Reality TV scandals aren’t just on the screen

By By Andy Dehnart
|  Saturday, Aug 29, 2009  |  Updated 11:45 PM EDT
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Reality TV Stars Bring Scandal Off-Screen

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Reality stars are expected to be just as crazy in their "real lives" as they are on TV.

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Many reality shows draw viewers because of their dramatic cast members. Those on-screen personalities are, of course, heavily edited, with only the most interesting footage makes it to TV, fueling our expectation that those cast members really might be crazy.

Occasionally, the world is surprised by something a reality star does, like when news broke about the hunt for now-dead murder suspect Ryan Jenkins, who'd appeared on two VH1 competition shows before allegedly killing his model ex-wife and fleeing from police.

Usually, though, there's less shock, because viewers know these cast members are living real lives. Many TV watchers always suspected Jon and Kate weren't going to stay together, or that Ed on “The Bachelorette” was not being upfront about his off-camera life. While tabloid magazines and web sites will try to milk scandal out of any barely known person they can make up something about, it's still the biggest celebrities that fuel the biggest scandals, as Michael Jackson's death proved.

There are so many reality stars that the opposite happens: scandals elevate them, making their TV shows — and them — more popular, more loathed, or both.

"Jon & Kate Plus 8" catapulted from a popular TLC show to the single most-popular show on all of television one night in late June thanks to the stars' announcement that they were divorcing.

The "Jon & Kate Plus 8" stars announced they would end their marriage after Jon was repeatedly photographed with other women, fueling tabloids for months.

Paula bids farewell to ‘Idol’
While Jon and Kate's kids can't escape the reality show that has chronicled their lives, other stars have bailed on shows this summer, leading to increased attention. Ridiculous summer guilty pleasure "Big Brother" went from a boring season with a lame twist and lamer challenges to one that was generating national news and strong ratings thanks to contestant Chima Simone's freak-out, which led producers to expel her from the house.

Earlier this summer, Paula Abdul escaped from "American Idol," passing on a contract offer that was less than she thinks she's worth. That drama unfolded over several weeks and played out in the press and on Twitter. Fox executives have publicly said that negotiations have concluded, and Paula has moved on to Twittering and hosting VH1's "Divas" concert. It ended a season that started with the controversial addition of fourth judge Kara DioGuardi, thought by many to be planned as a replacement for Abdul.

 

Whatever the reason for adding a fourth judge, the change certainly had the effect of bringing "American Idol" back into the public's consciousness after a lackluster seventh season. "American Idol" also gave viewers its usual off-camera drama, from rumors about Adam Lambert's not-so-secret sexual orientation to text-gate, when it was revealed after the season ended that AT&T reps taught Kris Allen fans how to power-text at viewing parties for the season-nine winner.

On another popular network series, the men of "The Bachelor" and "Bachelorette" proved they can generate just as many headlines as the ABC series' women have done previously. First, Jason Mesnick dumped Molly Malaney, proposed to Melissa Rycroft, and then dumped Melissa and picked Molly during the reunion, which crushed his good-guy reputation and led to allegations that the whole thing had been staged by producers, which they deny.

 

"The Bachelorette" ended with more scandal, from allegations that winner Ed was cheating on Jillian with two other women, to bachelor Wes claiming on-camera that he'd had a secret girlfriend all along. He later said producers fabricated his on-screen persona, which producers deny, and probably love, since this kind of drama has brought the aging franchise new life.

 

Far less-popular series can generate headlines thanks to their contestants. Attention-seeking reality stars Heidi and Spencer Pratt jumped from cable to network TV and showed up on NBC's revival of "I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here," and then walked off the set repeatedly, apparently upset about the conditions and/or wanting more attention. They got it, and without them, the show wouldn't have gotten nearly as much press as it did.

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)

"The Real Housewives" offered non-stop drama on their seasons on Bravo, but no one brought more outrageous situations than the newest group, the New Jersey cast, which included an on-camera fight and off-screen revelations through legal documents that one cast member, Danielle Staub, had been a former stripper.

There have been more recent arrests, from a "So You Think You Can Dance" choreographer being re-arrested for allegedly raping four dancers to "Survivor" winner Richard Hatch being re-arrested and thrown back in jail for giving an interview to Access Hollywood while he was on house arrest.

Hatch's ongoing legal woes ended up leading to the revelation that season 20 of "Survivor" will be an all-star season, because he asked a judge to let him go. The judge said no and released his invitation from the show's casting director to the public, spoiling a surprise the producers wanted to save for later.

B-list stars can also get media coverage when they behave badly on reality shows. The second season of "Celebrity Apprentice" featured a blood feud between Joan and Melissa Rivers and their nemesis, poker player Annie Duke, that has played out to this day. Meanwhile, Clint Black was criticized for creating an advertisement for laundry detergent that suggested he'd used it in a sexual way. Also, Sandra Bullock's husband Jesse James got in more trouble for his laundry detergent ad that featured little people and his repeated use of the term "midget," prompting an FCC complaint from the Little People of America.

Reality shows have long been known for casting dramatic contestants, people who might be louder, more demanding, or more quick to fight than people who don’t live their lives on screen.

That was true especially for the first modern reality series, MTV’s “The Real World,” whose cast generated headlines from the day the show debuted, earning both buzz and viewers. Some remain household names, like “The Real World San Francisco” cast member Pedro Zamora, who used the show as a platform to extend his AIDS activism, or the housemate he clashed with, obnoxious bike messenger Puck.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when those dramatic people create just as much drama in their regular lives as they do when they’re being filmed. Louder-than-life personalities don’t — or maybe can’t — turn down their volume when cameras aren’t around, which is why they were on a reality show in the first place, taking their real world into “The Real World.”

Andy Dehnart is a writer, TV critic, and editor of reality blurred. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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