A misunderstood democratic triumph

Be wary of criticising reality TV which, despite some "pretty dumb" spectacles, has managed to chall

So reality TV is crap, its viewers are chumps and its participants are talentless wannabes?

Consider a few recent stories. After preview screenings of the film Dreamgirls, the singer Jennifer Hudson was hailed as a "megawatt talent" by US critics. Hudson's big break? The reality TV show American Idol. In Dreamgirls, for her first ever film role, Hudson shares the screen with stars such as Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx and Beyoncé Knowles. All these actors have been praised for their performances, but only Hudson is seen as an Oscar shoo-in.

Then there's Connie Fisher, winner of the British talent show How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?. It was derided by actors and critics, who deemed it outrageous to use a TV programme to cast the leading lady in The Sound of Music. Fast-forward to Fisher's West End debut, where she was acclaimed as one of the most talented stars in musical history.

Next comes Leona Lewis, the breathy balladeer wowing the judges on The X Factor. She's apparently already been asked on to a top-rated American talk show, suggesting she might succeed where almost all recent UK acts have failed: conquering the US market.

To say that reality TV serves up nothing but dross is nonsense. I'm more than willing to allow that it has offered us some pretty dumb, even horrific, spectacles - including David Beckham's alleged mistress Rebecca Loos "pleasuring" a pig, and the diet expert Gillian McKeith poking around in human excrement.

Reality TV has also veered towards stereotype in its casting. The diversity of female contestants on Big Brother, for instance, has all but disappeared. Of the five women left in the house halfway through this year's show, four had breast implants and the fifth was a former Miss Wales. These flaws are the fault of blinkered producers. The more significant fact is that, since the current strain of reality TV hit our screens in 2000, it has proved a democratic triumph.

In a world still obsessed with the thin, the rich, the straight and the perfectly groomed, it has made stars of the most unlikely people - fat singers (Michelle McManus on Pop Idol), Portuguese transsexuals (Nadia Almada on Big Brother), even double-glazing salespeople (the Armstrongs).

It has also made visible the most ignored minority in the country: the disabled. This year's stars have included Kerry McGregor, a wheelchair-using X Factor contestant, and Pete Bennett, the popular Big Brother winner (who happens to have Tourette's syndrome). To say that either should have been protected from the experience is just bloody patronising.

I've always suspected that many who deride reality TV were born not necessarily with a silver spoon in their mouth, but with their foot firmly in the door. One of the reasons these programmes are so disliked by the elite is that they showcase the stories and experiences of people who aren't "supposed" to be on television - the poor, the suburban, the rural.

Aside from the lame celebrity spin-off shows, reality TV stars aren't people with well-connected parents. They're not the SADOs ("sons and daughters of stars") who prance at society parties and make up Tatler's Little Black Book of eligible folk. No, those who participate in reality shows have reached the screen because they are talented, or entertaining, or both. It's easy to portray contestants as wannabes, desperate for fame, unprepared for graft, but the truth is quite different. Connie Fisher, Leona Lewis and Will Young, for example, committed themselves to years of drama and music training. And yet, despite a clutch of scholarships and prizes between them, none had that final contact that would have got them noticed. Most people don't.

In 2000, when Big Brother was in its infancy, it seemed that appearing on such shows might ruin people's lives. Those first programmes had that potential. Contestants then were largely unaware of how the medium operated. Now the participants are well versed and there are remarkably few complaints.

Last year, Trevor Phillips spoke up for the genre, saying that by featuring many black, Asian and other ethnic-minority participants, it challenged racial stereotypes. This is true. Also true, and much less satisfying, is the fact that the winners chosen by the British public so far have all been white. Yet we can't blame this on the programmes.

In reflecting our racism back at us, they arguably provide a service. If there is one thing that would make me even fonder of reality TV, it would be to see this trend bucked. There's only one thing for it, people - rise up, and vote Leona!