Credit - Frankel: Nathan Congleton—NBC/Getty Images; Thompson: Ser Baffo—Netflix
In 2019 Morgan Enselme, a contestant who participated in the French Big Brother adaptation Secret Story France 5 in 2011, did what many other reality stars deemed unthinkable: she spoke out against the superpower production company that runs the popular show. Over a 30-minute YouTube video, Enselme gave a look into the otherwise mysterious workings of reality TV.
Enselme alleged that throughout the casting, filming, and post-production of the show—which required her to be sequestered from the world for 13 weeks—she experienced psychological manipulation, including restricted access to her prescribed antihistamines which led to severe symptoms, and, later, PTSD. With the video, which now has 4 million views, she aimed to give a better understanding of how reality TV shows function and potentially help future participants know what they’d be getting themselves into. Enselme recalls being isolated in that decision—she says while many of her castmates privately related to her experience, they were not willing to talk about it in public due to fears of retaliation or being blacklisted from production.
“A lot of stuff was done to push us to the edge and it was tough,” she tells TIME. “I knew I needed to wait for when my NDA expired, but I promised myself I would say something.” (Endemol, the show’s production company, never directly responded to Enselme's video. Several years earlier, Enselme had sued the company and reached a legal settlement in 2016.)
Now, amid ongoing strikes in the entertainment industry, Enselme is comforted to see a broader discussion emerge over exploitation in the reality TV industry. With writers and actors on strike in Hollywood, the production of new scripted TV has slowed to a trickle, and reality shows (along with game shows and reruns) will fill the void left on broadcast TV come fall. As unscripted TV dominates the channels, there has been a new push for reform in reality TV.
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Current efforts for reform
This summer, former Real Housewives of New York cast member Bethenny Frankel questioned why reality stars weren’t also on strike along with writers and actors, and led a call for reality TV unionization. “Reality stars should have a union or simply be treated fairly and valued,” she wrote in an Instagram caption. Frankel has since partnered with two high-powered attorneys to look into the alleged mistreatment of reality personalities. In August, SAG-AFTRA affirmed its support of Frankel.
Frankel isn’t the only one trying to bring reality stars together against exploitation. Earlier this year, multiple Love Is Blind contestants alleged that the Netflix reality series fostered an environment that was “hell on earth” in an Insider piece. Nick Thompson, a contestant from Season 2, said the production offered little in the way of support after putting cast members in a dating experiment, saying it “literally ruins lives.” His castmate, Jeremy Hartwell, filed a lawsuit against Netflix for “inhumane working conditions.” Following the Insider piece, Kinetic Content, the production company behind Love Is Blind, told The Hollywood Reporter in a statement, “The wellbeing of our participants is of paramount importance to Kinetic. We have rigorous protocols in place to care for each person before, during, and after filming."
Thompson and Hartwell have since launched the Unscripted Cast Advocacy Network, a first of its kind organization that provides mental and legal support to past, present and future reality TV stars with the help of volunteer lawyers and psychologists.
Enselme, who says she received mostly positive feedback online after sharing her story, says the resurgence of the conversation she tried to begin years ago makes her feel invigorated. She'll be joining UCAN. “I wish something like this existed when I came out of the show and went through a few very few dark years."
In reality TV, the matter of who can share what is complicated by star power and non-disclosure agreements. Frankel is a bonafide reality star with a large platform of her own—she can speak out and call for unionization while facing little in the way of consequences. For stars like Enselme, Thompson, and Hartwell, calling attention to the mistreatment cast members often face means they will likely never return to reality TV.
“It's terrifying,” Hartwell tells TIME, “Going up against these massive organizations and companies in feeling like you're the only one out there in the public eye doing it.”
Their organizing has already brought to the forefront conversations that usually stay behind closed doors with productions. But several factors—from production companies wanting to maintain low costs to reality stars facing NDAs and wanting to sustain their careers—mean that the road to reform is a long one.
The cheap cost of reality TV
Frankel’s call to unionize puts pressure on television production companies and networks to reconsider how stars in unscripted programming get paid. Currently, reality TV stars do not receive residuals and they give away their likeness in perpetuity when series become hits and get replayed across platforms. “I got paid $7,250 for my first season of reality TV, and people are still watching those episodes,” said Frankel in a TikTok video.
