When Reality TV Contestants Die, Who Should We Blame?

Editor’s note: The following article includes discussion about suicide. Some details may be triggering. Please proceed thoughtfully.
When Gia Allemand died at age 29, her mother, Donna Micheletti, was still paying her phone bill. The two had always been close, and they spoke to each other near constantly. More than once, Allemand called her mother at 3 a.m., sometimes gushing with excitement, other times upset. “I always kept my ringer on high, just in case,” Micheletti remembers. So when a 25-year-old Allemand decided to go on the US reality TV show The Bachelor, her mother was one of the first people she told. “I was so used to G sharing her whole life with me,” Micheletti says. Family plan included.   
According to Micheletti, Allemand’s experience on season 14 of The Bachelor was largely positive. Although Allemand didn’t win the final rose from Jake Pavelka, she came home feeling confident and looking happy. 
Courtesy of Donna Micheletti
Gia Allemand and Donna Micheletti.
Maybe that’s why, a few months after the show aired in 2010, Allemand agreed to appear on a spinoff of The Bachelor called Bachelor Pad. It was an elimination-style show, during which contestants competed with the goal of winning USD $250,000 — as a bonus of sorts, they also had a “second shot at finding love.” But Allemand went into filming as the only one with a boyfriend. Love wasn’t on her radar, she said at the beginning of the show. Instead, she wanted to win the money and open an animal shelter, her mother says. “She had a way with animals, like how Cinderella was in the movies,” Micheletti says. 
When the episodes aired, Allemand was shown flirting with contestant Wes Hayden. (Hayden didn’t respond to Refinery29’s request for comment.) “They made her look like she was cheating, falling in love with Wes, and she spiralled really bad after that,” Micheletti says now. “The way they portrayed her on Bachelor Pad with Wes, it destroyed her life.” Allemand’s boyfriend broke up with her — and while she ended up briefly dating Hayden afterwards — soon “she hit rock bottom,” Micheletti shares. “She ended up in the hospital because she tried to kill herself. I called an ambulance. That was a bad one… She made it through that time.” 
Then, Allemand agreed to go on Bachelor Pad for its second season in 2011. She quit the show voluntarily by episode two, telling host Chris Harrison: “I can't do this anymore. It's killing me.” 
On top of the stress that came with the spotlight, Allemand also struggled with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a condition characterised by extreme mood shifts, Micheletti says. (PMDD has been the subject of debate in the medical community in the past; it’s currently listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.) “Your brain does lie to you when you have PMDD, and you think everyone is better off without you,” says Micheletti. “If she would have gotten treatment with a psychiatrist who deals with PMDD, things might have been different.”
But in 2013, about two years after her last appearance on Bachelor Pad aired, Allemand died by suicide in New Orleans, LA. Her mother was on the phone with her at the time.

Who Wants To Be A Reality Show Star?

