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Buying and selling authenticity: a decade of reality TV

In a decade dominated by social media, the format has bolstered the personal brand, transformed our idea of sincerity, and faced devastating new challenges

Deep fakes, influencers, viral fashion – we live in a world unrecognisable from the one we stood in ten years ago. As a chaotic decade comes to a close, we're speaking to the people who helped shape the last ten years and analysing the cultural shifts that have defined them. Explore the decade on our interactive timeline here, or head here to check out all our features.

Sitting on the steps beneath a pitch-black sky, Jade Goody laughs with her family on her wedding day. As fireworks crackle and pop around them, the 27-year-old turns to the camera that’s been documenting her entire 20s and signals, ‘enough’. Exactly one month later, she lost her battle with cervical cancer.

It’s been ten years since Jade Goody died, and the landscape of reality TV has transformed entirely, while somehow remaining the same. Described in a recent Channel 4 documentary as “the first real sacrifice of reality television”, Goody is emblematic of both the dangers and the potential of the intrusive format. Loathed, loved, loathed, and loved again, the star was one of the first people to capitalise on themselves as their selling point, becoming famous for ‘doing nothing’.

Goody was an influencer in a pre-social media world, and in the decade since her death, over-saturation of reality television has led to an abundance of new-world stars – a reality TV star is now the president of America – and a subsequently derisive fatigue. While wide-eyed ‘nobodies’ climb the fame ladder, venomous critics sit waiting at their keyboards – where once Goody had hateful, middle-aged tabloid editors, the reality stars of today have trolls working in real time.

Though reality TV at the end of the last decade had matured from its social experiment origins, it was still largely dominated by press opinion, as opposed to public, with ordinary-looking contestants seemingly playing themselves rather than playing up for the cameras. Relatively new shows like Love Island (launched in 2015) – in which men and women enter a villa and have to romantically couple up with each other to stay on the show – exemplify the stark contrast between the 2000s and the 2010s, with perfectly-sculpted contestants looking for Instagram followers and eye-watering Boohoo contracts. Daily episodes are carefully curated for optimum drama, with public responses on Twitter even brought into the narrative of the show for extra-cruel spice.

Communication professor Henry Jenkins explains that discussions about reality TV “are transforming the way we see and talk to each other”, and are “part of larger shifts in how we think about race, gender, sexuality, and class”. This is especially true for shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, which launched in 2009, and has since gone on to boast eleven US seasons, as well as specials and spin-offs, and a newly-launched UK series. Searching for ‘America’s next drag superstar’, Drag Race satirises shows like America’s Next Top Model, with drag queens taking part in challenges before one person is voted off each week. “When I first started doing drag, you were looked at by the gay guys at the club as being a freak,” Raven, runner-up of Drag Race season two and All Stars season one, tells Dazed, “and you were looked at by straight people in the same way, so you were in this weird in-between world that wasn’t celebrated except by drag queens. Now it’s great to see the world catching on and enjoying a celebration of the art that is drag.” 

However, Jenkins asserts that although “in some cases we are watching a show, embracing its values as our own”, in others “we are hate-watching it, making fun of people whose values contrast sharply with our own.”

This is especially prevalent in ‘low-brow’ shows like Love Island – regarded by many as ‘trashy’, with contestants often derided as clueless – and through series’ which expose problematic behaviours in society, such as Catfish. Launched in 2012 off the back of a 2010 documentary of the same name, the show brings online friends together IRL in an attempt to find out whether each person really is who they say they are. The ‘Catfish’ – whose identity is being uncovered – is typically exposed as lying, using fake photos on their online profiles. Though host and creator Nēv Schulman is always hopeful that both people are who they say they are, viewers are eager for heartbreak, willing the Catfish to be as far from their curated identity as possible. This urge lies not only in our appetite for drama, but also because viewers want to vicariously experience something deemed taboo in society, mocking those who are gullible enough to fall for such trickery.

“(Reality TV stars today are aware) of the potential for a celebrity or influencer career, so are mindful straight away about how they present themselves” – Honey Langcaster-James, TV psychologist

Schulman believes the show’s appeal is more complex than that. “As much as we want to point our fingers, yell, or laugh at these people,” he tells Dazed, “often they end up as reflections of ourselves. I’ve felt all the same things that most Catfish have felt – I’ve been lonely, I’ve been insecure, I’ve created crutches for myself to use to combat my insecurities.” Schulman believes that this is key to the show’s success. “It’s what real people’s lives look like,” he explains. “Everyone you talk to, for the most part, will tell you that they’ve met someone on the internet – maybe fallen in love, had their heart broken, maybe even been Catfished.”

