I met Omarosa before she was Omarosa. It was a brief encounter in October 2003 on the stoop of a brownstone in Brooklyn. NBC’s The Apprentice was being filmed in the apartment above mine, and I was heading up the stairs to complain about the noise and disruption. Omarosa passed me going the other direction, almost skipping down the steps, oblivious to my existence. “Are you the producer?” I asked. Her quick glance, a withering, beauty queen smirk, packed more disdain pound for pound than anything I’ve experienced since high school. “No,” she mocked, “I am not the producer.” By the time I found the producer, my boiling anger was intensified by several degrees; Omarosa had helped catalyze an emotional reaction that made for combustible drama.
Five months later, The Apprentice was a ratings hit and Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth (known, like Cher, Beck, Prince, and Madonna, by her first name) was a reality TV phenomenon, a person who transcended individual personality to become that holy grail of entertainment—a break-out character. Along with 20 million other television viewers, I couldn’t help but watch the show, occasionally entertained while also feeling cynical about the “reality of it all.” In my mind, reality TV was guilty of distorting human personality by putting people together in artificial situations to produce explosive social dynamics, and, when that failed, drastically editing scenes, dialogue, and situations to get the desired results. I was surprised, however, to see how closely the woman I now knew as Omarosa adhered to my brief experience of her in real life. She had been “in character” even off camera with me on the stoop. Rather than distorting her personality, it was as though reality TV had captured it in pure form.
How the hell did it manage that?
Sam I Am
When I spoke with Omarosa on the telephone for this article, two and a half years later, I developed a more nuanced impression of her, one that I’ll describe before this story is through. I told Omarosa that I was interested in how reality television chooses its contestants. What is the process people go through to get on a show? How had producers discovered her, arguably the most well-known reality TV contestant of all time? Did the producers distort people’s characters to get what they wanted? Though Omarosa agreed there was a very interesting story to be told, she wasn’t free to go into the details. She’d signed a three-year non-disclosure agreement that was in effect for another seven months. “Mark Burnett [producer of The Apprentice] scrutinizes everything I say and do in the press,” she told me. We could talk, but I’d have to rely on others to get any inside information on how people were selected.
Omarosa was one of 16 candidates chosen out of a reported 250,000 applicants for the first season of The Apprentice. Sam Solovey was another. We talked on the phone about his experience; he was less worried about the non-disclosure agreement. The day The Apprentice did an open casting call in Washington, D.C., Solovey decided to audition. Though he believed the contestants were often hired actors, he was intrigued enough by the contest to roll out of bed and give it a shot. The casting call billed the show as Survivor set in the Manhattan business world. Solovey, who had been making money in various business ventures since his teens and had the drive and energy of a salesman, figured he would do well in the competition.
According to Solovey, the audition line stretched around the corner of the building and down the block. Sweating in the sun, most of the hopefuls wore suits and looked very serious about their business credentials. Solovey hadn’t even shaved but he figured that anyone who was willing to wait in line that long to get on a show geared toward business success didn’t have much going on. If he went to the back of the line, it would be hours before his turn came. Aiming to distinguish himself one way or the other, Solovey waltzed to the front and offered a guy $50 to let him walk into the casting with him. Ten minutes later, Solovey was sitting around a table with a group of applicants fielding questions from the casting people. The first topic of discussion was business ethics. Solovey put up his hand. “Here’s one for you. I just paid this guy 50 bucks to walk in. You’ve all been waiting for four hours. Is that ethical?” The other applicants were furious, but Solovey was called back for the next round of auditions. Over the ensuing weeks, as the casting process winnowed 250,000 applicants to 50 finalists secluded in a San Francisco hotel, Solovey went from having no interest in reality TV to being consumed by it. “I’d do anything to be on the show,” he said. “That’s my personality. If something engages me, I go 150 percent.” When he reached the final cut, the producers said he wasn’t going to make it; they couldn’t type-cast him easily enough. As Solovey recalls it, Burnett, who’d already created the mega-hit Survivor, demanded, “Why should I hire you?” Solovey let it all out. “You have all these beautiful women with fake chests. You have all these men who are big athletes, and you’ve got me. Sam I am.” He got in Burnett’s face. “Sam I fucking am.”
He got the job.
