Susan Boyle should consider herself lucky that when she was rushed to the hospital a day after the “Britain’s Got Talent” finale, it was only for exhaustion.
A Wrap investigation shows that the reality of reality shows is not nearly so benign: at least 11 reality-show participants have taken their own lives — and two more who have tried to — in tragedies that appear to be linked to their experience on television shows.
Many people may know about Paula Goodspeed (pictured left), who killed herself in front of Paula Abdul’s house last November after she was bounced from audtions on “American Idol.” Goodspeed, an obsessed fan of Abdul’s, was found dead in her car in Sherman Oaks after a prescription-drug overdose.
But Goodspeed is just one among a long list of reality-show related deaths.
The victims are as varied as they are unexpected: a deputy district attorney, a single father, a young boxer — even the sister of a contestant on a makeover show prodded to make hurtful comments about her sibling’s “before” look.
And the phenomenon is not limited to the United States. TheWrap’s investigation found suicides and attempted suicide among contestants as far afield as India, England and Sweden.
Certainly, many of these people had pre-existing problems, which may have been why they were looking for such instant TV fame in the first place. But mental-health workers have discovered that many contestants on shows like “Survivor” and “Big Brother” — even those who win — suffer severe and often long-lasting psychological trauma. (Read Part Two tomorrow for more on this subject.)
Here are the victims, beginning with those on U.S. shows:
1. CHERYL KOSEWICZ
“Pirate Masters,” CBS
July 27, 2007
A Deputy District Attorney from Reno, Kosewicz, 35, killed herself after being bounced from the show. Her suicide happened just two months after Kosewicz’s boyfriend, Ryan O’Neil, committed suicide himself. Kosewicz wrote on the MySpace page of fellow contestant Ness Nemir: “I’ve lost the strong Cheryl and I’m just floating around lost. This frik’n show … was such a contention between Ryan and I and plus it’s not getting good reviews … then I made the National Enquirer today so … the hits just keep on coming.” A CBS spokesman did not return calls for comment.
2. NAJAI TURPIN
“The Contender,” NBC
Feb. 14, 2005
The 23-year-old shot himself to death just weeks before his scheduled bout on the series, which chronicles boxers trying to win a TV tournament with a first prize of $1 million. According to the police report, Turpin was sitting in a Chevy Lumina at 4 a.m. with his girlfriend, whom he had been fighting with over their 2-year old daughter. His trainer, Perry “Buster” Custus, said that “he had a lot of stuff on his mind. I was going to talk to him about it while we were driving to camp.
You never really knew what was going on in Najai’s head.”In joining the show, Turpin hoped to earn money to support his family, but participants were not allowed to fight in any other bouts until the live finale of the show aired. He was said to have grown frustrated when the premiere was delayed repeatedly. NBC did not return calls seeking comment.
3. NATHAN CLUTTER
“Paradise Hotel 2,” MyNetworkTV
October 12, 2007
The 26-year-old lllinois native jumped to his death from a cellular tower several weeks after he wrapped production on “Paradise Hotel 2,” which aired on News Corp’s MyNetworkTV. Before filming the show, Clutter had moved to Phoenix, where he worked as a sales manager. The network initially reported that his death was the result of a climbing accident, but a police investigation concluded that it was a suicide. Clutter’s uncle told police that Clutter battled depression and a bi-polar disorder and that his family had sent him money in hope of his moving back to Illinois.
TheWrap received no response to an email to a spokeswoman for the network before publication.
4. KELLI MCGEE
“Extreme Makover,” ABC
McGee wasn’t even a contestant on the show — it was her sister, Deleese Williams, who was flown to L.A. for what producers called a “Cinderella-like transformation” that would fix her deformed jaw, droopy eyelids and crooked teeth. But the night before her plastic surgery, McGee was told she was being dumped from the show because her recovery time “wouldn’t fit with the show’s productions schedule,” said producers.
Williams reportedly sobbed, “How can I go home as ugly as I left? I was supposed to come home pretty!”
McGee had been coaxed by show producers to say mean things about Williams’ looks — apparently with the intention of contrasting those comment with the “made-over” Williams. When Williams became aware of her sister’s hurtful remarks, family members claim, “Kelli went all to pieces” and took a fatal overdose of pills and alcohol in May.
Williams, who now is raising her sister’s two children, is suing ABC and production company, Endemol Productions, for breach of contract, willful infliction of emotional distress and negligence. ABC referred questions about McGee to Endemol, which did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
5. MELANIE BELL
“Vegas Elvis,” unsold pilot
March 25, 2005
Bell, not a contestant but a producer of the show, jumped from the Stratosphere Hotel after a day of filming. Her family says she was suffering severe depression stemming from her battle with anorexia. A news release for the fledgling show actually promoted the fact that “Vegas Elvis” was “the second reality program in less than two months to suffer a cast member suicide,” apparently referring to the death of boxer Turpin. It claimed that Bell’s death was, basically, a more exciting suicide than Turpin’s.
