I’m A Celebrity – Analyse Me: The Appeal of Celebrity Reality TV

by: Kirsty Fairclough / University of Salford, UK

The sight of author and feminist icon Germaine Greer entering the Big Brother house was surely a signal that celebrity reality TV is firmly entrenched in the television landscape in the UK.

Over the last few years we have seen various C-list celebrities desperately attempting to revive their flagging careers by appearing on the UK’s celebrity focussed reality shows, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here (ITV), Celebrity Big Brother (Channel Four), Celebrity Fit Club (ITV) and Hell’s Kitchen (ITV), but the surreal sight of a woman who had publicly vilified reality TV four years earlier gleefully entering the house was somewhat surprising. In fact, Greer had previously publicly stated in The Observer in 2001,”Watching Big Brother is about as dignified as looking through the keyhole in your teenage child’s bedroom door.” Yet in 2005 we see her become part of the phenomenon of reality TV that currently pervades our culture. What can we make of Greer’s participation? Is it shameless self-promotion or a shift in the character of celebrity culture? Greer is well known for her outspoken attitude and love of the spotlight, but an esteemed academic appearing on Celebrity Big Brother? A step too far or a sign of the times?

The appeal of celebrity reality television is easy to see, from the carefully constructed facades of C-list celebrities quickly disintegrating to the voyeur factor providing a quicker hit than the slow character build up of the unknown wannabes seen in traditional reality shows. Whatever the specific appeal for individual viewers, celebrity reality shows are naked television. There is a certain perverse pleasure in watching the fragility of the celebrity ego stripped of its usual indulgences and take a beating during its incarceration process in the house or the jungle.

Certainly, the choice of C-list caricatures explains some of its success. The contestants for the most recent series of Celebrity Big Brother saw, amongst others, Kenzie, a 19 year old boy band member; Brigitte Nielsen, known to most UK viewers as Sylvester Stallone’s ex-wife; John McCririck, an eccentric 60-something horse racing commentator; Caprice, a 30-something model, and, of course, Greer herself. Undoubtedly the most interesting aspect of this series was that the producers of Big Brother appeared to take one step further into the contestants’ “private” lives when Nielsen’s ex-mother-in-law, Jackie Stallone, whom Nielsen had not seen for twenty years, entered the house a few days in. This move was clearly meant to create conflict, but actually backfired when the two made amends by the time Stallone left, with Stallone even going so far as to say that she wanted Brigitte to win.

The fact that most of the participants are vaguely familiar rather than instantly recognised faces seems, at least in part, to be the key to celebrity reality TV’s success. Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Endemol UK, which makes Celebrity Big Brother, states that in fact, the C-list factor has become an essential part of a celebrity’s credibility for reality TV and that people with problems are far more interesting than those whose careers and emotional lives are under control.

“With Celebrity Big Brother we got Jack Dee and then put in a couple of people – Anthea Turner and Vanessa Feltz – whose careers had gone into reverse,” says Bazalgette. “The papers were saying ‘Is that all you could find?’, but it became far more clear than we’d realised that people whose careers are going down rather than up are more interesting because of the crises in their lives.” (The Guardian Mon 9.2.04) Since its inception, reality TV has made a specific claim to expose the process of the construction of fame, whether in terms of following hopeful wannabes from the audition stages to their entry into the media, or by offering the viewers unprecedented “access” to existing celebrities by stripping away the celebrity facade. Indeed, the last series of Celebrity Big Brother took this idea of access a step further by probing the celebrities past in order to find a weakness that would ensure explosive television.

What remains interesting about celebrity reality TV are the increasing numbers of celebrities inclined to laying themselves emotionally bare and in the practice of confession and disclosure on national television. There is inevitably a focus upon exposing a sense of the celebrity’s “true self,” which in turn ensures discussion of their personal lives. Celebrity Fit Club (ITV), for example, presents celebrities willing to subject themselves to public scrutiny and often humiliation about their eating habits and lifestyle.

Indeed, there appears to be a quest for self-validation in this type of programming, which in turn makes the celebrities appear somehow “ordinary.” There are, of course, financial interests at work in seeing celebrities on screen in this way. Celebrities are commodities and are often intensely aware of this fact, and it is this awareness which is entertaining for the audience to observe. The appeal for celebrities clearly lies in the possibility of reviving a flagging career as we have witnessed with Tony Blackburn (winner of I‘m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here Series 1 [ITV]). Yet the public emotional unravelling of television presenter Vanessa Feltz on Celebrity Big Brother Series 1 (Channel Four) illustrates how problematic this can be. What was interesting was her failure to understand how she might be represented. In most cases celebrities are only too aware of the manipulative nature of television, yet careful editing can acutely alter the public perception of a celebrity, making appearing on Big Brother and the like always a personal and financial risk.

What celebrity reality TV offers as opposed to its celebrity-constructing counterpart is not the transformation of the “ordinary” person into the “extraordinary,” but the opposite trajectory. Indeed, it is in the transformation of “celebrity” into “ordinary” person, through which his or her “extraordinary” status is incongruously reaffirmed.

