How to get an identity crisis

Observations on Big Brother

The latest gang of wannabe celebrities to enter the Big Brother house should be warned: the greatest challenge is not living under the goldfish-bowl scrutiny of reality TV itself, but the endless media circus that attends your return to the "real" world.

When I left the Big Brother house last year, I was overwhelmed by a waiting press inquisition. It was strangely like being embraced by a vampire. Since that time, I have lived in an unfamiliar world. Indeed, my whole identity has undergone a radical reinterpretation. In the media prism in which I am now trapped, I have become what the public believe me to be, the personality the nation created. I am no longer an educated, respected professional, a creative writing initiator and performance poet, but "Penny, the teacher who dropped her towel". Overcoming this mantle is the task that confronts me every day if I am to re-enter the rat race once more.

Beware the heady allure of fame. In supermarket queues, on the bus, waiting for a cab, I cannot escape recognition. Strangers chat to me as if I were a long-lost friend; hysterical crowds of kids mob me; some even buy disposable cameras to steal my image and take it home with them. Imagining your face fixed on fridges in unknown kitchens, between shopping lists and family snaps, quickly brings you back down to earth. The realisation that you are simply a media-created commodity soon tarnishes the gilt of celebrity.

So who am I now? Who was I before the events of this bizarre year overtook me? It is clear that I walked into that house with a suitcase of suppressed questions about myself, which I was soon forced to confront. Why am I here? What is lacking in my life? The house presented an opportunity to get to know a group of strangers and to discover a degree of intimacy unusual in everyday life. I hoped that the shared experience would liberate those at home to feel good about themselves and their relationships, too. But, sadly, my fellow inmates were too self-conscious fully to relinquish their fears and pride. They were too self-aware to get the most out of the experience and have fun on a basic level. I don't take myself so seriously, and wanted my time in the house to show people that going a bit bonkers is no big deal. But my feelings of isolation increased to such an extent over the two weeks that I found myself praying to be eliminated because I was simply too exhausted to keep justifying my actions.

Despite the downside, I still don't regret participating in Big Brother. It made me appreciate that I am (perhaps contrary to all appearances) a well-adjusted, slightly eccentric person with a great deal of love for my fellow human beings. The experience has in many ways reaffirmed my passion and energy for inspiring others that I brought to my ten-year teaching career. Finding myself metaphorically shipwrecked, washed-up, vulnerable and alone after being cast out from the house - my reputation as a teacher in tatters - has forced me to draw on personal strengths I never knew I had. It is possible to begin life over again. To have been subjected to the merciless media frenzy of the past year, and to survive with my sense of self intact, is to find a priceless reality. New Big Brother contestants should heed my warnings - it is a long journey ahead.

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