Life after starring on reality TV
Poor, nerdy Zac Klavs. Look at those glasses! See the way he stumbles over his words when he's trying to talk to girls. And, seriously, why doesn't he get a haircut?
Beauty and the Geek, season five. Instead of attending his lectures at Victoria University in Wellington, Klavs, an 18-year-old law student, had somehow talked his way onto Fiji's Coral Coast, to star in a top-rating Australian reality television show.
After applying as a dare, things moved swiftly. Klavs was interviewed, skyped by the show's psychologist, vaccinated, flown to Sydney for wardrobe fittings. He knew practically nothing about the show, other than he'd be one of the "geeks" on a tropical island surrounded by nine "beauties". It sounded like fun, and there was A$100,000 in prize money up for grabs.
Klavs did pretty well - he made it to the final few before being eliminated, and was a viewer favourite. But now he doesn't even try to keep the bitterness out of his voice. "The whole thing was really a nightmare, I seriously wish I hadn't done it," Klavs says, a year on. "I mean, I made a few good friends out of it, but I couldn't even bring myself to watch the series and I was in it.
"I actually can't remember all that much of it because if you sleep deprive people over a long period of time it really stuffs up your memory."
Klavs is just one of the thousands of reality television show contestants who appear on our screens every year. From X Factor and New Zealand's Got Talent to MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules, we're watching them in our droves.
Last year, 1,185,300 of us tuned in to the two-hour final of The Block NZ, TV3's biggest show of the year (X Factor NZ was a close second) and the top-rating show on television in the 25-54 demographic. It was an engaged audience too - during the auction for the winner's property #theblocknz was the number two trending topic on Twitter worldwide.
Even the widely-disparaged The GC - so far funded by about $840,000 by NZ on Air - rates strongly at about 300,000 viewers an episode.
These programmes are clearly raking in the cash for networks. In America, one season of The Bachelor alone made the ABC television network a profit of US$38.2 million. But what about the people in them? What are the chances of fleeting reality-show fame leading to real success, and is all the sleep-deprivation worth it?
Here's what Klavs does remember: Being woken every day at 5am, and never getting to bed before midnight. Six weeks of cameras and producers in his face in 30-plus degree temperatures, with a rising feeling of powerlessness. A contestant leaving in the first week because he snapped and "raged out" at producers.
"They'd let you have about five hours' sleep a night, they'd be constantly pushing . . . they [producers and crew] would try and influence everything, from how you felt about people to who you want to send home," Klavs says. "It was like living in jail."
He says he was told not to cut his hair, and fitted out in "nerdy" glasses and clothes. Then, instead of getting the promised "makeover" at the end of the show, his clothes were returned.
"They never give you the full truth, they give you half truths. It's like ‘we'll give you a makeover', by which they mean ‘we'll make you look terrible first and then give you your own clothes back'."
In hindsight, he supposes he should have realised it wouldn't be a free holiday. But the 19-year-old, who is now a year behind in his law degree, feels like he has been had. "I thought, look, I know it's reality TV, but there might be room for some sort of personal growth or something, but there's not. They just milk you for all the cheapest laughs possible, they get as much as they can out of you and then they just ignore you."
In a statement, producers Shine Australia said it took its duty of care to contestants "very carefully indeed". "Extensive briefing is provided to participants during the application process [and] before they agree to join the programme with regard to expectations of them during production. And every participant is free to leave at any time." Klavs had helped to promote the call for the new season's participants, had expressed interest in re-joining and had been a "fantastic" participant in the series. "For all of this, we are grateful."
Auckland University professor Katherine Sender says most reality show contestants don't consider what they're essentially doing: Signing away their image to be used in any narrative, forever, and toiling away at a producer's whim.
"Usually the conditions are pretty intense. Something like Project Runway, they get about four hours' sleep a night, so of course they're losing it, but a lot of that is done deliberately and not just for financial reasons," Sender says. "It's done to create a very heightened emotional environment, where people lose their tempers and get really angry."
While the average viewer knows that a reality show is produced, edited and cast for particular reasons, they still believe the emotions they are watching are real, says Sender, whose book The Makeover: Reality Television and Reflexive Audiences was published in 2012.
"They're quite sceptical of the claims that it is reality television, but at the same time [audiences] are very invested in the emotional realism. That's what keeps them engaged."
