Monday, September 19, 2005

The Hidden—and High—Costs of Makeover TV

It's a little-known fact that the reality TV genre became a network-favorite during the industry's labor disputes with writers in 2001.1 As television and screen writers threatened a strike that would have shutdown the sets of popular sit-coms and dramas, network executives turned to the non-union, almost writer-free genre, the reality TV program. Makeover television, along with the various survivalist dramas, became a growth industry.

But there is a hidden cost in makeover and other reality TV: the costs to the contestants (or "makeover winners") and their families. The New York Daily News (9/18/05) reports that one family has filed a complaint against ABC and its Extreme Makeover program in Los Angeles Superior Court when a promised makeover that wasn't completed resulted in a family suicide:

The producers of "Extreme Makeover" promised Deleese Williams "a Cinderella-like" fix for a deformed jaw, crooked teeth, droopy eyes and tiny boobs that would "transform her life and destiny."

But when the ABC reality show dumped the Texas mom the night before the life-changing plastic surgeries, it shattered her family's dream and triggered her sister Kellie McGee's (no relation to your blog host) suicide, says a bombshell lawsuit filed in L.A. Superior Court.

As part of the premakeover hype, producers coaxed McGee and other family members to trash Williams' looks on videotape, the suit alleges. When they suddenly pulled the plug on the project, and the promised "Hollywood smile like Cindy Crawford," a guilt-ridden McGee fell apart.

"Kellie could not live with the fact that she had said horrible things that hurt her sister. She fell to pieces. Four months later, she ended her life with an overdose of pills, alcohol and cocaine," said Wesley Cordova, a lawyer for Williams.
"This family is shredded. There is a human cost to this," Cordova said.

[ . . . ]

For years, Williams' friends and family "didn't notice or pretended not to notice" her homely looks, but once she got picked for the show, they were coached to focus on nothing but her physical flaws, the suit says.

In McGee's taped interview, she tried to play up her sister's good points. But the hard-nosed producers "peppered Kellie with questions about her childhood with the ugly Deleese . . . and repeatedly put words in her mouth," the suit says.

To please the producers, Williams' mother-in-law also laid it on thick. "She said things like 'I never believed my son would marry such an ugly woman.' " Cordova says. The family's comments never aired on TV, but Williams, who was in an adjoining room, heard them all.

The experience ruined her family life. "Now that she returned in the same condition in which she left, there were no secrets, no hidden feelings, no reward," the suit's producers sent her sister packing. "These programs are cheap to produce - there are no actors or screenwriters to pay. But there is a very high human cost," Cordova said.
This isn't the first time that a participant in a reality TV program has taken his own life. Najai Turpin, a contestant in the boxing reality TV program The Contender, shot himself in the head when he learned that he would not advance to win the million-dollar jackpot. Turpin left behind a two-year-old daughter. And in 1997, Sinisa Savija, a participant on the Swedish version of the show "Survivor," committed suicide after he was voted off the island.

These are just some of the hidden—and high—costs of makeover television.

1. As the earlier link to this information on labor issues and reality TV has gone dead, I'm linking to a more recent piece on reality TV and labor issues found in (Updated 1/8/2015).