‘I cringe at it now’: what happened to the kids of reality TV?

Shane Keough’s mother, Jeana, is a former Playboy model. His father, Matt, was a professional baseball player. He grew up in a sprawling mansion and wanted for little. When a TV executive called Scott Dunlop decided to make a reality show about the rich, glamorous and drama-loving residents of Orange County, Kalifornië, he had the Keough family in mind.

In 2006, the Keoughs featured on the first episode of The Real Housewives Of Orange County on the US network Bravo. Over the next decade, Real Housewives became a global franchise of women with acrylic nails lustily splashing glasses of wine in each other’s faces. There are now Sydney housewives, Cheshire housewives, even The Real Housewives Of Hungary (Feleségek Luxuskivitelben).

But Shane Keough couldn’t have known how big the franchise would become. He was 18 when the pilot was filmed, still a high-school student, with dreams of becoming a professional baseball player like his dad. The show’s producers portrayed him as a jock with a foul mouth and bad attitude, which wasn’t exactly untrue. “I was a punk who thought he was cool. I came from a family of actors and athletes and had yet to be humbled by real life,” Keough says. He is now 34, working in real estate in Florida.

One incident on the show came to define much of Keough’s life. He was playing baseball for the Kane County Cougars, a minor league team, and knew his mother’s film crew planned to watch him play, which he was happy with. But when he got to the stadium, he had been relegated to the substitutes’ bench. “I couldn’t think of anything worse,” he says today. He texted his mother, begging her not to attend. But the show’s producers put pressure on her to go on to the field and attempt to talk to her son. Shane was mortified. “I walked away and said, ‘Get the fuck away from me,'" hy sê.

A boom mic picked up the comment, and producers edited the incident to make it look as if Keough had sworn at his mother for no reason. When the show aired, the fallout was intense. “I got death threats,” Keough says. Baseball fans threatened to cancel their season tickets. His manager transferred him to another team, but they were playing at a higher level and he couldn’t keep up. “That probably led to a shorter baseball career," hy sê. “Two years after that incident, I was done.” To this day, if Keough posts about his mother on social media, he gets abuse. “They say: ‘You’re a terrible person, you should be ashamed of how you treated her.’ People assume that I treated my mother terribly my whole life. But that’s not the case. Have you never said anything disrespectful out of rage to your parents?”

We have had had more than two decades of reality TV. Two decades of socialites drinking buckets of iced coffee behind the wheels of souped-up SUVs; van Kris Jenner coaxing her daughter into risque photoshoots; of families wailing and mugging for the cameras while camera operators trail them from their latest fender bender. What a ride it has been. Reality TV has turbocharged the careers of the Osbournes, Kardashian-Jenners, Hadids, Donald Trump.

Lurking in the background were the children or younger siblings of the stars. We saw these kids at their eighth birthday parties; their proms; their weddings. Occasionally, they would step into the limelight, with uncomfortable results: few who saw it could forget a nine-year-old Kylie Jenner gyrating on a stripper pole in an early episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. (“I wish it never happened,” Jenner later said.) Most of the time, the children of reality TV featured somewhere just out of frame. But what became of them, after the cameras stopped rolling?

Keough bears no ill will towards his parents. “I never blamed them, because that was who they were prior to me being born," hy sê. “My mom was an actress and my dad was an athlete.” But the swearing incident put pressure on his family, en, shortly afterwards, his mother quit the show. In a 2009 interview with the LA Times, she explained that she did so to protect her children. “The kids enjoyed it the first few years," sy het gese. “And then it got to be tough on them. With editing… you can hit a home run and it will show you striking out.”

Brielle Biermann, a 24-year-old influencer from Atlanta, still remembers the first time she was recognised in public. “It was July 2008,” she says. “I was sitting outside a restaurant with my mom and sister. This couple next to us said, ‘We saw you on TV last night!’ We thought it was so weird.” Biermann first appeared with her mother, Kim Zolciak, on The Real Housewives Of Atlanta when she was 11. “At that age, you don’t understand what is going on," sy sê. “You just think that people are following you around.”