Contestants are paid nothing, or less than minimum wage, and are made to sign tight contracts that forbid them from talking. "The person who wins usually gets a big payout, but the ones that don't are just sort of screwed."
So why enter in the first place?
Not only is there a lot of currency in celebrity, but there's also the chance of winning big or leveraging the exposure into actual fame, Sender says.
"There is this tantalising idea, and it is extraordinarily unlikely, that you might be able to cultivate this temporary celebrity into something that is more permanent and successful. What's kind of interesting is that if you do make that break, you kind of want to put the reality show business behind you. Because it tends to be a fairly lowbrow genre, if you can afford to, you will try and distance yourself from that."
Take former Auckland District Health Board dietician Nadia Lim, who won the second series of MasterChef in 2011. She's now the author of two cookbooks, runs her own grocery delivery service, My Food Bag, and is a regular on the food show, television and glossy mag circuit.
Lim had always wanted to be a chef, but her parents were strict about her going to university. So she studied nutrition at Otago, and was working at the DHB when she heard about MasterChef. "I just thought ‘what an awesome opportunity', because obviously one of the main prizes was the opportunity to write your own cookbook, which was my absolute dream."
When Lim was selected from about 2000 applicants, she was so excited she didn't really consider what being on a reality television show meant.
"I guess I was quite naive. I did think ‘wow, if I muck up on national TV this could be the end of my career', but you almost feel like you owe it to yourself to go through that."
Lim took three months' unpaid leave to film MasterChef, which was harder than she thought.
"You're staying in this big flash house and it's all exciting and new and you're on TV. But there's also the very stressful part of not knowing what's going to happen. I think the production company does that on purpose, keep the contestants in the dark so they get the best reaction. You're like in la-la-land."
Inside the house, Lim had a strict timetable mapped out for researching cooking techniques. "I had stuff like how to skin a rabbit, how to shuck oysters, how to debone a chicken."
And it paid off. When other contestants were daunted by the final task - building a macaron tower - Lim was relieved. Macarons had been a recent topic of study.
Lim considers herself an introvert and would never have entered if she hadn't wanted the prize. "It was the same direction that I wanted to go down, but it would have taken me a lot longer to get here if it hadn't been for MasterChef. I think it fast-forwarded me about five years."
But after the show, she found she had to work hard to convince people she wasn't a wimp. "I got quite a lot of crap for crying quite a lot on the show. When I saw it I surprised myself because I'm generally quite tough. All my family and
friends were like ‘oh my goodness, you've cried more times on that show than we have ever seen you cry in real life'. Every time I shed a tear that would be built in, but when anyone else cried it wouldn't."
And she has found reactions to her beginnings as a reality TV contestant have been mixed. "The food industry can be quite . . . snobby. People are like ‘you're not a real chef, you just won a reality cooking competition' and in the beginning I wanted to distance myself from that. I feel like now I've proven myself, so it's okay."
Other winners can't wait to put it behind them. Danielle Hayes, the now 23-year-old from Kawarau, won New Zealand's Next Top Model back in 2010.
The outspoken, freckled beauty from the sticks is now signed to One Management in New York and Darley Models in Sydney, walking in Jean Paul Gaultier's show during Paris Fashion Week earlier this year. She's appeared in Harper's Bazaar, Vogue Italia, Elle South Africa and Elle Sweden, and was last year named one of the next generation of catwalk stars by style.com.
When contacted for this article, her Australian agent Phillip Darley said Hayes did not want to answer questions about NZNTM.
The road since had not been easy for her, and she was now "moving forward on her own steam where people do not associate her with the show, only for her unique individual look and style".
By email, Hayes said she was loving her second season in New York. She still gets a thrill to see editorials in the likes of Harper's Bazaar and Elle, especially after some of the negative feedback she received in New Zealand.
"From the beginning (after winning Top Mod) I was told I would never work internationally because my hip measurements were an issue, my personality would never gel with clients overseas, my walk (apparently) was shit.
"I never expected that I would be an international model, because of the criticism that was given to me first hand. I've wanted to be a lot of things in life, modelling was never one of the occupations I had dreamt that I'd be doing. But I'm doing it."
She now gets fan mail from young Maori women, saying she has inspired them. Getting some distance has allowed her to appreciate home, and she eventually wants to come back and live on the east coast.
From a rocky start then, Hayes, with the help of Darley, has made serious inroads in the modelling world.
