These reality TV newcomers were ready for fame. Then social media turned vicious.
After being sequestered for nearly three months while competing on CBS' "Big Brother" in summer 2007, Daniele Briones got a warning from producers after the finale was broadcast.
"They were like, 'Don't go on the message boards. ... People can be really mean and cruel,'" recalled Briones, who came in second place and won $50,000. "So obviously, the first thing you do is go online and read the message boards."
Really, who wouldn't? Of course, back in 2007, new reality stars could still decide when and if they wanted to go to the trouble of reading what strangers had written about them. But now that social media is the most basic tool for anyone hoping to extend their reality-TV fame - and certainly, a familiar daily habit from their pre-fame days - one click on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook unleashes a torrent of opinions from strangers. And while reality TV hopefuls often think they understand what they're walking into, former contestants say nothing prepared them for the brutal onslaught of commentary they received when they exited a show.
"Girls on my season are getting death threats, I'm getting told to go kill myself," Caelynn Miller Keyes vented in an Instagram post in March, describing the shock of seeing her mentions filled with offensive comments after a stint on "The Bachelor." "This show is super easy to make fun of, I get it. But viciously tearing people down is absolutely disgusting. ... The internet can be very dark, and instead of feeding into it, try taking a step back. We are real people."
When two stars of ITV's "Love Island," a popular British dating show, recently died within nine months of each other, reportedly by suicide, it prompted the British Health Secretary to urge stronger "aftercare" for reality contestants.
"There also needs to be much more guidance on how to interact with social media after the show, in particular how to deal with trolling," Alex George, a London doctor who appeared on the show, wrote in an editorial in the Guardian. George, who saw his Instagram account grow from 200 followers to one million, added that "there is not one former islander I have spoken to who has not experienced anxiety about their Instagram and other social media accounts."
The impact of reality TV on mental health has been a concern since the early years, even before the days of "American Idol" goading emotionally fragile singers into terrible auditions. Networks and production companies have established strict vetting processes and conduct multiple psychological screenings of cast members. But even when support systems are available, contestants still struggle with the social media backlash.
"Big Brother," which has returned for Season 21, pits more than a dozen contestants against each other, competing for a $500,000 while cooped up together in one big house; hundreds of cameras and microphones capture their every move, and viewers can watch a 24-hour live feed. After last fall's finale, two-time player Paul Abrahamian noted on Twitter that the newly-released competitors were likely "experiencing whirlwinds of emotions, shock, euphoria & stress." He reminded viewers that the stars' re-acclimation to society "is a fragile process, especially with the nature of social media. Keep your vile opinions/hateful messages to yourselves."
Several fans scoffed: "Cmon man it's only been a few months you act like they were prisoners of war and tortured." But Abrahamian was serious. "Imagine having a relatively normal life, then being isolated from society for a little while, & coming out to strangers telling you that you should kill yourself about 20 times a day," he responded in a tweet. "So because they signed up to be on a reality show, they deserve to be harassed, stalked & cyber bullied?"
In an interview, Abrahamian - a controversial player known for his ability to manipulate allies and enemies alike - described the chilling messages on social media.
"'Go kill yourself' is a walk in the park," he said dryly. Some trolls even bully contestants' family members and loved ones. While "Big Brother" is considered a "social experiment," with players attempting to share space with each other while simultaneously choosing which one of the group to vote out week by week, Abrahamian thinks the actual experiment is how the so-called "houseguests" interact with fans in real life.
"I'm most fascinated that regular viewers treat houseguests so poorly," said Abrahamian, who coped by focusing on his music career. "If harassing people on a TV show ... is ultimately entertainment for you, I don't know what that says about modern society."
Abrahamian makes a point of contacting the latest crop of "Big Brother" alums each season. Only a select group of people in this world can relate to the surreal experience of becoming "an instant D-list celebrity," he said.
CBS declined to make "Big Brother" producers available for an interview, but sent The Washington Post a statement from executive producers Allison Grodner and Rich Meehan. The well-being of cast members is their "top priority," they said, and houseguests are given guidance to "inform and prepare them" for all stages of the show.
"As the intensity of social media conversation has increased in all parts of our culture, we've expanded this preparation and increased our dialogue with them in this area," Grodner and Meehan said. "Following their time in the house, resources are made available should they need assistance."
Indeed, according to contestants and reality TV psychological consultants, many productions offer support to participants after the show airs, and some have psychologists make follow-up calls. Following the "Love Island" deaths, the show updated its "duty of care" protocol, including providing cast members on "training on dealing with social media" and a minimum of eight therapy sessions after they return home.
Stars of ABC's "The Bachelor," which also has a rabid fanbase that is quite vocal online, have talked about dealing with hateful messages. Olivia Caridi, portrayed as the "villain" on Ben Higgins' season, has spoken openly about she suffered from suicidal thoughts after the show aired.
"I was getting messages saying I should kill myself, and, you know, you're not worthy of living," she said on her podcast. Caridi said she asked producers to pay for therapy expenses, and they did not. (Warner Bros., "The Bachelor" production company, had no comment for this story.)
But even when assistance is available, many reality veterans don't reach out for it. Contestants offer several theories: Some rationalize that nasty messages come with the territory. Or they feel pressure to put on a happy face, grateful for their new fame. Or they're embarrassed to admit they need help - a quandary not limited to reality stars. Or they're angling to be invited back to another season, and don't want producers to know about their anxiety.
Briones, who went by Dani Donato during her time on the show, had a stalker after her first season of "Big Brother." The police got involved during the terrifying ordeal, but she said it didn't even occur to her to reach out to CBS, because she wasn't sure what the network could do. While she temporarily shut down her social media accounts when the "online hate" got to be too much, she eventually restored them and even returned to the show for another season.
"I just remember thinking, 'I don't know if I can go through all of this again,'" she said. "But it is the experience of a lifetime."
Psychologist Ron Stolberg, who has consulted on reality shows such as CBS's "Survivor," said that, ultimately, the draw to TV is a powerful one - even with the double-edged sword of the downsides of fame. He counsels that even though it can be cathartic to post online about your experiences, you might want to avoid reading the comments.
"Getting everyone's opinion of what you did (on the show) is really damaging to people," Stolberg said. "They get really affected by the negativity and they just don't expect it."
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