Australia’s Big Brother VIP season starts tonight and only one person of colour has been cast: Omarosa Manigault Newman. The 47-year-old is the former advisor to Donald Trump and is “expected to go head-to-head, especially about LGBTQ+ issues” with co-star Caitlyn Jenner.
Other cast members include Married At First Sight’s Jessika Power; Meghan Markle’s estranged half brother Thomas Markle Jr; Instagram personality Imogen Anthony; and of course, a couple of white male footy stars. And this comes after Channel 7 sent apparent contestant and controversial right-wing commentator Katie Hopkins packing after she flouted quarantine rules last in July.
The show has always boasted that housemates reflect all walks of Aussie life, yet time and time again we’ve seen either a lack of representation or problematic treatment of POC contestants, particularly women, inside the BB house or by viewers when the show airs.
Last year Fijian-Australian Laura Coriakula, Chinese-Australian Allan Liang and Korean Soobong Hwang were the first three housemates to be evicted from the local version of Big Brother. While Coriakula agreed with Liang that three POC being eliminated first was perhaps a “coincidence”, she said there was an “us and them” dynamic in the house as she instantly gravitated towards Liang and co-star Angela Clancy, who’s originally from Kenya.
“Think about a workplace, the ethnics [sic] immediately draw together as a team. Inside the house, obviously Angela and Allan were the only two people I thought I could relate to,” she told HuffPost.
While she connected with those housemates straight away, she said “it’s a bit more of a slow burn when it comes to creating a connection with a white person because I’m trying to filter out, ‘Okay are you racist or do you get it?’”
In 2013, Tahan Lew Fatt, who has Aboriginal and Malaysian heritage, accused South Korean-born co-star Mikkayla Mossop of being “racist” because she often spoke in foreign accents to other housemates.
“I think she is the most racist person I know,” Lew-Fatt said in the diary room. "Love her to death, but she is very racist and coming from someone who myself, I am very multicultural, I have a number of different backgrounds, I embrace and respect all of my cultural backgrounds, whereas she takes the piss out of them and makes fun of them and it's really something that irritates me."
Her claims divided fans on social media, with some agreeing and some insisting that’s actually how Mossop “copes with racism.”
However, Tahan’s views were not shared by all the participants. Co-star Heidi Anderson rejected the allegations against Mossop at the time, telling news.com.au: "Mikkayla was just putting on an accent and having fun with it and Tahan has overreacted but because of the environment that you're in it seems a lot worse."
Priya Malik, who placed fourth on the show in 2014, said she didn’t have an issue with race inside the house, but faced racism from viewers.
She previously told HuffPost that “a lot of racist slurs were used for me [by viewers] when I appeared on the show. Although maybe it was also because I was so unapologetically Indian, but I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
Her subsequent experience in 2015 on the celebrity Indian version of the show, Big Boss, proved that issues around race are not unique to just the Australian version of Big Brother. She recalled that a fellow contestant told her to “go back to where you come from”. It was an unsettling feeling for the high school teacher who had come to Australia on a student visa in 2008. She hadn’t expected to face discrimination from other Indians when she returned to India for Celebrity Big Boss.
“A lot of people think I’ve raised the issue of racism in Big Brother [Australia] but actually I haven’t. No one was blatantly racist to me on the show,” she told India-based entertainment and lifestyle website, Miss Malini. “It was only when I came out, I faced racism on social media.
“But coming back to my own country, this was the last place I thought someone could be racist to me. And directly ask me to go back to where I come from! When I had gone on the Australian Big Brother, I had expected it to happen, it didn’t. And when I came on Big Boss, I didn’t expect it to happen, but it did.”
One of the biggest race rows in Big Brother history was when Jade Goody, Danielle Lloyd and Jo O’Meara were accused of 'bullying' and making racist comments towards Indian actor Shilpa Shetty during the U.K.’s Celebrity Big Brother in 2007.
Lloyd suggested Shetty should "f*** off home" and claimed “she can't even speak English properly”. Goody referred to the Bollywood star as “Shilpa Poppadom”, and O’Meara asked if Indian people were thin because they’re “sick all the time”.
The U.K.’s communications regulator, Ofcom, received 44,500 complaints about these contestants’ behaviour towards Shetty, and it later put sanctions on broadcaster Channel 4 after finding them guilty of breaching the broadcasting code three times.
When Channel 7 announced a VIP series was coming to Australia, I held hope that more WOC were revealed in the lineup. Here's hoping now that Omarosa is treated with respect no matter what the colour of her skin is.
Refinery29 Australia contacted Channel 7 for comment.
Big Brother VIP premieres on Monday, November 1 at 7:30pm on Channel 7.