Allemand’s trajectory is not an anomaly. At least 28 former reality stars have died by suicide, including alums from Love Island, American Idol, and Storage Wars, Refinery29 has confirmed. One newspaper reports this toll may be as high as 38 worldwide. Between 2010 and 2016, at least three Bachelor Nation contestants died by apparent suicide: Allemand, Lex McAllister (who was on Allemand’s season of The Bachelor), and Julien Hug, who was on Season 5 of The Bachelorette. Love Island has lost three participants to suicide, including former host Caroline Flack. 
Suicide is an extreme marker for gauging the toll reality shows and instant fame take, says Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America's Favorite Guilty Pleasure. She notes that, more often, former stars end up struggling with issues such as substance abuse.
When I asked former contestants, producers, and mental health experts whether the reality shows could have played a role in former contestants’ subsequent problems, their responses often circled back to a chicken-or-egg dilemma: What came first, the reality show or the mental health issues?
Some believe that many people who are picked to be reality show contestants are more likely to already have underlying mental health conditions. Kaufman says this may be in part because the producer perspective is often: “Stable, healthy people don’t make for interesting television."
One long-time reality TV producer, who asked to remain anonymous for professional reasons, says that reality casting attracts folks who are “very mercurial or dynamic or problematic.” The producer cites the Real Housewives franchise as an example: People who are shy and reserved are not likely to get cast. On the contrary, the producer says people who acted “insane” were more likely to land a role.
Warner Bros, the studio that produces The Bachelor, declined to comment on this story and the allegations within it. A source close to Bravo tells Refinery29 that stars of Real Housewives aren’t screened psychologically prior to casting, but notes that participants are introduced to a psychologist before filming, and are provided with long-term mental health support if needed. A source close to ViacomCBS says they provide ongoing counselling — they also do psychological evaluations if participants will be living with other cast members under one roof. (Refinery29 reached out to networks such as ABC, A&E, and Netflix and didn't hear back at time of publishing.)
Many shows give potential contestants mental health screenings, and have them meet with psychologists before signing any contracts — in theory, to weed out anyone who might be unable to handle the stress of reality TV. Richard Levak, PhD, a personality expert who’s helped cast shows such as Survivor and Big Brother, gave show applicants a standardised psychological test called the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). “You couldn’t for sure say ‘this person is going to unravel’ — but you could say, ‘This person might unravel with enough stress,’ and warn the producers so hopefully they wouldn’t cast them,” Levak explains. He says that producers would most likely take his advice. A source close to Survivor confirms this and says CBS "takes screening seriously."
But it’s easy to imagine these screenings being used less responsibly. “There’s psychological tests [potential contestants] have to pass, but there’s a window of the pass,” Michael Carroll, a former assistant on The Bachelor, said in Kaufman's book Bachelor Nation. “You’d know there’d be a possibility of [someone] being kind of unhinged — like, she passed, but just barely… You can see it at the casting events during the interviews: ‘Oh this chick is going to go fucking nuts. She’s amazing.”
Micheletti believes Allemand’s PMDD left her vulnerable to mental health issues, and they may have been exacerbated by the backlash to her appearance on Bachelor Pad. But she doesn’t blame the franchise, she says. “Are they taking advantage of you? Hell yeah,” Micheletti shares. “[But] I understand what they’re doing… It’s a show. It’s about ratings. And if it’s going to affect your life, you have no business being on it.” She ultimately believes her daughter was responsible for her own behaviour, and says Allemand echoed this sentiment when she was alive. “G shouldn't have went on it, it’s her own fault,” Micheletti says.
Others disagree. “People put themselves in these situations because they’re pinning their hopes on a boost in status and visibility,” says Walter J. Torres, PhD, a psychologist based in Colorado. They rarely expect to be shamed or humiliated, leaving them woefully unprepared if it happens.
And it does happen — sometimes seemingly by design. Some insiders say that the way reality show participants are treated is manipulative, borderline abusive. “[It’s] my belief that reality TV producers are extremely talented in the areas of mind control and deception, much of the time at the cost of the contestant or employee, which is terribly disturbing and upsetting,” explains Becky Steenhoek, a former Bachelorette producer who sued the show for sexual harassment, before reportedly requesting dismissal of the case in 2019. (In 2017, Warner Bros told The Los Angeles Times: “Our findings did not support the plaintiff’s characterisation of the events claimed to have taken place.”)
“Many will say, ‘That's the nature of the beast, and if you can't handle it, then don't sign up for it,’” Steenhoek continues. “However, I personally do not think that is an acceptable rebuttal. Mental health should never be something that is disregarded, disrespected, ‘played’ with, or handled flippantly.”

