Sunday column: Jon & Kate & Susan Boyle & Reality TV


Don’t mess with reality TV and expect to emerge unscathed. Seriously. I don’t care if you think you can dance. Or sing. Or cook. Or renovate. Don’t assume you can dabble in fame and harness it for your own purposes. Because if you try? It might just turn around and bite you sharply in the arse.

In an instant you could end up on the cover of magazines and newspapers with your personal life dissected, your privacy shredded and paparazzi camped outside your house. You’ll be discussed at barbeques, in offices and endlessly, mercilessly on the Internet. The intense pressure may well cause your relationship to break down or your mind to crack up. Or both.

This doesn’t happen to everyone on reality TV but going in, you have no way of knowing if it will happen to you. It’s Faustian bargain meets Russian roulette. Susan Boyle can vouch for that. So can Jon and Kate Gosselin. Way before Octo-mum….

…..there were Jon and Kate. They had lots of babies too. First twins then sextuplets, all in three years, all via fertility treatment. When their sextuplets were born in 2004 the family elicited not a squeak of controversy or even notoriety apart from benign local media coverage in their home state of Pennsylvania.

Soon after, the Gosselins appeared in a special called ‘Surviving Sextuplets and Twins’ for US cable channel Discovery Health. They thought it would be a nice way to document their family. Like a home-movie but with better lighting. Perhaps they also hoped the exposure would shake down some opportunities. A bit of cash. Some free nappies. You can hardly begrudge them that.

Quickly, the network wanted more. A deal was done for a modest fly-on-the wall series and season one of Jon & Kate Plus 8 began in 2007 with eight episodes.

It was a harmless little show, one of several in the network’s ‘super sized family’ genre (their other notable genre was reality shows about ‘little people’). For a while I was glued. Pregnant at the time and wondering how I’d cope with another baby, I found it strangely soothing to watch people cope with dozens of them. When gastro ripped through Jon & Kate’s house and there were vomiting kiddies dotted on the floor for miles? That episode should have been called “Perspective”.

Evidently, others found it equally compelling because for season four, production had jumped to 40 episodes which is a massive amount of filming. Can you imagine how many times producers had to say, “Oh wait, we missed the bit where you fell off your tricycle. Can you just do that again, sweetie?”


Still, the backlash didn’t begin until last month when rumours surfaced about Jon having an affair. There were photos. Overnight, the family went from a tiny level of celebrity to America’s hottest gossip topic. Kate was branded a controlling shrew and worse. Jon was mocked for his hair plugs and his alleged philandering. Disgruntled relatives appeared on morning TV to accuse Jon and Kate of exploiting their kids to chase fame and money. So much dirty laundry. So much airing.

It all culminated last week when the premiere of the show’s 5th season doubled its audience to almost 10 million and authorities were called in to investigate whether child labor laws had been breached by the constant filming.

Those two sounds you just heard? They were the show’s producers salivating and a family imploding. The exact same sounds we heard from the producers of Britain’s Got Talent and Susan Boyle last month before she was hospitalised. Are we having fun being famous yet?

Remember, we’re not talking about career celebrities here. These people are not The Osbournes or Jessica Simpson who have managers and minders and a lifetime of media experience. They’re civilians. How on earth could Susan Boyle have been prepared for what happened to her? Even Madonna would have struggled with that kind of attention, let alone a woman with mild brain damage who has no one to guide and protect her from mercenary exploitation.

I’ve heard many people argue ‘these people knew what they were getting into by going on TV so it’s their own fault” and to that I say rubbish. Susan Boyle entered a talent show because she loved to sing. She had no way of knowing what was going to happen next. Nobody could have predicted it, not even producer Simon Cowell who squeezed every last morsel of pop culture buzz out of a naïve, lonely woman.

Jon and Kate? Well, what would you do if you had eight kids under eight? What if someone offered you enough money to stay home with them and pay for a house and holidays and education? Would you say no? And if you did, would that be in the best interests of your kids?

Fame and financial security are not the same thing. In fact, one can cancel out the other. Susan Boyle hasn’t yet made a cent from her celebrity. And if she’s incapable of recording or touring, what then? Will Simon Cowell pay her medical bills?
Unlikely. Because when the reality TV cash cow can no longer deliver buzz or ratings, the mercenary producers simply call the abattoir to deal with it and start looking for the next one.

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