2009’s top reality TV whores

The season of gift-giving, crass consumerism, and reflection is upon us, so it’s time for reality blurred‘s annual look at who has shamelessly sought fame, attention, and/or money. With reality TV approaching its 10th anniversary of dominating television, there are now many candidates, but as I re-read 2009’s stories, the following really stood out for me. So here are the people and institutions who I think became 2009’s most significant reality whores, literally or metaphorically selling themselves for fame and/or fortune:

  • Balloon Boy Falcon’s parents, The Heenes. It’s one thing to fake out the always-gullible media to get some publicity. It’s another to involve authorities whose resources are best used elsewhere. And yet another to use your kid and drag him on TV to lie for you and sit calmly as he vomits because he’s so nervous or something while you lie and pretend to be “appalled” at accusations that you’re lying. But that’s exactly what Richard Heene did, and he’s about the worst reality whore I’ve ever seen, because his actions had an innocent victim: his son, who accidentally confessed the truth on Larry King, saying, “we did this for the show.” Two-time Wife Swap participants Richard and Mayumi Heene were investigated and eventually pled guilty, and will serve jail time: 20 days for her, and 90 days for him. That’s not enough.
  • Jon and Kate Plus TLC. How quaint it was when, back in February, Kate threatened to shoot Jon for not using a coupon and Jon showed “poor judgement” by going out with another woman. Their lives became national news and earned record ratings, and as their relationship crumbled, there was so much pathetic behavior from start to finish that it’s impossible to catalog it all, from Jon saying the media was exploiting his kids to Kate saying the kids are “sobbing” without the cameras. But the real winner–and by that, I mean loser–was TLC, the network that is making money off the backs of families like the Gosselins. While Jon is a twit, he did shut things down, but he also shut off the cash flow for TLC in the process. They sued him to enforce their scary contract, and now TLC has used the courts to stop Jon from making public appearances because it is “embarrassing” and “inconsistent with the image of our show.” What’s really embarrassing is not realizing that the image of your show is really about a dysfunctional relationship and eight innocent kids, who will go into 2010 without cameras in their lives for the first time.
  • Heidi and Spencer. I hate to put them on the list because they openly crave negative attention, or at least the one with a brain does. As his class-act co-star said, Spencer wants people to hate him, and you can see it in his evil smile–or maybe that’s from giving Heidi 20 to 30 orgasms daily. The Hills cast members temporarily moved away from faking their lives on a cable “reality” series to acting badly on a badly named network reality TV show, I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here, which they quit twice after claiming they were tortured and then denying that they made those claims. Along the way, they proved that they’re everything that’s wrong with America, but having recently been taken down by The Insider, of all outlets, they may be on the path to redemption in 2010. Oh, who am I kidding?
  • Russell Hantz. The Survivor Samoa runner-up provided some of the best entertainment of the year, but acted like a big baby once he realized his behavior prevented him from winning $1 million. Because he wasn’t able to earn the title of “sole survivor” fairly, he offered to buy it for $10,000, and then $100,000, from the person who actually won, Natalie White. Real winners don’t need to buy external affirmation.
  • Reality stars who defend their bad behavior. Call this the Spencer and Heidi effect: There seem to be an increasing number of reality stars who behave badly but don’t show remorse, or worse, embrace what they’ve done. (That’s different than just being honest, like when Andy Cohen admitted he’s “a tool” and his set was crappy.) For example, last spring, a Biggest Loser contestant faked running a marathon at the producers’ behest, and worse, although NBC admitted it, actually insisted he did a marathon despite not actually running 26.2 consecutive miles. And there were other instances during the past year, like reality show fans who feel entitled to harass the people they claim to love; the White House party crashers; and The City star who is okay with the “sacrifice” of having a fake boyfriend and receiving dialogue via text message.
  • Journalists who sensationalize reality TV. You’d think that after 9.5 years of reality TV on prime-time TV, the media would tire of using reality TV as an easy target. You’d be wrong. There’s certainly a lot more decent journalism about unscripted programming now, but there’s also an awful lot of awful coverage. Reality TV overlapped with several stories this year, like the tragic murder of a woman whose husband was on a couple VH1 shows, and that led to all kinds of freaking out about reality TV even though the only real connection was that the man had been a cast member. By far the worst example in 2009 was an upstart, allegedly journalistic publication blaming suicides on reality TV despite having no real evidence at all (and that shoddy piece of work got picked up and rewritten by a more reputable source). Later, the same web site exploited a contestant’s death by being sensational instead of factual. Despicable.
  • People who sign releases to be on The Real World. If you’re so desperate to be in the background of a shot on The Real
    World
    –or to make out with a cast member–that you voluntarily sign a release that gives up all kinds of rights and says you might get an STD, you deserve whatever you get.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.