The Making Of A Reality Show Villain

When cast members sign on for a show, they give editors the right to do anything they want with their story. In her book, Kaufman got ahold of one Bachelor franchise contract from 2015, which read: “[I] acknowledge and agree that producer may use or reveal personal information which may be embarrassing, unfavourable, shocking, humiliating, disparaging, and/or derogatory, may subject me to public ridicule and/or condemnation, and may portray me in a false light.” Similarly, a 2017 contact for Bachelor In Paradise obtained by CNN Business gives producers "the right to change, add to, take from, edit, translate, reformat or reprocess... in any manner Producer may determine in its sole discretion." 
Many former contestants say storylines get manipulated during editing. Cam Ayala, 31, a contestant on season 15 of The Bachelorette, says it happened to him. 
In one episode, he was shown butting in on a group date to give flowers to Bachelorette Hannah Brown. This became a dramatic moment, and it contributed to Ayala’s rep as being, well, kind of sleazy. But Ayala tells me it was manufactured by producers, who interrupted what was supposed to be a seconds-long drop-in. They wrangled him into giving an on-site interview, then seemingly encouraged the other contestants to confront him during it, he says. “After the show, people would ask me, ‘Are you really that creepy in real life?’” he says.
Ayala also took issue with the fact that the show insinuated that he told Brown about his lymphedema, a chronic condition he’s had his whole life, to get a “pity rose.” He says, “I felt victimised for having a disease.” Warner Bros. declined to comment on these claims. 
Later, Ayala joined Bachelor in Paradise, hoping for a shot at redemption. Instead, he received more of the same. One particular shot of him standing alone on the beach was set to sad music. He was roundly mocked online for "moping." 
Ayala says he even received death threats, an experience that is not uncommon among former reality show contestants. During last season’s “Women Tell All,” Rachel Lindsay, the first Black Bachelorette in the network’s 18-year history, and Sydney Hightower, 25, a biracial contestant on season 24 of The Bachelor, spoke out about the racism and abuse contestants face online. Lindsay read off real messages she and other contestants had received. “You’re an emotional stupid bitch… kill yourself… you’re useless,” they read.
Hightower says her experience with the show was positive overall, but admits, “I wasn’t prepared for what I was going to get on social media,” she says. “I had no idea that it was going to be just hate and racial slurs and people telling me to end my life because of who I was.” She dreaded Mondays, the day the show aired. “I was honestly [in] one of the darkest places in my life,” she says.
When the Netflix show The Circle first aired, participant Sean Taylor, 26, a plus-sized woman, “woke up to a bunch of notifications on my phone,” she told me over lunch in New York's SoHo neighbourhood in February. “The first comments I saw were some strangers using a bunch of barfing emojis, and pig emojis on photos of mine.”
This sort of response can be incredibly damaging, says Dr. Torres, whose research focuses on public humiliation. “It would be painful to reveal your humiliations in front of a classroom of 30, but imagine there’s a whole community  — a whole nation, perhaps — revelling in it. That can be devastating,” he says.
That’s especially true for contestants on the “looking-for-love” genre of reality shows. “[With shows like Love Island], it’s not like you’re not succeeding at some trick,” Torres says. “You’re talking about your attractiveness, your lovability, whether people like you or not.”
In a paper published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Dr. Torres notes that severe public shaming “has been shown empirically to plunge individuals into major depressions, suicidal states, and severe anxiety, including post-traumatic stress disorder.” He found that those who were dealing with other stresses — such as job loss or a death in the family — were especially at risk of these outcomes. So were people with depressive disorders, narcissistic personality disorder, or an “underlying lack of self-esteem.”
Recovering from this kind of backlash is possible, he says. But it takes time. It also takes a level of support from family and friends and, often, mental health care — which some former contestants may not have access to.

Coping With The Aftermath 

When I was 14, I got hooked on my first reality show. It was called Pretty Wicked, and it aired on the Oxygen channel in 2009. A group of objectively gorgeous women were put in a house together and asked to prove they were beautiful on the inside, too. In hindsight, the premise and many plotlines —  including one where the women dated blind men who couldn’t judge their appearance — were problematic, to say the least. It would never run in 2020.
Still, the show made an imprint on me in my formative years, and after I started reporting this article, I got on the phone with one of its judges: Jenn Mann, PsyD, MFT, psychotherapist, author, and the current host of Couples Therapy on VH1.  
She told me that reality TV has changed a lot over the years — particularly in how it approaches mental health. These days, she says, almost every show on a major network has contestants meet with therapists before filming. It’s also fairly common to offer “aftercare:” post-shoot therapy services to help contestants cope with the sudden increase in attention. “Aftercare is an important part of the responsibility of doing reality TV therapy,” Mann says. “But not everyone offers [it]… it depends on the budget and the network.”
Mann says she’s given her personal phone number out to participants at the end of filming, in case they need her. “I tell them that this relationship extends beyond this show,” she says. “I’ll never have dinner or drinks with you, but I’ll always be your therapist and you can call when you need me.” People take her up on it, she says. Hightower says her experience with a psychologist, who her producer connected her with, helped her through her “dark” period post-Bachelor.  
Ayala, however, says that although psychological support was available to him, it always felt like a formality. He was not convinced that the network therapists actually wanted to help. He also worried that during filming they’d pass his mental health information onto producers. 
Last year, ITV vowed to better its aftercare programs after two former contestants on Love Island, Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis, died by suicide within a year of one another. That meant having “detailed conversations with potential Islanders regarding the impact of participation on the show, bespoke training for all Islanders on social media and financial management, and a proactive aftercare package which extends our support to all Islanders following their participation,” the show tells Refinery29 in a statement. 
Still, earlier this year, the show’s long-time host, Caroline Flack, also died by suicide, a few months after being charged with assaulting her significant other. In an unpublished social media post that was made public by Flack’s family, she said she’d been suffering emotionally “for a very long time.”
One reality show producer, who did not wish to be named, said that what constitutes “effective” aftercare is blurry. “I don’t know that casting someone in a TV show makes you responsible for their mental health for the rest of their life,” she says. “Is six months long enough? A year? At some point we have to just say ‘good luck.’” 
And reality TV alums face long-term repercussions. “At first, [magazines] will pay 10 grand for a photo of you, and then suddenly they aren’t even recognising you,” says Jesse Csincsak, the winner of season four of The Bachelorette in 2008. Watching fame fade can have serious ramifications, according to psychiatrist Philip Stutz, MD, and Barry Michels, LCSW, co-authors of the self-help book The Tools. “Attention is like a drug,” Stutz says.
“If you organise your identity around it, you’re going to get addicted to it.” Michels adds. “Building your identity on fame or attention is like building it on quicksand.” It’s not stable. And when it ends, it can trigger a withdrawal period of depression.
Kaufman says she’d like to see shows pair contestants with a mentor who’s been through the process before, or create a guide or training for post-reality show life. Ayala agrees that he would have loved advice from past contestants, “on how to navigate being a public figure, and dealing with the things people on the internet are going to say.” 
“It might have been helpful to have the support of someone who’s been through it,” Taylor concurs. “Someone to give you an accurate representation of the highs and lows. For us, the whole cast felt like guinea pigs.”
Csincsak takes a harder line when it comes to The Bachelor: “The best thing they could do is take that show off the air.” 