Enter the Maze
Once applicants make it to the round of finalists, the exact process by which they are selected for a reality show gets murky. As Omarosa indicated, contestants sign hefty non-disclosure agreements limiting what they can talk about. In addition, it also seems as though the applicants themselves are deliberately left in the dark about what is actually going on. Secluded in hotel rooms, they are told not to talk to anyone. Contestants aren’t sure what stage of the application process they have reached or who else is in the running. From a competition standpoint, this has some merit, since it’s important that contestants have no information about each other before meeting on the show. But the isolation and uncertainty are also a taste of what’s to come; reality is being manufactured for them and their lives are no longer under their own control. They’ve become lab rats in a television production maze. They know they are being watched, and that they have to be in character and at high voltage—all the time.
“These are the people who can go on TV and be publicly humiliated and see it as a good thing.” To get on Hell’s Kitchen, Ralph Pagano did his first round of casting at Twins Talent, a New York-based casting agency, filming a two-minute piece about why he’d be well suited for the show. As a tough-talking, wise-cracking New York Italian who wore gaudy clothes and happened to be a professional chef, Pagano knew he filled a certain niche. He later told the producers, “If you’re typecasting for the Italian American, I’m in. I’ll give you what you want.” After a round of phone interviews with other casting producers, he and 49 other finalists were flown to Los Angeles and sequestered in a hotel. Over the next three days, Pagano says, he met with the producers for repeated interviews. In between, he filled out questionnaires, met with doctors, got his blood taken, had his past probed, and spent an hour with a psychiatrist who tried to get inside his head. “They want to know if you’re crazy,” Pagano says, “and if you are crazy, what kind—homicidal or just fun?”
Burton Roberts applied for the third season of Survivor after a friend suggested he submit an audition tape. He never heard back. A year later, at a party, he ran into a casting agent who asked if he’d be interested in trying out for Survivor: Pearl Islands. As a former Eagle Scout, an MBA who had worked in start-up companies, and an experienced adventurer who’d already competed on the 2002 Eco-Challenge in Fiji, Roberts was a Tarzan waiting for a loin cloth. This time his audition was successful. The producers called him back for further interviews, and he found himself in the final 50.
For Roberts, there was a lot of luck in getting chosen—after all, he was only one applicant of many who filled a very common “single, white, athletic male” demographic. But there was no mystery to how he got selected; he just had to be himself and hope that the self he presented was more interesting than his competition. “If you try to B.S. your way through, you’re going to get caught up in a lie, especially when you get to the personality testing.” The producers are looking for that authenticity because they believe it’s impossible to fake who you are on camera during the course of a shoot, and they want to know exactly what they’re getting before they let you on their show.
Omarosa likens the candidate-selection process to sausage-making—you enjoy the end product but you probably don’t want to know what goes into the grinder. “If people knew how scientific it was,” she says, “so much so that they had three psychologists, not one, examine us, test us, scrutinize us. Then we had a full-blown physical examination. Let me repeat,” she emphasizes, “a full-blown physical examination.” The scrutiny also entailed a full-blown background check, which included her third-grade teacher and current employer. “They knew with great accuracy how a person was going to react in certain situations,” Omarosa states. “They knew from my psychological evaluation that I had a problem with authority. I don’t bow down to anyone. I’m a natural leader, and I don’t defer to anyone else’s leadership. So in a situation like The Apprentice, where every week a different person was project leader, they knew I would have no respect for that authority figure. They anticipated how I would react with great accuracy.”
The Doctor Will See You Now
The responsibility for determining how candidates will react and whether they are “homicidal crazy or just fun crazy” rests with psychologists. For Survivor: Pearl Islands, Roberts was interviewed by two psychologists: Dr. Richard Levak and Dr. Liza Siegel. The same two doctors also interviewed Omarosa and Solovey for The Apprentice. Omarosa credits Levak with lobbying the producers to get her on the show. “From what I understand, he said to them that I had one of the most unique psychological profiles he’d ever seen.” According to what Omarosa says Levak told her privately, this profile was an unusual combination of high intelligence and high social skills and a balanced mix of feminine and masculine qualities, elegance and poise countered by a ruthless, competitive drive. Solovey was also fascinated by his personality assessment. “Levak nailed me right on the dot. I remember him saying that I am the kind of person who will go all the way to the edge, and I have to be careful that I don’t go over the edge.” Solovey acknowledges that while this tendency to go to extremes got him selected for the show, it’s also why he lost. And in the end, he believes it may be why the reality TV experience was so tough on him.
