades on tube platforms – there are fewer suicides. Not fewer suicides by that method, but fewer suicides overall: there is little substitution. And when suicide is given extensive, sensationalist coverage, rates go up.

How we write and talk about suicide is a matter of life and death. What if Foster Wallace or Cornell or Bennington had been lucky and survived? Their work would be the same. Same greatness, same flaws. The happenstance of suicide adds nothing, only wounds, and the media is morally derelict when it suggests anything else. We should never be careless of each other or ourselves when our carelessness has mortal consequences. 

If you've been affected by any of the issues addressed in this piece you can call the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.