Reality Show Contestants: The Sweatshop Workers Of The Acting World?

Ever since the first season of “The Real World” (damn that was a long time ago), I’ve watched reality television evolve—or devolve?—from a bunch of earnest 20-somethings struggling to make it in New York City to a bunch of fame-seeking whores pulling hair, getting wasted, and performing soft porn on camera. (Ever seen “Tila Tequila’s Shot at Love?”) I often ask myself what kind of person would want to live their life on camera? What goes on when it isn’t rolling? And how svengali-like are the producers? Luckily, the New York Times ran a story yesterday that answered many of my questions.

While people on these shows sign extensive non-disclosure agreements—they practically have to hand over their first-born should they reveal “reality show secrets”—most contracts expire after a few years. So some reality stars are opening up about their experiences while filming. After the jump, some the revelations from the article that shocked me the most.

  • Communication Breakdown. Reality contestants are often barred from communication with the outside world. Jen Yemola, a contestant on the 2007 season of “Hell’s Kitchen” said, “They locked me in a hotel room for three or four days before production started. They took all my books, my CDs, my phone, any newspapers. I was allowed to leave the room only with an escort. It was like I was in prison.” Brainwashing, loneliness, isolation…sound like a cult to anyone else?
  • No Food, But Plenty of Adult Beverages. Because reality shows are not subject to regular union laws, the contestants often work unbearably long days without meal breaks, and often for little or no pay. During the 2006 season of “The Bachelor,” contestants allegedly waited in vans for several hours while the crew set up for a 12-hour “arrival” party. Two contestants there was little food in the vans, but lots of vino. When producers judged the scene too boring, they sent out a production assistant with a tray of shots. “If you combine no sleep with alcohol and no food, emotions are going to run high and people are going to be acting crazy,” said Erica Rose, a contestant that season. Hey—alcohol always helps peeps “fall in love” faster, right? No wonder only one of these relationships has ever really lasted.
  • Sleep Deprivation. Another fun tactic used to make contestants appear insane—on Bravo’s “Project Runway,” 2005-6 contestant Diana Eng says she was crazy tired after multiple 18-hour days of shooting. She said she was often woken up by a camera crew standing over her. “One morning they scared me so bad I jumped and screamed,” she said. “They said that wasn’t good, so I had to pretend to wake up again.” I don’t even want to imagine what I would do if someone woke me up at 6am with a camera. I’m imagining a broken camera, broken nose, or both.

So what do you think? Should we feel some compassion for reality TV contestants, and assume that they’re normal people put in circumstances that make them a little nutso? Or are they fame-seeking lushes with exhibitionist tendencies who knew what they were getting into? [New York Times]