Familiarity at a time when reality TV stars are more Hollywood than they are Big Brother is also the appeal of Queer Eye – a 2018 reboot of the 2003-2007 Bravo show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in which five LGBTQ+ figures (AKA the Fab Five) transform a person’s life. “We live in a world where you’re comparing yourself to every Instagram model out there,” the reboot’s design extraordinaire Bobby Berk explains, “and don’t take the time to let people feel loved and accepted for who they are.” Unlike the original series, in which the Fab Five were instructed to tear each “unkempt straight guy” –  as Berk says – apart, the reboot is an emotional rollercoaster, exploring how deeply-entrenched societal issues actually impact people. “It’s a different time,” Berk continues, “all the world is doing now is picking each other apart. It’s irresponsible to show a whole generation that’s funny, because it’s not.”

As well as encouraging relatability and bringing to light a previously-hidden phenomena – ‘Catfish’ is now the accepted term for deceptively operating under an alias online – Catfish can be credited as a pioneer when it comes to the crossover of technology and reality TV. The show would not exist without the advancement of social media, and reflects contemporary fears about fake news and the ease with which you can be misled online. Since Catfish’s launch in 2012, social media and reality TV have become almost indistinguishable. As well as explicitly mentioning it on the shows – e.g. Love Island’s ‘Mean Tweets’ challenge – every aspect of reality TV is influenced by social media: from the contestants selected, to their fate on the show, right through to their personal brand curation after the series ends.

“People are taking part in reality TV with more of an end goal than they were ten years ago,” reality television fan Eki Igbinoba says, explaining that the reason she’s drawn to the format is because she hates “feeling left out of memes and conversation on my Twitter timeline”. TV psychologist Honey Langcaster-James, who’s worked on shows including Love Island and Big Brother, agrees: “(Reality TV stars today are aware) of the potential for a celebrity or influencer career, so are mindful straight away about how they present themselves.”

This is especially true for competitive shows like Love Island and RuPaul’s Drag Race in which public opinion means everything. “I went on there to meet someone,” Amy Hart, a contestant on 2019’s Love Island, reveals, “which I know is a bit stupid in hindsight. When I came out of the villa, I realised I was on a gameshow and that other people were there to be famous.” Though she does add that she thought she’d leave the show with “a few more Instagram followers”. 

“All these kids who have grown up with social media,” Drag Race’s Raven says, “watch the way people manipulate themselves and decide, ‘I’m going to go on this show but I’m going to say very little and give just enough so I don’t get myself in trouble’.”

“I went on there to meet someone, which I know is a bit stupid in hindsight. When I came out of the villa, I realised I was on a gameshow and that other people were there to be famous” – Amy Hart, Love Island

Langcaster-James says success on reality shows is about “striking a balance between being sufficiently larger-than-life, while also hanging onto the authenticity that makes (reality stars) seem like real people who the public can relate to”. Although, because a crowd-pleasing ‘performance’ on reality TV can now lead to huge profits and fame after leaving the show, questions are being raised about the ‘reality’ aspect of modern reality TV. With contestants hungry for a media career, is anything we see on reality television authentic anymore? 

When it comes to Queer Eye, Berk asserts that the show’s popularity stems entirely from its authenticity, especially in relation to the Fab Five. “We don’t play characters,” he tells Dazed, “so people really feel a connection to us.” While this is likely the intention, it’s difficult to completely be yourself on TV, especially when tasked with being a ‘model minority’. “I find it to be a huge responsibility of me and my cast mates to always make sure that we’re being a beacon of hope, positivity, and love,” Berk adds, explaining that he wouldn’t want fans to see him as “a sham”. 

In contrast, Hart believes it’s impossible to be entirely authentic on television, “because you’re an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation”. Marc MacDonald, a fan of the format, agrees: “Reality TV is shit now. Back in the day, nobody knew how much it would blow up so didn’t care what the cameras got.” With contestants hyper-aware of how they’re being perceived on social media – and its subsequent impact on their hopeful media career – they’re more likely to perform for the cameras, as opposed to being themselves. “In the beginning Drag Race was about being pretty,” Raven recalls, “but now it’s about being fierce and over-the-top. It’s gotten to the point where these queens feel like they’ve got to pull a stunt to one-up the other person.”