6. DANNY BONADUCE
“Breaking Bonaduce,” VH-1
The former “Partridge Family” child actor tried to kill himself with vodka and Vicodin after his wife asked for a divorce while the couple was filming their reality series — and just prior to the Sept.
12, 2005, airing of the first episode. The programs shows Bonaduce swilling an entire bottle of vodka and screaming at a producer, “I’ll cripple him for life.” VH-1 producers claim they wanted to stop filming after the off-camera suicide attempt but his wife Gretchen “really begged us to keep filming.” Gretchen says she allowed the filming because “I wanted to use every leverage I had to get him help. Danny loves to be on TV.” A spokesman for VH-1 did not return calls seeking comment.
7.JAMES SCOTT TERRILL
July 4, 2008
The Georgetown, Kentucky, single father died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds after appearing on the series that purports to help parents deal with out-of-control young children. Terill, 37, struggling with financial and parenting issues, called the police while at the cemetery where his father was buried, threatening to shoot himself. The police stayed with him on the phone for an hour but were unable to stop him. A spokesperson for ABC did not return our calls seeking comment.
It’s the same problem in other countries, as well. TheWrap was unable to get comments from spokesmen in other countries:
8. SIMON FOSTER
April 15, 2008
Foster lost his wife Jane, his house and his job after appearing on “Wife Swap.” Finally, he was found dead in a tiny room in Brighton, after consuming excessive quantities of methadone and alcohol. He and Jane were featured on the program because they lived “an alternative” lifestyle, each having girlfriends outside the marriage. A friend of the Foster said, “The show put an enormous strain on Simon, he was really never the same. To be shown with your wife happily seeing another woman made him a laughingstock.” Soon after filming, Jane moved in with her lesbian lover and took the couple’s two children, Foster’s boss fired him and he ended up homeless. Viewers were told in an update that the Fosters had divorced but did not link the end of the marriage to the show.
9. CARINA STEPHENSON
Stephenson, 17, the youngest reality suicide, took her life two weeks before her role was to air. Her body was found hanging from a tree in a Yorkshire forest two days after she went missing; it later emerged that she had been visiting suicide sites on the internet. On the sites, Stephenson was encouraged to take her own life and given advice on how to kill herself, which her mother claimed Stephenson followed in her actual attempt. “The Colony” — filmed in Australia — is described as a “fly-on-the-wall series that shows how modern day families would have coped as settlers in 1800.”
10. JO O’MEARA
“Celebrity Big Brother”
O’Meara has recovered from a suicide attempt after fellow contestants accused her of being a “bully and a racist.” Her conduct towards the eventual winner, Shilpa Shetty, was questioned, and O’Meara claimed that she received death threats after leaving the show.
She later described her attempt in detail, in which she downed pills and whiskey before passing out on her bathroom floor. A friend found her in time to revive her, but O’Meara still is furious with the producers for “abandoning” her. “I was in so much pain and just hurting, I couldn’t believe what I’d become and how I’d been shown on the telly. I was shaking, but I poured the whiskey into the glass, then I just took one Nurofen, then another, then another,” O’Meara said in April 2007. Her mother says she’s recovering from her suicide attempt but, “She’s not eating, she’s wasting away.”
11. SINISA SAVIJA
July 11, 1997
Savija threw himself under a train after being voted off the island on an episode of “Expedition: Robinson,” the 1997 program that was guided by producer Mark Burnett, who renamed it “Survivor” for the United States run. His suicide led Burnett and other producers to subject potential contestants to psycohlogical testing before casting. Savija’s widow Nermina said the 34-year-old “became deeply depressed and agonized. He felt degraded as a person; he was a glad and stable person before, and when he came back he told me, ‘They are going to cut away the good things I did and make me look like a fool to show that I was the worst, the first to go.”
12. TANIA SAHA
The 21-year-old Saha swallowed poison immediately after being rejected as a participant on the Indian reality show. Apparently she brought the bottle of poison with her to the audition.
(Additional reporting by Tina McGilton and Lucas Shaw.)
By Frank Feldinger & Tina McGilton
Katie Gold made it to the final four on the first year of “Survivor’s” Australian edition. Throughout the program she received a continuous stream of letters saying, “You’re a disgrace, you disgust us.”
When the show was done, Gold (pictured below) continued getting hate mail, suffered clinical depression and had to undergo years of psychotherapy to deal with, as she put it, “serious trust and abandonment issues.”Mental-health workers have discovered that often people who compete on shows like “Survivor” and “Big Brother” — even those who win — suffer severe and often long-lasting psychological trauma as a result.
“The obsession to be on TV is like the obsession to use drugs and alcohol,” Miami psychologist Dr. Jamie Huysman told TheWrap. “It’s just a symptom of a much deeper emotional problem, and the sufferer’s malaise infects the entire family.”
