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.

Big Brother

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