Becoming famous as a young child exacted a high price. “I was bullied in my freshman year of high school on social media,” Biermann says. “I actually got beaten up. People weren’t nice. It took them about two weeks to figure out who my mother was. [Op sosiale media] they were saying, ‘You think you’re hot shit, your family is so fake.’” Biermann thinks this is the reason she underperformed at school. “There was no point trying to succeed when I didn’t know if I’d be able to go into school the next day," sy sê. “I spent most of my time in the counsellor’s office.”

Like Keough, Biermann doesn’t blame her parents. “I wouldn’t change a thing," sy sê. “I’m so grateful for the opportunities we’ve had.” The way she sees it, it doesn’t matter that she flunked school, because reality TV offered her a lucrative career. “Isn’t that why people go to college?” she asks rhetorically. “To get a job? Wel, I already have a job.” Biermann has a cosmetics line, 1.3 million followers on Instagram, and appears on her family’s Real Housewives spin-off show, Don’t Be Tardy, for which she is rumoured to receive $10,000 an episode. (She won’t confirm her salary, but she’s not complaining: “I definitely get paid well.”) She would put her own kids on reality TV. “It’s really fun and a unique experience. If you have an opportunity, take it, don’t hide.”

But for every reality TV ingenue who enjoys the experience, there are untold more people who regret it. Usually, these are the people without famous or wealthy parents to advocate for them or secure a cut of any licensing deals.

“I cringe at it now,” says Olly Moxham, a 27-year-old chip-shop worker who lives near Peterborough in Cambridgeshire. Along with three friends, Moxham travelled to Kavos, Corfu, in 2012 to appear on the BBC Three reality TV show Sun, Sex And Suspicious Parents. The premise was this: teenagers get drunk and misbehave on their first holiday as adults – while, unbeknown to them, their parents watch the entire thing, often from an adjacent hotel balcony. Moxham says he was not

bothered about his parents watching him. “I knew I was going to be on TV," hy sê. “It didn’t matter if my mum watched it on the sofa or if she was there in person.” But he does feel uncomfortable with the way the producers put pressure on him and his friends to act up for the cameras. “I think they encouraged us a bit," hy sê. “It looks good on them if they have good footage. They encouraged us to drink.” If Moxham was in a bar and happy hour was about to end, “they’d say, ‘You’ve got 20 minutes left of this free bar’, and encourage you to get back in there.” As a 19-year-old who wanted to impress the show’s senior producers, he complied. “You’d gone through an application process where they told you how fun you looked, and how exciting it would be, and you feel that pressure to be the fun guy they think you are," hy sê. (Meer onlangs, there has been a move away from filming people drunk: shows such as Love Island limit participants to two drinks a night.)

One of Moxham’s friends was hospitalised during filming due to alcohol overconsumption. Moxham himself had drunk so much that he got his penis out, on camera. “That’s one of the main things I regret," hy sê. “I was so drunk I couldn’t even remember it.” On the plane home, Moxham asked the producers if they’d blur his genitals. “I was so nervous," hy sê. “I didn’t know if it was going to be shown to the whole nation.” The producers wouldn’t confirm if it would be pixelated and he says the months before it was broadcast were anxious ones. (Op die ou end, his manhood was blurred.)

Of course, not all reality TV shows prove to be bruising for their young participants. Jay Perry was 12 when he appeared in the CBBC documentary S Club Search, which aired in 2001 – the premise was a hunt for the members of a junior spin-off of the pop group S Club 7. “At first, it was a lot of fun,” Perry says; he is now 31 and a performer. Perry felt the show’s producers were responsible. “They were strict about making sure we kept up with our schooling," hy sê. “It was naturalistic. Not like reality shows now. There were no storylines; they just followed us around.”

But no matter how careful a producer is, the fact is that starring on a TV show is fundamentally a job. Perry, who ended up being chosen to join S Club Juniors, sê, “it started to dawn on me that this was actually work, and then it became less fun”. The long days took a toll. “There would be times when I would think I would rather be doing anything right now, but working… we couldn’t go anywhere without being ‘on’.”