At a time when everyone is curating a personal brand – often most explicitly demonstrated via their Instagram feed – what we now consider to be authentic has changed. “We want to see people’s flaws and insecurities,” Langcaster-James says, “we want to know about their concerns and what makes them anxious. If someone looks too perfect, or is presenting themselves to be invincible or without any of the daily battles that the rest of us are having, they alienate us.” Though it’s worth highlighting the irony of this desire – people expect reality TV stars to be authentic despite withholding the negative aspects of their own lives when posting online.

Viewers’ feeling of alienation tends to manifest on social media, through a phenomenon new to the decade: trolling. “Not everyone’s going to like you,” Hart says. “If you watch the show without going on Twitter afterwards, you’re going to have a very different experience.” While social media platforms have been instrumental in building careers by enabling basically anyone to become famous, the “constant trolling” – as Hart refers to it – has created a black cloud over reality TV, opening stars up to online abuse and real-life threats. The devastating impact of this came to light in the last couple of years when two young Love Island contestants, Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis, tragically took their own lives. “We give so much airtime to trolls,” Hart asserts. “I’ve said to my friends, ‘I never would (commit suicide), but I understand why people would’ because it is constant.” 

“In the beginning Drag Race was about being pretty, but now it’s about being fierce and over-the-top. It’s gotten to the point where these queens feel like they’ve got to pull a stunt to one-up the other person” – Raven, RuPaul’s Drag Race

Why do the public not only feel justified in making abusive comments online, but actually seem to take pleasure in doing so? Schulman believes the ability to anonymously hide behind your computer provides sufficient ammunition: “There’s a vulnerability you have in real life that I think the internet takes out of the equation.” While Igbinoba believes social media sites actually encourage trolling. “People are naturally entitled,” she says, “we feel as though our opinion has to be heard. Apps like Twitter make people feel like they should vocalise (their opinions) when that isn’t always the case.”

Personal censorship isn’t just confined to reality TV stars, as proved by Lindsey Stone’s 2012 war memorial photo, an offensive 2013 tweet by Justine Sacco, and Rosey Blair’s viral 2018 story of #PlaneBae. Everybody is just one tweet away from facing public cancellation or losing their job – or both – almost positioning each individual as the star of their own reality show, managing the balance between giving and withholding their true selves. This is most explicitly and extravagantly explored in the 2016 Black Mirror episode, “Hated in the Nation” in which ‘cancelled’ subjects of a social media hashtag are murdered. As Jon Ronson wrote in his 2015 book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed: “We’re creating a culture where people feel constantly surveilled, where people are afraid to be themselves.” 

Though trolls cast a shadow on a life-changing experience, for many stars, the negatives can’t outweigh the positives. “I would not have changed one thing that I did,” Raven concludes. Referring to social media, the drag star says: “I don’t owe anyone anything, so if I was on the show now you’d get exactly the way I was ten years ago.” Hart is also thankful for her experience, telling Dazed: “On the hardest days I think, ‘if one person can take something from what I went through, then that’s brilliant’.” Berk expresses a similar sentiment, explaining that Queer Eye’s impact on viewers is what makes it all worth it. “Our show has influenced how people accept themselves,” he says. “I’ve had people tell me that the show has prevented them from committing suicide.”

“Our show has influenced how people accept themselves. I’ve had people tell me that the show has prevented them from committing suicide” – Bobby Berk, Queer Eye

As we enter a new decade, we’re embarking on a new era of reality TV. With misinformation rife, and unfamiliar phenomena emerging from the advancement of technology, will 2020s reality television reflect our current dystopia back to us, or edge further into fiction with a much-needed sense of escapism? With Instagram rolling back features that benefit influencers, the marketing appeal of shows like Love Island may disappear. Coupled with the personal sacrifice that comes with bearing your soul on TV, the pool of willing contestants may dwindle, taking reality TV back to its ‘ordinary people’ roots.

In the 2010s, the format has come with its fair share of devastation – suicides, trolling, and contestants’ mental health have certainly suffered with the rise of social media and ubiquity of shows – and as a result, contestants have to be hyper-aware of their behaviour and how they are being perceived by the preying public, with most stars having access to psychological help and expert media management teams both during and after the show airs. This constant censorship undoubtedly impacts contestants’ and hosts’ ability to be authentic, leading to most series falling under the ‘scripted reality’ label.

It’s hard to say whether reality television will be more prolific in the 2020s, or ultimately face its demise, but one thing’s for sure: there’s no such thing as ‘reality’ on reality TV anymore, no matter how hard we convince ourselves otherwise.