Who’s Watching?

I still watch reality TV. For a long time, I’ve viewed it as an escape on par with my Animal Planet obsession — just as exciting, just as harmless (though maybe a little less intellectually stimulating).
Except reality TV stars are... people. They, too, overthink little comments on their Instagram feeds. They, too, call their mothers in the middle of the night when they're upset.
If you sense that a “post with kindness” message is coming, you’re correct. Yes, reality TV show creators, producers, and casting directors could do better — in screening potential contestants, in their editing process, in providing aftercare. But it would be a gross oversimplification to say that just being on a reality show can lead someone to suicide. Many factors contribute to such an event.
Another element: In modern reality shows, the line between viewer and participant has never been thinner. Part of the fun is scrolling Twitter as we binge, reading other people’s reactions in real-time, jumping on the bandwagon, meme-ifying the “villains” and exalting the “heroes.” Rinse, repeat, all the way up through the reunion episode, at which point we move on to the next show, the next season, the next players.
The stars of these series, however, can't move on as quickly, Michels says.
So… yeah. They signed up for it. And it’s fine to watch, even to live-tweet. But the personal attacks about specific characters? At the very least, consider keeping them to your group text, rather than blasting your thoughts out to the world at large.
Donna Micheletti misses talking to her daughter— even the 3 a.m. phone calls. But she’s done a lot to keep Allemand’s legacy alive. She’s working on publishing a book about her child’s life. Shortly after Allemand died, Micheletti appeared on Dr. Phil and told Gia’s story. When the episode aired, women began reaching out to her on Facebook. They’re still reaching out, seven years later. Often, Micheletti ends up consoling them.
“Women will talk to me about their lives, and they’re suicidal,” she says. “I’m a suicide survivor myself. I know what these women need to hear to keep going: that their life means something. It means something to me — I won’t be the same, I won’t be able to handle them being gone — and to a lot of people.” She says that anyone who’s going through something like this should reach out to people who can hear them out and help them. And, they should know they’re not alone.
“There are times when you really just want someone to listen to you,” she says. “And to understand where you're coming from.” 
If you are thinking about suicide, please contact Samaritans on 116 123. All calls are free and will be answered in confidence.
In its early days, reality TV was an easily mocked amusement that “serious” people talked about in hushed tones. Today, it’s an Emmy-awarded genre in its own right, and perhaps the most important and relevant form of entertainment in a world where we document and distribute every moment of our lives in high definition. But now, against the backdrop of anxiety-inducing headlines and societal upheaval, the previously low-stakes genre provides welcome relief (See: Hyori's Bed & Breakfast ), cultural commentary (see: Survivor ) and an examination into how the country got here (see: Vanderpump Rules). In 2020, there’s truly no escape from reality, whether it is playing out on our screens or outside our door.

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