For networks, maintaining the structure as is keeps this form of entertainment cost-effective. Reality TV is already significantly cheaper to produce than scripted television due to lower budgets that don't require the employment of unionized writers and actors. Hartwell’s class action lawsuit claims contestants on his season of Love Is Blind were paid around $7.14 per hour, is significantly lower than Los Angeles’ $15 minimum wage rate, where the production company is based.
This fight is neither new nor isolated to just the people in front of the camera. Shab Azma, a longtime Los Angeles-based talent manager who has represented reality TV clients for shows like Top Chef and Trading Spaces, says the lack of structure is relevant to the conversations she has in negotiating deals.
“We really are in the wild wild west every time we negotiate because there’s no minimum baseline for pay structures, health benefits, production schedules, pensions and especially no residuals,” says Azma. “It would be so nice to have some sort of framework in place so it’s not going to the drawing board everytime. We feel like that has been long overdue.”
Azma says she’s already seen this recent round of conversation around reality TV impact current negotiations for her clients and these networks. “These conversations have been at the forefront of every negotiation we’ve had–but it’s even more so now.”
But not all reality stars share the same vision for unionizing. Lisa Vanderpump of Vanderpump Rules has defended the current structure (or lack thereof) saying on a Los Angeles Times podcast, “One of the great things about reality shows is that they’ve always been able to be produced for less money than scripted shows. And I don’t really understand how you can have a union for people that are normally plucked out of obscurity.”
Reality staple Spencer Pratt, who has been on several shows including The Hills, Celebrity Big Brother, and Marriage Boot Camp, recently told The Hollywood Reporter he doesn't think reality stars should be organizing because "going out and being reckless and drinking champagne and arguing with people about petty things, you don’t need a union for that."
For other participants who have not continued a career in reality TV, like Vanderpump and Pratt have, there is potentially also less of a vested interest in advocating for change.
How NDAs work in reality TV
When signing on to do a reality show, participants usually also have to sign a non-disclosure agreement, or an NDA, a legally binding contract that establishes confidentiality between the unscripted talent and the show. Violating the terms of the contract, which tends to last several years after a person’s time on a show, can result in legal and financial challenges. But adhering to the contract tends to keep unscripted talent silent about their negative experiences—and viewers in the dark about what really goes into the shows they enjoy.
Earlier this year, former Bachelorette contestant Blake Horstmann was sued and had to pay upwards of $175,000 after going on a series of “tell-all” podcasts that breached his contract. Love Is Blind’s Thompson recalls his fears of potentially getting sued before coming forward with his story of alleged mistreatment. “I was scared to and then I was just like, 'I've got nothing to lose. I've already lost everything,'” says Thompson, who has since divorced the partner he met on the show.
On Aug. 20, Bryan Freedman and Mark Geragos, the lawyers working with Frankel and cast and crew from Bravo, E! and CNBC series, wrote a letter to NBCUniversal, demanding that reality stars with NDAs “are all hereby released from any contractual provisions that interfere with their ability to freely disclose unlawful conduct in the workplace.” Bravo has since responded, claiming that cast and crew on their shows are only held to NDAs to protect their storylines before they air, not to prevent them from speaking out on unlawful acts.
Delicate job security
Many reality stars have found financial success and fame from the shows they appear on, and are hesitant to risk these gains by publicly coming forward in support of unionizing or talking about their poor treatment out of fear of not being asked back to potential future seasons or spinoffs.
Azma says the majority of her clients are pro-unionizing, although many of them have yet to publicly come forward. Hartwell and Thompson—who says he has struggled to find employment since his show ended and told the DailyMail he could soon be homeless—support Frankel’s unionization call-to-action. But substantial change would require more than just a handful of vocal reality stars.
“What we need is all unscripted casts to stop and think beyond themselves and extending their platforms,” says Thompson. “We all have to come together regardless of fame and success because from the production side, it's going to continue without proper guidelines, guardrails and regulations.”
Hartwell and Thompson say they have heard from nearly 50 people from shows like Married at First Sight, 90 Day Fiance, and The Bachelor eager to participate in the organization. Their hope is once they build a strong enough network, those peers will feel comfortable enough to come forward together.
“Once we get that it’ll be the catalyst that gets everyone else to join in on this,” says Hartwell.
Write to Mariah Espada at firstname.lastname@example.org.