Perry’s experience was relatively innocuous, because S Club Search was an observational show, and one made for children, meaning that producers weren’t attempting to create conflict. It even helped him later in life – after S Club Juniors disbanded, Perry quit the entertainment world with the intention of becoming a journalist, but changed his mind in his 20s. “Because I’d done the show and the band," hy sê, “that was enough for me to get an agent, even though I hadn’t been to drama school.” Before Covid hit, Perry was the lead’s understudy in Hamilton in the West End.

But there was a cost; while on the show Perry realised he was gay. “You’re learning so much about who you are as a person [at that age]," hy sê, “and it’s hard to do that when you’re spending half your life on TV. Going through struggles with my sexuality without knowing how to express that, while being in the public eye, was so difficult.”

When the first wave of reality TV emerged in the 1990s, with shows such as The Real World en Big Brother, producers styled themselves as documentary film-makers. “They used producers trained in documentary film-making,” says Prof Annette Hill of Lund University, Swede, who has written three books about reality TV, “who were trained to have what film-makers call a ‘chain of trust’, which means showing care towards participants throughout the filming, editing and post-production process.” But the 2000s and early 2010s saw the introduction of structured or scripted reality TV shows. “They had a production style that came out of entertainment,” Hill says, “and really shallow ethics. There was some light-touch care of participants, but no aftercare that really followed through.”

Hill cites the American show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, van 2012, which featured six-year-old Alana Thompson. Thompson was filmed drinking canned energy drinks to gee her up for beauty pageants; one drink contained as much caffeine as two cups of coffee. Thompson’s mother, Mama June, encouraged her to participate in the pageants, and when she didn’t win, her daughter was visibly crestfallen. “There was a lot of concern about the treatment of Honey Boo Boo,” Hill says, “and where the chain of trust was in that production environment.” Thompson, who turns 16 hierdie jaar, has remained a mainstay of reality TV, featuring in spin-offs and a kids’ version of Dancing With The Stars. She now lives with her sister after her mother was arrested for possession of crack cocaine. The whole family are appearing in the reality show Mama June: Road To Redemption.

There was scant consideration of the wellbeing of participants in some early shows. “It was awful,” says Claire Harris, 36, a screenwriter from Melbourne, of her experience working on the 2012 US reality TV show Amish: Out Of Order, which depicted young adults who’d made the decision to leave the religious community. Harris was a production assistant on the project. Part of her job was to check legal clearances: as some participants were minors, parents had to sign consent forms. Even when the teenagers were not minors, it felt uncomfortable. “We were getting 18-year-olds with eighth-grade educations to sign legal contracts they didn’t understand,” Harris says. “The Amish have few dealings with the outside world. They weren’t savvy.” Harris says producers facilitated at least one teen running away from their home. “They didn’t just document it,” Harris says. “They’d drive them.”

“There was no consideration for how it would upend their lives in the long term," sy sê. “The kids were worried about their communities finding out they were involved in the show. That might mean they never spoke to their families again. But we didn’t care.” Towards the end of filming, one of the teens died in a car crash. “They wanted me to locate his smashed-up car in a junkyard so they could send a teen there to have a scripted breakdown,” Harris says. Shortly afterwards, she stopped working on the programme.

A spokesperson for Stick Figure Productions, which produced the show, denied the claims and said they represented a radical departure from the company’s production standards. They said nobody now at the company worked on the show at the time, but made clear that the programme was “not a reality show where narratives were invented, but a documentary series with cast members who shared their true stories willingly, if not eagerly… These claims are (wildly) off base and this production, as with all that preceded and followed at Stick Figure throughout the years, was conducted with the utmost care and journalistic integrity.”

When it is parents who are pushing for their children to appear on reality TV, issues of consent can become muddied. It might be that one parent consents to filming, another does not. Former reality star Jon Gosselin fought a decade-long legal battle to prevent his eight children from appearing on his ex-wife’s show Kate Plus 8 [previously Jon And Kate Plus 8].

