Reality TV's reckoning - ABC News
Background Briefing: Harriet Tatham)
So when the offer from Channel Nine to escape the heat was presented, Dean was suspicious. And with good reason. For months, his life had been orchestrated and controlled by a team of producers. Every part of his day was monitored. Now, he wanted to take back control. "So there's no way I'm doing that. I'm not going anywhere. I want to see how you portray me. I want to see what happens."
Dean is one of several former stars of Married at First Sight who spoke to the ABC's Background Briefing about how seriously their lives were impacted by their time on the reality TV show. The Channel Nine program is Australia's most-watched television show, drawing in 1.4 million viewers on some nights. It's part of Australia's lucrative reality television industry, now the second most watched television format in the country.
Despite its dazzling surface, the show has left many contestants in its wake whose lives have been completely derailed, sometimes with nearly fatal consequences. Some, like Dean, feel they had their careers and reputation destroyed after appearing on the program. Several former stars of the program told Background Briefing they suffered from severe mental health issues during and after filming, with five saying they were suicidal after appearing on MAFS. At least three attempted to take their own lives.
Their experience is consistent with a broader pattern of mental health consequences for reality TV contestants across the world. At least 38 former stars of reality television programs have taken their own lives after appearing on a show, including an 11-year-old girl in India, who killed herself after an appearance on an Indian dance competition. The deaths of at least three reality stars in the UK prompted a parliamentary inquiry.
In Australia, one former reality star took a TV network to court for their portrayal as a "villain" on the reality show House Rules while another was awarded compensation for "psychological injury" resulting from their time on-screen.
Just months earlier, no-one had heard of Dean Wells. He lived and worked in the Sydney suburb of Manly, running the digital marketing agency he co-founded. The rest of his time was spent swimming and hanging out with friends.
One Friday night, at drinks with friends, he was approached by casting producers from Married at First Sight. They pulled him over to the side of the bar and explained the concept to him. "You know, you're gonna marry a stranger," Dean recalls them telling him. "Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? And are you looking for a relationship? Are you single?"
Afterwards, Dean gave the conversation very little thought, but the words of one of the producers stuck in his mind. They had talked about the scientific method they were going to use to find him a partner. "I think they even said, we've got the perfect woman for you."
Dean Wells says he was out having drinks with friends on Manly Wharf in Sydney's north when he was approached by MAFS casting producers.
Background Briefing: Harriet Tatham
So when he was called a week later and invited to do a screen test, Dean went along, thinking it might just lead him to his perfect match. After a few more weeks of tests, Dean was invited to join the show. He undertook a two-hour-long master interview, in which he was probed about his views on relationships.
"I definitely expressed to the producers that the traditional role of a man being a leader in a relationship had been somewhat demonised, like we were in the middle of the #Metoo movement," he recalls. "We were hearing about how evil men were every single day. And I'm sitting there going, well, no, sorry, I'm not evil. None of my friends are evil."
At the time, Dean says the mood of the chat was jovial. But what he said in that interview would soon derail his life.
Not long after that chance meeting at the pub, Dean was standing at the aisle, waiting to meet his so-called perfect match. He was excited. After all, he'd been led to believe this could just be "the one", a match determined by science.
At first, things looked promising. Dean had been matched with Tracey Jewel. The moment he saw her at the end of the aisle, he felt relief. "You know, she was pretty good-looking. She was happy. She had a big smile on her face."
The pair shared their first kiss in front of their friends and family, and embarked on weeks of filming to see if the relationship would work out. Dean knew early on that Tracey wasn't the person for him. They had very different interests and views and, while the pair got along well, he knew it wasn't going to work out. After a few weeks, he decided to come clean to his on-screen wife that he just wasn't feeling the spark.
The pair agreed to pretend to be in love for the rest of the series, hoping it'd be a chance to gain some publicity after the show aired. They attended a final vow ceremony, where the plan was to declare that they wanted to stay together outside of the experiment.
"So I wrote this big speech where I said, 'I love you' and 'I finally realised the error of my ways'. And, you know, we're meant to be together and blah, blah, blah, all this kind of stuff and laid it on pretty thick.
"I cried — that was real. I really did cry because I was just so, emotionally, just drained. And it was just hard. And I get to the end of my speech and I say, I love you and I want to be with you."
But Tracey flipped the script and dumped Dean on camera.
"Part of me was like, well played, Tracey, that was awesome. But another part of me was pissed off and I was like, wow, I can't believe you just did that. You snake, like … that was not cool. And I threw my cards down and sort of stormed off and I looked really angry."
But with the anger came quick relief. Dean was put in a taxi and sent home, where he thought the weeks of emotional upheaval and long filming days were behind him. He was wrong. Things were about to get even worse.
