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29 March 2023

The rise of reality star documentaries

Former cast members from Love Island or Made in Chelsea have a new route to relevance – presenting “serious” factual programmes.

By Sarah Manavis

There are recognisable stages in the life cycle of the average British reality star. Their stint on their origin show – the reality series that took them from private citizen to familiar face, be it Made in ChelseaThe Only Way Is EssexLove IslandEx on the Beach, even Gogglebox – is swiftly followed by an increasingly standardised path. They appear on dating and game shows, the casts of which are almost entirely made up of people from reality TV (Celebs Go Dating; CelebAbility), which are also often hosted by reality stars. They might host a chatty lifestyle podcast, pairing up with and interviewing other reality stars (such as Wednesdays We Drink Wine, The NearlywedsPrivate Parts and 6 Degrees). The lucky ones might get their own limited series on ITVBe.

The British reality star has maintained prominence by bouncing between these knowingly trashy reality shows for the last decade. Occasionally the odd star will manage to break out from this cycle – see Love Island’s Alex George and Josh Denzel, who have both made serious careers in public health and sports commentating respectively. But for most part, this is how they will make a career, if they make it all.

In the last eighteen months a new opportunity has opened up for the British reality star, one that lends them that gold dust of respectability: the zeitgeisty documentary. At an increasingly rapid rate, on almost every mainstream broadcaster – including the BBC – reality stars are presenting major, heavily publicised projects covering serious subjects.

[See also: More reality TV bookings beckon for Matt Hancock]

ITV had Olivia Attwood: Getting Filthy Rich, a docu-series about online sex work hosted by the 2017 Love Island finalist; BBC Three released a trio of hour-long documentaries from the Love Island and Made in Chelsea star Zara McDermott in the last year, on revenge porn, rape culture and disordered eating. Last month Channel 4 announced a documentary from the Made in Chelsea regular Sam Thompson (McDermott’s long-term partner) exploring his experience of ADHD.

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The topics covered by these documentaries are often worthy. The prevalence of eating disorders have reached record highs among young people in the UK, ADHD is badly underdiagnosed and the waiting time for an NHS initial assessment is up to seven years. It’s understandable that networks are commissioning documentaries on these important subjects. It’s less understandable that reality stars are being chosen to lead them.

In almost all of these instances the reality stars are only flimsily linked to the topic at hand. The star usually has some minor experience of the subject, or simply an interest in it (in Attwood’s series, the explanation offered was her work posting pictures of herself to social media as an influencer). Such an insubstantial connection to the topic is typically matched by shallow exploration. In some cases these celebrities are even contributing to the social problem being examined: McDermott, a rail-thin model who has had several cosmetic procedures, spends much of her documentary about eating disorders discussing an Instagram account she ran for several years dedicated to dieting and weight loss. (The narrative of the documentary largely focuses on McDermott realising that this account may, in fact, be a bad thing.) 

[See also: The X Factor was exploitative and cruel – but has reality TV really changed?]

The stories put at the centre of these documentaries don’t just verge on tone deaf, they also crowd out others that could be more useful to audiences. While McDermott has said that she has struggled with eating disorders in the past, would it not be more enlightening to hear from someone who has experienced fatphobia? Or even just someone who doesn’t actively uphold the beauty standards that make eating disorders so prevalent? As noted in a recent discussion on the Guardian’s Pop Culture podcast between Chanté Joseph, the host, and Demi Colleen, an influencer and writer, Thompson’s story will inevitably be an unrepresentative picture of what it’s like to have ADHD in Britain right now. Thompson will be able to get a quick, private diagnosis with the help of expensive experts and doctors, while most other people will wait years to be assessed by an NHS specialist. Broadcasters’ commissioning budgets are spent on semi-famous faces, and the resulting documentaries therefore speak to the privileged few.

This isn’t to say that no reality star should front a documentary on a serious topic, nor that it’s impossible for their story to be valuable. A good recent example was the Made in Chelsea cast member Spencer Matthews’s Finding Michael, released last month on Disney Plus. Matthews’s brother disappeared on Mount Everest in 1999, hours after becoming the youngest Briton to reach its summit; in the documentary Matthews goes searching for his body. This is obviously a unique situation, and Matthews has a perspective that few in the world can share.

Like influencer publishing, this type of television programming has obvious financial appeal. Broadcasters have realised that they can draw in some of that infamously hard to capture under-35 demographic with popular reality stars talking about trending topics. And for the reality stars there’s an obvious benefit too: they can wrap themselves in a sheen of seriousness. In some cases they also get to rehabilitate their public image (Matthews, conducting his harrowing search of Everest, is miles away from his past playboy persona).

The media is, of course, motivated by eyeballs and profits. But the slow creep of reality TV into other genres means we are losing what little space there was for lesser-known but more valuable voices. By prioritising recognisable faces in pursuit of fickle audiences, we miss the chance to go deeper. The winners are the networks and producers, and the reputations of these celebrities; the losers are those who are seriously affected by the topics given only shallow consideration.

[See also: Big Brother returns in 2023: why reality TV shows are inherently bad for contestants’ mental health]

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