“There are pushy parents out there,” says Prof John Oates, a developmental psychologist at the Open University. “The word to consider is exploitation. Are children participating for their parents’ benefit? Wat, if any, benefits are being shared with the children?” Oates tells me that we don’t yet know the true impact of reality TV shows on underage participants. “We need a lot more research to find out the implications for children.”

As the structured reality TV genre collided with the celebrity culture of the 2000s, casting families became a winning formula. The Osbournes (2002) was the first show to go inside a modern celebrity family; Keeping Up With The Kardashians, which started in 2007, is the most famous of them all. These shows often put children in front-row seats during parental conflict. “You compress a three-day weekend into a 20-minute show with four families, they focus on the juicy stuff,” Keough says. “It’s what sells. Fire and blood and screaming.”

Even when programmes aren’t scripted, editors are able to create the most dramatic possible version of events, or even change the premise entirely. When Dee Kelly, from Birmingham, was recruited for a show in 2014, it was sold to her as “about community spirit, where everyone gets on and helps each other out”, sy sê. Kelly, nou 49, tells me this turned out to be wide of the mark. “They made us out to be a bunch of scroungers with no drive and no prospects.” Benefits Street, when it aired on Channel 4, was widely criticised for reinforcing negative stereotypes about working-class people. Kelly in particular became a frequent target for the tabloid press.

Although Kelly (who later appeared on a series of Celebrity Big Brother, alongside actor Gary Busey and boxer Audley Harrison) feels that producers treated her children fairly, they got caught up in the wider fallout. “People would tweet me and say: ‘Your children need to be taken off you,’” Kelly remembers. They experienced racist abuse online; she protected them by banning them from going on the internet. “I never saw the bullying,” says Kelly’s daughter Caitlin, 24, a leisure centre worker. “But only because I was lucky enough to have an overprotective mum.”

There are some signs that things are changing. In 2019, parliamentarians launched an inquiry into the duty of care offered to participants in reality TV. Oates welcomes Ofcom’s 2020 guidance, which requires producers to consider the “wellbeing” of under-18s for the first time. The guidance also mandates that producers inform participants about any possible negative impact on their welfare by taking part, and the steps that broadcasters and programme-makers intend to take to mitigate those impacts, so they can exercise informed consent.

Oates says he is more concerned about the rise of parents sharing their children’s lives on social media platforms such as YouTube and TikTok, which are unregulated. “Now that’s the wild west," hy sê. In 2017, Heather and Mike Martin, who posted YouTube videos of themselves “pranking” their children by breaking their toys and shouting at them, were convicted of child neglect by a Maryland court. “It started as family fun… but then it was just about making a video and then making the next video crazier than the next,” said Mike in an interview with Good Morning America.

But even with legal safeguards in place, and scrupulous producers, there is a limit to how far anyone can protect children on TV. “Children differ in their vulnerabilities and resilience,” Oates says. “What could be a negative experience for one child could be a positive experience for another. It’s hard to know what the impact will be in advance.” For parents considering putting their children on reality TV, Kelly urges caution. “Safeguard your child," sy sê. “Don’t leave them alone with producers, and don’t let people put words in their mouths.”

One reality TV producer based in Los Angeles tells me about a savvy father on a programme she worked on who would only sign releases for his child on a daily basis. “Most parents sign off for the whole season,” she says approvingly. “By just doing it one day at a time, if shit went west and the show did something crazy, he could pull his kid off air.”

It has been 13 years now since the swear word that altered the course of Shane Keough’s life, and he has made peace with how things worked out. “With reality TV," hy sê, “a whole life gets boiled down to a few milliseconds. That might be enough to ruin your life, or spark it into something amazing.” His dreams of being a professional baseball player are over, but Keough is content. “I learned from the show,” he tells me. “I am happy with who I am. I believe I am a good person and I mean well.” Keough tries to think more carefully now about what he says, and the impact it may have. “It’s not that I’m calculated in what I say,”Verduidelik hy, “but I try to be aware of the perspective of other people.” The experience made him a better, more humble person. “Without that awful moment of regret, I don’t think I’d be where I am now," hy sê. “It grew me into a person that I am, and am proud to be.”




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