Monday, September 19, 2005

The Hidden—and High—Costs of Makeover TV

It's a little-known fact that reality television had its genesis in the Hollywood writers' strike of 2001. As 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.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Spectacular Vulnerability

Usually we associate spectacles with displays of strength and coordination — parades, marching bands, air shows with fighter pilots soaring high, stadium half-time shows. But Katrina offered us spectacular displays of vulnerability, desperation, and political impotence.

Poverty at home — not the swollen-bellied poverty of far-off Darfur or tsunami-ravaged Indonesia or Thailand, but American poverty — was rendered telegenic. And the racial class and caste system that is usually glossed over came into sharp and undeniable focus.

Economic vulnerabilty that is usually private and invisible was made spectacularly public. Like the fingerprints rendered into evidence at a crime scene — for this sort of poverty in a nation as wealthy as the U.S. can only be thought of as criminal — the storm waters traced the usually invisible lines into stark relief.

As the waters rose, the frayed and threadbare social safety net was all too apparent as tens of thousands of people fell through, stranded on roofs, in a squalid convention center and sports arena, or wading through chest-deep vermin-infested and toxin-ladden flood waters.

I had a chance to speak with business journalist David Schepp about these issues earlier this week.

Monday, September 05, 2005

"Help Yourself"

The idea of helping oneself is deeply ingrained in American traditions and idioms. God is reported to help those that do.

And this week people in New Orleans needed God’s help because the federal government ensured that there was little else available.

The expression "help yourself"—the quintessential American expression of hospitality—would be the height of rudeness elsewhere in the world. Take Japan, for example. In a land where drinking companions routinely refill each other’s glasses, no host or hostess would ever utter the expression "help yourself." There is no Japanese equivalent.

But here in bootstrapping America, helping oneself is applauded. Except when those who are helping themselves are poor black Americans.

Much has been written and said about the racially charged captions of black and white refugees wading through chest-deep floodwaters with necessities salvaged from local stores. The white flood survivors, we were told, had found food. The black survivors had looted them.

But let’s take it a step farther. I liked what Jesse Jackson said—If you look at $6 a gallon for gasoline in Atlanta, that’s looting too.* And when the Gulf Coast clean-up contracts are awarded to Vice President Dick Cheney's pals at Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown, and Root, I think we can call that looting, too.

Note: Jackson made the remark during a television interview on his arrival in New Orleans that has not emerged online.