The promo that changed everything
A few weeks after filming finished, Dean was called by a staffer from the show to let him know that the first promotional video was coming out the next day, and it was going to feature him. It seemed like good news: "So I'm like, the star of the show, awesome," Dean recalls thinking.
But his excitement soon turned to trepidation when the producer revealed Dean wasn't going to like what he was about to see. "And then she goes … I need to warn you right now, you need to be prepared for a backlash. And I was just like, what? What are you talking about?"
Dean struggled to sleep that night. He knew he'd done and said some particularly foolish things on the show, and he was bracing for the worst. What came out was far more than he'd anticipated.
The video showed a blindfolded Dean and used his own words as the voiceover. As the promo continued, the tone became increasingly ominous, ending with the words: "Wants to be loved, honoured and obeyed."
That last word — "obeyed" — was in bright red. Dean saw the promo and was immediately upset. "This word 'obey' would become my catchphrase, it became associated with me," he says. "It was in big red letters behind my head. It was on every billboard, every website, every ad."
Looking back, Dean admits he should have been more careful with his words in that interview. He claims he never said the word "obey". "Everything else, I take full responsibility for."
Worried, he went for a walk by the beach. His phone was running hot with constant messages from his friends and family: "Oh, dude, did you see this story like, oh, my God, you see this story? These guys are calling you a rapist. These guys are calling you a domestic violence abuser. These guys are saying you're a misogynist."
Suddenly, Dean Wells felt like the most hated man in the country.
Becoming a reality villain
Tracey Jewel, Dean's on-screen wife, got a call from Dean when the promo aired. By this point, Tracey knew Dean well, they were good friends. The pair had supported each other through the show. She thought the Dean portrayed in the promo was not a fair depiction and set both Dean and herself up as villains in the public eye.
The villainisation of some characters is a common tactic used in reality shows, and it can have lasting effects.
In 2019, a major precedent for Australian reality stars was set when a court found that former contestant Nicole Prince, from the Channel Seven reality program House Rules, was granted compensation. She developed anxiety, depression and PTSD after her portrayal as a "villain" on the hit show. It got so bad that she was receiving threats of violence and was blocked from getting a job after potential employers told her that her portrayal on the show made her look like a bully. Background Briefing reached out to Channel Seven for a comment but did not receive one before publication.
In April this year, another contestant, this time from My Kitchen Rules, was given compensation after proving she suffered psychological injury as a result of her portrayal on the show. Craig Tanner, the barrister who brought these cases to court and won, says the contracts reality show stars sign across the networks often have clauses going far beyond what is allowed at any other workplace.
"The participant surrenders himself or herself to the broadcaster 24 hours a day," he says. "Obviously in normal employment there are limits to the working day whereas here you will have a participant who is expected to be available to be interviewed at any time of day or night. In many instances [they are] required to be subject to being filmed without any break."
In many reality programs, participants are asked to leave their day job and sometimes move to a new city to be on the show, where they aren't able to see their friends and family for several weeks.
When you combine that with the drama that the shows' producers deliberately foster to create entertaining viewing, it's easy to understand why even the most mentally resilient person would struggle.
"Imagine growing up a certain way and thinking a certain thing and having a certain set of values and morals and ideas," says Dean.
Dean's business partners soon decided to part ways. "My reputation was mud," he recalls. Dean went to seek legal advice but was told by a lawyer the contract was "airtight". "They own your name. They own your image. They own everything you do," Dean says he was told. "There's absolutely nothing you can do." He was trapped.
Tracey recalls how tough Dean was finding the sudden notoriety. "Everyone in Australia had already formed a public opinion of him," she says. "So he was kind of set up with a typecast that was completely incorrect right from the get-go, and that was something he was unable to shake and still to this day is unable to shake."
But Tracey was in the maelstrom too. After appearing on the show, she says she was left with no job, no support and was subjected to relentless bullying online. That was part of what drove her to attempt to take her own life six months later. The crisis saw her spend two weeks in a psychiatric facility.
"I've never really experienced anxiety before the show," she says. "And you don't go on a show like that if you think you're susceptible to that type of stuff. They do all your mental checks and psychology checks before you go on … So I felt more than fine going on.
"But my goodness, after that, I didn't want to go out in public. I became a total recluse at home. I developed generalised anxiety disorder, that was diagnosed by my psychiatrist, and was put on medication."
Tracey says she reached out to Endemol Shine last year, asking that they pay for the thousands of dollars in medical fees she'd accrued in the years since appearing on the show. She says she received no response. Endemol Shine did not address the ABC's questions about Tracey. Channel Nine said they have "robust processes" in place to support their participants.
