entertainment

What happens to reality stars when the circus moves on?

Amity and Phil

I never thought I’d be on a reality TV show. Ok, I admit, I dreamt about a career in the limelight from the moment I performed my first childhood concert and I did inform my high school careers counsellor that my chosen profession was ‘famous singer.’ But I never predicted I would achieve that goal through the slightly obscure path of apartment renovation. However, eight years ago that is precisely what happened.

Like most Australians in 2002 I was obsessed with renovating and real estate, so when I heard an ad on the radio calling for contestants for a new renovating show I impulsively called the number. I was expecting maybe a few days work, a fun experience and a good story to tell. I certainly didn’t think it would change my life. Throughout the audition process, despite repeated requests, we were told nothing about the show. In fact, it wasn’t until we were finally offered the spot that we were informed it was a reality show, at which point my husband flatly refused to take part.

But the producers were persistent. They knew I had been working as a singer and trying to get a record deal since my teens and assured me the publicity from the show would give me the break I had been looking for. They said they would feature my music in the show, they would set up the meetings, they would help in any way they could. They offered me my dream on a platter and I, after much begging and pleading with my husband, unashamedly grabbed it with both hands.

Three months later Phil and I were driving to Bondi, to begin filming a new show called The Block. After some tense negotiations (between our lawyers and Nine and us with each other) we had essentially signed our lives away in a contract that gave Channel 9 the right to discredit and ridicule us. Although we did have a win when they agreed to drop ‘defame’ and remove clauses referring to hidden cameras and showing us in our underwear. We used to joke that there was a reference in there to Kerry Packer owning our first-born child, but so far no one has taken us to court to action that one!

Opening the front door to the apartment that day we had absolutely no idea what we were in for, with both the task at hand and the aftermath that followed. We would never have dreamed that in a few months time 3 million people would be watching us on TV, I would have a top 10 album and our photo would be in every newspaper in the country.

People still ask us if it the show was all set up or if it was real and the truth is, it was a bit of both. The deadlines were real, the workload was real and probably even harder and more tedious than it looked. And the drama was real, but often orchestrated. There were times we’d all be getting along too well (and who wants to watch that) so the producers would throw in a few sparks to set everyone off. A few ‘Did you hear they said that?’ or ‘Did you know they’ve done this’ planted amongst four exhausted couples and pretty soon you’ll get some drama.

But if we thought there was a lot of drama living at The Block, it was nothing compared to how our lives changed once it went to air. The cliché of an overnight sensation was a pretty accurate description, one day we were living regular lives, the next millions of people knew who we were. And every Sunday night we would sit down to watch the show for the first time and hold our breath, waiting to see what Australia would think of us in an hours time. Did we come across ok, or could we expect a week of ridicule from our friends, the media and the public in general. Having your character regularly assessed like that is indeed a daunting experience, and that was before social media. Thank god, the thought of doing the show now that there is Twitter and Facebook makes me break out in a cold sweat!

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The Block couples

Despite the anxiety of everyone having an opinion on you, those were exciting times. The show was a hit and everyone wants to know you when you’re a hit. We were invited to great parties, given free clothes, wined, dined and fawned over everywhere we went. My album debuted at the top of the charts, my song was on the radio and I was performing at events I had always dreamed about. It was like being dropped into your fantasy and pinching yourself to check it was real.

Yet, even though it was fun, there were moments when all that attention felt undeserved and unwarranted. We were the same normal people we had always been, but suddenly we were treated as special because we’d been on TV. We were referred to as ‘celebrities’ but felt embarrassed by the tag when we hadn’t done anything to earn it.  I had always hoped for this attention, but for my music, not because I had painted a few walls. It seemed crazy that people were excited to meet us when the only thing that differentiated us from them was a bit of luck.

I remember at the time seeing a photo in one of the Sydney papers of one of the original members of Bardot, from the hugely successful Popstars series. She was snapped unawares while working in a shoe store, the accompanying story highlighting the ‘failure’ of her returning to normal life after the dizzying heights of national stardom. I shuddered to think of how she felt reading that story, to be shamed for earning a living simply because it didn’t meet the fairytale ending we demand. It was a stark reminder that anything less than this success now would be seen as a failure, and that one day that could be me.

Although, I soon came to realise that process had already begun. After the peak of our finale, which saw thousands attend the taping and millions watch on air, a new hit show had taken its place, Australian Idol. During that time we attended a charity event with the top 10 finalists to find that both the photographers and public ignored us to try and get closer to them. I heard someone behind me remark, ‘What’s the difference between The Block and Australian Idol? Three months!’ Suddenly the gossip columnists were writing snarky pieces on us, where we’d previously been the flavour of the month. The invitations slowed, the free gifts stopped. We no longer had the nations attention, so we were no use to those who had been using us to promote their products.

One day I went to my regular appointment, at my new ‘hairdresser to the stars’ salon. It had been organised and paid for by my record company as an expense they were happy to cover in the maintenance of my appearance. Except at the end of this session I was informed they were no longer covering it and that I had to pay. Embarrassed by the revelation, I asked how much. ’$420’ was the reply, making my stomach drop.

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And so it continued, as quickly as everyone jumped on the bandwagon they jumped off again. Management at Channel 9, who had signed us to the network with much fanfare and promises of new shows and hosting roles, now refused to take our calls. My album dropped out of the charts and suddenly the record company execs who had once praised my long-term potential, now looked past me at social functions, at pains not to met my gaze.

It was as though we had the plague, like being a ‘has been’ was contagious. These days I laugh to think that people could be so shallow. But at the time it was devastating.

Yet that is the reality of the entertainment industry, it is a cut throat business. People get chewed up and spat out and the ones who last the distance are few and far between. And it is particularly the case for reality TV ‘stars’ who find the game is over as quickly as it began. For every Guy Sebastian or Chrissie Swan, who have carved out a successful career, there are hundreds more who have been briefly elevated and then tossed away. Remember the names of all those Big Brother, Idol and Masterchef contestants you passionately supported at the time? Me neither, but I’m sure they all have stories like mine.

With that in mind I watch with interest the rise of Jack Vidgen, from Australian’s Got Talent. As a member of the public I cheer him on, thrilled when someone with such amazing talent is discovered and hopeful that he can turn it into a long-term career. But as a mother I want to caution his own mum to protect him in any way she can, not wanting to see a child go through that sting of rejection.

Yet, despite all that, I still believe in chasing your dreams and if I had my time over I’d do it all again. I had some amazing moments, ticked some major things off my bucket list and recorded songs that people still listen to and love. But with the gift of hindsight I would simply enjoy the rollercoaster for what it was, ride it with my eyes wide open and not be surprised when it was over.

Going through that crazy experience changed me, but it also taught me some big lessons. The biggest being that the respect and admiration of those who know you means so much more than the adulation of a million strangers ever could. So these days I am content to still earn a living from writing and performing and bask in the adoration of my two remaining fans, aged five and one. Even if the five-year-old tells me ‘You’re a good singer Mum, but you’re not as good as Justin Bieber.’

Amity is currently starring in “Mother, Wife and the Complicated Life”. Click here to watch a clip.

The Lighthouse:

Did you remember watching that first season of The Block in 2003?  (Mia not only watched, she toured the apartment block!). Who are your favourite “reality stars” from the past? Have a question for Amity? (She’s going to stop by to answer any questions you have …)

And for some other reality star flashbacks, click through our gallery below.

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