Links:
Big Brother
ITV

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6 comments

  • Reality television has been cranking out quasi-celebrities since the first edition of “The Real World.” Fairclough claims that this process has come somewhat full circle with C-list celebrities crawling to (or, in some cases, back to) reality television for a career boost. Is this a result of the ephemerality of star power or is it a sign that reality television is finally starting to run on fumes?

  • Nostalgia & context

    I’d like to add a couple of other possible reasons for the appeal of celebrity reality TV. First, there’s the nostalgia factor – seeing a famous personality that you thought was gone return from the dead. Second, there’s the incongruity of seeing a famous person out of his/her context. Celebrity reality TV allows the viewer to transgress the seemingly permanent industry-imposed boundaries of genre and cancellation. It’s more than just an illumination of the fame-making process; it’s the creation of a new celebrity narrative.

  • Reality Television for the celebrity conscious

    For the celebrities appearing on stateside shows such as Celebrity Mole and Surreal Life, I believe there is a key element, that of renewed youth which plays such a vital role in why these celebrities partake in this fiasco. As stated above the general audience is in fact more intrigued by the follies and pitfalls of 15 minute expiration. However, for the celebrities themselves the chance to hold the spotlight one more time is just too great. Again the financial conerns are also to be considered, but I believe that the opportunity to once again be talked about, to be adorded or loved is what truly drives these people. As for once condemests now conforming? Well Andy Warhol did say everyone gets fifteen mintues, maybe this is the most logical progression of that notion.

  • I am a huge fan of celebrity reality programming. I am a fan for all of the reasons basically stated in this article

    I love watching these “has-been” celebrities subject theirselves to what I consider to be humiliating situations.

    This article is from the UK but it is funny how it completely applies to the US as well. With Surreal Life and also Celebrity Fit Club being one of the highest rated shows on VH1.

    It just seems like common sense that celebrity reality would be a hit. I mean if the public enjoyed “nobodies” on TV like Survivor and Big Brother. Why wouldn’t they also love watching washed up celebrities on reality TV as well?

    Also a great point in this article is that the C-list celebrity is the best fit for these shows. This is becuase the C-list celebrity probably has more conflicts, issues, and insecurities than the a-list star.

    Also, the C-lis celebrity is willing to put on a show for the camera in order to vamp their persona and ultimately their “celebrity/commoduty” self in order to get more press and more work.

    One other great thing about these celebrity reality shows is that, for me, it puts me above these celebrities. When I watch these shows I feel sorry for these guys and it makes me feel better that I am just a “common” “regular” guy. A lot of these celebrities are just losers.

    So by bringing these once “glamorous” people down to earth(and in some cases under), is a very satisfying feeling and fun to watch.

  • Get them out of there.

    Being that celebrities who are no longer prevalent in their field (movies, music, tv, etc), they have no job and no income. Sometimes college campuses bring them around to speak about their experiences but that’s about it; maybe they are still receiving some kind of royalties from their big hit in the early 90s but who knows. So, they have to work somehow right? Perhaps they do not watch the programs in which they embarrassed in front of millions because they know what they have been filmed doing, or perhaps they have no shame, being in the limelight their whole lives and seeing the whole spectrum of celebrity has given them an easy feeling about the public seeing all sides of their personality, however unpleasant. All I know is that people want to see those who they look up to, or used to in most cases, placed in a situation that is not so unlike their own. I think what the people really want to see is the likes of Tom Cruise or Britney Spears on one of these shows, that would be something to watch, actual current events and programming…VH1 would go down in flames with their recent programming that seems to be nothing but nostalgia. But, in conclusion, I know that I can’t turn off the TV when Flava Flav is on, trying to court Brigitte Nielsen,

  • Celebrities Acting “Ordinary”

    Reality TV is an attempt to mimic everyday life situations with an occasional exaggerated version of the dramatic events that we all may encounter or can at least relate to. Of course it is interesting to watch celebrities cope with their feelings of a career downfall and a return to normalcy. Celebrities ARE real people, who live just as we do, the only difference is that everyone knows about celebrities. It is shocking when we hear of celebrities going through rehab such as Britney Spears or Lindsey Lohann, but we must understand that celebrities should not be under the spotlight ALL of the time, they are real people too. I feel as though celebrities on Reality shows act a certain way in order to relinquish their career or ego at least. Using ones personal prestige is an excellent way to scrap up a few bucks after a washed up career… It is interesting to watch celebrities assimilate to real life on reality TV, but in Reality they are all just like you and me. Exposing scandals and crisis in celebrities lives should not be a focus of our lives when we have enough with our own lives. There are much greater issues concerning the politicians who run our nation than the celebrities scum and scandal. They will corrupt our lives if we do not pay attention to the corruptness of theirs. I would like to see more politicians becoming actors rather than the other way around. When is there going to be a reality Television program that takes place in the White House? “24/7 White-house Action, surveying their every move…” Now that’s drama!

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