Levak is a psychologist and personality expert with a private practice in Del Mar, Calif. Although he has recently stopped consulting for reality TV shows, Levak has been instrumental in reality TV casting over the last six years, working on every season of Survivor, The Amazing Race and The Apprentice in addition to The Contender; three seasons of Big Brother; and a number of smaller shows, including Cupid, Mister Romance, and the Fox presidential election show, The Candidate. When he left Survivor after six seasons, he says, Mark Burnett awarded him the “immunity idol” as a parting gift.
Levak was asked to help cast the first Survivor because, he says, the producers were concerned about the possibility one of their contestants might commit suicide. They had good reason to be wary: Survivor is the licensed American version of a 1997 Swedish reality TV show called Expedition Robinson. Two months before that show premiered on television, the first contestant booted from the competition, 34-year-old Sinisa Savija, stepped in front of a train. His family claimed he was distraught over the intense experience of being rejected.
Levak’s role in Survivor and the other shows was to screen the final group of applicants and make recommendations. “Together with another psychologist, I would meet the finalists in a secret location and they would be given a battery of tests—personality, [standard] intelligence, emotional intelligence, and so on—that would then allow me to give feedback to the producers about who are the interesting personalities, what are their make-ups, and how they are likely to behave on TV.” In other words, Levak identified those applicants who might be vulnerable to the contest and those who had “big” personalities, while making some basic predictions about how people would act on the show.
Levak formulates all of his assessment conclusions in layman’s language in order to help the producers understand the dramatic possibilities in bringing certain people together on TV. For contractual reasons, he can’t use specific examples from the reality TV shows he has worked on, but he offers theoretical samples. “Classic psychological mumbo jumbo might describe you as a passive-aggressive, oral, dependent personality. But if I say that you’re a person who’s very preoccupied with how people see you and that you may go out of your way to please others, even at your own expense, the producers can see you as a peacemaker and conflict avoider, with a strong desire to avoid disapproval.”
“In my experience,” Levak said, “producers want the reality to speak for itself. They don’t want distortions. They may choose to edit to highlight the personality, but if you’re a quiet, withdrawn type, the producers won’t try to create something that isn’t there.” If you put 16 conflict-avoiders together on an island, Levak says, you won’t end up with very interesting TV. On the other hand, if you compose a group entirely with aggressive, extroverted, Type A personalities, you may produce some fireworks, but it’s unlikely you’ll sustain an audience’s attention over weeks. Instead, the most compelling viewing comes when people with different yet recognizable personalities evolve over time in relation to those around them while dealing with competition and trying circumstances—crisis meeting characters to create drama. While reality TV may not be Shakespeare, it’s at its best when viewers are drawn in by the contestants’ personalities and become invested in what will happen to them.
Levak defines the dramatic goal of reality TV as “an interesting evolution of human dynamics that is entertaining but not dangerous or exploitive.” The possibility of reality TV’s being exploitative gave him pause when he first considered working in the genre. “ When I told colleagues that I was going to be working on that kind of TV show [Survivor], they thought I was crazy. Yet I found it fascinating because I saw it as a social-psych experiment, something that’s almost impossible to do now because the experiments might cause people emotional strife or discord. I was given the chance to look at people’s personalities and make predictions about their behavior and perhaps do some good in protecting someone from being put on the show who shouldn’t be.”
Dr. Siegel, Levak’s colleague, joined Survivor in the third season and has also worked on The Apprentice since its debut. In addition to helping assess contestants’ personalities before the competition, Siegel goes on-site to see to their mental well-being after they have been kicked out of the game. Her two roles require different hats. “In the casting, I’m screening them, scrutinizing them, and telling everything they tell me to the producers,” she said. “[The contestants are] very aware of that, so there’s no confidentiality issues. But then, once I get there, I’m in a very supportive role. Suddenly, I’m not thinking like a producer anymore, I’m just thinking how I can best help these people who made it onto the show.”
