Back in my day, binge watching VH1 all day meant catching episodes of Pop Up Video interspersed with real music videos. Those days are long gone, and the network has shifted its focus from music and the people who make it, to a gaggle of beautiful and talented people who are willing to let pieces of their their private lives be their latest product. The popularity of past franchises like Flavor of Love and contemporary ones like Basketball Wives and Love & Hip Hop has expanded the very definition of celebrity in our culture — especially within urban entertainment. The talent of a reality star is their ability to present a range of human emotions under varying circumstances when the cameras start rolling. VH1’s latest experiment, Scared Famous, is a case study in reality television.
Right in time for Halloween, VH1 cast ten contestants from some of its former and current reality shows to compete in horror movie-themed challenges. They all live together in a house, they vote to eliminate one of their own each week, and the last person standing gets to donate $100,000 to a charity of their choice. The contestants include Safaree (the ex-boyfriend of Nicki Minaj) and Nikki Mudarris from Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood, Erica Mena from Love & Hip Hop: New York, Yung Joc from Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, Eva Marcille and Don Benjamin from America’s Next Top Model, Alaska from RuPaul’s Drag Race, Drita D’Avanzo from Mob Wives, Sky Days from Black Ink Crew, and Tiffany “New York” Pollard from Flavor of Love and a bunch of other shows. The show is hosted by rapper Redman.
This smorgasbord of popular reality show themes — celebrities, competition, and shared living space — is beefed up by dramatic confrontation and frank sexual exchanges. The latter makes Scared Famous hard to watch at times. On Monday night’s episode, Pollard alluded to giving Safaree a blow job in the bathroom and then cuddling Yung Joc. Joc is upset when Nikki is eliminated because he doesn’t get the opportunity to lay in bed with her. She clearly wasn’t interested. Safaree keeps proclaiming his love for Erica to unfavourable results. The show is clearly staged and not at all scary, but the hilarity of watching some of our favourite entertainers interact with each other under pressure makes up for its shortcomings. I cackled several times.
But I was even more fascinated by the business of it all. As much as some naysayers hate it, this is show business in 2017. We can argue about whether or not being “a personality” is an actual talent. But in an era where some people’s biggest critique of people like Beyoncé is that she’s not relatable enough, I would argue that it certainly is. There’s a reason why people like Pollard and Tami Roman have maintained careers in reality television for over a decade. Fans are always excited about what they might do or say next.
VH1’s mastering of reality television is an evolution of a genre that was birthed by sister network MTV with the premiere of The Real World. These networks are to reality stars what record labels are to musicians. E! has secured the genre’s Beyoncé by working with Kim Kardashian and her family, but VH1 has its ear to the streets, elevating the status of newcomers like Cardi B. and making sure people like Joc, whose prime in rap is behind him, can still pay their bills. VH1 dictates who is hot or not, what projects they work on, when those projects are released, and how they are promoted. It’s a brave new world out there, and shows like Scared Famous prove that there isn’t an end in sight, whether we like it or not.