What It’s Like To Be On Reality TV

(This blog post has now been picked up on Reddit and other sites, so it’s important for you to know before you read this that this post is made in defense of those on reality TV who are attacked for being villains, racists, etc.  On my season of the show, I was treated like a god in the editing room, and I could not be more satisfied with how I was portrayed.  This blog is in defense of those who are being attacked at every angle on social media, based on how they are represented in the editing room.)

Since so many people are in uproar over MasterChef’s Krissi talking about punching people, I thought I’d do a quick blog post on what it’s actually like being on MasterChef, or any heavily engineered reality TV series for that matter, so that you can all try to get in a similar mindset to the contestants.

First, I want to perform an exercise.  I want you to think back to the time in your life when you were MOST in crisis.  Maybe it was the middle of a divorce.  Maybe it was the foreclosure of a home.  Maybe it was the death of a parent, and the feuding of siblings over funeral plans and estate settlements.  Perhaps it was finalizing and defending your thesis or dissertation…prepping for the bar exam for the third time…or starting your medical residency in an inner city hospital.  Maybe it was war in a strange country.  Maybe it was discovering that you had cancer or another terminal illness.

I want you to think about your physical and mental condition during that time.  The laying awake and staring at the ceiling because your mind was racing.  The fitful sleep, when it finally came, and horrible dreams.  The obsessive eating.  (Or complete lack of interest in food.)  The binge drinking, and perhaps drug use.

Do you have that time period solidly in your mind right now?  Did you ever snap at someone you cared about?  Or maybe there were endless bouts of red-faced screaming?  Was your temper shortened?  Did you sometimes feel cornered?  Like everyone was against you?

At this point in the filming of MasterChef, these contestants have little resemblance of their sanity left.  Because they’ve been in Los Angeles for 6 weeks without the ability to contact their spouse, children, parents, or friends.  Because they couldn’t tell their employer where they were going, only that they might be gone for up to 2 months, many of them are currently wondering if they have an income to go back home to.  That compounds into questions about whether or not they’ll lose their home.  (Several homes have been foreclosed on in previous seasons.)  And that certainly compounds into questions about how they will continue to support themselves and their families after 2 months without income.  That gives rise to questions about how they can afford to capitalize on their exposure after the show finishes airing.  (It takes money to make money, and turning reality TV exposure into cash or career requires that you hire a publicist, at the very least…which averages $2k a month.)  For the record, I have a day job and virtually every penny of that day job has been spent keeping myself “visible” to the public in various ways since MasterChef finished airing.  I have spent FAR more on keeping myself a public figure than I’ve EVER made from opportunities stemming from MasterChef.  And I don’t have the kind of funds to afford a publicist.

At this point, the contestants have been eating, living, and breathing MasterChef 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, without cease, for 42 days.  Their day usually begins around 5 or 6am, when they chug down a yogurt smoothie from the hotel fridge and stumble down to the lobby to get on board a chilly van to head to the set for a day that alternates between excruciating boredom (ie, waiting 4 hours in a holding area in forced silence before filming begins) and intense stress (cooking challenges, then more waiting for hours, regretting mistakes and choices from the challenge).  Then an elimination.  Which, despite what you might think from the editing, is very depressing and deeply unsettling for EVERYONE.  But it’s not over.  More waiting, and then 2 hours worth of interviewing about everything that happened that day.  And it’s not a “Tell me how you feel” interview.  It’s an invasive interview with questions drafted by a psychologist who watches your every move all day on camera, delivered by an expert story producer to raise within you the same emotions you’ve been experiencing all day.  If you’re lucky, you got one horrible meal that day…one classic lunch from my season is one I’ll never forget: day-old leftover tater tots wrapped in puff pastry and deep fried.  Staled tater tots en croute.  The lunch of champions.

If you’re lucky, filming wraps in time that the van can stop at an actual restaurant on the way home, so you can buy yourself a decent dinner, rather than ordering cold french fries from room service back in your hotel at 1am, or relying on your little room fridge, your little microwave, and, for the more resourceful, your clothing iron, to whip up something meager before collapsing into fitful sleep.

Then you are awakened at 3am by a loud, rude knock.  And it’s time to switch hotel rooms.  Pack up your room…ALL of the stuff you brought for 2 months of filming…and move to a room on a different floor.  Inexplicably.  (Because they want you to be confused and stressed.)  And maybe you’re settled back in by 4:30am, just in time to catch 30 minutes of sleep before you have to be up to do it all over again.

Repeat this for a month and a half, and THAT’S the mindset that these contestants are in right now.  Of course, the show was filmed in winter and is just now airing…but the increasing tension and fighting amongst the contestants that you’re seeing on screen is a result of all this.

So next time you get offended when a contestant lashes out at another one, before you decide to criticize, I want you to think about everything I’ve just narrated.  And I want you to hearken back to your own most-stressful era of your life, and ask yourself if you’d be handling it any better.