On both shows, after contestants are voted off or fired, they meet with Siegel on a regular basis while still quarantined. According to Siegel, plenty of contestants have had extremely positive experiences and no regrets other than the fact that they did not win, but some have difficulty dealing with failure. “People can be very disappointed and hard on themselves,” Siegel says. “They’re looking for what went wrong, and kind of obsess about it for a while.” The two shows have some important differences in that regard. On Survivor, the contestants experience what Siegel describes as “social wounds” because they feel hurt and betrayed by their fellow contestants. In the debriefing sessions, booted contestants tend to talk at length about their relationships with family, close friends, and spouses, while also reflecting on changes they want to make in their lives. On The Apprentice the wounds are more professional and public. It’s a blow to the ego to be fired by Donald Trump. “These are people who are passionate about business. It’s tough for them when it doesn’t work out, and a lot of them thought this would propel them to a new level. So they feel disappointed because they thought it would be huge.” As go-getters, they’re ready for the next challenge, but they’re concerned that it won’t be as exciting or opportunity-rich as the one they just went through.
Siegel believes that the contestants who are selected for the shows have an innate ability to be resilient about setbacks and a strong tendency to find positive outcomes after a difficult challenge. “Richard calls them super-normals,” Siegel says. Levak explains, “I coined the term super-normal for a group of people who do not seem to cry over spilled milk.” Super-normals, he says, bounce back quickly and don’t take slights personally. They’re resilient and capable of dealing with stress. They’re willing to put everything on the line but can overturn even great disappointment with relentless optimism. As Levak puts it, “These are the people who can go on TV and be publicly humiliated and see it as a good thing.”
Siegel sometimes talks with contestants after the show is broadcast. “As the show airs, I watch it, and if I see something that looks like it’s going to be hurtful, they’ll call me or I’ll reach out to them and say, ‘How are you doing?’ I’ll even do follow-up way after the show. That’s the part I love the most because they almost all come out with amazing opportunities.” She gave me a number of anecdotal examples of people on the various seasons of The Apprentice and Survivor who dealt with the adversity that arose from appearing on the show and turned it into a positive life change. For the contestants I talked to, whether reality TV was a positive or negative experience had an awful lot to do with how fairly each felt he or she was used.
The extensive testing and checking that goes into contestant selection reinforces the possibility that reality TV captures authentic character. Yet people complain about distortion. Recently, for example, a contestant “fired” from the 2005 season of The Apprentice sued Mark Burnett and NBC for the way he was portrayed on the show. I asked Richard Levak if reality TV shows weren’t highly manufactured soap operas. “In my experience,” Levak said, “producers want the reality to speak for itself. They don’t want distortions. They may choose to edit to highlight the personality, but if you’re a quiet, withdrawn type, the producers won’t try to create something that isn’t there.”
The contestants I talked to acknowledged trepidation. Pagano went onto Hell’s Kitchen with the risk of distortion in mind but determined to let the chips fall where they would. “When the camera’s on 24 hours a day…you tend to forget or let your guard down.” Though he says negative personal emails and comments in chat rooms angered him, in the end, he feels the show was accurate and fair. He also finished second place, gained fame in the Hamptons, where he runs his catering business, and recently shot a pilot for The Food Network.
“Distortion is one of the risks you take,” Roberts says. “These shows have hundreds of hours of footage that get boiled down. I might be the funniest guy in the world, but if it doesn’t impact the game it may not make sense to show it.” While Roberts feels that editing showed a more narrow band of his personality than normal, it also managed to capture that part of him. “My strategy in the first week was to lay low, to not stand out, and to try not to be a leader under any circumstances. That lasted a whole six hours.” Though most of the contestants were new to roughing it, Roberts had highly developed survival skills and he found it impossible to watch someone struggle to build a fire and not step in to help. This behavior got labeled arrogant and even misogynist by fellow contestants and viewers commenting in chat rooms. “At the end of the day, you’re pretty much who you are, and that will come out,” he says. For Roberts, like Pagano, the experience was a highly positive one. In addition to having the time of his life on the show, he reassessed his career path and capitalized on his B-level fame by establishing a travel company that tries to recreate the experience of Survivor.
“Where you get pushed over the edge is not during the show, it’s afterwards. You don’t know what you’re getting into. I would not have done this if I had known what would happen afterwards.” Omarosa’s view of her own experience is telling. “I’ve never hidden my feelings about the show,” she laughs. “I’m very honored to have been selected and it changed my life. However, there is a reality behind reality television, and that reality is that it’s not real…. I can tell you that what I watched and what I lived through are two different things.” While she won’t go into specifics, Omarosa fingers the editing process as the means by which this distortion was created. “If I taped you over three days and I had the discretion of choosing whatever I wanted, I could paint you in any light I wanted.”
