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!”
“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.
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.
“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.
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].”
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.