It's been more than a year since Natasha Spencer appeared on Married at First Sight but the hate messages she receives from viewers haven't stopped. Some just criticise her appearance. Others tell her to kill herself. Even now, the messages are tough to read.
"People think that I deserve these types of messages simply because I went on a reality TV show," she says. "I think now I have better coping mechanisms than I did back when the show started. But you definitely don't have any coping mechanisms when it comes out."
Unlike Dean, Natasha applied to be on the show. After a string of bad relationships, she decided on a whim to fill out an application. She says she got halfway through the form and stopped, but was called by a producer at Endemol Shine and invited to do a screen test.
Feeling lucky to have been chosen, she embarked on weeks of interviews before being called and told she would be appearing on the show. Natasha knew filming the show would be intense. But she felt prepared.
Natasha already had overcome big challenges earlier in her life. She says she was sexually abused as a child and later as a teenager. Natasha says she told the production team that she had been a victim of abuse during pre-screening for the show, but wasn't questioned in detail about the abuse at the time, and was still offered a place on the program.
"They talk about extreme trauma not being as suitable for the show," she says. "But they seem to enlist two types of people into the show: people that are going to stir the pot and people that are going to be highly affected by it."
In Natasha's case, she says her past trauma was revived when she learned that another bride on the program had been allegedly indecently assaulted by the man she had been paired with. Natasha says she tried to encourage the woman to go to the police, but the woman told her that someone working for the show had said "if she stayed quiet, they'd give her a better edit". Natasha was furious. The encounter triggered her past trauma.
When Natasha confronted the show's producers about the alleged assault, she felt she was even further alienated, "like I was production public enemy number one." There was a psychologist available during filming but Natasha was afraid to open up, fearing what she said would make its way back to the producers.
As filming progressed, Natasha's mental health continued to decline. She suffered a breakdown, witnessed by her mother, who was there for a filmed parents' lunch. Natasha says she was told she would have to talk to her parents on camera about her sex life.
"I just grabbed mum's hand, pulled her into the toilet upstairs, locked the cubicles, sat on the toilet and just had an almighty panic attack. Snot dripping out of the nose, bawling tears, couldn't speak," she says. "I was just trying to explain to her what a horrible place that this was taking me to, that I'd never felt so alone, that my thoughts weren't right. It was just really dark."
Filming paused, as the producers grappled with what to do. They eventually decided it was best for Natasha to leave the show. They offered her paid psychology sessions and sent her on an all-expenses-paid trip to Bali. Natasha saw it as a strange attempt at compensation.
"I felt like, in their minds, they had made up for what I had going on. And it doesn't even come close because it's really taken me the best part of two years (to repair)."
An expert sidelined
Dr Trisha Stratford is a clinical neuropsychotherapist who for seven seasons was one of three on-camera experts hired by MAFS to appear on the show. Her role wasn't to manage the welfare of the participants. Instead, she was asked to pair the couples and speak to them about their relationship throughout the show.
Initially, Dr Stratford loved the role, but over time she says her input on the program diminished and she felt increasingly controlled by the producers. She admits feeling "ethically, professionally, morally compromised."
"I have to take responsibility for this as well," Dr Stratford says. "When we are on camera, the executive producer would ask us to ask questions, we could ask our own questions, but the producer would ask us to ask questions. I would either re-frame those questions or I wouldn't ask them."
Natasha is still dealing with vile online abuse a year after she appeared on MAFS.
Background Briefing: Harriet Tatham
Dr Stratford says she was kept away from the show's stars when they weren't on camera, but what she did see convinced her that Natasha was struggling. She decided to voice her concerns with Endemol Shine and Channel Nine.
She was asked to attend a meeting at the network. Suddenly she felt she was in the production team's sights. Dr Stratford was surprised by the people arrayed around the table, "top-level people" and lawyers from Nine and Endemol Shine.
"I felt they were attempting to bully me," she says. "After that meeting, I was completely out of the loop. I did not know anything that was going on. They didn't want to include me."
Natasha Spencer says the risks for participants in reality TV shows are significant and the consequences are life-altering. It's taken the best part of two years, but she's rebuilding her life. She recently became engaged to her partner Garry and is trying to put her time on MAFS behind her.
"What does it take for the audience and for producers to start realising the serious detrimental effects that it's having? Does it take somebody to take their own life, for people to regret and feel remorse about what they've done?"
Endemol Shine declined an interview request from the ABC. In a short statement, Channel Nine said there's a "robust process across Nine and Endemol Shine Australia to support participants" in its reality shows.
title: Reality TV's reckoning - ABC News
summary: Across the globe, at least 38 reality TV contestants have taken their own lives after appearing on a show.
keywords: Dean Wells, Natasha Spencer, Married at First Sight, MAFS, reality tv, television, depression, anxiety, mental health