At the same time, however, Omarosa says her cold and calculating behavior on the show was coldly calculated, a comment that brings to mind Levak’s reported description of her as charming but ruthless. Omarosa states, “I made a conscious decision not to establish relationships with [my fellow contestants] during the taping… because I thought it would cloud my judgment. I looked at The Apprentice as an FCC-regulated game show, and I went into it looking at it as a game.” She knew she couldn’t get attached to someone personally and then hesitate to eliminate them in competition. “I genuinely like [fellow contestant] Kristi Frank but I took her out in the boardroom in probably the worst firing you’ll ever see. I devoured her in the boardroom. I genuinely liked her, and I was genuinely sad when she left the suite. The suite was very empty without her, but what are you going to do? It’s a competitive show. If it wasn’t her, it would be me.”
During the shooting, she says, she was surprised that the others didn’t behave this way and instead internalized the interpersonal friction of competition. When I mention that she seemed better able to compartmentalize than most people, she acknowledges misgivings. “I paid a very dear price for that. On the show I came across as very cold and distant.” Although she admits to being cold and distant as a strategy, she still objects to the way the producers portrayed that as being her entire personality. “There’s so many different levels to all of us. We have a business side and a personal side. We have a side that we’re like with our families and a side that we’re like with our college buddies, and they only showed one side of me. Yes, I’m very competitive. But I’m only competitive in competitive environments. Take me out of that and I’m a little puddy cat.”
Perhaps not a puddy cat, but I felt she had a point. The Omarosa I talked to wasn’t haughty, cold, and disdainful like the one who’d walked my stoop as if it were a red carpet. She was polite, friendly, generous with her thoughts and feelings, articulate, and insightful—with a cutting intelligence, some reflexive contrarian tendencies, lots of easy poise, and an immense self-confidence lurking below the humble surface. She wasn’t the infamous bitch that she’d been portrayed as on TV, but I had no illusions that she’d be a pushover in a friendly tennis match or Monopoly game. Describing her fame-driven life post-Apprentice, she still seemed imperial, a pop-culture diva of marketing and self-promotion—but so what? These crimes hardly warranted so much notoriety and a public-spoofing on Saturday Night Live. I felt for her in the sense that she’d been branded so thoroughly. But it also seemed as though she’d given reality TV all the fuel it needed to ignite the flames and had taken her brand and marketed it to the hilt—trademarking her name, appearing on Fear Factor and the Battle of the Reality All-Stars, and pitching a tell-all book.
Omarosa described herself as going through three distinct emotional phases after The Apprentice aired. The first phase was shock at the distortion of how she’d been edited. “I couldn’t believe I could say one comment and it would be followed with another [comment made much later that reinforced the impression.]” The second phase was acceptance. “OK,” she found herself realizing, “this is the reality America knows. It’s not what I lived through, but 30 million people now believe this to be true, so I have to react to how they presented it, not what actually happened.” And the third phase, in the parlance of motivational self-help, was action. “Now that I’ve been characterized as the biggest villain in reality TV history, what do you do about that, how do you market it, how do you capitalize on it, how do you exploit it? So I sprang into action. OK, you want to see naughty girl, I’ll give you naughty girl. And America and Hollywood loves a bad girl. When I go into meetings and if I’m not in bad girl mode, in character, they’re disappointed. They’re like, ‘Ah, man. She’s nice. It’s boring.’“ Showing no regrets, Omarosa adds, “If [reality TV] ended tomorrow, I will tell you very honestly that I did it to the fullest and rode the wave more than anybody.”
After the Fall
Even someone as resilient as Omarosa had difficulties adjusting to post-reality-TV life. “There was paranoia,” she says. “When I walk into rooms, I check for cameras. I wonder if there’s a listening device. I don’t think I had any traumatic psychological consequences, but there have been people who have, and that’s the other side of it. During the height of The Apprentice, we were the it kids. We could go where we wanted to go. People are interested in you, and then they move on. I’ve talked to people who have problems with that. It’s almost like surviving a tornado and going back and picking up the pieces of your life.”