She and Lim are anomalies: most reality show contestants never find mainstream fame, fading into obscurity or choosing different paths completely.
Rosita Vai was briefly a household name as the winner of New Zealand Idol in 2005. She made an album, Golden, which cracked the top 20 albums chart, but is no longer signed to Sony.
She's now living in Wellington, happily married, works part time at a bank and spends her spare time singing in musical theatre. Right now she's in Edinburgh at the Fringe Festival, performing in The Kila Kokonut Krew Company's The Factory.
Vai, who loves singing, says she didn't set out to be a star. Asked if New Zealand Idol helped her career, Vai says: "Do you want the diplomatic answer, or the truth?
"It's been difficult to shake the branding of NZ Idol and though the experience was useful, my direction was always destined to be different. I'm always going to be thankful for my idol journey, but it's never defined me."
However, she is proud to have been part of the show, and says it helped her hone her craft and learn how to build a brand. "The experience was surreal and I learnt a lot from it."
How a contestant feels at the end of a show has everything to do with their motivations for entering, former reality TV producer Lotta Dann says.
Dann worked on Location, Location, Location and Mitre 10 Dream Home before quitting. She interviewed former New Zealand reality television participants for her masters thesis: Is That Really Me?: Power, Emotion & Knowledge in Reality TV.
Around half of the people she spoke to regretted the experience. "I interviewed people who were depressed, almost tearful, and it was months and months if not years after the programmes, and people who were regretful and angry. It was a life-changing event for all of them, and not in a positive way."
She found people felt happier if they had gone into the show knowing what they were getting into. The young and inexperienced did not fare well, often feeling as if they had been conned.
"Reality TV is about people's emotional highs and lows, so the environment that they are put in is really to elicit these and that's why we watch it - to watch people laugh, or cry, or fall in love. As long as people understood that their emotional highs and lows were what was going to come across - and that they have no control over how that is packaged - then they were fine in the end."
She thinks producers should be required to brief participants on exactly what to expect. There are currently few rights for contestants, with their experiences down to the ethics of programme makers. And sometimes, ethics don't make great TV.
"These people are ordinary people, they're not actors or performers, so it falls through the cracks."
As contestants quickly learn, winning isn't really the point. The Block NZ contestants Tom and Loren ("Loz") Heaphy lost season two of the DIY show, but emerged with a loyal following.
The bubbly Nelson pair both work in marketing and went back to their jobs after the show. But almost a year later, their Facebook page "Loz and Tom" still has more than 21,000 likes.
They now juggle full-time work and public appearances, blogging, modelling and a contract with Kiwibank. They've also used their celebrity status to help raise funds for charity KidsCan, build an at-home playground for Auckland toddler Jai Ihaka, and raise awareness of cyber-bullying.
Loren, 31, says the pair went into it prepared for a bit of a laugh. The lack of sleep and time pressure did make it challenging at times, pushing the pair into silly arguments. At one point, Tom, 33, found himself calling his wife a "spoilt princess".
And losing, after all that hard work - their house made just $25,000 at auction - did hit them harder than expected.
But overall, they enjoyed it. They say their relationship is now closer, and their personal brands - important in marketing - have a lot more value.
"We've proven ourselves to be articulate, we're quick thinkers, good at meeting deadlines, creative," Loren says. "I think we'll look at putting a plan in place to leverage off that, definitely."
Near the end of The Block NZ, contestants made a deal that whoever won would shout the rest of the group a weekend away in their hometown.
Winners Alice and Caleb Pearson, who made $180,000 from the sale of their house, held true to the deal and flew all six contestants up to Matakana.
Halfway through the weekend, they realised something was missing. It was the first time the couples had spoken to each other without the cameras. And boy, was that a relief.
WHAT WE'RE WATCHING
Here are our favourite reality TV shows as rated by the number of viewers per episode.
Highway Patrol (Australia): 517,000
Police Ten 7 (New Zealand): 515,000
The Block (New Zealand): 486,700
X Factor (New Zealand): 446,000
My Kitchen Rules (Australia): 497,000
Motorway Patrol (New Zealand): 496,000
MasterChef (New Zealand): 464,971
The Voice (Australia): 370,000
The Block All Stars (Australia): 325,900
Road Cops (New Zealand): 281,900
- Figures are based on average audience numbers in the 5+ demographic based on most recent 2014 data. The Block and X Factor aired last year but have been included for comparison. --------
The Dominion Post