Psychologists say that reality TV has a similar impact on the brain that going to war has on soldiers.  (I know that will offend some people, but that’s not MY opinion, it’s the opinion of some experts who have researched it.  Please DO NOT decide to attack me over this.  I have never been to war, and I realize some people will be supremely offended on behalf of veterans over this comment.  THIS IS NOT my opinion.  I have discussed this matter with 3 psychologists who consider themselves experts on reality TV, 2 of whom work exclusively in the industry, and 1 of whom counsels reality TV “survivors.”  They all affirm that PTSD is a very real condition in the aftermath of reality TV, the suicide rate among reality TV survivors is similar to those returning from war, and that the impact on the mind is similar.  Again…NOT my words.  So please don’t attack me over them.)  There is EXTREME psychological and emotional manipulation from all sides.  You don’t know who to trust.  You don’t know if your “best friend” on the show is talking bad about you in their interviews.  (Because you know for a fact that the story producers are trying to get YOU to talk bad about THEM in YOUR interviews.)  You don’t know if your sick mom back home got through her surgery okay.  (That happened to me.)  You don’t know if your child is being well cared for.  You don’t know if your spouse has reached the breaking point, having tolerated this ridiculous, childish desire of yours to jaunt off to Hollywood and become a TV star.  You don’t know if your electricity bill got paid on time by your neighbor.  You don’t know if the judges’ critiques are honest…if they REALLY liked your dish because it was good, or if they liked it because the story arc of the show needed you to be triumphant that day.  To say nothing of the fact that you don’t know if you can go back to your normal life and live it the same way you once did, or whether you have to give some or all of it up to follow your dreams.

So let’s cut the contestants a little slack here.  Let’s not rush into judgements about what you hear them say.  Let’s sit back and watch MasterChef as if it was strictly a scripted entertainment show.  (Because it mostly is, to be honest.)  Enjoy it.  Learn from it, in the odd event that the producers ever actually feature cooking information or techniques.  Connect with the contestants if you like them.  But don’t expect them to be the same in real life…just like you shouldn’t expect the contestants you dislike to be the same, either.  I’m sure MANY of my fans have been surprised and occasionally offended when they’ve learned some things about me that they certainly didn’t expect from watching my character on MasterChef.

There’s a LOT MORE going on behind the scenes than you can possibly imagine.  A veritable army of production staff, psychologists, story producers who write the show, executive producers directing the overall arc, network executives poking in to discuss the impacts of different elimination scenarios, focus groups watching pre-edits, graphs and charts and statistics to predict how YOU, dear television watcher, will respond to the show, and how they can make sure you keep tuning in each week.

DO NOT make the mistake of thinking that any of this is Reality.

126 Responses to What It’s Like To Be On Reality TV

  1. Dear Ben,

    Thank you for giving us this insight. I really have a lot fo respect for all the contestants b/c I really enjoy watching Masterchef and will do so again next season. I am sure I would cut my finger off or have burns on the first challenge. Although I am getting a little tired of Gordon making it sound like it is one contestant who will stay in his results and then saying another name.

    I actually like the US version (never seen the others) b/c I don’t really want cooking instruction. I’d go online or watch the Food Network for that. I cook very little but really enjoy looking and tasting all different kinds of food. Food appreciation. I like the pressure tests and seeing how people can pull it together and produce something really marvelous in a short amount of time. I like just seeing edited footage of the process and wouldn’t want to see the dishes made in the entirety…yawn. Not a fan of the group challenges though. It gets me excited about cooking again, and that for me is more inspirational than a show on how to cook.

    As to Krissi thank you for explaining what so many viewers seem oblivious to. They are under extreme stress. I also highly doubt people who pass judgement on someone they do not know are paragons of virtue- especially since they are the ones posting hate-filled comments. She’s a fighter and that really came across on the show. I am particularly bothered by how people dismiss her because she cooks on a budget or laughs at her for not having ever tasted expensive dishes. The more I’ve heard her talk in interviews or made some of her recipes- the more respect I have for her. She doesn’t pretend to be something she isn’t. She’ll tell people what she things straight up. She’s tough and gave it her all. I’m picking up some cupcakes from her this week, and I imagine she is going to be just like a normal person and not beat me up. If she beats me up I will be sure to let you know.

    Her cooking style resonates with me b/c I want to make dishes that are affordable but can be classed up- as I lose interest quickly in everyday cooking when I have 20+ ingredients and have to go to 4 different stores. People can think her food looks or taste bad or even say they think she has a poor personality that doesn’t mesh with their own based on what they see on TV is one thing- but when they go so far as to say she is a poor role model for her son, a bully (hmm…that’s a bully? people must have easy sheltered lives), her son should be taken from her or she’s a vile human being- that just crosses the line. It is scary how people can just believe whatever is sensationalized on TV and have such an intense hatred or love for someone based on that. It’s a show.

    I did not know they were isolated during their stay. I thought the family visit was just for show and they had been in contact.. I’m really shocked they didn’t get better food. Tater tots in puff pastry….that’s horrific.

    I’m glad I came across your blog. There is so much material here. Your recipes look stunning. I’ll be trying some this week. I also really enjoyed you on MasterChef! :)

    • Beautifully written Tara. Knowing Krissi for 25 years I defended her every chance I could. It amazed me how nasty people were towards me for doing so.You will love Krissi and adore her son. Her cupcakes are to die for. A couple drove up from Virginia today to pick up a couple dozen. What loyalty!

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