If there was a range of positive and negative experiences I encountered, Sam Solovey’s was the low end. In our conversation, he was just as intelligent, articulate, and thoughtful as Omarosa, but he was also deeply candid about the emotional tolls. Solovey was fired from The Apprentice on the third episode. He describes the experience of competing on the show as a disaster. “It was very stressful. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t eating. They didn’t want you sleeping and eating because they want the extremes of your personality to come out.” Famously, Solovey fell asleep during one scene waiting for his teammates to complete a task. Some of Solovey’s behavior seemed bizarre to the other contestants, Donald Trump, and the viewers, though he says it made sense to him at the time. Returning from the board room on the second episode, he became upset that none of his teammates greeted his return, so he sat outside the door of the room for an hour and would not enter until someone came over to him. “I was making a point that no one cared about me, everyone was so consumed with themselves.” Brought back for the final episode, Solovey tried to buy a job from Trump, offering to pay him a half million dollars. Trump turned him down.
Levak’s predictions about Solovey had come true. He was capable of going over the edge. Solovey says, “People accused me of playing to the cameras, but I don’t think I did. I think the cameras draw the extremes of your personality out. If you’re shy, the cameras make you more shy. If you’re someone who loves an audience, they push you in that direction.” The pressure Solovey felt on the show was very real. “I do believe I was one of the most intense people there. I forgot where I was. I forgot I was even in New York City. I’d call my girlfriend at odd hours and she didn’t know what I was talking about, like I was delusional. They were taping the conversations. I would try to talk in code and I’d say these off-the-wall things and she thought I’d lost my mind. Troy, my roommate, would try to calm me down.”
But if this was difficult for Solovey, it made for great TV. Unfortunately the most trying part of the competition came later, after the cameras had stopped rolling. “Where you get pushed over the edge is not during the show, it’s afterwards. You don’t know what you’re getting into. I would not have done this if I had known what would happen afterwards. They don’t tell you how it’s going to affect you psychologically after the show. The down. I don’t even know if they know.”
Solovey was the first break-out character on The Apprentice to be fired. After the show aired, his life changed. “I remember how bizarre it was when I went with my friend to get breakfast the next morning, people coming up and shaking my hand. I had no concept of what it was like to be recognized. It’s very strange and you don’t know what it’s going to be like until it happens.” He got swept up in the fame and publicity, participating eagerly even as he felt it taking control. He asked his girlfriend to marry him on The Today Show. He appeared on Oprah. The opportunities to appear on TV and before groups of people were seductive and even addictive, always leaving him craving the next big high. But even while it paid off financially and provided tantalizing chances for more fame, he came to believe that “really, you’re basically a product of NBC and Mark Burnett, promoting the show.” For someone exposing such vulnerability, Solovey didn’t sound bitter. Rather, he seemed dry-eyed and almost curious about the impact fame had on him, even if he was pained by the costs. “I had no issue with the way I was portrayed, never made any excuses. I laughed with it. I didn’t care about the negative comments made about me; there were a lot of positive ones, too. My negatives weren’t about that. It was about how the whole experience has affected me afterwards.” He parted ways with his business partner. He began to experience difficult mood swings. “It’s changed my orientation about the purpose of my life. I haven’t really been satisfied professionally since the day I went on that show. I have fears that I never will be. I used to be motivated by the opportunities that wealth brought, and I’m now kind of disgusted by it. There was so much I discovered through the fame thing. How empty it is.”
When I mentioned to Omarosa that Solovey expressed such misgivings, and felt as though he had been turned into a commodity by the producers, she was moved by his troubles but countered: “I wouldn’t empower someone to treat me like a commodity. Sure, Mark Burnett did the editing, and America saw what it saw, but I marketed and packaged the character that’s become Omarosa. I wouldn’t hand that ownership over to Mark Burnett. With Sam, it’s true, they used him for what he was worth, and like any commodity, it has a certain value at a certain time, and you buy low and sell high. But for me, I had to take what they presented and mold and shape it. There’s a saying, good girls go to heaven, bad girls go absolutely everywhere, and I’m going everywhere. That’s not determined by NBC, Mark Burnett, or Donald Trump, that’s going to be determined by me.”
Solovey, on the other hand, cites Omarosa as someone who is still in character, long after the show has ended, because her personality has become her marketable brand. “I don’t know if she chose it or it chose her, because it’s a sickness. What is she going to do now to get that kind of attention, even though it’s negative? She is content building this character she manufactured that is essentially as people saw her on the show. She’s still on the drug, and nothing she’s doing is going to be like The Apprentice. She’s slowly, slowly coming down.”