Huysman, who has a special practice in which he treats victims of reality shows and their families, says he has treated over 800 people since he founded AfterTVCare in 1992.
He started the practice when the producer of a TV talk show asked him to intervene in a case where a man who had appeared on the program was threatening to kill his daughter and himself because of what he revealed about lusting for her.
“Reality shows open wounds which no one can suture, so after your appearance, you’re left to bleed to death,” he said. “In effect, everyone who appears is thrown out of the lifeboat when their segment ends. “For everyone who appears — winners and losers alike — the lights go down, clinical issues remain. (See more on the interview with Dr. Huysman.)People don’t have any idea what it’s going to feel like to have so much of their life exposed to the camera, said Dr. Michelle Callahan, who recently served as a co-host and life coach on the mean girl makeover reality series “Queen Bees” on The N network.
“They underestimate how much stress they can deal with,” Callahan told TheWrap. “They think, ‘Oh, we’re cool, we’ll have so much fun and it’s gonna do great things for us so it’s worth it for the exposure.’ “Callahan added that often contestants don’t realize how much scrutiny they will have to endure even after their time on the show has ended. “Your persona on the show extends back to your real life,” she said. “If you’re on ‘The Biggest Loser’ and the show ends and you’re driving down the street and you stop at Popeye’s, people are gonna say, ‘Hey, you still look fat.’ Your weight issue has become public. That’s a lot of pressure to endure.”Weight, especially, can bring out the insults.
Jade Goody (pictured below), a 21-year-old dental nurse from London who died from cancer earlier this year, was dubbed “the most hated woman in the United Kingdom” during her 2002 “Big Brother” stint and was routinely called out for being bitchy, two-faced and fat.
A newspaper columnist wrote, “Jade is one of the most hated women on British TV and life will be hard for her when she leaves the house but don’t feel sorry for her … vote the pig out.”
And she wasn’t the only one to be targeted: A 15-year-old who had the misfortune to look something like Jade was beaten up after being mistaken for the contestant.
“We live in an age of disposable people,” Huysman told TheWrap. “The producers don’t care about the players, they care about the sponsors who want eyeballs, confrontations, meltdowns — they love it when people cry or are brow-beaten. That’s why the highest-rated shows are the ones where people get crushed emotionally.”
What doesn’t happen naturally often is added by the shows’ producers, he said: “No one tells these people it all will be edited, not just to shorten the running time but to manipulate character development. Character defects may be exaggerated simply by editing down their good qualities.”Some contestants end up being the good guy; others end up as the villains.
“Americans aren’t comfortable with ambiguity,” Dr. Jorga Leap, a professor of social welfare at UCLA, told TheWrap. “So, just like a dramatic series, the producers decide before taping who will wear the white hat and whom the black. The problem is, we all are made up of good and not so good qualities and the contestants don’t get to choose which qualities they want displayed to the audience.”
“It doesn’t matter if someone is a strong personality or a basket case,” she added. “Everyone loses their sense of self — and that’s why the worst traumas are suffered after the program airs; people are left with, ‘Now what?’ And they have to face a society that thinks they know you because they saw a version of you on TV.”
The only difference between so-called reality shows and dramatic shows is that they get real people to play the roles,” said Huysman. “You may think you’re the smart, sexy one, only to see yourself portrayed as a calculating bitch when the show airs. That’s why so many winners suffer a type of post-traumatic stress syndrome.”
Jade Goody actually got a chance to switch hats, when she was given her own talk show, “Just Jade,” in 2006. With a public plea for forgiveness, Goody stage-managed a kiss-and-make-up session with the fellow contestant she mocked and made a “goodwill visit” to India, where she toured a children’s charity, apologized again and made a donation.
Finally, unwilling to give up her newfound notoriety up to the end — literally — Goody invited the cameras to film her as she was dying, for a two-part tribute called “Jade: With Love,” that aired in 2009. Her funeral was broadcast live in England.
So how does one prepare for the onslaught reality shows bring?Potential contestants need to be “brutally honest about the possibility that people are going to be critical of them,” Callahan said.
“You have to think about the worst case scenario and be sure you can live with it — people invading your privacy, family coming out of the woodwork to sell you out, people picking on your weight or your skin — is it all worth it?”
Dr. Geoffrey White began working as a therapist on reality television programs like “The Mole” nearly 10 years ago. Now he screens potential cast members to make sure they’re not too unstable. He also supervises contestants while the show is in production.
“The best way to screen the cast is not to talk to them but to put them in situations where you can watch them interact,” White told TheWrap. “Most people can make a pretty good impression in an interview or filling out a form, but if you place people in two or three mock situations, then you can really judge the way someone will respond to a situation.”
White believes there should be greater ethical standards created for the screening process.
“There is enormous potential for risk, and nobody is really following these people up or watching over their welfare,” he said. “An industry standard should be created and producers should be held liable should anything happen.”
(Additional reporting by Amy Kaufman.)