Given the line-ups at casting calls and the popularity of the shows, it seems as though contestants will continue to go on reality TV eagerly. Once they make it to the round of finalists, they willingly sign hefty contracts absolving the production companies of liabilities and submit to background checks, physical tests, grueling interviews, and psychological probing. Many, apparently, have a positive experience. Meanwhile, the producers, if only out of self-interest, take great pains to keep vulnerable people from participating. But they are also in the business of forcing contestants into risky situations. No matter how optimistic or resilient people might seem at the outset, the consequences of such risks may not always be predictable.
Sometimes those risks are physical. In September 2004, 38-year-old Australian Nigel Aylott died when a fallen boulder struck his head while he was competing in Subaru Primal Quest, a kind of extreme Eco-Challenge for professional adventurers that, though not a reality show itself, was later broadcast on CBS; in September 2005, there were reports of a serious injury to a contestant on a reality TV show pilot called The Ultimate Ultimate Challenge. Billed as a brutal combination of Survivor, Fear Factor, and Eco-Challenge, the show was produced by Kevin Blatt—the pornographer most famous for releasing the Paris Hilton sex video—but has yet to air or be picked up by a network.
In other cases, the risks are more psychological. On Feb. 14, 2005, 22-year-old Philadelphia boxer Najai “Nitro” Turpin, a contestant on NBC’s boxing show The Contender, hosted by Sylvester Stallone and produced by Mark Burnett, shot himself in the head. In May 2005, a 17-year-old British girl, Carina Stephenson, killed herself six months after she and her family participated as contestants in The Colony, a History Channel production filmed in Australia; her family didn’t publicly blame the show. In August 2005, Danny Bonaduce, childhood star of the Partridge Family, slit his wrists, distraught over the emotional pressures he felt undergoing public marriage counseling on VH1’s reality TV show, Breaking Bonaduce; he survived. And in September 2005, the sister of an Extreme Makeover hopeful took her life with a mix of pills and alcohol, the family attributing her suicide to bad feelings stemming from the show.
Dr. Levak was involved in screening for The Contender. Turpin’s suicide almost a year later upset Levak deeply. Although he didn’t want to speculate in-depth, he did surmise that the fact that Turpin killed himself on Valentine’s Day in front of his girlfriend suggests his emotional troubles could not be attributed solely to his participation on a reality TV show. Should the screening process have unearthed this potential vulnerability? Levak found professional boxers as a breed to be a surprisingly introverted and passive group. “I thought they’d be aggressive pit bulls, but they were very disciplined and insular and self-contained…Many of them had very difficult stories, and they’ve done amazing things with their lives. So if you were trying to choose 12 or 16 who are the picture of mental health, you just wouldn’t find any. They all had issues, but they were all remarkable people.” The assessment of an individual’s character does not allow the producers to make perfect predictions about how they will react to the circumstances of the show. As Siegel puts it, “We just white-knuckle it until the show is over. It’s harder for Richard than me because I’m here [on site] and I know that I’m doing everything I can for them, so I feel OK about that. If I was just casting them and turning them over, I would feel more nervous.” In fact, both Omarosa and Solovey mentioned that the help Siegel provided them in dealing with their experiences was very valuable.
Emotional breakdowns, physical injuries, and suicides occur in the real world, of course. But when these traumas happen in the context of an “FCC-regulated game,” they are more difficult to accept. Maybe, as Solovey believes, the producers are not as aware of the downturn that occurs after the show is over. As Omarosa puts it, “When a person leaves that controlled environment and they have to go home and cope with what they’ve experienced, the producers have no more control.” She likens the experience of competing on reality TV to the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in 1971. “It’s really stunning,” she says, “how many similarities there are between that experiment and the Burnett shows.” Of course, Philip Zimbardo’s experiment, in which 21 normal college students were randomly assigned to be prisoners or guards in a mock prison, was stopped after only six days because the abuse and trauma generated by the situation got out of hand so quickly.
Despite the precautions producers take today, no reality show can be perfectly safe, because reality can never be fully controlled. Still, the algorithm of ratings holds a cold logic. If reality television is a kind of social psychology experiment conducted for our entertainment, then as the stakes grow and shows continue to push the envelope, greater risks will be taken and contestants will be put into more emotionally combustible or physically challenging situations. Zimbardo’s experiment taught us how something like Abu Ghraib could happen today. What is reality TV teaching us now?